375: Playing With “Energy” (Marina Abramović)

                “[In performance art] I’m using your energy, and with this energy I can go and push my body as far as I can.” -Marina Abramović

                A couple weeks ago I helped perform “Voices on the Land,” and of course, as all sorts of performers know, performing’s different when you’re with an audience. It’s not like rehearsal. There’s a momentum, a connection, an intensity. I’ve been thinking about that, about Abramović’s description of her art, and about playing.
                Sometimes I imagine myself as an individual. I say “I,” and I mean something separate from you, separate from us, separate from all the bacteria that live inside “me.” Sometimes that way of understanding seems to make sense. Other times I feel more like one string on a guitar, and most of the music comes from what we are together. Other times I don’t know what to think. And then I remember playing. I sink my hands into the sand. I feel the heat up top, the coolness underneath. I feel the weight. I bury my arm, or stack sand into a castle until the rising tide rolls over my toes and washes the sand I’ve touched out into the waves. I think playing, for me, can be a kind of interplay between me and not me: a kind of extending I so that it includes the touch of the sand. I can swirl I and swing together as the world lifts and falls. I can wash current and I together as I swim in a river. When I was little, I think, playing was often this kind of experiment: a blurring and enlarging of selves, a mixing of what I mean and what it means to be touched and touching. And then you mix in other people. A conversation exists in us and through us and between us. A dance exists in our shared and separate momentums, and we get to play about what selves we imagine. What selves we connect to. There’s energy there, in the washing together.

374: “Playing With A Broken Twig” (Rabindranath Tagore)

                “Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.” -Rabindranath Tagore, “Playthings”

                I remember when I was eight or nine, and I was getting into the car with my dad for a seven hour trip. I complained I didn’t have anything to play with while we drove. He picked up a piece of bent tar from the road. “What about that?” he said. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see any possibility, any play in the twisted shape.
                In a recent conversation about what we’re doing when we’re playing, my friend brought up fishing. The “play” in the line is the way the fishing line can wobble back and forth as you pull on it. My friend said, “I’m not sure that’s related to what we’re talking about,” but I find it really useful. For me playing is often an exploring, a testing side to side, a wobble that goes off from the beaten line of what I meant. When I’m playing my senses glimmer out in directions—movement on the swings, water on my fingers, grass on my toes. When I’m playing the sensations suggest new possibilities: we could swing on the swing together, or swing upside down, or try to walk across the swings, stepping from seat to seat as we hang on the chains. On my desk I still have nine chestnuts I picked up in a field. I roll them around sometimes. Arrange them. Hold them. Play with the patterns they make, the sound they tap against my desk. Playing wobbles out from the thin line of what I meant, ripples across the surface, and as the ripples expand they suggest new directions.
                I think I could have played with the twist of tar. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I’ve written out five or six different explanations, and deleted them, and now instead I’m thinking of the bolt I picked up from the road on a recent walk. I didn’t want some passing car to get a flat tire. But I carried the bolt a little while. Played my thumb across its threads. Shifted it in my hand, feeling its smoothness, its weight. Then I balanced it upside down on a fire hydrant. I didn’t mean to, or at least, I didn’t mean to until I was already doing it. Until I was unfolding that this, yes, was what I was doing. I was playing in the dust.

373: “How much do you want to know?” (“Jagu” Jagannathan)

                “How much do you want to know?” -Professor Kannan “Jagu” Jagannathan

                Way back in 2007—at least, I think it was 2007—my friends and I were playing frisbee on the grass outside Valentine Dining Hall at Amherst College. I wasn’t one of those people who can make the frisbee fly forever. I liked how it floated, though. So we were playing, and I was probably running back and forth fumbling catches, and I saw two things: the frisbee hushing through the air, and my physics professor walking across the quad. I ran over to him.
                “Hey professor,” I said, “how does a frisbee work?”
                Jagu looked at me for a moment, and then a moment longer. His head tilted to the side as though his thoughts were running deeper and deeper. “I’m not sure I understand myself,” he said. After another moment there was a smile in his eyes. “How much do you want to know?”
                There is so much to learn in every direction. I’m working in the Writers Workshop this semester, which means I go from talking with a journalism graduate student about the different ways America and China have covered the pandemic to with an Iranian aerospace engineering student about research opportunities in space programs to a linguistic anthropologist about the different ways we imagine history. Then I have a Kit-Kat and head back for the next three sessions. Sometimes, Jagu’s comment sounds—not quite like a warning, but like a reminder to assess my own intentions. ‘There are lots of paths,’ he seems to be saying, ‘and all of them go a long way. How far do you mean to walk this one?’ There are so many paths to explore, so many questions to ask, and they all lead to more questions. So which ones will I pick up? 
                Other times, Jagu’s comment sounds more like an invitation, like a mischievous magician about to reveal the first step of their trick—which will give you an answer, yes, but will also bring you into a new world of sleight of hand and practice, of hundreds of years of tradition and knowledge. Of course illusions have a lot of reality built into them, propping them up. Sometimes I walk by, asking a question, letting it go after half a minute of idle thought. Sometimes I really want to examine the walls. Everything’s built from something, bricks and mortar or 2x4s and nails or dreams and lies. Every builder has their reasons (some perhaps they knew, and some perhaps they didn’t), and every wall has space inside it and behind it. Usually I skate by. Sometimes I see Jagu out on a field as a frisbee floats by and he says, “How much do you want to know?”

372: “Unspoken Pieces” (Sondra Perl)

                “[The process of writing] is much richer and far more difficult to articulate because there are, in fact, unspoken pieces of it—the groping and grasping that we all go through…” -Sondra Perl, quoted in Hannah Rule’s Situating Writing Processes

                One of my favorite things that writing does in my life is bring me in touch with silence. Bring me to confusion, to the muddle beyond my meanings. I end up on a cliff beyond which oceans rise and birds call and currents move, except these are steepnesses that are not only cliffs, oceans that are not only water, cries that are not only voices and not only birds. Trying to write often brings me into silence as I stumble past what I thought I understood.
                I suspect this is true for lots of arts, and for many of the ways we try to collect thought and experience into meaning (music, choreographed dance, television; conversation, study, relationship, to name a few). I’m writing about this because I don’t think I’m writing only about writing.
                Take this, now. At several points in the last paragraph, I stopped. I deleted sentences. I tapped my teeth with my fingernail. I stared at the screen, not seeing. I don’t want to try and list all the things I was doing in that stopping, that tapping, that staring. I also don’t want to make those moments somehow mysterious in a way that leaves me to wait for inspiration. Writing, for me, is a kind of work. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s exciting. But when I’m doing that work, I’m not just typing furiously. I’m also on the swings. At the window. On the floor listening to silences that I don’t understand. I think I forget that when I collapse work into productivity. All that difficult richness—the windows and silences and confusions, the doubts, the stutters, the pauses that stretch on to who knows where—is part of why the work is worth doing. It’s part of why, sometimes, the work manages something wonderful. So I mean, very funny funny, meme, but what do you think someone’s doing when they’re silent on the swings?

371: “A Sort of Chorus” (Ocean Vuong)

                “And one thing you learn as a poet writing a collection of poems is that every poem is a chance to recalibrate language for yourself […] I wanted every scene to have oscillations. So you have New England vernacular, you have essayistic, journalistic writing on butterflies and opioid facts. And I wanted it all. I didn’t want to blend them or have cohesion or evenness. I wanted all of them to be a sort of chorus sitting together.” -Ocean Vuong, discussing his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

                This semester I’m working in UIUC’s Writers Workshop, which means I help different graduate and undergrad writers, one-on-one, for fifty minutes at a time. We talk about whatever they’re working on—job applications or dissertations or class assignments. We start at whatever stage they’re at: polishing a final draft or brainstorming or trimming back paragraphs. All that is to say, today I worked with a PhD candidate on an economics article, a masters candidate on a computer science article, an undergraduate putting together a story of their life up till now, and my friend, who I think has stumbled onto the first draft of her PhD dissertation. Six hours of meetings in all, and my mind is humming in a delightful and disorientating way.
                I think the disorientation is wonderful. Maybe it’s necessary. Walking out from my meetings, I started thinking about how my own language can insulate. They can help me follow the paths I’ve laid out, help me draw the lines I’m used to drawing on what I see. I’m not saying that’s wrong. Sometimes it’s quite nice. Then someone sits across from me quoting authors I’ve never heard on matters I’ve never considered, or someone spins around their Turkish laptop for me to type, and the comma isn’t where I’m expecting it to be. Today was tiring, as I expected it to be. I didn’t expect to spend so much time laughing with the writers who came in. We laughed while we tried to explain ourselves to each other, laughed as our understandings creased and bumped. And of course, to only think about these different individual’s disciplines would be to miss the point—I talked to people, each trying out the words they’d learned, each adjusting their language to see what was possible and what they wanted to say. I like when the cohesion pulls apart. There are so many melodies that we can’t sing with just one voice, melodies we can sing with a chorus.

370: “Once Upon A Time” (Charles Yu)

                “Once upon a time, there was a man who did not know how to use a sword and was also very afraid of dragons, so he took the L.S.A.T., did pretty well, and ended up getting into a decent law school.” -Charles Yu, “Fable”

                Lately I’ve been imagining a planter pot of rich soil. The kind you might call loam, really, soft and dark, like when I tripped in the forests as a kid and wanted to lick the ground. It looked like chocolate cake. I might actually be remembering Margaret Mahy’s The Girl With The Green Ear, where I might remember someone making cakes for plants. That’s exactly what I want to talk about this week: the way my mind fumbles for stories, for images, for patterns that I’ve seen, and tries to put together what I’m doing now and who I am from those pieces.
                Charles Yu is playing with how our stories can be dislocated from where we actually are. Sometimes the fairytale with the sword and the dragon jostles against the life I’m living. “Hero” just isn’t a useful concept for anything about what I’m doing. I can try to fit the pieces together based on my myths (as the character keeps trying to do in Fable). I can decide that this puzzle isn’t a puzzle, that all the pieces don’t need to fit, and throw some of them out the window, and find other pieces, and make other pieces, and use them all as a garden path for a doll house.
                So lately I’ve been trying to add another piece. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed myself working towards deadline after deadline. I’ve found myself, again and again, feeling like I needed to rest but couldn’t until after the semester ended on December 15, after the performance on March 25, after I finished my novel draft in late April. I’ve noticed that after a deadline I tend to give myself another deadline. To pick up another project. To say, there next. For the most part I’ve really liked the places I’m going, the tasks I’m taking up. I feel lucky to have the chance. But at the same time, the sense of business, of can’t-pause, is something beyond any of the deadlines. It’s a way I have of being in myself. This fall I want to play with other ways. I want more quiet space with ladybugs buzzing by. I want more of the rich openness below trees, and leaves blowing. A space where I’m not hurrying to next. I’ve been imagining that space as a planter pot I’m tending. I’m not trying to grow anything in this earth. I’m trying to be aware of the dirt, the way its color changes when it gets wet and dries out. To feel this loam between my fingers.

369: “Their Tastes” (Mary Robinette Kowal)

                “My habit, when I take on a new client, is to learn what I can of them, so that I can tailor my offerings to their tastes.” -Mary Robinette Kowal, Forest of Memory

                When I was a kid someone told me that when you keep snacking and snacking and still feeling hungry, you’re probably thirsty. I remember thinking about that. Sometimes it worked: I’d drink a glass of water and that would seem, ahh, like what I wanted. Sometimes it didn’t. I also ate because I was bored. I ate because people around me were eating. I ate for the joy of it, the potato chip crunch, the crisp apple kiss, the sweet mumble of ice cream. For other wonderful reasons. I’m snacking while I write this. But still, when I was reading Forest of Memory, that moment came back—maybe because it was an early experience when knowing what I wanted felt all muddled up.
                I wonder what you want, in reading this. Why you’re here. Mary Kowal’s hero starts the novella by wondering that in specifically economic, transactional terms. What am I selling you? I wonder that, too. On Monday I’ll start teaching a new University course, and it’s expensive to be in that classroom. What do my students want? What can I offer? Beyond the insistent (insidious?) capitalism of that framing, there’s also this idea that I know. That I know what I’m seeking, and you could tailor your offerings to my tastes. Sitting here tonight, I’m struck by how little that describes my actual experience. I go for a walk and sometimes realize I want to be on my hands and knees, picking up ginkgo biloba fruit (and then realizing how hard it is to wash that stuff off. Not sure I wanted that part). I want to be left alone and then, when I’m left alone, I so don’t want to be left alone. I want to be out meeting people and then sometimes I’m overwhelmed. I suppose in an overarching way I want to be connected, to engage, to live in community, but in particular my wants aren’t clean lines and preferences. They’re more fluttering leaves and flowers and twigs from dozens of different plants, growing together in the corner of an abandoned lot. And I realize I like that. I don’t know what I want you to offer. I don’t want to say give me this. I guess I wonder, How are you? What’s going on? What’s here?

368: “Ocean” and “Foam” (Khalil Gibran)

“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link.
To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of ocean by the frailty of its foam.”
-Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

                Today I worked for a long time on my book, and finished moving out of my old apartment, and scratched a dog’s chin, and ate a breakfast my partner made for me, and walked through floods of warm August light and cool August shadow, and got sweaty, and lounged on the couch, cool, and met with a professor about different kinds of research, and washed some laundry, and stayed out talking with new friends. I think, for my part, that I want to let go of the language of weakest and strongest. In some ways I suppose my novel (I’m almost done with the eighth draft!) is an ongoing project and laundry, for example, isn’t. But in other ways the wash of water and the rinse of suds is in the book. In other ways, again, the book is about returning to my body and to the wash of water and the rinse of suds. Any hierarchy there seems like a perspective that will pick out some characteristics and obscure others, like saying a screw is more its shape than its metal (or more its metal than its shape).
                At the same time, if I am going to say weakest link, I want to remember Gibran and say strongest, too. A couple people have mentioned to me the week I “lost” while recovering from COVID. I understand what they mean. I’ve stumbled into that language sometimes, too. But that judgment of lost seems so strange when I stop and look at it. It was a week of feeling my community reach out to support me. A week of hot tea. A week of a quiet room’s quiet hum. A week, yes, of coughing and coughing until my sides ached. If I’m going to pick pieces and say they stand in for wholes (like we do when we say, “So that’s what you really think of me,” or when we say, “In the end the project didn’t pan out”), I want to see the foam and the ocean. The wave and the wind. The kid playing with their toes in the shallow surf and the vast schools of fish glimmering. A lost week, a found week, a week playing hide and seek, and who knows what else besides.

367: “The Movement / Is Not Separate” (Rumi)

“The movement of your finger
Is not separate from your finger.
Observe the wonders as they occur around you. 
Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry
moving through, and be silent.”
-Rumi, from “Body Intelligence” (trans. Coleman Barks)

                A little more than a week ago—last Wednesday morning—I told my partner, “I need to do less, but I’m not not sure how.” I felt tired. Rundown. But there were so many projects that were still unfinished. A few hours later I tested positive for COVID, and the last week I’ve been in bed isolating. I’m lucky to not have a serious case, and to have the chance to hunker down and a place to do it.. I’ve also been sicker than I’ve been in years and years. My thoughts have been sluggish and slow. Concentrating is hard. The fridge hums in the other room. I pull the blankets off me, too hot, and pull them back, too cold. I breathe steam in a hot shower.
                Last Wednesday, the Wednesday I tested positive, I was still determined to write an Uproar post. “I’ve written one for 365 straight weeks!” I told myself. “I can’t miss one.” I told myself, I need to do less, but I’m not sure how. Then a virus I breathed in somewhere put me in bed for days. If the movement of my finger is not separate from my finger, maybe the stillness of my finger is also not separate from my finger. If there’s running there’s also resting. Doing something for 365 straight weeks might be a reason to keep doing it, but it’s also a reason to pause, to lay down, to breathe. 
                I think Uproar #366 is something. It’s an inhalation. A pause. Be silent. It’s listening to the refrigerator while I realize that laying here is part of these wonders, just like moving. Silence, just like song. And this is 377. I trace my fingers over the weave of a blanket. I feel the threads and try not to claim them. How much of poetry is the love sound has for silence, the love silence has for sound?

365: “Something That Incorporates Everything” (Becky Chambers)

                “Eyas sipped her drink. ‘You’ve found something that incorporates everything else you tried.’” -Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few

                A few days ago I went to my friend’s house to learn about making woodblock prints. Along the way we talked about music, video games, gardens, seasons, career paths, how lovely it is to go wandering off the path, mead, cooking, and dark-eyed juncos. Our conversation left our two glasses on the window sill, catching light, and wood shavings scattered across the floor.
                The block printing itself was not only ‘itself.’ We also sawed our blocks, and sanded them, which meant sitting outside for a while in the shade, and sharpened the chisels. At one point my friend said something like, “I like tasks that are so involved.” Printing that involves carving that involves sharpening that involves looking at references on our phones, sanding, sawing, and our two glasses on the windowsill.
                In Record of a Spaceborn Few, Eyas is talking about careers. Or vocations, I suppose— her culture practices an extensive version of universal basic income, so people work largely for a sense of giving back. (At one point a character says something like, ‘What do you do?’ becomes a way of asking ‘what do you do for everyone else?’) Eyas is talking about what her friend does. He sees all his different fits and starts and ideas as separate. Eyas sees them as coming together in what he does now. There are certainly moments in my life—emotionally overwhelmed while driving, but I just have to watch the road; an upset student, and I’m upset too, but I’m trying not to let my upset direct my response—where my life seems to turn toward a kind of separating, compartmentalizing. I think those moments are important. And as a way of thinking about who I am and what I’m doing, I like the idea of involves. Of incorporating all my different confusions and fears, my talents and practices, my curiosities and silliness into the kind of work that takes me outside and inside and outside again, with our water glasses on the windowsill.