346: Stitching (Rita Dove & Linda Tuhiwai Smith)

“After all, there’s no need 
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgewood plate
Anything can happen.”
                -Rita Dove, from “Flirtation”

                Try this: imagine a three hundred foot thread that can slip through anything. Hold one end in your hand, and then weave that thread through all the different ‘spaces’ around you. I imagine the thread going down into the openness beneath my floorboards, and up through a light bulb. I imagine it arching out through the glass of my window and around a bird perched on a branch, and down into the ground along roots I can’t see. I imagine it going through the gas tank in my car and the garbage can by the driveway and into the crawl space beneath the next house.
                I’ve been reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, and one of the thoughts I keep coming back to is the strange construction of “space.” Constructing a ‘space’ often involves constructing what’s appropriate there: there are things we do in classrooms and kitchens and bathrooms and livingrooms and on the porch, as though they were all separate. As though the world’s cut into pieces. As though we weren’t sharing lives that weave through all of them. I started imagining that long string as a way of stitching the world back together. Or rather, of realizing that the world was never separate. I just pretended it was.
                Instead of space, I’ve been thinking of place. Here. Where I am. An orange, peeled, stitches me to the tree and the farmer who grew it, to the truck that carried it and the grocery where I bought it, to the garbage can where I’ll put its peel. Maybe it’s in this place, all tied together, that all these anythings happen.

345: “A Notebook” (Rita Dove and Peter Medway)

“After all, there’s no need 
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgewood plate
Anything can happen.”
                -Rita Dove, from “Flirtation”

“I carry a notebook with me everywhere. But that’s only the first step.”
                -Rita Dove on twitter, Nov. 23, 2012

                I usually struggle with notebooks. Or with finishing notebooks. Or maybe with what I’m supposed to be doing in notebooks?
                Three examples: my big gray sketchbook, a leftover from a high school art class in 2012. These days when I draw it’s usually on scratch paper or the back of other things. The book’s mostly blank. I like the torn out pages in the front, though: like memories of someone else. Then there’s a leather notebook with cool strings to tie it shut that someone gave me in 2009 or so. I like it and I’ve rarely used it. It feels so fancy. Then a plain green notebook from my friend Kent’s table. It reminds me of him, which I like, but I stopped using it between semesters.
                I think notebooks are hard for me because I feel a certain kind of expectation in them. A poetry notebook should have poetry. A sketchbook “should” have Good Sketches. To put it another way, I think, it’s a matter of how I sometimes try to arrange myself—as though there are separate spaces for separate parts of me. A place for saving things I’ve found. A place for seeing trees and playing with their colors. A space for poems. Recently I was reading Peter Medway, a writing studies scholar, and he talked about an architecture student’s notebook that had everything in it—phone numbers, library call numbers, lecture notes and coffee stains, romantic reflections, life confusions, philosophical scraps, autumn leaves. All these pressed together by the book’s binding. I like that. I want to try that kind of notebook, not a place for this or that, but a place touched by the anything of what happens. I’d carry that notebook everywhere to feel how here is part of everywhere, and everywhere part of here. Rooting together. Rolling along. It sounds like a nice first step.

344: “A Collage Narrative” (Natalie LeBlanc)

                “As a collage narrative [my dress sewn from pieces of fabric important to my memories] brings new associations and new questions to surface.” 
                -Natalie LeBlanc, referencing Charles Garoian and Yvonne Gaudelius, in “Becoming through a/r/tography, autobiography, and stories in motion”

                Two weeks ago, over empanadas,  I talked to my friend Jean Carlos in the Krannert Center (embodied moments matter—I feel a sameness of thinking and being, place and thought) and the conversation turned to the nature of our conversation. The things we said, the questions we asked, the hopes we shared—all of them were layered with other conversations, other images, other moments. When he mentioned something about “being himself” I remembered his comment in class about spaces that didn’t feel safe. I remembered his drawing of a teacher yelling “no.” I chewed potato and cheese. It was cool in the Krannert center. Or rather it was warm so I’d taken off my winter jacket, and now the coolness made our conversation feel closer, warmer, like a campfire we were building together.
                I told him (then) that language worries me because it often looks like this, not that. Right now I’m writing about our conversation, I’m wandering back through ideas, I’m describing Krannert’s coolness: I’m interlaying memories and thoughts and places, but the writing seems to put one after the other. I don’t know if I can have multiple thoughts at once. (I’ve heard someone say I can’t). I do know that my experience of the world, of people—of thinking in place and being in thought—involves a kind of interweaving that I do not know how to recreate or even really gesture at in writing. I imagine superimposing all these words: Krannert Center and “being himself” and empanada and winter and Midwest and wonder, but that would make (if I put it together how I’m imagining it) a spiky muddle where all the words obscured each other. I mean the opposite. All the words— all these intertwined thoughts— reveal each other. A collage narrative. They’re molecules vibrating with this melody, and this melody is all their vibrations, together and discordant and varied through time and space.
                This—this writing—is not what I mean. This—this reading—is a little piece of what I mean, in the same way that one blowing leaf of grass helps make the field shimmer like ocean swells. Yes, here’s the leaf. And yes, here’s the field.

343: Time “Functions Differently” (Gabriela Garcia)

                In reading Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt we feel how time “functions differently.” She writes how it “drips through an IV.” How “It was a matter of biding her time.”
                She writes, “I have only one day off from the store each week, and I have to choose: spend time with [my mother] or with Mario.”
                “He clings to me like I am the piece he’s been missing all this time.”
                “Time trickles.”
                Elsewhere, we chase after “that first time.”
                Elsewhere, elsewhen, time offers “up its bounty like the yuca she dug from the ground.”
                “The arrangement was supposed to be temporary.”
                It’s not temporary. Garcia’s book lives through generations, through different threads of broken hopes and repeated abuses and yearning connections. A grandmother reaches out through her granddaughter, a daughter lives through pieces of her mother. All of them find pieces of each other, not full and clear, but partial and hinted like notes in the margin of a book. Here we see how a stranger’s choices become pieces from which we build ourselves. Here a young woman can ask, “How will I survive, and when will I stop feeling exhausted from all the surviving?” Whatever answers we might find in these pages, I think we’ll find them through a kind of living respect for all these people, and for all the ways we ravel and unravel and find our way to shared moments.

342: “The Tones and Echoes” (Mikhail Bakhtin)

                “When we select words […] we by no means always take them from […] their neutral, dictionary definition […] But words can enter our speech from others’ individual utterances, thereby retaining to a greater or lesser degree the tones and echoes of individual utterances.” 
                -Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres”

                As far as I understand Bakhtin, he’s saying we don’t always pick up words from the dictionary. We pick them up from people talking. And in picking them up we carry those people with us. I read that and think, of course, but it also has me thinking.
                Adumbrate comes, for me, from Professor Sarah Travis. She wasn’t the one I heard say it—it was in a reading she assigned. We talked about that reading, and for me the word carries a sense of how I imagine she’d used it. Of the shape she’d give it with the way she looks at the world. When I start looking for examples of word-giving, adumbrate’s easy to find. I picked it up just a few weeks ago. What about the words I picked up years and years and years ago?
                I think snowpack, for me, comes from my father. It has Shirley Canyon in it, and the frozen creek we walked along, and the sound of a shovel digging out the walkway. Conversationalist comes from my mother. I was eleven or twelve, and I hadn’t really thought of words and conversation as something a little like paints and a shared canvas. Eddy comes from my older brother, from learning to kayak. A rippling place that’s steady because of how it moves. Triple step comes from my little brother. I hear the syllables in his voice. I hear what they mean to him, and can see him starting to dance. Those examples are easier to find because I don’t use them all that much. I can still feel the mark of where they came from. What about my other words, my walk and cook, my cloudbank and curlique and crisp?
                I like thinking of them as something passed to me. As something, before that, passed to the person who gave them to me. As little stones warming with our hands.

341: “The Myth of Effortlessness” (Charlesia McKinney)

                “I’d internalized the myth of effortlessness as a marker of success.”
                -Dr. Charlesia McKinney, in a lecture at UIUC

                Lately I’ve been playing with new habits—a walk everyday, and drawing, and a few others that I’ll tell you about some other time soon. Each time I find a new habit that helps me feel a little more balanced, a little closer to the tree’s roots and the celebrations of blowing snow, there’s a part of me that goes, “Aha! That’s it, then. I’ve found it. Things will be easy now.” And of course they won’t be. I don’t think that’s how things work.
                As a teacher, I see the myth of effortlessness all over the place. Writing, math, computer programming—whatever you’re good at, says the lie, will come easy to you, and then you just follow the easy. It’s not true. A dancer’s effortlessness flows from effort. From practice, from time and attention and maybe sometimes love. Woven with that myth there might be others. The myth that effort’s a bad thing. That effortless is a better way to be. With that goes the dream of the easy change, the figuring-it-out, so that one walk makes “the right” shift in perspective and suddenly everything’s clearer. I’ve internalized these myths. And that’s okay. I’ll take them for a walk later tonight, and maybe again tomorrow, and again a day after that. They can come along, but with them I’ll carry McKinney’s reminder. I think I want the kind of balancing that’s always ongoing. Not effortless, but the blowing snow and all its shifting celebrations.

340: “Seeds With Tenderness” (Khalil Gibran)

                “And what is it to work with love?
                It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
                It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
                It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.”
                -Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

                Well my friends, it’s been a tough week in plenty of ways. That includes a potential covid exposure that, thankfully, turned out to be nothing, and difficult situations at work, and the emotional transition of going from time with family in California to my life in Illinois. In the midst of all that I’ve found myself going back to poems and other places I know. I walked out to the catalpa trees. I cooked. I read some Khalil Gibran, passages I’ve loved since before my teens. All those habits are like paths through the woods that I’ve walked before: they’re new each time, with the trees whispering different sounds, but they’re also familiar in the way they turn, they way they offer, walk here.
                Just now, I like reading Gibran’s lines as an invitation. If we were at the beach about to make the kind of sandcastle that’s big enough to climb inside, and you asked, “How?” I might suggest “We could find driftwood shovels.” Many  Gibran would suggest, as one though not the only way, “With love.” 
                How to move the sand?
                How to wash the dishes, cook the onions, sweep the floors? 
                With love.

339: “Hear Their Voices” (Isabel Allende)

                “[Writing a book] is about living with characters long enough to hear their voices and let them tell me the story. […] I can’t control life for my grandchildren, so how could I control a story?”
                -Isabel Allende in a 2013 interview with Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

                Years ago I heard Robert Sapolsky talk about people, our interest in newness, and the experience of being a beginner. As far as I remember, he said that in general people lose their interest in newness as they get older. Bit by bit we get stuck in more and more ruts, and the idea of doing things differently, of putting away our bike and trying out a unicycle, gets less appealing. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, he said. But he also said: something happens if you’re a beginner. If you set out into anything new, anything that you just don’t know how to do and still spend time practicing, your general interest in newness tends to go up. Spend the next six months trying to pick up the harmonica and maybe you’ll be less of a stick-in-the-mud about other things, too.
                Maybe that’s part of what I love in stories. A first chapter always asks me to step through a door I can’t even imagine yet, to go into a room that might have dragons or friends or blankets made of song and bone. In a first chapter I’m a beginner in what’s there. I’ve been wondering about the first chapter in my novel for years. As far as I can tell, it’s hard. Where do I start, how do I help you start, when there isn’t a start yet? Sitting with Sapolsky and Allende tonight amid the beautiful red rocks of Arizona, the challenge in that feels more like a rainstorm to lift up new flowers than a wall to break down. It takes some balance. Some time. For a little while I don’t know where I am. There’s a rush and a whirl, and the disorienting delight of being swept along to another here I hadn’t seen yet.

338: Drawing Arguments (Julie Maroh)

from Body Music, by Julie Maroh

                Julie Maroh’s Body Music includes an argument between friends. As the argument starts, they’re sitting in a modern-day Montreal park. The words stay modern as the friends get angrier, but the art shifts—from beer bottles and rumpled button-up t-shirts to Roman orators in the senate, medieval swordsmen bashing each other’s shields, and on through history. Since reading those pages, I keep thinking about the way I see myself when I’m talking. When I’m “defending” a point. When I’m arguing. Maroh writes what these characters are saying, but they draw how these characters are seeing themselves—the imagined poses they’re taking up.
                Earlier today I had a long conversation with my brother, a conversation that sometimes drifted toward an argument. With Maroh next to me, I found myself noticing what he was saying, what I was saying, what I wanted to be saying—and the flavor that went along with all of those. There are listens like chili mangoes and listens like cool spring water and listens as metallic as a spoon. Maroh reminds me: what are the tastes of these words? What are the scenes I’m shaping this moment into?

337: “Penguins” (Schindel & Lai)

                “Penguins splashing.”
                -John Schindel, Busy Penguins

                “Maybe if you just do somebody different for a bit, you’d feel less sad.”
                -Lee Lai, Stone Fruit

                I’ve been hanging out with my nieces, three and six, and last week we read Busy Penguins. Each page shows the penguins doing something. Since then we’ve been penguins caring, and huddled up in a hug. We’ve run around the house as penguins dancing. We’ve waved our feet in the air as penguins splashing. It turns out penguins can do just about anything.
                When I ran across the quote in Stone Fruit, it worried me. Or bothered me. I think it’s so important to let yourself feel what you’re feeling. (At least one of Lai’s characters seems a little troubled by the idea, too). At the same time, since reading that, I’ve been wondering. There are times where what I’m feeling becomes what I’m doing, and when what I’m doing becomes what I’m feeling. There are times when I close myself in that loop. To put it another way, I’m always feeling so much. I’m feeling stressed about finishing this (and excited by the idea I’m following). I’m feeling tired (and rested from this last week with my family). Maybe playing as someone else is one way to make space for a part of myself I’ve been forgetting, a part that wants to come out and run.
                When the Stone Fruit characters move with their imaginations, playing together as feral creatures, they’re drawn like feral creatures. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book. It shows me how pretending to be someone else is a way of being another side of myself, and maybe how a self is often so grounded in a way of imagining. I have so many selves. And at least one of them, it turns out, is a penguin.