315: The Children We Are (Janice Harrington)

“This the room he painted to cradle the boy he was.
The painter’s step, the sleepers think, is the floor settling.
His breath against their skin, they think a draft or the night’s cold.”
                -Janice Harrington, “Topoanalysis,” in response to Horace Pippin’s painting Asleep 

                Sometimes I think we’re all still children. And toddlers, and infants, I suppose, and adults. Part of me is still knee deep in a pond in the early ‘90s, watching the pollywogs wiggle, swept up in the fullness of life that isn’t mine, and part of me is the child a week later, bored by the polliwogs my parents let me catch. Part of me is the child kneeling by the fishtank sometime after that, wondering how I missed the moment when they got legs. Breathless at their transformation into something familiar and new.
                In “Topoanalysis,” Janice Harrington shows us a painter, Horace Pippin, as he goes back through two world wars (one of which he fought in) and five decades to the room where he was a boy. She lets the painter walk through that room, step on that floor, see that child. She watches Horace Pippin paint a room “to cradle the boy he was.”
                And I realize I’m still so many children. So many kids with skinned knees who can’t explain that it hurts, and kids who feel smothered, and kids who learned too early that hugging isn’t cool. And I’m supported, loved children, too: children snuggled up to hear stories, children exploring the creek, children gathering magic stones. Harrington suggests these places don’t need to stay locked in the past. They aren’t from some other world. Like her painter, we can go there, and cradle the children we are.

314: “Made, Like Bread” (Ursula Le Guin)

                “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” -Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

                This morning I woke up in Illinois. Most of yesterday I spent traveling across the country, bouncing through flight delays and missed connections. It was the kind of trip that could have been really frustrating, but it wasn’t. When we could fly, I looked out the window at seas of cloud. In the airport, I texted with friends and family. I thought back over the summer that’s gone so quickly.
                By lots of measures, I didn’t do “the work” I had planned for this summer. I didn’t rewrite that much of my book. I didn’t finish my PhD applications for this fall. I did wash a lot of dishes, though. I woke up early and ate an apple while my mom made her tea. I walked with my dad. I stood on the bluffs by the ocean as my younger brother flew his drone out along the cliffs, making me think about them, see them, in ways I never had. I cooked with my older brother. Talked with him. I played a lot with my nieces: we were bears and marmots, dragons and pangolins and witches and family. Le Guin reminds me what I was doing: love. Mixing the dough of it, standing close while it rose. It’s wonderful “work,” my favorite of all the kinds I know. I’m glad for Le Guin reminding me to keep baking so love’s made new. I’m glad for the summer, and so glad for the time with my family.

313: “No Answer To It” (John Colburn)

                “Well, death is normal. It’s not pathological. There is no answer to it. It’s not a problem to solve.” -John Colburn, “The Western Story” (published in Ninth Letter)

                One night, a week ago, I lay in bed and felt pretty sad. And I’d like to sit with that, give myself a chance to feel it, but laying and watching the fog roll in, it was also lovely to let it be. To realize my sadness didn’t need an answer.
                It’s so easy to lash out instead. When I was ten or eleven, my friend and I wrestled for a book we both wanted and ended up tearing the thing in half. The first thing I said was something like, “You did it.” I was sad. Worried. Embarrassed. Books were something you treated with respect, and this one wasn’t mine. I was also angry, and ready to be indignant, as though someone had done this to me. As though this was someone’s fault and something should be done. Then I wouldn’t have to be sitting there, holding half a book, feeling bad. Maybe the book would even be whole.
                At thirteen, when I cut my foot with a crowbar, I didn’t get angry. I’m not sure why. I remember looking at the gash in my skin and thinking, “That’s going to bleed.” A moment later it was. I called my brother and he helped me with bandages. What helped me, right then, to see my hurt and accept it?
                It’s not a problem to solve. One night, a week ago, I lay in bed and felt really sad. That night I also saw a satellite. That night it got cold, even out here in warm California, and I got to burrow into my blankets. The next morning I woke up to my nieces laughing as they went to feed the dog. Lovely, really, and maybe so much of it doesn’t need an answer.

312: “We Knew Its Name” (Peter Sipeli and Luis Camnitzer)

                “Born inside the womb of this warm earth, birthed by rivers older than memory, once realize we knew its name, we knew its rhythms and its corners, we know its leaf skin and the poetry of its language…” -Peter Sipeli in “The Sleeping Ancestors” (a little after minute 8:20)

                “The history of both art and design is a history extracted from the purposes for which the objects were created.” -Luis Camnitzer, One Number Is Worth One Word

                Hearing Sipeli reading for the first time was like standing on the shore, only to realize the waves had already washed up around me, only to realize I was already out at sea, beneath the sea, and I could breathe. It was wonderful. And I realize I’ve had similar experiences before: when running with my nieces or tasting a sip of cold water, when feeling leaves beneath my fingers or frost beneath my feet. I’ve had similar experiences, sometimes, in talking to an old friend or starting to talk with a new one. In hearing poetry. In hearing stories. And other times, I somehow forget these moments happen.
                Camnitzer says that we remove art history from the purposes that inspired the creation of that art. We remove our understanding, our narrative definition, from the lift the seed had in becoming a seedling. So I don’t have a thought today. No explanations. Just a moment, and a question. A moment: last night, lying half asleep outside, I saw a satellite. A bit of metal some humans made and sent up, as though we were trying to touch the stars, as though we were realizing how wide the sky really was. I watched that point of light. A question: today, or in the last few days, what was it that woke up for you? What came from old rivers, what whispered a poetry of language—what did you feel? I’d love to share, or hear.
                The first word in that section of Sipeli’s poem is “Us.” He repeats it. Us, realizing we know these rhythms.

311: “Awkward” (Charles Baudelaire & Ross Gay)

“I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude
over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward,
the suds in your ear and armpit […]”
                -Ross Gay, from “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”

“This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who lately was all grace!”
                -Charles Baudelaire, from “The Albatross” [trans. Richard Wilbur]

                Seven or eight years ago, while teaching high school, I came up with a pet theory: maybe awkward wasn’t really a thing. Making friends takes emotional effort. Moving through a group, or a romance, takes emotional work. Maybe “awkward” is what we say when we’re afraid we don’t know how to make that effort, or when it feels too hard.
                Last month I helped move some heavy bookshelves out of my brother’s house. Shuffling along, backwards, trying not to scrape the top on the door or the bottom on the floor, my knees and toes knocking into the side, I thought about awkward. Following Baudelaire, maybe awkward is when our messiness shows, our not-good-at-this. We’re so used to trying to broadcast our talent. Understood that way, awkward is a kind of failing: if we had a dolly, or I was better at lifting things, we’d’ve danced those shelves along with grace and aplomb. understood that way, I can try to be better, or else stick to where I “fit.” Up in the sky, the albatross is a “rider of winds.” It’s only down here walking that he looks so weak.
                But then there’s Gay, and his awkward is part of the rush of his gratitude. It’s the silliness of bouncing knees when I’m running or the jumble of knees when I trip, it’s the way I spit (like he spits) when he gets really excited in talking. It’s the goofy ways we grin at each other. It’s not something to be avoided, because the truth is, fumbling along and bouncing into things and trying, I really liked helping to move that bookshelf.

310: “Thanking All The Stars” (Marissa Meyer)

                “I’m still thanking all the stars, one by one.” -Marissa Meyer, Winter

                Somewhere in my early twenties, I started spending a few minutes every day writing a list of what I was grateful for in that moment. I’ve heard it called a gratitude journal. It’s been a couple years since I really continued that practice, but for this next month, I’m going to pick it back up. Here’s my first entry.

                I’m grateful for the cold air that seeped in to the room where I was sleeping, late last night. And for my blanket. I’m grateful for the sound of a dog’s footsteps this morning, quiet and curious in their exploring. I’m grateful for my nieces and all their curiosity, their determination in being themselves, their joy in running. I’m grateful for the breakfast I haven’t eaten yet. 
                I’m grateful to have so much time this summer with my family, and for the friendships that span years, sometimes as thin as threads of I-miss-you and sometimes as thick as forests we wander through. I’m grateful for blowing my nose. It’s so much fun. And then I get to breathe. I’m grateful for dirt beneath my feet and rock beneath the dirt, holding it up into ridges in the nearby park where I’ve been walking, and for roots through the dirt lifting up branches and grass. It’s been hot in California, and I’m really, really grateful for water. I’m grateful for shade. And sun. I’m grateful, when I lift up my eyes, for all the openness between me and what I see, and for the closeness. And in a very real way I’m grateful for you, too. This moment of reaching.

309: The Size of Thinking (Bo Burnham and JD Salinger)

                “[An academic education will] begin to give you an idea what size mind you have.” -Mr. Antolini in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

                “Can I interest you in everything, all of the time?” -Bo Burnham, “The Internet,” Inside

                Lately I’ve been thinking about the size of my thoughts. Sometimes I get trapped going around and around one detail. When I was fifteen and lost my favorite pencil, I’d stomp around the house, somehow sure that I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else until I’d found it. Sometimes I get trapped in the largeness of things: in how much is wrong with our education systems, for instance, and the apparent impossibility of trying to help. In bouncing back and forth between magnifying glass thoughts and beyond-the-ocean thoughts, I used to wonder what the “right” scope for me would be. By “right,” I guess I meant the one that would help me understand more. And the one that would feel better. Did I need a wider lens? Or a narrower one?
                In the last few weeks, instead of looking for the “right” one, I’ve been paying attention to where I feel drawn in different moments. Sometimes I want to zoom in. A jeweler once told me how, when he stared through his magnifying lenses, the little space of a ring became a whole world he could step into. I’ve felt that kind of engagement. It’s lovely. I fall in: to one sensation, one leaf, one line of poetry. Other times I lie on my back, looking up at the sky, and the sense of all this going on and on carries me out with it. It’s breathtaking. If the real threat in Burnham’s line is the last part, “all of the time,” then I can always ask about now. When the field’s too big, I can pick a little patch of grass, a sip of shade, to sit in. When that’s too small I can walk or look up.
                Can I hear where you’re looking, just for right now?

308: “Pumzi” (Wanuri Kahiu)

                Spoiler alert: you might want to go watch Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi (Swahili: “breath”) for yourself before listening to me rave about it. It’s a 20 minute science fiction short, and it might have one of the coolest, quietest twists I’ve seen in a long time.
                If you watch sci fi the set up might feel familiar. Sometime in the future the world is dying. Humans live in small, locked-down communities with water as their most precious resource. People take “Dream Suppressants.” Outside is only empty wastelands and garbage and radiation and dry dust. The last trees are gone. In that world we follow Asha, the curator of her settlement’s Virtual Natural History Museum. When she receives a sample of soil that seems, contrary to everything she’s been told, capable of growing new life, she goes out to find where the soil came from and plant the last seed from her museum. In the end, far out past exhaustion, she gives that seed the last of her drinking water and curls up around where it’s planted. As the camera pulls back, we watch from above as the tree grows, its branches reaching out.
                And then we get the last twenty seconds. The camera keeps pulling back, and we see that the tree Asha planted is a few dunes away from a stand of trees. A stand of trees that is actually a forest, a giant forest, thicker and thicker as the camera keeps pulling back. The last sound we hear is the beginning of a thunderstorm. We watched that first seed grow in rapid time, so you could read the end as suggesting that Asha’s tree seeded a new forest. But I don’t think so. The tree she planted is separate from the others, and we don’t see the forest starting. We see that it already is. That means that this isn’t a story about a hero saving the day. By dreaming, by going out past her walls and sharing the water she had, Asha didn’t “fix” anything. The forest was there. The rainstorm was there. Her courage, her willingness to share what she has, is how we get to join them—like how we join the sky, for a moment, every time we breathe.

307: “The Realest Place” (Ross Gay & Richard Wilbur)

“and friends this is the realest place I know,
it makes me squirm like a worm I am so grateful […]”
                -Ross Gay, from “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”

“I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.”
                -Richard Wilbur, from “The Writer”

                The realest place I know, Gay writes, and I realize that some of the moments that seem the most important, the move lived—the most loving—are the moments when the truth of something overflows past itself. Warm stone beneath my feet. A finger of dark winter wind. A nod from a friend. It makes me squirm like a worm I am so grateful. Sometimes I wonder about the different things I want. A different place to stay. A different routine. A plan for next year. Those wants are real, but there’s another question. What of this do I want? More fully, more wholly, muscles tensing and relaxing with the attention of touch—what of this?
                I want to be here, laughing and working and cooking and sitting with my family. I want to write this, listening to Ross Gay and Richard Wilbur and all the countless others I think about whenever I wonder after something. I want the softness of the bed I’m laying on. I want the reach of trying to understand, or perhaps connect, and the relaxation (soon) of rolling over and going to sleep.
                I wish what I wished you before, but harder. Maybe the moments of peace, inspiration, and connection that I feel aren’t so different from the moments of grey distance. Maybe they’re simply a halfstep more themselves. A dancestep more grateful. A steady step. Here. And friends, this is the realest place I know.

306: “Currently…” (Shilpa Gupta)

                “Do artworks keep evolving, acquiring new meanings, even after leaving the artist’s studio?”
                “They do. Threat, an interactive installation in which viewers are invited to take a soap away each, was a response to a growing fear of otherness. Currently, as it sits on a street in Copenhagen, inhabiting a shipping container, it opens up conversations around anxiety owing to migration into Europe on the one hand, and a double take, on the other, with the current situation where we’ve become suspicious of almost everyone.”
                -from a 2020 interview with artist Shilpa Gupta

                One of the funny things I’ve done in a classroom is try to teach the same course. I’ve started one year’s version of Writing Poetry with maxims from La Rochefoucauld, and then because it went well I’ve started the next year’s Writing Poetry with those same maxims. As though I could carry along a sequence, a syllabus, from year to year. It’s wonderful how close a thought from hundreds of years ago can feel. At the same time, that thought lands differently in 2015 and 2018. Shilpa Gupta is showing me why. We don’t read the ink of a letter. We read the ink and the space around it.
                I imagine myself carrying along a ruler, holding it up to things while I try to make sense of the world.  Aha, this piece of driftwood is one foot long. This stone is one foot wide. This lamp shade is one foot high. But now I have this image of the ruler shifting in my hand. Anything that I actually return to feels different, is different, each time I go back. Maybe we carry things not just because they stay the same, but because they change. When I think about the books and the ideas that really, really mean something to me, they mean something by growing, by becoming, by being different. Star Wars doesn’t mean to me what it did when I was sixteen. It still means something. What if rulers function, not just by holding true and helping us measure, but also by warping? By hinting to us about how we’ve been trying to measure—by bobbing as they float on the ripples of a changing current?