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In the Waiting Room

Considering the anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States at this moment I was reminded to return to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting,” which returned me to the hope that inspired this response, this love note to America, for an occasion somewhere between Last Rites and Baptism.

Sparrow by RLGNGNZ on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 License

SPARROWS WAITING
We were sorting the Grapes of Wrath, 
waiting for the shift to be done. 
Our unrest was everywhere: 
flags and chanting; paint and the piercing 
of swords into the flesh at the sides of sworn enemies. 
When was our Last Supper, and when would it return?
Wonder, we looked for you everywhere, waiting for our numbers
to be called.

The whales waited elsewhere, 
bleeding oceans back into their ears;
do they hear each other through the current of it? 
We wanted to know 
what they’d been saying all along 
after hellos and we wanted to lie down again 
––the lovers, the weepers, the dreamers, 
across the Great Divide, our bodies bridges 
for the feet that could not believe 
unless they stepped across us, 
unless they put their hands in the wounds 
of their feet in our backs, back to the Lost Continent 
they’d been trained to disbelieve     America, 
we were waiting for your music for so long 
that when you hobbled back to the Dark Tower
your intimations of immortality bleeding out 
from stray bullet wounds, your torch arm falling 
slack, we couldn’t help ourselves     America, 
we circled you, we circled ourselves         no one 
was looking, but     we were there; we stood up, 
our single bodies     no longer the bridge 
it was our hands     Now        we held 
them         the shape of us unfastened 
from the overpass     ––still, we held,    some 
of us        even though         the gaps 
of our         form were         widening
our collective         path        an open mouth. 
Eye, be on your     sparrow now.      Watch us 
as we stand before ourselves

waiting

here.

Seeking Directions: A Cautionary Tale

Once, studying some recurring questions, I encountered a phrase: Be the hero of your own life.

It took me, as it were, by the locks, tugging my scalp. I couldn’t see what it was that was holding me, and it didn’t provide much in terms of useful transport, but it certainly did a lot of thrashing about up there. I was much older when I finally untangled my hair, which by then was starting to fall out. I think sometimes how the arresting speaker probably meant well. It was hard to tell, as he didn’t speak except in grunts, celebratory yelps, and the bridge progressions of various top-100 Jock Jams. Was this a man? Maybe, but memory does interesting things, so when I think of him now, I see the characteristically furry, vaguely hominid Sasquatch figure of an 80’s B-Movie, and he’s wearing a red T-shirt. The phrase was on the T-shirt. There was a company logo on the back. I couldn’t tell which one.

Correction. He did have a few words; he just didn’t seem to string them together into anything that sounded like a sentence. While we were marching, I could make out something like, “Yes, Success! Yes! Are you . . . ready to rumble?!!!”

He shouted the word “Legacy!” in a similar manner, but with a more elaborate percussive element.

And yet––

The attempt at – (what was that, anyway? making an impression? branding? was it meant to be instructive?) whatever it was, would likely have landed much differently on someone less porous, less susceptible to wonder about where her body ends and the next one began. It might have been recounted fondly as one of those turning point events so popular in American films, as in: “I was just sitting there, or dancing in a circle with no discernible ambition and then––Whammo! Blinded by the light and a sudden potent animal heat, I was moved to the summit!”

Of what? One might ask, but this is often wasted breath. If so inclined, it’s probably best to step back and simply regain what breath can be had, given the prevalence of such attacks by the spirited and hairy successful creatures, lauded throughout the land for their immense strength and variety of name brand merchandise.

You can know them by their talk: by their obsessions with legacies, their playbooks of endgames, their hostility towards doubt in all forms.

For a carrier of other bodies, the points of endings, like the points of beginnings, were equally irrelevant and often not even on the map, if there was one, which started either in the branching alveoli, or the ventricles (Which one? Right, left? Upper or lower? And which came first, arteries or veins?) or in the sound of a mother’s heartbeat, or her own, or her child’s, and if most of this is water, where would I find the source? Do I go back to Eden, the four rivers, or further, to some original droplets of cosmic condensation?

There were good reasons to struggle with the question of beginnings, which naturally impacted the question of focus, and, regarding various inquiries around one’s own life, where exactly it was.

A better suggestion, in my case, might have been, Come here. Look ––for example, at the aspen, to notice the unseen roots. I might have been instructed to sit and listen, in good company, which I did ––and I was, eventually, and there wasn’t a hero among us, only a song in the distance and the waiting, and everything that mattered

––underground.

Aspen Grove – June Lake Loop by paraphulm on Flickr

The Matter of Your Substance

This is for the quiet behind your words, the songs vibrating in the back corners of your silences, for the shapes you have been noticing in the ceiling after dark; how they move in your nameless mystery. This is for the impulse to close your eyes when you’ve had enough of looking, to find the shadows just as present as the bursts and squiggles of colored luminescence spiraling across the eyelid-curtains after you stop watching.

Stellar Nursery in the Rosette Nebula – Nasa.gov

This is for your still-seeing even then, for the way you knew you could fly like you knew a mailbox could morph into a griffin; a streetlamp into a vine, from which you might swing across a rising river and drop safely on dry land — to wave at your enemies, scratching their heads.

This is for the rippled reflections over water when you touched it for the first time — really touched it — feeling it as babies do: Now it’s a boundary, now you’re breaking through; now it’s a horizon; now it’s swallowing your hand, your knowing screams of “Aaaaaah! Ha! Oooh!” against each splash.

This is for your hand — the speaker of the moment, do you remember? Chubby and sure of itself without even fine motor skills, already fluent in an ecstatic dialect, intimate with joys of pressing itself against what it cannot hold.

For Your Looking Glass

for Jill Tarter, and stargazers everywhere*

Considering how you beheld, before your teeth had grown in, the wide embrace of infinite above you every time you looked up, how you wondered about the possibility that someone on an invisible and hypothetical planet, orbiting a just-visible or hypothetical star, in a possibly habitable zone, might at this moment or in a parallel twin moment, light years away, looking back with its parent, asking, Are we alone?

––and, suspecting not, how you looked and kept looking, sought and kept seeking, ransacked the monochromatic track-lit waiting room where the tired skeptics sat in comfortable clothes–– arms crossed, smirking; reminding them how when you started looking, no one (not one!) had even found a planet ––yet!

–– around any of these other stars; considering the calm with which you pointed out the problem of certain assumptions that the over-confident doubters were always making about the impossibility of your life’s work; about its wasteful utter futility, how you pointed out their blindness to life beyond the water we are so familiar with because it is in us, and the fallacy of assuming that what is not in us may not exist as a viable life, pointing to the wild, raucous late-night parties of extremophiles bubbling over in other impossible places like the cooling liquid of nuclear reactors; how, speaking of stardust and star stuff, we are part of a billion year lineage of its nomadic essence;

how you wandered after and in it, recklessly grounded against the leering jealousy of the waiting-room skeptics waiting for your failure, waiting for your infinite motion to stop, for you to decide to finally let the limits of your present reach preclude your future reaching or to deny the fact that a stretching embrace of what you could not possibly begin to hold was always and still the essential orientation of your organism, and finally admit your discouragement; how, with both feet beneath you, you observed with the same calm how, in a billions-year legacy of wandering out, out, and into this human-ness, your arrival––our arrival–– had happened only a blink ago;

and because you saw fit to remind that if someone looking for proof of the existence of ocean fish were to come up fishless on a first attempt to harvest one, using a twelve-ounce glass, from any of the world’s seven oceans, one attempt per sea, only to decide that fish were nothing more than myths we invent to feel less alone against the ocean’s expanse, that this would be a premature decision––not to mention, a poor survival strategy;

for highlighting the tyranny of light speed regarding the length of time it takes for a signal emitted by one body to reach the perception of another, reminding us that, after all, some of us just read the Antigone of several millennia ago, and what about the aurochs on the caves of Lascaux; what about what we knew before assuming this always-assuming human form, this particular constellation of ancient dust,

assembled just so in this moment, right now; as if to imply that the way to balance your urgency is with equal parts empathy for the speed of the living, for the devastating wait, slow and deliberate as any melting ice cap, of living on a planet that spins a thousand miles an hour;

the vastness of your patience with what you call a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium that evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from and how you manage to understand that now is no time to stop looking, now is no time to stuff our have-beens into our ears, dulling our is-nows and forestalling the conception of our ever-shall-bes

––Thank you, because sometimes I need to be reminded backwards and forwards, and welcomed back again, into a space where I remember how to look, when I am meaning to see.

Jill Tarter is the co-founder of the SETI institute. Her life inspired the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. I was  inspired by a wonderful interview with her, in a recent episode of the On Being podcast Krista Tippett. ​

Memorare

Your remains rest, your remains unfound. You were decorated, wept over; letters said you were tired, found peace of mind, slept with a pistol on your chest.

You fell at Battle of the Bulge, B-17 missing over the Aleutians; survived Omaha Beach, saved wounded, drowned in frozen seas, in training runs over Yuma, in POW camps in Burma. You volunteered after D-Day, 9/11; died at Iwo Jima, on impact, slowly in a trench; underwater, in midair, in the desert; your family searches still. You loved Tennyson, football, ice cream and Clarion Bells before sunset. You sang in the choir, stepped on a landmine, took fire in Kunar Province, in Afghanistan, Camp Sheehan, Fallujah.

The day you went missing, your son was born.

Your remains rest, your remains unfound. You were decorated, wept over; letters said you were tired, found peace of mind, slept with a pistol on your chest. Folded flags met your mothers, fathers, wives, daughters, sons; “Taps” played, then twenty-one guns.

You were in the glee club, physics, wrestling, the relay; long legs remembered, and dimples; a serious side and how you slept in class. You would be an aeronautics technician, a veterinarian, a teacher; practice medicine, take your son to Mt. Whitney, have dinner on the harbor, swim at the pier, return next football season and for Christmas, to hold your daughter for the first time.

You wrote your favorite Wordsworth lines in a textbook, “Grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” We gather among remains, looking for more, as the living do, in silent reflection on the unknown of the All that you gave, marking hallowed ground with what we may not name.

Speaking of the nameless, may we remember them too. No sense being stingy with memory, with grief, with all the lost lives that we are taught to call nothing at all. 

Image: Memorare – Manila 1945 Monument, Sculpted by Peter de Guzman
Photo by Joal Perocillo on flickr

Sunday Communion: with Bill T. Jones

Many faithful bodies keep holy days throughout the year, in which the day-to-day routine is replaced by a ritual or series of rituals, enacted in a manner designed to return the faithful to the spirit, via some transcendence. Outside of churches, mosques, and synagogues, you can find such abundant enthusiasms at football games, Sunday brunches, ritual meetings of friends, and ritual retreats in studio apartments. I know no other way to think of a creative practice but as an act of faith.

In this spirit comes the inaugural Sunday edition of these notes, in which we will rest and look for someone else to lead. Call it communion, a shared feast, or a chance to wear body paint and cheer for another artist, whose work breathes the transcendence that is as essential as any other basic need, and often more so. This is also the area where environmental hazards, left unchecked, tend to result in extreme malnourishment.

We may not know we are malnourished, slogging along in blind obedience to the dogma of individual production, forgetting all about the day of rest. But sometimes the sabbath comes knocking, and if we’re awake enough to get to the door, we can’t help but meet what will make us cheer, cry, laugh with relief, shouting hallelujahs of “Take Me to Church!” –– if only we look, listen, taste, smell; running our fingers against its jagged grain. Or, as I did when I watched this performance/talk/sermon by artist Bill T. Jones, be awed through a melting face. Does it add to the wonder to know he is the tenth of twelve children, whose parents were migrant workers? Or is it enough to simply know that he is managing to do what he does in this moment, in this environment, with this force and generosity? You decide.

I am doubly grateful because today, a beloved earthling artist shared this video with me in response to yesterday’s post in which one of us, left all alone, was moved by a sudden impulse to dance.

I cannot translate what he is doing here, and if I could, I would have to use only words once deemed too sacred to utter aloud. I was lifted and moved in ways as powerful as any of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in any congregation. I will share only this line, which I think for any artist, might be counted as a sacred verse:

“Artists are always fighting the scriptures of their goddamned era! Am I allowed to say that?” 

[answers his own question in dance] 

The rest, I hope you will see for yourself. Thank you, Bill T. Jones, and the timing of your life, thank your parents; thank you, reader, and I love you for sharing what you see. 

Earthling Applies for Creator Job: A Dramatic Thought Experiment

The hours may vary, as with pay. But the benefits are priceless, and you get to keep giving them away for life.

In the following scene, the boldface words are those spoken by the character “BOSSMAN.”

Hello, world! Here I am! I am nobody! 
Here’s my CV: Creator among fellow creature-creators. 

What? You want me to tell you my greatest weakness? I’m not falling for that one, but I can tell you this: sometimes a body intent on making something is susceptible to debilitating illnesses of spirit. Symptoms can range from low-level listlessness to acute despair.

Has this condition been diagnosed?
Sure, in ways that are generally and specifically wrong. Let’s examine why. In all likelihood, most of us have been afflicted. 

We don’t need to do that.
For many, the symptoms are those we battle daily in various ways, most of which would sound incredibly strange to someone bent on treating the affliction as an individual illness. What are these courses of treatment? They might include staring for a number of silent minutes at the sky, or over the steering wheel in traffic; looking at images of the Hubble Space telescope, or those really close up nature photos where the anthers of a strawberry flower appear as the surface of a hypothetical exoplanet. Some of us have a  fondness for searching up newly discovered species––like the giant Siphonophore Apolemia, discovered in 2020, a 150-foot organism, possibly ancient, which looks like a spiral of silly string floating in the deep––collecting the kinds of facts often called “trivial,” such as how a human heart will sync with the beat of music, and if the blood vessels of the average adult human body were unwound and strung together like a rope, it would wrap around the earth two and a half times, when it might seem to any nonhuman, so-called “objective” observer, that surely once would have been enough. 

Precisely. Anyway, ––
––Anyway, if you look long enough, you might come across this tidbit: how, everything you have two of, you only need one to live, and often (as with limbs, eyes, ears, lips, breasts, testicles) a body can get by without having any of certain common parts. 

That sounds like a wasteful model.
Apparently, we’re made with all these extra bits of ourselves built in. If one fails, the other is ready to support: circulating, filtering, oxygenating, detoxifying, holding, seeing, hearing––and if one never fails, just because. It is customary to ask, “can you lend me a hand?” We say, “Lend me your ear” and “who has a kidney that will match?” We walk into buildings and announce that we are here to give up our blood. We are always making more, and someone is always needing it. 

But what is your bottom line?
Is this a trick question? Have you been looking at my bank account? While you’re at it, let me know if you find that money they tried to charge me for not having enough money.

Well, I––
Anyway, I am clearly unequipped to offer discourse on bottom lines, but I can tell you this. Do you know what else we say? We say: “Can you keep an eye on my child?” My child, my life! In your eye, where I will hold yours when the time comes. We bow our thank yous at the ever-astonishing kindnesses of others. The unexpectedness of what we’ve been taught to disbelieve awes us back to ourselves with such power that it feels like remembering one of those vivid dreams that feels impossibly real.

Are you still talking? Please, just the numbers.   
Okay. Let me stop talking. Do you know any cheers? I do! It’s good for employee morale. Here goes: “One, two, three, four, I’m not measuring myself in code anymore!”

[Irritated cough, for emphasis. A common power move]
The machine would have us believe that we are incomplete cyborgs in beta-testing, whose value as life forms is to be determined by the scores of a consumer panel, as if consumer panels––or, for that matter, any component of the industrial engine––had ever shown any natural (hah!) capacity for recognizing the value of a life (be it of a creature, an area of land, an art form) except as capital for someone’s, as you say, “bottom line.”

Again, just the numbers, please. Do you even know what I mean when I say analytics?
Not really. But trust me, Mister, you can’t count that high. 

Are you still interviewing?
No, I just hired myself. 

[Bossman exits. Earthling sits in cushy chair, spins and bounces excessively. Earthling leans back and forth, back and forth. Takes off shoes, uncomfortable jacket, shirt. Stares through window making sounds that are not words. Eventually, earthling picks up pen, rifles through desk drawers looking for paper, gives up, walks to industrial-grade printer, fumbles with trays, and eventually retrieves a page. Resumes seat, picks up executive pen, writes] 

Dear Earthling,
    Congratulations, you are hired! We are delighted to offer you this job as creator! 
Start now.

Yours truly,
The planet

[Earthling sits back, smiles at page, leans back in chair, puts feet on desk, laughs, “Hah!” This lasts about a minute. Then earthling begins to look sick. There is no one to talk to.]

END SCENE

Let’s analyze this.What exactly is happening with this would-be creator? They have just hit the motherlode! The ultimate boon! 

But they don’t look too well. What is happening here to make this creature so ill?

Ah, it’s the symptoms again. The environmental hazards are getting to them.

The machine would have us believe that there is just barely enough of ourselves to go around: mainly because what is deemed a precious good, is what is rare, and what is abundant (in various forms, including whole populations of humans) is classified as disposable. Life, by nature, is abundant. Once labeled disposable, the algorithmic solution is: exterminate, bulldoze, destroy. The apparent uselessness of many species of earthling is something that the machine gets wrong every time. Still, earthling is breathing the air, and what is in the air gets in the body, in the lungs, and from here: into the blood, the brain, the spirit.

The antidote? Only the company of other life forms deemed useless, and a willingness to commit to protecting them.

What is useless? Plant life growing through concrete sidewalks, the colors of a sunset, the presence of the second of any of our essential parts; laughter, delight, the petting of cats, the slow sipping of hot coffee when a caffeine pill would do;  how dolphins play in waves and dogs bark wildly when they see most other living things. Art except when it’s being bought or sold. Diapered babies, blubbering and cooing, whose have to be carried from one place to the next; diapered adults, whose food must be taken to them, who are fluent in histories the machine would erase. Finger-painting, the colors of a butterfly. Why does a writer have to write a thousand pages to find the idea that the machine would reduce to two hundred and fifty words, why did Rothko create so many versions of “Untitled,” without even bothering to have his painting “look like” anything? 

[Earthling begins to revive. They may have blown the interview, but they really know how to knock it out of the park when it comes to landing the job.]

Because: we are not ideas. We are not projections or statistics. We are bodies, and we are abundantly so. The apparent uselessness (to the mechanical eye) of large portions of our individual and collective bodies, brains, preoccupations, delights, and creations––is indivisible from our nature as earth creatures. 

Any acknowledgement of this simple truth begs the question: how is anyone going to begin to protect any of what is so bluntly called “nature” or “the planet” unless we recognize how its fundamental substance aligns with our own?  

And what if: our fragility to slaughter is precisely in line with an abundance that the machine cannot comprehend? 

It is fiercely life-protecting to favor the wisdom of those who share like reckless fools, who understand what the machine can only deny, because it does not compute: how giving ourselves away is exactly what we were made to do.

The hours may be anything, and the pay is variable. The benefits are priceless, though: and you get to keep them for life, with an unlimited number of co-beneficiaries, for an unspecified and entirely unreasonable amount of time. 

[Earthling is no longer trying to write or speak. What they are doing is very irrational, but if any of their fellow creatures happen to enter the room right now, they will know what they are seeing. It is dance, and it has no value according to the machine’s algorithmic metrics. It is as priceless as the life beholding it, who cannot help but dance along.]

Let it Shine

Art lives in acts of generous connection. The question is how to protect the tiny flame of a precious and individual life from being snuffed out.

​Lately, I am obsessed with noticing how the forces that are detrimental to the creation of art run parallel to the forces that threaten the species of the planet, populations of people deemed disposable, and the viability of life for anyone who needs to breathe. This is why I am going to commit to meeting anyone who wishes to join me, everyday, in this space where I will be publicly doing the work that I consider the work of my life, and if you are reading this, it most likely runs parallel to the work that you do, whether you presume to call it “art,” or not. Capital-A art is a loaded word  for good reason, most of which is co-optation of something human by a greedy machine and/ or elitist. I’m a fan of lowercase art, the kind that is something we all recognize by the way it makes us feel moved, because it calls us to notice something we value, which we might have lost the name for. It lives in acts of generous connection, and often revolves around the question of how to protect the tiny flame of a precious and individual life from being snuffed out.

About five years ago, I saw the 2006 film Black Snake Moan  In it, a Blues Musician (played by Samuel L. Jackson) develops a friendship with a woman (played by Christina Ricci) who is fighting for her life. She is beautiful, sensitive, and abused: a condition common to most life forms today, except for the one-to-ten percenters who are feeding off the lives of the beautiful and abused. The plot is complicated and interesting in ways that deserve your full attention, and since I haven’t seen it since 2016, I won’t try to get into it here. I am only going to share one of my favorite scenes of all time, in which this woman, waking on the couch where she has found refuge, in the home of the bluesman, has picked up a guitar and started strumming. The scene that follows goes like this.

    “Look like somebody know a song.”

    “No, you know, I got the words in my head. . . I don’t know where I learned it, you know, but I can’t play.”

    “How you feel?”

    “You know how you feel when you come out of a bad hangover, you know? Like you could open your eyes a little more?”

    “Oh, I’m there.”

    “Well,  got up real early this morning, sun was shining’, I thought, well maybe I thought, you know, maybe I’d see if I could play that split.”

What happens next is beautiful. He plays: she sings. He nods encouragement; she closes her eyes, finding the song. I had almost forgotten this element that makes it even more so, because it speaks to the precious fragility of what they are making. As they are singing, she has her eyes closed and Samuel L. Jackson’s character has his back to the door, and for much of the last verse, her abusive and frightened boyfriend, Ronnie, is entering the home extending a pistol, aiming it at the place where they are singing. I can’t do it justice. You can watch it here:

It’s like that, the endeavor of making art. You are doing it to save your life while someone with a loaded weapon is trying to kill you because it scares them to see you so raw and honest.

In this spirit, I am moved to share an occasional series of raw cuts, by an artist with no musical training, whose medium is decidedly NOT music, who just found a random five minutes to sing. I do this not because I am comfortable with the idea (I’m not. I’m a writer, not a musician. But, like many of my fellow humans, I sing in my car and in the shower)––but because I appreciate and love art in the raw. I met a wonderful white-haired woman years ago at a dinner party. She was a fifth-grade teacher and she spoke about her willingness “to be silly and weird so that they (her students) feel it’s okay, and they don’t have to be afraid of being weird.” The first name I was called was alien, and like many such names, it stuck with me for life. Lately, I have been embracing it, lovingly, in recognition of countless other fellow humans who are labeled as such, most in ways that are vastly more cruel and dehumanizing than my own childhood slight.  Life doesn’t have a time minimum when it comes to breathing, and we owe it to one another: to seize every breath we can find and offer it back up to one another, in honor of what my favorite philosopher, Achille Mbembe calls, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” a sentiment which has resounded with more depth and meaning every day of this past year. It is good to be here, breathing with you. The exercise of this right comes with a responsibility: to breathe publicly, to call each other out, the names of the living and the dead, and the song that is waiting to come, through our collective hope and grief: Let it shine.

In Light of the Question of What Comes Next

There are dangers to remaining in isolation, however protective and necessary it has been before.

It’s spring 2021, and it’s graduation season at many campuses. In many parts of the world, there is a sense of emerging from a long isolation along with a shared sense of our collective fragility. Questions hang in the air and one of these is “What’s next?”

You have endured the waiting, wrestled with the inevitable demons that emerge in isolation, in a period of study, in axial times. You have put in long hours listening, learning, reading, practicing. You have revisited and revised: hopes, frustrations, longings, and of course, the work itself. I know of no other way to think of it than the Art of Being Here: as a person, protective of life in all forms and concerned about the mechanisms of its destruction. There is a time for the protection of the ecosystem necessary to cultivate a private practice of learning, listening, reading, hoping, longing, wondering and making. And then, it’s graduation season, and it’s warm outside, and you start to notice again what it means when the season shifts, and you realize that there are dangers to remaining in isolation, however protective and necessary it has been before. The danger is that it denies breath to the fundamental human impulse: to offer up. To say, “Here. I made this. Perhaps it can help you, too.” To remember how our making selves are the versions closest to our divine nature, and to offer these up is an act of bowing to the divine nature of others, by carrying one’s tiny flame in shaking hands, into dark spaces: to extend it to the wick of another, in the moments after the storm has blown it out. 

To the writers, artists, thinkers, and children who have given their light in ways that were meaningful and visible to me when I could see no other, I bow to you.