Blog

Service Work

Artistic practice as an act of devotion.

Here is a riddle, one said. 

And who do you think you are? asked another.

Only a servant. He was making films. The answer is unimportant.

Why ask, then?

There is a code in here somewhere. It is the mystery.

Which mystery?

The usual ones: possibilities of transcendence, rebirth, levels of existence. The role of ritual practice.

Such as?

Such as this one. Right now, I am filming a liturgical text. Contemplating the sacred frame by frame, but I am just beginning. He had been at it three decades.

Are you praying, then?

I call it excavation. I am a social worker with a background in archaeology.

But why?

The idea is to resuscitate the present. This is my devotion.

***

Inspired by an interview I read this morning, in BOMB magazine, with the filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak.

Notes in Space

Between dreaming and waking.

The original void, they called it, and we thought like a womb and imagined ourselves a sort of placenta but who can say. We might have been the baby or the amniotic fluid, because where in that space do you find enough context for measurement?

What grows here cannot happen outside of time, they said, and we had no reason to argue; besides, who would listen? We couldn’t even name ourselves beyond we, beyond here, beyond you, and we used these interchangeably, depending on what fit the mood. Our words were the music we held between us.

All movement begins here, they said, and we had only known ourselves to be ever floating with it, in this space that only exists because it is empty enough to hold whatever comes. One evolving over time might decide to call the growth a contract between years and intentions, and who can fault them for this? It’s easy to forget this space, where the names of what we are keep sliding between us.

Findings on The Road

Reunions of the lost and found.

There go the keys again, and next will be the rings. The cattle dog has run off with the chihuahua mix, and Chance is gone from the community park. Black with brown spots, wearing a tan hoodie.

Someone lost a leaf blower. Perhaps this will catch on. And always, so many cats. Perhaps they meet up somewhere. 

Meanwhile, someone found a box of tools on the side of Murphy Canyon Road, near the Arco and the Taco Bell. They want to give them back. They are hoping for a chance. Please call, they say.

Reading these ads never fails to satisfy a hunch that we are always losing parts of ourselves and finding odd bits of one another. The ads are specific, but the losses are diffuse, these invisible hopes our constant companions: return to me.

Who can help but want to audition now and then for the role of the one who returns, bearing gifts? To the weary disbelievers long after they’ve stopped looking, to announce, here! Take this! To share how they’ve been traveling the whole time, on a journey too bizarre to explain, with monsters no one’s ever seen, fanged whirlpools, and captivity on uncharted islands. To finally announce that what looked like death was only the winding course of another of the living, lost, and it can take so much longer than anyone would believe, to get back home.

The Gift Horse

On looking in its mouth.

She said, child, sometimes someone will approach you on the pretense of bearing a gift, but it will be none other than another version of Death, that old shapeshifter, dressed up in fancy wrapping and a bow.

This happens all the time, she said, and the method is to stuff the box full of sequins so that its these shiny, tiny nothings that fall to the floor when you open it. They are there to distract you from the extraction of your blood, one slow drop at a time.

She said, wait. It is also true that sometimes you will be handed something that reminds you of endings and you will groan and weep and mourn and wish somebody would take it back and tell you it never happened. But hang on, she said, because sometimes those are the places where your life is hiding, buried in the muck they tried to tell you was separate from the living.

The Seeing Eye

Reflecting pools of vision.

There is the seeing eye of the creature accustomed to being ruled by reflex. When it suddenly stops to look, the gaze seems to hold all in its trembling peace. It becomes like the lake, the eye of the landscape, by which the cosmos beholds itself.

***

Yet another passage inspired by (and with borrowed images from) Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space(“Intimate Immensity), a work so rich and layered, I learned to take only tiny sips at a time, as I do this morning.

Object Lessons

Weight and the living.

We pass them between us, remaking the world one talisman at a time, each gift a salve, investing what we touch with the power of a sacred offering, so that even at a distance, they radiate life to the living.

Knowing this, we still forget. Reacting, it’s common to return to the old conditioning: things as mere tools. Here, one says, catch! A familiar thing, a cast off, a burden, an irritant: easy to forget the weight of these, the unexpected marks they will leave where they land.

We learn to hold and keep holding what makes us ill, sore, dizzy. We were made to carry, and it showed; something in us learned to accept until our legs went out again. The unlearning takes time. We invest new objects with new songs to help us remember, and touch them often, against forgetting.

Fictional Singular Beginnings

With Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa.

Light through a lens, an entire image. It appears whole, complete. And it is, but it is also what you said: the fiction of singular beginnings.

When you added, every image is saturated, we thought you meant with meaning, and we said sure. We are big fans of your work.

––With origins, you correct us, and there you go again, making and remaking our capacity to see, and we begin to get a sense that any of the meanings we saw––anywhere, were nothing but beginnings.

***

Inspired by the essay “(W)hole” by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, appearing in the most recent issue of BOMB magazine, in which the photographer and writer reflects on some of my favorite themes. Italicized phrases are from this text.

Origin Points

About beginnings.

One problem, when it comes to beginnings, is that it is difficult to pick a point of origin when you are dealing with a substance that seems more wave-like than particular, when even if you could separate particles, there would be so many.

But it’s hard to resist trying to identify these points of emergence after the fact and harder to know how and when to jump in. Still, a wish to know and name is innate. Maybe this has something to do with pride, or a misplaced survival instinct. When I was five or six, I hatched a plan for counting raindrops. If I could isolate the amount that fell in a given measure of time before the five or six inches of my face pressed against the window, then I could multiply this number (about 15-20, I supposed) by another number to get the number of drops that fell in the square foot in front of our house in the space of––say, a breath. I measured a complete breath to be about six seconds (inhale: one two three; exhale: one two three). Then I would know what it was that was falling before me in the span of a single breath and then I would know––

Not much, apparently. But I couldn’t help myself. I needed a place to start, some foothold that would allow me to do the climbing that everyone was always talking about, except that what I saw before me was no ladder or stairs, not even a climbing wall. It was glass and falling water and the only response I ever seemed to have when it came to noticing anything, was wide-eyed awe, and it was clear that this wasn’t going to get me anywhere, not by the standards that were quickly becoming apparent. Among the adults, there seemed to be a consensus that expertise was valued above all else, and I seemed to have a natural immunity to it. This was terrifying. If I couldn’t be an expert in anything, at least I could learn to climb, I thought, so that I could manage to pass among the other climbers.

But this experiment failed. I couldn’t hold the drops in my gaze long enough to count them, not even for the space of a breath. And absolutely nothing about this solemn revelation seemed to relieve me of the pressure to find some way to begin.

The Saint

Of embodied contradictions.

Maybe we were drawn to him because he was so forthcoming about the way he didn’t understand anything and still couldn’t keep from trying. Whether to understand or to look like he did, we never knew. He was a walking battlefield of embodied contradictions: formal order vs. experience, enthusiasm vs. despair, devotional intensity vs earthbound affections.

Some suggested his greatness was the locus of his damnation, and they called him a saint, but of the wrong religion. Enthralled, we couldn’t help ourselves, leaning into listen to the strain in the language he almost broke, to get to the place beyond it.

Someone said, of his early work, that it read like period pieces from a period that never existed. But even his baroques seemed to always hide a stillness. It was refuge he wanted, after all. He didn’t know the way there, not exactly, but he had a knack for jostling us toward––something. It wasn’t safety, but something else and we were drawn to the drum of its pulse, like dancers unable to stop.

***

Inspired by Christian Wiman’s essay, “A New Mode of Damnation? On Hart Crane” in The Hudson Review, summer 2000 (accessed on JSTOR). Italicized phrases are Wiman’s.

Earth and Skies

First lessons in topography.

As a child of wartime, she remembered her grandmother’s hunger, the bombing and blood, and the flat expanse of the plains. Looking out, she imagined Earth as a wide plate and Heaven as the dome that covered it, and believed that if she walked to the edge, she would find the place where they met.

Later, she saw her first mountain. This was a shock.

Later still, she would think how well this prepared her for what followed, because what good is an education that does not continue to jar you from whatever it is you presume to know before learning more?

***

Inspired by a section of this conversation between Judith Plaskow and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring 2013).