A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that.
There are moments when you are inside something, noticing what you will remember when it’s done. Or there are exploding moments and you can’t help but notice the blast of certain solid-seeming ideas. It’s a protected site: caution tape, guards. You can’t go around taking things from it, so you look, gathering images for later when you’re no longer at the site, for when the site itself no longer exists except perhaps as a memorial, for when you are considering, in memorial, what remains.
A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that, eating any memory of what happened before or after. You try to recover, but can do no better than metaphor.
It was like being inside a Dali painting, melted face propped on a stick. It was like being stuck on top of the monkey bars or like one of those dreams where you are trying to scream and the words won’t come out. The problem with trying to tell some stories is that the origin point was consumed by other origin points, cannibal moments.
It was like another dream, also: driving a car up a ramp. The ramp is so steep that it’s practically vertical. The road is narrow and it is over a bridge and the bridge is over sky and space and water and whatever you might be about to fall into is on both sides, close, and there is no way to reverse, but you see that the road ahead of you will very soon drop off into sky. You head up anyway, accepting a certain lack of choice. Or choosing to accept that the original decision was already made when you got into the car and started driving. That moment never shows up in the dream, not once.
Or it was like being underwater, in the quiet susurration of it, trying to resist the temptation to surface for air.
Or it was like flight/not flight, as in jumping up, bouncing off, or being thrown, that moment in midair when the breath catches.
And while you’re catching your breath you know that it was indeed like all of these things, but none exactly, and for the time being you are all out of words. Sometimes all you want to do is hang on to some scrap of fallen silence at your feet and close your eyes, as if doing so could make it possible to return to some moment just before.
What else is a writer, but always moving in and out of places that are supposed to be off limits?
One learns early (children, cats) that there is a certain way to comport oneself in public, especially around men. Like most authentic educational experiences, transmission is done more through example than direct instruction.
Reasons didn’t matter to me early on, only how to be. I wouldn’t consider questions of why until later. Men in public places might be easily confused, threatened, or alarmed, any of which might bring out the worst. A body adapts around certain givens in nature, or at least tries to.
Early in adolescence, I just wanted to get the moves right and remember my lines, but I had no natural aptitude for the role. I watched other girls pull it off in a manner that seemed no different than their natural selves. They were graceful and coquettish; pliant and mysterious all at once. But I felt like a semi-sedated lion at a zoo exhibit, all my wild drugged out of me until all that there was left to do was look out through my wild eyes and hope they didn’t give me away.
Those eyes. an old woman once said, like a cat!
“Shhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!” I wanted to whisper-shout back at her. This was early on in my experiment. Over time, I learned, and decades later (which happened to be a few years before I could fully recognize certain problems manifest in this area of study and practice – I knew that I had emerged with top marks, as evidenced by regular complements as to my smile, “easygoing nature” which I read as familiarity with certain grooming practices and mannerisms aligned with the male gaze).
It’s tempting to regret learning this, but probably futile. Knowing how to be invisible in public, how to wear veils, how and when to find the mute button on my unwieldy self, certainly afforded me certain measures of protection that I’d love to imagine myself innately resilient enough to go without, but which were probably needed. The cost of these preoccupies me lately, but it’s not like I anyone can return old lessons for a refund. As a writer, I can only turn it around, look for other angles, find some useful rationale.
In this vein, I’ve been observing how learning to be inconspicuous is a necessary part of any sort of undercover work. What else is a writer, but always moving in and out of places that are supposed to be off limits? I grew up in the age when to “be real” seemed to be linked with a no-holds-barred sort of no-filter mystique. I watched this lauded with a sense of dread and despair, recognizing that I was constitutionally incapable of this state.
A body learns, over time, to let go of its binary notions: authentic/invented, delicate/fierce, domesticated/wild, tender/hard. If these binaries serve any purpose, it is in creating a tension that is interesting to work with. A dancer learns to compose, with the instrument of their body, a vivid display of movement that suggests that they have managed to remove the filter between emotional states and bodily expression. In fact, they have learned to explore, lean into, and play with the body’s own limits and abilities, to achieve something that lets an audience imagine limitlessness. To achieve this, a dancer contorts into all manner of difficult and often painful postures.
In their excellent book, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, acclaimed object-oriented philosopher Timothy Morton makes an interesting observation about cats. Morton observes how cats occupy the liminal space “between” humankind and the so-called “Natural world.” This is to highlight another false binary, namely human/nature.
This week I have been watching my cat with heightened interest. My interest is selfish, another funny word, implying a binary between selfish/unselfish which is problematic and likely impossible for any being whose survival depends on connection with an intricate network of human and non-human beings. I am on the lookout for clues about walking in two worlds. Considering writing, loving, and any creative work, the idea of an extended retreat is infinitely appealing, and for most of us, just as unlikely, as far as life options go. In most cases, creating anything requires a fluidity of movement between worlds.
I notice that my cat may go from sleeping in my purse to leaping over the back gate in less than five seconds. Her shapeshifting powers are a wonder to behold, but perhaps she is not shapeshifting at all even though she appears at certain times to be in one state or another (resting/leaping, domestic/wild, waiting/hunting) ––only endlessly fluid. I’m fairly certain she’ll return in the evening, contort herself into various impossible-looking nap positions, wander around, stare at me with that look that cats get, like the old sage waiting for the neophyte to move beyond lesson one.
In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed.
In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed. This is called the threshold, or liminal state.
The first version of this word I ever heard was called limbo, and according to the nuns this was where you got stuck if you skipped confession. Apparently, doing this was about as damning as failing to wear clean underwear, because you could get in a terrible accident at any time.
What’s it like? We all wanted to know. They said it wasn’t exactly eternal fire but it wasn’t clouds and angels, either. It was just forever. And who wants that when you are so close to a final release? They were not forthcoming with other details, so the rest was left to the imagination.
I turned the word over. Limbo. It called to mind the image of a doll version of a person floating in a watercolor atmosphere with limbs outstretched.
I thought about people running and then swimming toward higher ground when the floods came. And about the dream monsters chasing, the jolt in the stomach, shouting So close! I thought about my grandparents, how they would stand behind me in church before I was even old enough for Communion, the pillars of their bodies like trees, and me in the shade. I wanted to stay in that place forever, but I felt it coming, the shadowy force coming closer with every passing year — so close! –– and I dreaded arriving in the space of being severed from their shade and the quiet of being nowhere and no one, with no one asking, What now?
Then, years passed, and I felt far removed from this moment, but close enough that when I thought of it again, something flickered at the corners of my lips, in recognition of how there had been a time when it was possible to think of such an endless in-between as a threat for something that might happen, and not as what already was.
Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible.
One day it occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I had wanted to talk to anyone.
I had been talking plenty, whenever the situation called for it. I had mostly enjoyed these exchanges, even when I dreaded them in advance. My pause came from realizing that I could not remember ever once being in a silent state of restful solitude and thinking that it would be better if I were talking. Sure, I wondered how various people were doing; I wanted them to know that I thought of them, but these feelings have to do with love and connection and not the desire to utter any actual words. I had to really ransack my mind looking for an example of a time when talk was the thing I desired. Still, I couldn’t find any. I am an introvert who fears being something else, namely an alien ill-suited for life here. This seemed like an ominous sign.
Never? I wondered. What an inauspicious thing to observe in oneself. I immediately red-flagged this newfound awareness as the sort of thing I should probably never say out loud to another human being (The irony!). To be introverted is one thing, but surely this new awareness indicated some sort of solitary leanings in the extreme, possibly pathological. Perhaps some dark secret had been hidden and missed all along.
But then I realized something else. It was also true that I could not think of a single time when I was in a resting solitary state and I suddenly thought that I would like to write. (Not once? I wondered, checked. Nope, not once––not since childhood, anyway).
I love writing like the desperate love anything––as in, it feels like misery but I would not want to live without it. I could think of plenty of times where I had to write, or decided to do so in order to fulfill some obligation, and other times when an impulse came knocking and I answered the door. I had often looked forward to long periods of imaginary uninterrupted interludes during which I would be writing, even though I had never actually thought, while resting, anything like: This moment would be greatly enhanced if I were moving a pen along a page.
And yet, I could think of no examples where I had ever regretted writing (but a few where I regretted hitting “send”). Considering conversation, similar themes emerged. It was never the talking I regretted (except when it took me from writing for too long), only what I did and did not manage to say.
Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible. I did not dislike any available forms of communication: not speech, not writing, not dance, and not song. All were needs, and I had been prone to dreading each of them in particular ways.
Words are so hard to deal with, and the dealing is always such a burden. Like hearts, like loves, like babies and bodies, and water; and bodies of water; and loving hearts; and the burden of carrying each one around, holding its beating insistence, its incessant demands; its relentless flooding of life into limbs and everywhere else it goes, in all the ways that are always so impossible to explain.
Words are such a chore. I might put them off forever. All I ever want are those quiet, fluid, indefinable spaces housing the soft rise and fall of one beloved’s breath beside me; the weight of an open palm on my knee, and possibilities only tasted and never adequately described, by lips pressing into a sleeping head under my arm. All I ever miss is never words, but the sound of quiet breathing in the same room, its implied command a simple one, and as easy to follow as my own next breath. Like, Shhhhh. Like, Wait. Hold. Don’t Move. Here.
These words, these words, give me some. Let me give them back to you. Even though we both, by now, should recognize them for what they are: crude and heavy, the burdensome hot-mess cousins to the queens and kings and holy babies we are trying to sing about. Still, you work with what you have, and sometimes these are the only available tools after the quiet-by-your-side-breaths stop, and the weight of a hand has vanished, and a body fails to contain the parts that are relentlessly flying away.
You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
BIG I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.
And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?
Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?
I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.
What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?
This is the end of the time when we rhyme. But wait! Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road.
A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?
LITTLE Remember how we used to play the guessing game?
Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.
From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!
At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.
Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!
BIG Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?” Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.
Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me: Laugh!
The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard.
The dreams are gone again. Memory is full of holes. Mind the gap!
Do you know whose memory is the least contaminated? A baby’s?
Maybe, but not what I was thinking. ?
A patient with amnesia. ?
They can’t contaminate by remembering. It just comes. And goes.
Right, a free flow. Did you hear about the artist with face blindness?
To lose one face is enough. Imagine losing them all. She made interesting self-portraits. She did them in the dark, feeling her face, adding paint to canvas; feeling again. Art as an act of looking, free of the presumption of sight.
Do goldfish really have only eight seconds of it? Memory?
Yes, or is this just a myth told to children who would otherwise be very sad about the creature in the bowl, in the plastic bag from the fair, doomed to this constant back and forth? Borges called it a pile of broken mirrors.
The fishbowl? Memory.
He died on this day, in 1986. That was the year I forgot how to fly in my dreams.
How? The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard. My arms, because that’s all I had, no wings or feathers.
Yeah, but how did you forget? Whoever knows, but that year my dreams or something started taking me too hard and fast, I could not remember until it was too late.
Borges said there are no images at the end, only words. Remember 1986?
There were bombs everywhere in the news. I didn’t see them up close, but I worried. They were waiting under parked cars, in office buildings, churches, synagogues, planes.
It was my first Communion year. I remember waiting to be suffused in light. The Challenger exploded. I remember the plumes of flame and smoke on the screen. My second-grade teacher had wheeled the television into the classroom so we could see it live, the techno-miracle of space travel.
Chernobyl, too. After that, radioactive deposits were found in every country in the northern hemisphere.
There was a human chain that year, five million links long from New York to Long Beach. As a reminder, right?
Yes, of hunger. Homelessness. Easily forgotten by the housed and fed. They were flooding the streets.
This was Reagan’s America. It was popular to cite an epidemic of laziness, compounded by drugs, as the reason. Just say No, but the hands did something else.
Said yes? No, they answered another question. A better one. The question of the body before you.
Answer like an open hand. Right. Like, “Here.”
Do you remember Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings? He observed that there are dragons in every part of the world.
Yeah, he said we don’t know what they mean, only that they are always there. What memories do they hold; what future projections?
I love his face, Borges. How it would light up when he smiled. He must have been something in person.
Like a baby. Or a person who has forgotten everything and sees only–– Light?
The play of light and shadow. An uninterrupted flow.
I love watching babies before their vision develops. Their faces, do you mean?
Yeah, how they light up and start laughing at something in the ceiling. And you watch them, and you wonder what are they seeing?
* A story about artist known as Carlotta appears in the BBC News, and the documentary about her journey, “Lost in Face” appeared in a BBC News article by Vibeke Venema, “Prosopagnosia: The Artist in Search of Her Face,” published August 16, 2020. BBC World Service.
Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.
Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky.
Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.
Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light, and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste?
They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”
A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back.
There is a night, long after my bedtime in 1983, when the three kings take the stage. Soul is leading. For a moment, he is front and center, green jumpsuit and perfect hair, wanting company. The numbers dead from the Ethiopian drought have reached four million, and protestors are gathering at Greenham Common Air Force Base as Reagan’s army deploys missiles. It’s almost time to invade Grenada. It’s civil war in Zimbabwe, earthquake in New York, the birth of Mario Bros and Microsoft Word, some say the birth of the internet, and a new land speed record in the Black Rock Desert. I don’t understand what is happening.
The King of Soul calls on the rising King of Pop, younger and still darker than we knew him later, who leans in to be embraced by Mr. Dynamite, kissing his ear, his first words into the mic, I love you; I love you, then spin, shimmy, what is this? A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back. It’s the Embassy Bombing in Beirut, the highest U.S. unemployment rate since 1941, the assassination of Aquino in the Philippines. Here comes Run DMC, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden; the age of the international superstar. Let’s dance, karma chameleon, I want to party like it’s 1999. It’s time to fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen; buckle up, it’s the law.
Next comes the King of Funk; Prince, where are you? Pointer finger extends a royal summons to the back of the room, stage left. The Artist arrives straddling the waist of the white-bearded muscle man who bears him on his back, whose image calls to mind Hell’s Angels; up goes His Royal Badness in a futuristic jumpsuit, gold lame details, heels. This king on the guitar, a prolonged erotic moment. Oh no, it’s not a jumpsuit, now the top half is coming off, now it’s the shirtless High Priest of Pop making love to the Mic stand, to the audience, thrusting himself into the space between the music and their rising cheers, then falling like a spent lover into the crowd. They are filling the prisons, building new warehouses for storage of the fathers and brothers and sons. There are bullet holes in the ceilings. The new warehouses are stacked five stories high; they can’t build them fast enough. The vans arrive in a constant stream; the machine needs bodies. The bodies are the fathers and the brothers, the uncles and the sons. Where are they now? They are Away.
This is the year I enter school – line up! Bells, the bells, the stone buildings, the weight of this ominous word, terrorist, its point to point to some being not quite human, grounds for extermination, but now, we were told was the age when the wars were done; now, the adults said, was a time of hard-earned peace. Of progress, the dawn of a new age! News of another car bomb punctuated news of mass extinctions, and even with the bombs erupting everywhere, even with the mass extinctions, and the adults looked ill with symptoms of battle fatigue that no one was allowed to discuss.
It is the year of the West Bank fainting epidemic, and epidemics of fainting elsewhere, especially at concerts; it was the heyday of new religion, and our stadiums became our new meccas; and Sally Ride is the first woman in Space, Ride, Sally, Ride! and Guion Bluford is the first black man in space, Say it Loud! Vanessa Williams the first black Miss America, and the King holiday is signed into law. The Zapatistas are rising; Thriller is released.
I am too young to be at the concert; too young to even know the names of the kings who take the stage. I find the footage later, among the artifacts of the hyperspace that was being assembled around us. I pour through the artifacts, looking for clues in the aftermath; it’s the same question in any aftermath, isn’t it? What happened? And what was there before? And, was there any sign, before it hit, what was happening?
I can’t help it, the way I keep returning to the moment when the second of the kings takes the stage, the way he says I love you like he’s someone just arriving, and I love you like he’s someone already getting ready to leave. I can’t help but think that if I had seen him then, I would have been moved with recognition. Even then, before I knew anything about anything except the speed of the way it feels to spin with your arms out wild, knowing you’re about to fall flat when the spinning gets too much; that’s what we did then, holding hands until we released them, falling flat and breathless on our backs, laughing in terror at the still-spinning sky.
Self; not self. You learn to stop wondering about which is which like you learn to accept how it is customary to call the thing you have: one life. How strange, the way that this phrase is stressed, as if it’s a limit.
There’s a moment, and it goes so quickly that it’s easy to miss, when you think you know who you are. The reason, looking back, was that you were not thinking about it at all. You simply were there, doing what you did in the manner that you did things. For example, drinking from a garden hose in your underwear, or writing a five-act musical for Rocky, the elementary school janitor, on the occasion of his retirement. Or showing up on the blacktop before the bell rang for the start of a third-grade day, after any break longer than two weeks, wearing an accent you had acquired on some imaginary voyage to a distant land. Here a brogue, now a drawl, now something approximating the outback.
Around the age of blood, this changes, and it is no longer considered sufficient to simply make things up as you go; one must have acquired something distant, something not already possessed. You’re not sure what it is, but you understand that the time has come to go out looking and stop pretending that you know what you need. The point, it seems, is to listen. Others know exactly what you need, especially men, who have no shortage of ideas as to what you ought to do. It will be decades before you learn to categorize such professions of wise-seeming advice into the file of “Men explain things to me” (Thank you Rebecca Solnit, Sheila Heti).
But it’s not just that. It’s in the way you look, like you’re practically begging the world to explain something to you.
Sometimes you stop, staring, and think, “Here is something.” You think this because you are wondering and because whatever you are looking at is indeed something. It’s enough anyway, to remind you back in the direction of something that you almost thought you knew. But it isn’t that, not exactly.
The nuns had a saying for missing things. “St Anthony, St. Anthony, come around,” they chanted, over the lost items. It gave the frantic seekers something to do while they looked.
Self; not self. You learn to stop wondering about which is which like you learn to accept how it is customary to call the thing you have: one life. How strange, the way that this phrase is stressed, as if it’s a limit.