If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on.
I didn’t hear the phrase The world is not my home until Tom Waits sang it to me, and I was well into my twenties by then. The track was “Come on Up to the House” on Mule Variations and I repeated it endlessly. It felt like having my deepest fears and most urgent longings sung back to me in a dream. Since the age of consciousness, I had approached the prospect of living here like I imagined an alien would do. The word had seared like a branding iron the first time I felt it, but later, I could not say with confidence that it was misapplied.
If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on. So, this is what I did. Most days I was preoccupied with fantasies of release.
Is it time? How about now?
Meanwhile, I followed directions, set alarms, ran miles, earned credits, aimed at pleasing men, but there must have been some innate alien nature shining through. Too bad, I thought then, when I was still hoping to accumulate enough proof of being of this world that I would be absolved, somehow, of the obligation to hang on. I kept at it constantly because it seemed like a very short slide from stagnation to oblivion.
I dreamed of blinding interruptions, of being stopped by someone who knew how to look, who would stop me and say, There. You are already there. And so I would be, Here.
This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.
I’d like to celebrate the child today. Whose first impulse, when making a first card for a classmate, upon receiving a first-ever invitation to a school-friend birthday party, was to pull out all the best markers, draw the best hearts and rainbows she could think of, and write “I LOVE YOU” in her best capital letters. This for Joseph G., in kindergarten, and the party was at the McDonald’s in Yonkers, the big one with the yellow slide and the Hamburglar tower with the shiny metal ladder up the middle.
This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.
And for the stoic acceptance with which she nodded silently when informed gently that such expressions, outside of family, would not do. She did as instructed, keeping “I LOVE” and adding an “R” to “YOU” and “PARTY” to the end of the sentence, making it a very strange sentence for someone to write prior to attending the party. I love your party, it said now. That’s better, she heard.
She quietly understood how it was apparently better to seem as though you were confused about delineations between past, present, and future, than prone to flourishing expressions of love. She quietly understood, in that brief edit, how much of herself would have to be muted or cause for shame. Who didn’t even know the half of it, then. Who went to the party and smiled through what could not be expressed, and somehow survived to adulthood.
This is for her, and those like her, shamed out of their best impulses at an early age: to love, to make for others lovingly, and to give these loving gifts away. To share generously from a place of abundance, not fear; play, not decorum; love, not positioning. I want to call her back. I want to relearn what she knew before she knew what was expected.
You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person.
One possibility, when it comes to telling what is commonly called one’s “own” story, is to take one’s own memory out entirely, and is to limit yourself to the favorite anecdotes of family members. A person can create childhood memories based entirely on the number of times a given story has been told.
Parents can be especially amusing sources of these tales. The time you had your mother, eight months pregnant with your sister, just up three flights to the third-floor apartment with the laundry, go back to the basement to retrieve your imaginary friend. Another time you were in hysterics because your father sat on that same friend.
How you cried when the street sweeping truck came by, the horrible beep-beep truck, you called it. And there was that redheaded boy, do you remember? He would push you down, take your shovel, walk away, and you would sit there, not wailing, just quietly sad.
And the gravy! How you loved it with croutons from a box. Your concerns over the new baby, over your mother getting up and down the stairs. Your favorite hiding place behind the couch. How you could speak nonstop or not at all.
Huh, I think, remembering by power of suggestion what it would never have occurred to me to know on my own. You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person. The fact that there were even specific moments to remember is what really gets me. I recall only a constant susurration of light and color, sound and touch. It lends credence to the idea that a person may have parallel simultaneous lives: the one they remembered, and the one I felt I was living. They have images, even pictures, and there I am, and it must have been me in that bowl haircut with those eyes looking back, holding the garden hose, but all I remember is the colors of light filtering through shallow water, and the way I would fly in my dreams. Palms and fingers in bright paint, and the hollow space among bushes in the back yard. How I would go in and wait there. The sense that I had of finding a secret, tiny room in an endless forever, and it was quiet all around, and safe except for the possibility of snakes and other monsters I had not seen except on TV and in books.
Funny, the pictures they show. This is what is, this is what was. They shaped me then, as they do still, these stills. But the image I had was constant, and I wasn’t in it because there was me watching, squinting sometimes, as I took in was the shifting light and colors on the surface of an ever-moving stream, wondering about the world just beneath it.
You could feel it, the way no one could help themselves, the way we were laid bare in our reaching wonder.
Here’s an idea: consider something you used to do often. Or be. Trace a line of relevance to the moment.
Once I was a runner. Once titled, there were days when I would put off beginning, and it would take me until late afternoon just to put on my shoes. Then there were also moments near sunset, and into twilight, when I could not bear to stop. I knew there was a risk of injury; I knew that these would come later, and they did, but in those extra dusk miles: five, ten, fifteen, I would feel the potential forevers in each stride, and all I wanted to do — all I had ever and would ever want to do, it seemed then as much as now — is keep reaching. The difference between running and walking is the liftoff. In a walk, one foot remains always on the ground. But in a run, there is this moment– and it gets shorter and shorter as age advances and pace slows — when neither touches. There was something about that moment, how quick it would come and go, that invited repetition, as if with enough practice, it was possible to leave entirely, and float somewhere just beyond gravity’s reach.
I am no longer a runner, just a lady who runs on days when this is scheduled––jogs, even, an observer might say. There’s nothing loaded about it, just exercise. But the reaching part, that doesn’t leave. I thought of this as we walked and ran among the streams and streams of other pilgrims, up the long hill, to see the big sky. How we waited for the telescope. Is it time? Is that it? What is that? The faces, bathed in dusk light, everyone looking, pointing. You could feel it, the way no one could help themselves, the way we were laid bare in our reaching wonder.
We looked and looked. It went on. Gravity holding us where we stood, tethering the moon in its orbit. There was Venus, and was that Mars or a satellite? It was our eyes we looked with, and of course whatever we could find for looking through. But it was something else doing the reaching, as it always was. She was now my height but once she had held her arms up and the fingertips of her widespread hands did not reach past my legs, singing out, “Up! Up!”
For me, the point was to reveal what I hoped might be, some dazzling “is” beneath the rush of being that I considered alternately terrifying, mundane, and dizzying.
Occasionally, a writer will be punished for writing fictions of the ingredients of real lives. I know no one who writes without doing this, and yet it remains an area under surveillance. One is at risk, it seems, of being found out. It is not clear for what: fictionalizing “the real” or realizing the fiction. Whatever the case, I may as well report myself ahead of time, as I have no knack for the genre called fantasy, even though constructing elaborate fantasies is something I do as easily and regularly as making meals.
Which is real? Is bread a dinner food, or breakfast, or a snack? I can answer neither question to any degree of satisfaction. Once, to support a friend going without bread, I gave it up. It was short-lived and made me very sad. Why were we doing this? I could not remember. I suspect the same would happen if I tried to abstain from the imaginative realm where I spend most of my waking hours, which is no more separate from “real life” than bread can be, from any category of meal.
Story comes from shaping moments in language into a form. It’s the easiest thing in the world, said someone I did not fundamentally trust. He seemed often to be deliberately lying, in ways that puzzled me. I could more easily understand an unconscious lie or the ones of omission when the telling of a whole truth would just be so much, but the accumulation of so many deliberate ones for no apparent reason was confusing. But, he most likely had reasons of his own, I just didn’t know them. If he did, I thought he might know better than anyone how fraught storytelling was. But there I go, making assumptions about motives and even about the accessibility of truth.
For me, the point was to reveal what I hoped might be, some dazzling “is” beneath the rush of being that I considered alternately terrifying, mundane, and dizzying. For him, “story” may have meant something else entirely, as it does to many. Simple entertainment is a valid impulse. I am also reminded of the way that, in certain circles, a child accused of “telling stories” will be punished, because the act is deemed synonymous with lying, and in this way a child “telling stories” is considered a danger, to themselves and to others, because they can obscure whole parts of their being, their doings, and their knowledge, beneath a cloak of invisibility.
Which would you be if you could be anything? – a common playground question, shimmering with the terror and delight of never-ending possibilities.
––Invisible, or able to fly? What made it a great question was how almost everyone had wanted each of these and both, with urgency at different times.
But which one? This was one question that I never had to waffle over. The answer was always and easily flight, the soaring, butterfly-stomached, kiting lens, the viscous air like water and me with outstretched arms, floating and turning in it. An escape whenever needed, as in dreams when the “bad guys” gave chase.
This is the funny part, I think now. Not that I wanted to escape, or to soar, but that I believed that I might get there by working over a tale, into some truth ––not something shaped on a whim, but something revealed, by polishing the stone until the gem shines through ; by peeling back the layers to reveal the fruit––as if what was covered in flesh and alligator skin, in armor and bruises and tearstained, turned-away faces, in layers of sediment and dirt, was actually a hollow-boned, feathered body, mostly heart and wing, made for song, soaring flight, and for carrying the endless metaphors we were always tying them, passing back and forth like food to each other as we were waited in our nests, un-feathered and unwieldy bodies, bound to fall quickly as soon as we leaped, and unable to avoid the need to do so, knowing that we had at least one thing, however small, over the birds, and this was a capacity for turning even an act of falling into a story of flight.
Real life, unadulterated, is an endless stream. A story is something else by necessity, a constructed thing.
I’m thinking about stories this week, because I am in the phase where I am generating energy and dreaming into new ones. I know I’ll be leaping before I have answers, because that’s the only way a project can start to emerge and start answering. That said, I’m in all the questions now.
Today I am wondering about memory and how someone, I can’t remember who, called it the first fiction. Also, how many have said, of fiction, that the best of it is “more true than real life.” A paradox, of course, but a useful one. Real life, unadulterated, is an endless stream. A story is something else by necessity, a constructed thing. An artifice, some would say, as if to minimize. Perhaps, I think, but then again, the shelters we build to live in may also be considered artificial and I wouldn’t want to do without these in the name of being real.
If the best of fiction is truer than true, and its building materials essentially invented or borrowed from the wilds called “real,” one might imagine that the most authentic parts of a person are those falling outside most given collections of facts, and these in turn will tend to vary, depending on the source and the context. Others have observed that truth may in fact be something that can only be known via collective effort. When the facts in one context overlap with the experience in another, and another, and another, then we have what we can call true. Maybe great fiction does this, by layering perspectives and viewpoints in deliberate ways in a concentrated space. And of course, by leaving out a great deal of the noise and extraneous events. But are any events extraneous, really? I mean, of course they must be, to the story. But which ones? I obsess on this question.
Many a writer has been taken to trial for altering facts. If you do this in a million little ways, as with any catalogue of events gathered through a given lens, it is expected; even invisible. But one big way is out of bounds, except when consciously indicated. And yet, a conscious mind, consciously growing, seems to be always trespassing its previous borders.
Some call storytelling the most natural thing we do, and while I can believe this, I take issue with those who would equate natural with easy. As of course it may be, sometimes, as with breathing––until it isn’t; as with laughing––until it isn’t. Death is quite natural, although we generally understand the term “unnatural death.” Childbirth is perhaps quintessentially natural, and it is a loaded matter of life and death, aside from being an historically deadly event for many women. Perhaps what is most natural for humans is not at all what comes most easily and reliably, but what reminds us we are walking always along a precipice between life and death.
Everyone has their obsessions, and this is one of mine. It’s kin to other obsessions: who and what gets to matter? Who and what gets to feature? I can’t help these wonderings as I am always thinking about who and what gets conventionally erased by dominant conventions of storytelling and seeing. No doubt some of this includes the parts of ourselves that we have consciously or unconsciously erased or let go, in the making of a given kind of sense. I expect to continue wondering about this.
Has the light turned yet? is a good question to answer before moving across a road, but these are not that sort of question. I could spin in them endlessly and wind up totally paralyzed, which would serve no one well. Still, they are worth pausing before, as one might before some sacred relic or holy place, to revisit the mystery.
Imitation is a wonderful teacher. One learns this especially by failing at it.
Today’s post arises in part, from a quick-write exercise I did with students some time ago, about how we learn by imitation, inspired by a TED talk by the artist Hetain Patel, “Who Are You? Think Again.” When possible, I do these free writing exercises with them, and whenever I do, I vow to do it more. Invariably, some interruption will void this intention. Still, it’s always worth repeating. I am thinking about the subject of learning by imitation today. The other part is that I needed to find this post for my offering today, because of time constraints.
I drafted this one awhile back, but never posted it. I wasn’t blogging daily then. More like 3-15 times per year. Now it’s daily and after forty days, I added a time constraint. Doing this takes away the luxury of being too choosy. I can’t hem and haw over what goes up; all I can do is offer the best I have within a given hour. Today, as I was preparing to enter the 15-minute “think of an idea” phase, I got distracted by another question: What other poets/literary writers are keeping blogs and what can I learn from them? There went my hour. The good news is, I can learn a lot. I’ve already learned that I am going to have to migrate to WordPress in order to be able to have some of the functions and features I will want long-term, so now I am adding “learn how to migrate website to WordPress” to my to-do list. It may take a little while, but I can learn.
So now, it makes sense to share this other thing. One, because it’s what I have right now. Two, because it just happens to be precisely relevant to today’s thoughts. It’s funny how unexpected diversions and interruptions can lead to new discoveries. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I mean to be showing and doing here. It was fun to find this one again. It was about a ten-minute exercise, I think. I was most likely interrupted by a hall pass after about five. But I had forgotten these things, and finding them today made me chuckle:
I used to covet the friendship bracelets of my older cousin, Kelly. Even at thirteen, I knew that what separated me from Kelly was more than the two years she had ahead of me, and more than her fashion sense. We were different types. I felt this with a sort of ominous dread. Kelly always had a boyfriend, and it was hard to imagine her ever suffering through the malaise of generalized heartbreak that was my consistent companion.
I remember wanting to have some sort of word that I said differently than everyone else, that could be “my word.” My first friend, Tara, had “beltseat” and “brefkast”, my grandmother stacked my grandfather’s t-shirts in the “armoire,” my dad could say “fuggettabbouttit” believably and my mom said “draw” instead of “drawer.” My third grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds said “idear” and “umbreller.” I tried out different ways of saying orange — or ah-range, and I could never decide which fit best. Eventually, I forgot the whole endeavor.
Then, one day when I was fourteen or so — maybe younger, there was this girl. I can’t remember her name anymore. She was a varsity swimmer — confident, self-assured, and never without something to say that people seemed inclined to listen to. She was the sort of girl who seemed to operate on an ingrained assumption that the things that went through her head would naturally be of interest to others. In short, she had certain qualities I sorely lacked, and I watched her with some puzzlement, wondering how one would go about attaining them.
There was one thing tangible I could discern. Whenever the subject of bagels came up, she said “bahgel” and she never hesitated to get extra cream cheese on hers. It was a horrifying amount of cream cheese, a giant slab that appeared about as thick as one of the bagel halves it came between, an amount I could never imagine consuming with any degree of ease, especially not in public. She could, though, and did, and as I watched her eat with relish in the team van, without any sense of shame, I understood that there was something greater than age or pronunciation quirks separating us. I gave up trying to say the word as she did, because it felt like a great pretension. I didn’t mind a pretension; in fact it felt like I really could use one or two, but “bahgel” felt obnoxiously contrived and false. So I went back to saying it the regular way, “Just plain, thank you,” no butter and no cream cheese, and peeled mine slowly from the outside in, trying to make it last, fighting against the urge to tear it in half with my teeth like a crazed wolf.
Imitation is a wonderful teacher. One learns this especially by failing at it. As Patel observes in his talk, “. . . contrary to what we might usually assume, imitating somebody can reveal something unique. So every time I fail to become more like my father, I become more like myself. Every time I fail to become Bruce Lee, I become more authentically me.”
I’ve been looking at poet/writer blogs all morning, and I don’t see a single one I can imitate seamlessly. I see many I can learn from. I take a lot of hope in this: the idea that imitating means I don’t have to start from scratch, and failing at it means I am being real about who I am, what I do, and how I see. In a world that often praises an empty and misunderstood “authenticity” I want something lasting, something that is honest, and something that surprises and renews my perspective by never being exactly what I planned. So here’s to learning by imitation.
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.