Stories in light and shadow.
Tell us again the story of this long walk. Narrate the separation, trace the lines of these forever journeys on our faces out and our bodies away, and draw them on our hands and back together in a net wide enough to hold the slippery forms of recent memory, the laughter of ancestors, and the mischief of our dead. Bring the children close, closer; bind them to us––close enough to keep them in the weave and weave us tight, between the living and the dead and back again.
Tell it in light, with the accent that reveals your time in the shadow lands. Wrap our losses in embalming cloth and hold them still. Let us visit. Then unwrap them, invite them on stage. We want to see them again, how they show us ourselves: the sad, the child, the ashamed, the elegant, the diva.
In a state of partial decay, the smile widens to something between a laugh and a scream, and we find a face we recognize. Mirror, mirror, return us to ourselves, to one another. Come back.
Inspired by the photographs of Lorry Salcedo Mitrani. The title of this post is from a 1992 photograph that led me to the artist’s body of work.
Unless the sky falls to the earth, unless the forest up and moves, unless the seas should empty themselves of all depths, would you clip the lawless wings of imagination’s first flight, to sacrifice its range and its wild for the sake of having its reliable presence near the dinner table and along these streets?
We loved mystery before beauty and the unseen lurkers terrified us to ecstasies with their tickling whispers.
It’s hard not to miss the irresponsible charm of the old gods, who in their airy innocence seemed only to care about getting what they wanted, whose flaming passions lit the sunset skies, who would rear a starling from scratch and teach her to speak, so that she might announce our secreted dreams back to us, exposing our still-feral hopes, the directionless expanse of their vicious hunger, creeping where we could not dare to look.
An old fantasy: the flying man. Faust would die for it. The better to study stars, he said. After all, he reasoned, weren’t the heavens more suitable for study by the dead than the living? If a bird may, why not a man? They kept trying.
For some of the women, long trained in the art of dying, flight was one of those things you simply didn’t discuss, like the daily deaths or predawn dreams. Who was asking?
I think my grandmother knew how, as the grandmothers before her also did. It was one of those things that came with death. In certain situations, learning how to die was just another one of those things that one did, for the living.
Some of our buried stories float in the tidal regions where memory is known to flood this settled marsh that birthed our dreams, and so many of them depict these bodies with wings.
As the waters recede, some call this time to look.
Investigating a given scene.
Contemporary conditioning shouts, Identity! and they are pressed like badges, considered essential means of outlining, separating one body from the next. As in, mine and mine alone.
And what for?
The first purpose was holding, and the next was touch. These are the grooves that allow a body to feel in stereo. Following certain lines of perception, one can easily lose the sense of having an end.
If these lines begat questions, perhaps they also prompted language, to answer with a beginning, once upon a time. We needed a past to explain ourselves, and some shelter from this wild so readily felt when we stretched our hands over any given scene. One story begat the next, but certain questions were never settled, such as: was the wild coming from or into these fingertips? Either answer begs a question–––
–––wait, I’ve strayed again. I only meant to wonder over the discovery that koala prints, being easily mistaken for those of humans, will contaminate a crime scene, which raises certain questions I can’t go into now and for which I lack the language to decipher, about what stories these creatures have had to invent to explain this everywhere, here.
Inspired by an overheard discussion about koala fingerprints, with details elaborated in an article I found when I got home.
Early theories about Birds of Paradise.
Perhaps they were fallen angels, these wingless birds. Their plumes were like haloes. Perhaps they moved as comets across the sky, in perpetual motion and only occasionally visible. They might be immortals in the flesh, or they might be the Phoenix. Whatever the case, it seemed impossible that they could land, given that they had no feet.
Theories sprouted. That the female must lay eggs in an internal chamber of her body where she incubates them until they are ready to begin lifetimes of continual flight. Or that they might rest after all, from time to time, using their featherless extensions like strings from which to suspend themselves from the branches of the highest trees. Perhaps they would twine these together while mating. Here is an image of one. See how it drinks the rain.
Some hypothesized that the birds would never submit to close study, so averse are they to the prospect of being sullied by this world. As context for these speculations, it can be helpful to consider the earliest arrival of these birds on the continent. They had arrived, after all, as the precious cargo of a colonial ship, far from their songs, their homeland, and their days of flight, with legs and wings removed.
Inspiration for this post: This morning I learned that today is the birthday of Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), the renowned swiss zoologist who published the Historia Animalium (History of the Animals), which was the most widely read natural history in Europe during the renaissance. It was summarily banned by the Catholic church as heretical. Having once been harshly scolded as a first grader in Catholic school, for depicting a unicorn at the center of my elaborate marker drawing of the Garden of Eden, I felt my sympathies drawn toward Gessner’s work. In my unsuccessful efforts to find a readable digital copy of this extensive work, I came across this article about early theories of birds of paradise. To his credit, Gessner was among the first to speculate that the birds must not subsist entirely on air, rain, and vast internal fat stores, but must eat actual food, somehow.
Let me take it back, what I once said about the flesh, before I felt the teeth of this machine. Now I say, give it back, my breath, a firstborn placenta, let me bury it. Don’t touch, I say now, but the cameras are everywhere, groping.
Now an overhead voice like an airport announcement, what do you think you are doing? Anything unattended in the age of terror will be removed by airport security. What do you think you are? What does it mean, in at this point, to answer back?
I’m keeping the body, take my voice. Watch the tent as it tears, this is the belly of the whale.
Kick, Jonah. Do you think this is time around us, and was it here before now? Let tired vows disappear by this remaking while another womb confronts us, an old beginning.
Dreaming forward and back.
If memory is the first fiction, then so is the history of a group. As a group evolves, so will its collective chronicle of becoming, but the process is as fraught as any reconstruction. If history is a cathedral and facts are the stones, then it’s worth considering that all somebody can do before a complete building with a single stone is throw it or sit on it. If all that happens in any reframing effort is the collection of a pile of new stones, you may end up with a whole lot of broken glass and all of us outside. But if people are challenged to build with them, to create new architecture, new gathering places, new halls of worship and dreaming, transcendence and offering, then what? Unless someone is feeding the dreamers from the same table as the builders, planners, architects, masons, and those tasked with moving each stone, a cohesive vision won’t emerge. Imagination is no luxury, but a life skill, and as critical in times of flux as any other preparation: for famine, attack, natural disaster, invasion. No group who makes outcasts of its dreamers can endure.
I first explored Tamin Ansary’s insight, “History is composed of facts the way that a cathedral is composed of bricks . . . But the bricks are not the cathedral,” in an earlier post, “Cathedral.”
More than a collection of stones.
If history is a cathedral, and the accepted facts the stones, then no expansion of understanding can happen without art, without appreciation for those who been dreaming and revisioning all along as a survival strategy. No offering of new facts, however extensive, will ever be enough to alter old visions, except by nurturing new visionary architects. New material can raise new questions, as in, what can we make of this? –– and, by extension, of us? To offer new stones and call it “history” is a lie of omission. The history is what is yet to be made.
Inspiration: In a recent episode of NPR’s Throughline podcast (“Do We Need a Shared History?”), historian Tamin Ansary shared this insight, “History is composed of facts the way that a cathedral is composed of bricks . . . But the bricks are not the cathedral.” This seems like a much-needed observation for our times. I am inspired by those who recognize (as Ben Okri put it) when we have arrived at “A Time for New Dreams.”
On prospects for sense and sensibilities.
Many practitioners of questions find psychic activity important, as far as consciousness goes. When it comes to the unconscious, credibility varies. Maybe the prefix is to blame here, the “un” negating whatever follows. Maybe this comes from a bias toward consciousness as an individual experience. By this logic, anything not organized in some way by a self can’t be known. Better words might help to clarify. Extraconscious, perhaps: knowing from outside, or intraconscious, from deeply within. Or perhaps a permaconsciousness, parallel to permafrost, which has a way of thawing out in times of flux and rising heat, revealing long-buried bodies as well as toxins. The idea calls to mind a need for a refinement of the interconscious, that which can only be held in the fabric connecting us, in the interstitial ether between bodies.