We appreciate the beauty of butterflies, but what else? What of the moths disguised as tree bark, and what do they say with those wings?
For most, a typical response to a tray of specimens can be a ranking in order of beauty. This because, what else? Butterflies and moths cause no marked aversion; they do not sting or make terrible pests. We do not eat them.
What, then? Initially, we have no other means, beyond the appeal of their colors, to appreciate them.
In North America, there are more species of butterfly on the endangered list than any other insect. Not everyone gets field experience, so look.
Why are the wings so large? They speak with them.
Consider these canvases, painted differently on each side, according to audience.
Where are the moths in daytime? In the day, they become tree bark, lichen, twigs.
Consider one hundred caterpillars, wrapped or naked; cylindrical or bulging, immaculate or marked. See the chrysalis, head down, unclothed, posing as a leaf.
Some ride mice to safety, to lay eggs in an underground den.
One makes no sound, but what about a chorus of millions?
Patience now. A more complete discussion will be possible after secrets are revealed.
This morning’s post is assembled from found phrases in the opening chapter of 100 Butterflies and Moths: Portraits From the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica, by Jeffrey C. Miller, Daniel H. Janzen, and Winifred Hallwachs. I came across it in the used bookstore adjacent to the library in the year before the pandemic, and was taken by the color images. It seemed like the sort of book to keep on hand for future inspiration. Waking especially groggily this Wednesday morning, I pulled it from the shelf to see what I could find.
No tricks, no misdirection, no spectators. This is magic.
Mondays are when I need magic. Fortunately, there are books for this, and I havea few. I buy these on the pretense of character research and then use themas I see fit. Today, I’ll be scanning magician Joshua Jay’s Complete Course in the spirit of looking for clues as to how to manage this day.
First, consider the classic pose of magician, a long-revered symbol of beginnings. Consider one arm to the heavens, the other to earth, a channel from energy to matter. Then consider this: you’re holding a book of secrets. You want to learn the art. Look around the room. Tell me: Where is the elephant now?
No tricks, no misdirection, no spectators. This is magic. Here is direction. These are participants.
Old dogs, new tricks: you can breathe new life into old props.
Now practice. Make a wave with your fingers. Call this a warmup. Repeat.
Now hold this coin at the base of your fingers. Relax, turn your hand over.
Keep it invisible. Now go about your normal routine.
Make the Phoenix disappear, then see the vanished match reborn! The hand is quicker, look.
Make a prediction. Volunteer. A tube of lipstick, a small bill, a shoe. Any object will do, but force the lipstick. Wait. You can’t rush a miracle.
Hands down, where’s the card? Take this bread.
They call conjuring the poetry of magic.
Shuffle, shuffle, pinch, peel.
Remember: you are not a magician, but an actor, playing the part.
Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.
Artist Paul Klee, who died on this day in 1940, often invoked a childlike perspective when addressing matters of life and death. I’ve long loved the angels he painted, full of flaws and worries, trapped in human-like, sometimes animalistic forms. This morning I was looking at one of his last works, “Death and Fire” and the timing of this happens to coincide with my review of a book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, by Lisa Smartt. I bought it years ago. Thinking of a character was my official reason, but the interests of a character are always covers for the questions we carry. I pulled it out again today, because I have a character facing death, and I am struck by the inherent playfulness of so many of the last words recorded in Smartt’s accounts, culled from documentation of many hospice patients over time. There’s a sense of play in the voices of many of the dying, even at the “most serious” moment in life. I am always drawn to those for whom seeming opposites can coexist in the same space: joy and pain; life and death; wonder and heartache.
The following are notes assembled partly from found phrases in the book and online, considering what people say as they are leaving:
Time to move some boxes, one said. Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly. One claimed to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, then called Bullshit! and left. One asked for chocolate shavings on her tongue. Another, a cigarette. Pancakes with whipped cream.
Then come the metaphors. Listen. Get ready for the big dance! Lots of new construction over there! Magic time: watch me disappear! See the little duckies now, lining up. They are setting the table now.
The ones who saw it as a battle went hardest. Another dreamt of being surrounded by crows. It’s a murder! he said, laughing.
Some heard music, exclamations of wonder. So many people! Can you tell me where the platform is? Can you get the door for me? Where do you want me to put these boxes? Next stop, real hope! Look, they left the ladder.
Some saw butterflies, the number eight, the color green. Others said nothing, but reached with their arms, up and out, eloquent as infants in their expressions of need.
It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.
According to the Robert Browning poem narrating the legend of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the 22nd of July was the day that the children of Hamelin were led away by the Pied Piper, as revenge against the townspeople who refused to pay the sum promised for ridding the town of its rats. As a result, this day is known as Ratcatcher’s Day. Learning this, I had to follow what breadcrumbs I could find.
“And so long after what happened here “On the Twenty-second of July, “Thirteen hundred and Seventy-six:” And the better in memory to fix The place of the Children’s last retreat . . .” – Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”
The clothes alone, let me tell you. They must have been made of stripes of six or seven different colors stitched together.
Someone must have really loved what he did with that pipe.
Well, those people should have paid him.
It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.
Show us the bodies! They said. But he had none. He had led the rats to the river.
No one paid. So he played for the children next. They followed him and were not seen again.
Some say a cave.
I heard it was a mountain.
I heard Transylvania.
I heard the river.
Oh no! I heard what happened was that they decided to pay after all, this time triple the amount, in solid gold, and he brought them back.
Where was the last place they were seen?
It’s called the street without drums. To this day, there’s no music or dancing allowed.
Yeah, but where does this story even come from. I mean, really?
There was a stained glass window in The Church of Hamelin. It’s gone now.
The whole church. Anyway, a record from the late 1300s reads, It is 100 years since our children left.
It could have been disease.
The Pied Piper as the symbol of death, the Danse Macabre.
Could have been a landslide, a sinkhole.
Might they have been recruited or sold to the German empire, to work the land in what is now Poland?
It’s possible. There are legends of those who would lure people away. Children of the town could be, after all, a term that applied to anyone, regardless of age.
What about dancing mania?
A well-documented social phenomenon, a relief from the stresses of poverty.
Ah, St. Vitus’ dance.
Or ergot poisoning from spoiled crops.
St Anthony’s fire.
Could be typhus.
Or an ancient ritual, long forbidden, disguised as illness. Suggestions abound. Answers are few. But what is clear is that there were risks far greater and more mysterious than the more familiar illnesses of the body. There were diseases of spirit, of mind, and while it was common among those who preferred pretend certainty over more fluid depths of understanding, to minimize or dismiss certain risks outright, it is worth considering the costs of these errors, the sudden silence that must have blanketed the town like a stifling and otherworldly heat, when it was discovered that the children were all gone.
It is a good idea, I read somewhere, to have some other creative practice beyond the main one. Sort of like a cool down from the main event, or tai chi. I have been known to get tunnel vision and overthink, so take this advice to heart and consider some things that do not involve words. Painting might be good, but there are times I’ll do anything to avoid a trip to the store, and this is one. Okay, then. Well, comes a voice, there are those fabrics you saved, and it’s not like you don’t have what you need for those projects.
There are people who announce, when something tears, Oh I can fix that that, give it to me! like it’s nothing. Or, I made this dress from a tapestry I used to have in my dorm. Simple! I am not of this tribe. I am, however, very stubborn when it comes to acquiring certain skills, except where cars are involved. I know there’s no test at the end, but still. You meet enough of those made-these-pants people and you think, What am I missing? Maybe this.
Besides, wasn’t I just thinking how I’d love to do something with all these frayed edges? It turns out I still have the book. I bought it because I had acquired a sewing machine and to let it languish forever seemed like a dangerous form of waste, and the sort of senseless sin that was no fun. I didn’t want any associated karma to infect the baby, so I made a few expandable skirts when I was pregnant with my daughter. The bar for maternity wear was not very high. She’ll be twelve in the fall, and since the skirts, there were also those napkins and aprons, and once a mermaid tail, because she saw a girl with one at the local pool and when I looked into getting one as a Christmas gift, the cost was out of reach, so I thought, Here we go. The key to the success of these, such as it was, was a sense of necessity combined with a commitment to regarding any seams only from a distance, in low light. Or through the eyes of a four-year old, who cared only that she had a tail.
I spend some time with the book. There’s an essential tool list, but it’s unclear when I will be using any of these things, so I move on. Measuring, the importance, blah blah. Good shears? I have these scissors for opening amazon boxes and trimming split ends. The book explains that steel shears, while more expensive, are more reliable. The lightweight, cheaper ones may feel better in your hand, but could give you trouble. I think, here’s an explanation.
Now wait: what is this seam sealant? For frayed edges, apparently. That might almost be worth a trip to the store. If available for low cost. I wonder: a viable replacement for doing the actual hem? I table the question and think, Look at me! I am already exercising new creative muscles. Flex!
Ironing board? Check! Should be padded, they say. Well. I consider. That really depends. It’s covered anyway. A thimble is something I once had. Now it’s just this economy-sized box of band aids. The directions for the machine are rather long-winded with a lot about what part is what. It is unclear what help they can offer, so I suppose I’ll just feel it out like I did last time, when I––wait. Was that really seven years ago already? No wonder I am looking at these parts thinking, what does this do?
As far as I can remember, my last attempt at feeling my way around also involved a number of expletives, and numerous stops as I attempted to figure why the machine was wildly stitching what amounted to a giant knot about the width of my bandaged thumb. My intention was not a giant knot, but a single line. I know I eventually achieved these lines, however uneven. So now I am trying to remember what I did to bypass this problem. I check the book for clues.
I love that these things are called notions: the zippers, elastics, pipings, laces. Hah! I think. I have plenty of notions, and chief among these is that I will not be needing any of these accoutrements at this particular point. Just a hem, ma’am. Just a hem.
I am well into this knot collection when I read the part about fabric types and corresponding threads. Also, about how to toggle that lever, whatever it’s called, to make things go forward or back. Well, that’s something!
A place mat vest is something one can make, apparently. And wear. It never occurred.
There are whole sections on plaids, patterns. Getting them to line up. Hah! I think. If I can say one thing with confidence about this endeavor, it is that the alignment of patterns is not, at this juncture, a concern.
Growing tired of this book, I look around in this basket. Surely that thimble must be in here somewhere. No such luck, but what’s this?! Aha! Hem tape! Now we’re talking!
I think, well, that was a successful review. I may not have done any successful hems––yet, but just wait! I did, however, find occasion to to remember that there is a difference between someone who hacks at a thing on occasion and someone that takes something seriously. Finding the right verb, I have patience for. Endless pages until I find the beginning? No problem. Rewriting a third person passage in first, or from the point of view of the postal worker, or a neighborhood feral cat? Check, check, check.
Lesson learned: there’s little logic to one’s inclination to a particular art, but what inclination there is, can be enough to sustain all manner of frustrations. Without it, there would be nothing but frustrations and a thing that is beginning to feel like a colossal waste of time.
So, I put the sewing machine back in the closet where it belongs. The basket, too. The scissors I keep right here, for everything else they’re good for. It’s actually okay if those flour sacks sit there waiting to be made into napkins. It is even possible that I will do so at the next paper towel shortage. But for now, I have other things that need doing. And I am reminded how any frustrations can be endured when the motivation for doing something is intrinsic, and the trust is in the process and not the outcome.
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.
One of the best things about being a writer is getting to hang out in a space of researching these questions.
One of the interesting challenges of keeping this daily practice of posting here, is noticing how often I face a sense of having nothing to share. Earlier this week, I began some early notes for what I think are two distinct coming long-term projects, and I also revised a poetry manuscript. Those are unwieldy and not appropriate for publication here. I thought of sharing something I found this morning, but I had written it years ago and part of my intention in showing up here is with new pieces, ready or not. I want to practice what I am trying to teach myself, which is, among other things: that even when you feel like you don’t have enough, or feel unworthy, there is always something new to share. Just because. It’s hard to learn this because the world is so much. Mostly, I want to avoid walking out there, especially with some creative infant child in my arms.
So, baby steps. I am coming up on forty days into this practice (Hah! I think as I write this, The length of a Biblical desert fast! What’s next, visions?! Hang on!) and after an enthusiastic day one, I have been having plenty of good practice in noticing that every day there’s a block, and every day, something new. By this point, I have learned to expect that the next time I get writer’s block (either in five minutes, one hour or tomorrow morning), I’ll just keep writing through it. Sort of like breathing through the thing that starts to feel like despair or laughing while crying.
I feel mostly as though I never have anything to say (if saying means, “All must hear this!”), but I can’t know what I think (and sometimes feel) without writing. As a result, I have lots of backup techniques with which to treat such paralysis. My writing self, I have learned, must be treated like a terrified, sickly child in need of a lot of extra support. I keep books of prompts handy, and bookmark weird news sites and craigslist ads, also photography sites and art books. Many days, I look up “This Day in History” to see if anything kindles there. If I still come up short, it can be fruitful to try an erasure or a found poem of another text. The worst that can happen from that is that I will spend some time reading a text I might otherwise not read. It can teach me something new.
Thinking about what to post here today, I checked my usual places and seemed to be coming up with nothing. But then I learned that it was on this day in 1937 that American philosopher Thomas Nagel was born. I’ve been obsessed about questions of understanding and what can’t be understood, thinking and what can’t be thought through, and (always) with the question of how to be––here, in this impossible world. I jumped at the chance to return to his “What it’s Like to Be a Bat.” The only problem with using this text for found poetry is that I loved so many whole phrases and complete sentences, that I had to leave them intact. I thought about italicizing these sections, as though to give credit to the author, who might very well be appalled at the gross modifications and reductions of this excellent text, the focus of which is largely a question of certain inherent problems in reductionist tendencies. But then, I just italicized the whole thing. It’s an exercise. Consider the words stolen, the arrangement sometimes mine.
But, as I say to the child writer whom I’m trying to coax into writing today’s piece, “Oh, well! It was a good time, wasn’t it?! And no one got hurt!” I highly recommend the process, which if you cut out the time hemming and hawing over what to do, is entirely intuitive and basically involves trying not to think while you pluck out words and phrases of interest. Generally, something like this may be done in 1-15 minutes, which makes it great for a practice exercise. In this case, I made some attempt to honor the spirit of the work, but I took liberties with delivery and nuance.
Caveat: I still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat. But at least I got to hang out in a space of researching the question, which is one of the best things about being a writer.
Consciousness, the mind body problem, is intractable. Current discussions get it obviously wrong.
Reductionist euphoria is designed to explain, but problems are ignored. Philosophers share a human weakness for what is familiar, hence familiar reductions.
Without consciousness, it seems hopeless. Perhaps a new form can be, in the distant future.
Extremists deny this. It is impossible to exclude experience. Ever spent time in an enclosed space, with an excited bat?
Now there is an alien form of life! Consider echolocation, how they whisper with their shrieks, how different from any sense we possess. What is it like to be a bat?
We cannotform more than a schematic conception. If there is conscious life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that some of it will not be describable. It would be foolish to doubt that there are facts
which humans will never possess, just as it would to be convinced that the bats’ experience, once thoroughly observed, may be known.
What would be left if you removed the viewpoint of the bat? Here is a general difficulty.There is an effort to substitute the concept of mind for the real thing, to have nothing left over which cannot be reduced. What next?What it is, remains a mystery.
The apparent clarity of the word “is,” is deceptive. Suppose a caterpillar, locked in a safe, by someone unfamiliar with metamorphosis. Weeks later, a butterfly! One might think a tiny, winged parasite devoured the original, and grew.
Does it make sense to ask what my experiences are really like, beyond how they appear? Proposal: it may be possible to approach from another direction, separate from empathy or imagination. It would not capture; it’s goal would be to describe.
One might try to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see, and vice versa. One would reach a blank wall, eventually, but still. Possible. Red is not quite the sound of a trumpet. I am indebted to many people for their comments.
If one understood how subjective experience could have an objective nature, one would understand the existence of subjects other than oneself.
Note to artist-child-self: now go look at bats. If none are available, because daytime, birds will do. Watch. Then later, remember to write again. Do this impossible, necessary exercise of making something even if it isn’t sense, of what you may not know.
Deep attention is precious because it is so rare, and it speaks to what is endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.
I recently finished reading a beautiful, difficult-to-categorize novel that was almost not published. It’s Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, (the title a reference to the Kurosawa film, which features heavily throughout the story), and it was deemed by most of those who could have published it to be too difficult. People wouldn’t get it. I had never heard of it, and then I heard it mentioned twice, with earnest praise, by serious poets I was following, whose work had been sustaining me in profound ways. Serious poets are one group who tends to know especially well the loneliness of creating what no one is asking for. I had to read the book that they found so sustaining, and now I am so grateful I did.
I won’t even try to summarize any of it here. It won’t work, because what happens in this book is not going to lend itself to any sort of succinct overview. Suffice to say, there are parallel plots: a boy looking for his father, and his mother looking for some relief from predictable banality. Her artistic sensibilities are extremely heightened, and she is the sort to be in the handful of about five people left in an audience after a renowned composer tries difficult work, exploring really new territory. The composer, too, suffers from a crisis of faith, no longer wanting to perform or create CDs when there are only about five people who would want to listen to the type of music that he finds interesting now. Each of these characters is wearied by the commodification of the familiar. None have material wealth, and all feel the limitations of not having money, in real ways. And yet. The mother, who had tried to kill herself long ago, before the son was born, is someone for whom the presence of deeply honest art may be a life-saving force.
I won’t get into further details here, except to note something profound that DeWitt writes in the afterword. She is describing the irony of living in a world where “humanities are increasingly dismissed as impractical and whatever counts as STEM is a good thing because practical. But we don’t live in a society where every schoolchild has Korner’s The Pleasures of Counting, or Steiner’s The Chemistry Maths Book, . . . Lang’s Astrophysical Formulae. . .” She goes on to observe that “perhaps we should really be more interested in the unknown capabilities of the reader.” She reflects on the way that her manuscript was summarily dismissed for years, and also on the intensity of the response of those readers who have connected with it. She writes, “It’s not hard to imagine a world where the effect of the book on what has been a coterie of readers is multiplied to the point where general assumptions about what is possible are changed.” Perhaps alluding to the strict ethical code observed by the samurai who feature so prominently in her book, DeWitt observes, of this possible new world, that while it is “by no means unflawed, . . .it looks better than what we have. We should fight for it when and where we can.” I am so deeply grateful to this writer for persisting in her vision when all signs (as they are typically read) pointed to giving up and abandoning her vision for something “more practical.”
These thoughts happened to coincide with some vague awareness I’ve been coming to lately, about connections between honesty, risk, and gratitude. It came to me while I was observing someone who was being celebrated, who seemed rather bored by their own following, even as they had come to depend in certain ways on the attention. When there’s so much of it, the attention itself becomes excessive, perhaps even cheapened. With some people in public places doing things publicly, an offering of appreciation seems to get absorbed into an echo chamber, validating whatever sense of greatness was already felt before the performance began, looping back the grand stature like the canned soundtrack of some preordained manifest destiny, as if someone has taken a carefully prepared, handmade gift and tossed it without looking on the overflowing table behind them.
But with others, when someone approaches with gratitude, reflecting their light back to its source, they cannot help but wonder: who is this here, seeing; really seeing? How is it that some kindred soul in this moment of abject, naked vulnerability, will manage to stop and look? These others return the gaze, inviting the pilgrim to meet them; to rediscover, in the wild, the sort of contact once thought extinct. The attention is precious because it is so rare, and it is meaningful because it speaks to what is rare and endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.