First Friends

A tribute to original wonders.

Mine were a pair, and they were light: a couple of living spheres. I gave them names, told my mother. They had genders; I don’t know if I assigned these, or they came with. K. was amber and a boy. P., magenta, was a girl. They had the same shape, the same transparency.

They seemed older; they came from the same place. I never knew its name. I guess I was the third wheel, but they were accommodating on their visits, and when they left me I went on with other things, same as I had in their presence, but with less conversation.

Later, I thought maybe it was a mistake to tell my mother, because once I heard her telling someone else, as mothers do. She said their names and called them imaginary. 

I knew the word, a dividing line between what could and would not be. I was four, and they never returned. I accepted the fault as my own. Later, I read that a human is the only creature that doesn’t know what it is, and by then the words had weight. I also read that a friend will return you to yourself, and I think that before these first friends were gone, I knew what I was.

What would I call the time that began with their leaving?

I would not name it. I knew it was mine. This was my first lesson in distance. 

Keeping Quiet

Protecting space for the still, small voice.

I want to protect this tiny plot of quiet I’ve been keeping, hoping that some seeds might take. The only problem is, it’s Monday. So, things are about to get real loud, real fast. Out there, anyway, which is where I have to be going. Of course, this is just what we do. We leave the quiet here with the cat and whatever’s defrosting on the counter, and we come back in the evening and try to enjoy. 

But I don’t think that’s going to work. I need to know that when I get back, it’s still here, this shaded plot with these seeds still underground. I need to know that it hasn’t been torn up by coyote packs and air traffic, by the alarms and bells and bustlings of the day, these noises and movements which have a way of seeping in, even at a distance––along with the nagging to-dos, and mostly I want to know that it will be okay when I leave it here. I am not going to be able to take any extra time tending it over coffee. There will be no mid-morning feedings, no midday walks, no rocking meditations over midafternoon chores done at an easy pace. I am going to be out there––

There, where there’s no telling what’s waiting for me to leave this quiet alone for two minutes so it can ravage all my tending. 

That is just not going to work. I can’t just leave this quiet here alone all day. It could choke on something it picks up off the floor or eat junk food all day or get a mind to start probing electrical outlets with forks. That won’t do. I am going to swaddle it carefully, wrap it in soft fabric, tight and close against my chest, and I am going to take it with me. If anyone asks, ‘What’s that?’ I’ll just smile and wink and say Shhhhhhhh, as I place a reassuring open palm against the reassuring press of this tiny solid body sleeping into my heartbeat. 

Counting Saints

Commonplace reminders on being.

Golden yarrow, fledgling web, congregations of clover refusing to quit. These dishes again, and the pot left soaking overnight. Pan, too. Basket of laundry, ever renewing, and this list. This ache in my temples to remind me what I took for granted just last week, like the fluttering chest and sore neck. Sleeping cat in the chair, beside a small collection of beach rocks, at least one of which is concrete, gathered how many years ago? By still-dimpled hands, with calm assurance reaching up, saying Here. Hawk on streetlight, coyote in yard, dog panting on rug, legs splayed forward and back, trail of pawprints between the door and where she is now, looking up. This trio of men at the park in boxing gloves and sweatpants and the youngest must be at least sixty-eight. They run in circles, punch pads and one another’s gloves, punch trees and the trees hold still. One among them is the coach and when he’s not cussing a blue streak he’s shouting, C’mon, that don’t matter! Whaddya doin?! No, look! Up, up, up!

For All Times

Considering the movement in these moments.

You’ve been a cane-wielding cartoon old man, white beard down to your knees; a bloody tyrant, horned and masked, coming to ravage every beloved. Then, in the next scene, a healer: white linen, salves, and herbs, sometimes in the costume of a nurse of the first influenza, the first world war. The bard posed you with a scythe, the dark reaper poised, and had his lovers profess refusal to be your fool.

Then you’re a river. We build our settlements near you, travel over washing, reviving, bathing, and blessing one another by your body. Then, when the great storms come, you rinse us away––and yet, when we come to, there we are, still within and among your waters, carrying their currents in our cells. Someone suggests you are an illusion, maybe they meant elusive, but the idea adds much to our sense of the scope and reach of what we touch and then create, our tools one part memory and another part dream, and the last must be need. But for what? Is this nourishment you bring, or is it more like shelter against what we are not ready for––yet?

If you are long like a ribbon or a road, why can’t we know this about you in a moment? There’s no duration in the present, but we’ll measure rest as well as motion, our now both a beginning and an end, and in your holy geography we continue to meet, dancing in the second line with the saints, and we the once and future ancients, spinning the rhythms of your forever reception. 

How We Hold

On the ties that bind us.

Our long infancies make for long bonds, as with elephants, primates, and crows. Herodotus had a mind to study family ties, but he couldn’t find a set given when it came to what lines they might follow or what shapes they could take.  

The sheer helplessness of the infant explains a few things about the biological necessity for the strength of such long bonds, and yet. Isn’t it also true that most of us are walking around with at least one infant inside us, however carefully swaddled, who is bound unpredictably and for no reason––but their own––to cry out, Help! Hold.

Consider the etymology of family: one part property, one part servant, one part friendship. A prayer for the body collective: you are mine and I am for you; friend, take my hand––the original need, made and remade.

Consider the wide-ranging implications of the phrase to be heldholding. A hand is not a cell. A tie is not a cage. A friend knows that the hand may be stretched in any direction, across a table, Here; down into a dark recess, Pull! and up from another deep hole, Help! A body among friends will naturally do all of these again and again, unless prevented by some opposing force.

I love the way that in some contexts, almost every exchange is followed by an, I gotchou. How often, in these same places, you might rarely hear proclamations mentioning love or devotion specifically. But watch the hands of the men as they pass: fingertips, then palms, then full grip, knuckles, wrists, sometimes all the way up the arm to a full embrace, as if the point is to practice different ways to hold. To say with the body, I got you.

Celebration of Emptiness

Ad Reinhardt on art as its own end.

Any friend of Thomas Merton is a friend of mine, and when I learned that artist Ad Reinhardt was one (they studied together and became close friends at Colombia College of Colombia University), I paid attention. This morning, I learned that it was Reinhardt’s birthday (1913-1967). I spent my coffee hour over Reinhardt’s Art as Art, and today’s post is a collection of notes from reading. It includes many phrases from Reinhardt’s text.

Art as art is nothing but art, and art is not what is not art.

More and more, what is becomes more pure, more empty, more absolute.

More exclusive? Yes, that too, but not in the way art people imagine. Think

camel through the eye of a needle, the way. This “anything goes”

degradation is contemptible, trifling, a suicide-vaudeville. 

The point is to reveal, to make the one thing no secret. This one thing

changes everything. They want to separate fine from intellectual, manual

from craft, but all that matters is art as art. The fine art museum is the

place for this, so long as it doesn’t imagine itself a church or a museum

of history or geology, ethnology, or archaeology. It can’t be a club or

a success school, either; it can’t be a rest home or “foster love of life.”

It can’t “promote understanding . . . among men” or any such thing.

This is crazy talk. Art is art; life is life. Art is not life, nor is life art. No

one should burden one with the other, and above all, don’t make 

it a means to some other end, some so-called higher value. There is

none. There is one fight only, between art and non-art, true and false.

Art is free, but it is not a free-for-all.

The one struggle in art is the struggle of artists against artists. Save

your “mirrors of the soul,” your “reflections of condition,” your “new 

image of man” delusions, your diatribes about being a “creature of

circumstance.” No one ever forces an artist to be pure. Art comes from

art working, and the more an artist works, the more there is to do. It’s

a long, lonely routine: preparation, attention, repetition.

The end? No end but this. From a variety of ideas, to one. From many

styles, to none. Pure evanescence. From hot air to breathlessness, 

neither life nor death; outside content, outside form; outside space, 

beyond time. Nothing to grasp, nothing to use, and nothing to sell.

Advice From the Silver Mollies

In honor of Robert Bly’s birthday.

Keep an eye out. You never know when the next mortal blow is coming. Look around. Notice your numbers, and don’t let them go to waste. When they come for you, don’t just lie there in stunned silence. Spin, turn, shout! Get those around you to move. You’ll never command the whole group, but there’s no one who isn’t touching some of the others and everyone is connected. Move the ones you are touching. I don’t want to frighten you, but they are coming for you. There will always be another attack and you’re never going to prevent that. All your movement will only prolong the time between attacks. We can cut their success in half, maybe. So do it. They will keep attacking. Keep moving.

The silver mollies will tell you, it’s not a matter of escape, but of letting the enemy know, after they pick off a target, that they’re going to have to work for the next one.

You have a friend who studies bees. A hornet is much bigger than any bee and can easily get away with whatever prey it can pick off. Except when the bees move quickly enough to surround the attacker, vibrating their wings to cook it to death. It’s important to act quickly here, before reinforcements are signaled.

Please don’t expect that you’re going to solve the problem of ongoing attacks, or that they’ll stop on their own at some magical hour, or when some critical mass of those wearied by plundering is finally reached. You’re not going to get that, and it’s no good waiting for the next flight on a magical dragon in the sky.

Listen earthling, you’ve always been too prone to watching clouds, and you miss the enemies in the trees, poised to eat you. 

I have to tell you, the bees involved in cooking their enemy won’t live as long as the others. I have to tell you, the bees involved in cooking their enemy are also more likely to be involved in subsequent attacks, each of which takes its toll, but if you dwell on this, you’ll be missing the point.

Four o’clock in the morning is the best time to see the moon

Soon, you’re going to be without a choice. You need to know this. So much suffering goes on in prison, and in the prisons of self-isolation, every hour a reminder of who and what may not be touched. 

You too will not be spared if you refuse to notice.

***

Inspirations:

I noticed it was Robert Bly’s birthday this morning, and so I decided to do a post inspired by his “Advice from the Geese.” Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article about the synchronized defensive behavior of silver mollies (Why these Mexican Fish Do the Wave), so I decided to begin with them. Thoughts of animal synchronization reminded me of something I had read earlier this year about the behavior of honeybees when attacked by hornets. I also consulted Frontiers: Functional Synchronization: The Emergence of Coordinated Activity in Human Systems.

Solstice

In the still of a long night.

In the dark hours, we came together by the fire, the St. Lucia’s girls crowned by candle wreaths, in honor of the flames that lit the way when she brought food to the persecuted in hiding, a trespass that got her killed by the law. Now, in the somber mist, in the places once wooded with dark trees, we wait by kindled light for the rebirth of the sun. There is a moment when it is still, and in the full dark, a pause, holding breath, and then then comes a long, cry, like mourning. That’s when you know it is here, the hour when it stops pulling away, and begins a slow return. Against our mourning, we keep watch until it comes. Look east. At first light, say the word. 

Shelter

Refuge during wartime.

It was a time of trouble, and people went around armed: holsters, knives, photos, pepper spray.  What were the terms? We weren’t sure, but they were loaded. Whispering among us, we approached the temple.  A woman waited at the top of the steps, veiled in underground pomegranates. She stood sideways between the pillars, one half in the shadows behind her.  Look, she said, raising her veil, and with the other arm beckoned Come. A hush fell over us. We surrendered our arms and went in.

Sounding Branches

On phantoms, limbs, and being an instrument.

The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the doctor explained, was once regarded as a purely psychic hallucination, the sort of thing the mind does when it is grappling with loss, denial being a well-trodden pathway for managing grief. The sense of moving fingers even after the arm is gone was compared to the way that you might see a loved one in their bathrobe and slippers muddling down the hallway looking for the light switch, in the days and weeks after their death.

But it turns out there is more to it, they realized, as the tools for observation expanded what researchers were willing to see––and listen to, for that matter. A pianist long versed in playing music through the body will continue to do so even after the loss of an arm. The music runs through the musician as practiced, even as only some of it reaches the keys.

The discovery raises certain questions about the nature of what was considered phantom and suggests that the idea of limb might also deserve some expansion. I am wondering about the word instrument, too––how immediately we tend to assume that these are what the musician uses to create the art, that the point is somehow mastery of a tool and not instead the long practice of erasing the old ideas of the boundaries of a body, smoothing its distinctive forms and shaping hollow wells of space, tending it daily so as to leave it well enough and ready to be moved.

***

This post was inspired by something I heard over ten years ago on a radio interview with the late Oliver Sacks. I found a related anecdote in his chapter “Phantom Fingers: the case of the one-armed Pianist” in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.