Today marks one hundred days of these posts, which started as “this thing I am trying” and evolved into Breadcrumbs, and which are now evolving me.
The project began from an impulse of love and a wish to connect. Someone asked: Why, where do you see yourself? I thought, Dead, eventually. Hopefully not soon, but a person never knows. It mattered not to do so while waiting for someone’s invitation to the table.
I was working on manuscripts, which is long and lonely work. I am still working on manuscripts, some of which are new since beginning this project. I publish here and there in journals, and this is also slow-going. That’s how these things are. And meanwhile, every morning since I started this experiment, I also publish here. The idea was simple: try this thing and don’t stop. I could evaluate after a hundred days.
Evaluating now, I feel mostly gratitude. It never got easier, but it did become more automatic, the practice of––this thing. I don’t have to name it to learn from it. Daily practice teaches what I could not think to learn, including invitations to new questions. Friend, thank you for joining me here.
The mind offers many reasons to stop and change course. This is what minds do, offer reasons for things. They can be acrobats of distraction. But the still part, the listening part, knows. This is the part I show up here to visit. This is where we meet, at the edge of the deep, still lake we share. Most of what is happening in it, I will never explain. This is the kind of presence I trust. The mystery is always more compelling than any of my own ideas.
Looking back at selections from the archives, I see something moving that is vastly more intelligent than I am, the logic of which I could never have planned. One hundred is a special number, and in this case, only a beginning. I mark this day with this prayer of gratitude. Friend, thank you so much for being here with me. I bow to you with a heart full of wonder.
Today’s briefing is culled from assorted anonymous postings.
Messages regarding the state of the world tend to vary widely depending on the source, and since variety is what I was looking for this morning, I decided to get today’s early briefing from craigslist. Among top stories, a man known only as “shameless robber” has abducted wax apples from the garden of an ailing old woman. He claims he was just drinking water, but this reporter isn’t buying it. Which is nothing compared to the tall guy who had a custom sectional made and delivered before he wiggled his way (comfortably, we assume; it seems like he’s done this before) out of paying for it.
Who says that nothing good comes free? There are free pallets in Alisa Viejo, free notary services for active military, a yard sale this Saturday, and money being raised right now to cover medical bills. There is new music, a new bike shop, personal body sculpting (who can resist?) and, above all, this urgent reminder, all caps: HANG ON. KEEP CALM.
In other news, a woman without transportation would appreciate very much if someone would bring over a case of beer. IPA preferred, and rest assured: payment will be rendered upon payday next week.
There is no need to feel alone in this city. A mobile detailing car service can come over at any hour with amazing prices and reliable service, and there is a group meeting tonight in East County for individuals seeking an avant-garde interpretation of the Bible. If you’d like to spice up your daily commute with fresh company, there is no shortage of people ready to join you.
There is a new litter on Elm Street, an avid stargazer seeking company, a cornhole fall league, and a Dungeons and Dragons campaign looking for adventurers. Also, free dental hygiene services available from students, for anyone willing to wait.
You may not be aware of this, but you are leaving money on the table the longer you wait to join this quadrillion-dollar industry. Fortunately, there is a number you can call. Act now.
We can: build a yoga community, a film noir appreciation club, a craps club, these support groups, adult baseball, a sparring group, or just meet for a beer on Spring Street. So, what are you waiting for?
There are angels and no need to stay stuck. There is a nerdy outlet, a coffee shop friend, a focus group, and a well-muscled man available for private modeling gigs. Do you play drums, have too much stuff, need to get in shape? Do you need a washer/dryer, a group of paranormal enthusiasts, some fishing equipment? You can find it. It is here. Join us.
I continue to appreciate the depth, breadth, and scope of coverage provided by the collective reporting of anonymous individuals and will return regularly for updates and breaking news.
Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.
So, the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.
The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered, glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.
When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.
The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.
He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.
This story was originally published in sections, embedded in a larger story, “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Oyster River Pages. As I woke this morning, I noticed that this piece was demanding some reflection. I have recently been coming into awareness of certain understandings that appeared to me in this fairy tale before I was ready to consciously know them. It’s been my experience that stories often do this. I will be revisiting in tomorrow’s post and considering its role and possibilities in my own. It has been my experience (and I don’t think I’m unique here) that usually my reading and writing vision is a few years ahead of my conscious understanding.
I think this is true for many people. Has it ever occurred to you what stories are shaping your life? I never would have known precisely how central this flying man story was to me, except that I was in a class where we were challenged to spend fifteen minutes on the spot writing a fairy tale, and after my initial eyeroll, thinking “I don’t write fairy tales” this came out whole, in that one brief sitting. This is because it had been in me all along, as so many myths, legends and fairy tales are. In my notes this morning, I began to uncover some layers of understanding that I hadn’t been ready to see before. To share them here would make for an over-long post, so I’ll save these for tomorrow.
Perhaps you may find value in considering what myths and fairy tales are central to your life. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.”
You can’t honor the living if you don’t honor the dead, and large swaths of the current death machine work towards erasing them. One way to erase the past is to erase history. Another is to sanitize it and put our heroes on pedestals. That’s why I like to engage in conversation and occasional correspondence with dead folks. From time to time, I will write letters to dead artists, writers, and other notable or unknown people. Sometimes, the occasion for this arises organically, from a question or reference in the air. Other times, I may discover that it is the birthday of a person of interest and be moved to strike up a conversation. This can be especially fruitful when it offers an opportunity to engage with someone previously unknown to me, as is the case with today’s entry.
Here’s something I learned this morning as I was wondering what today’s post would be about: On this day in 1904, writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland. My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.” I decided to make him the subject of my next “Real Talk with Dead Folks,” which is one of the Breadcrumbs exercises that I find generative, especially when I am tired of my own ideas.
I’m sorry we couldn’t do this in person. Perhaps you would not have talked to me, but I think I would have enjoyed listening to you, at least for a little while. Probably I would have found you a bit too obsessed with yourself and this question of authenticity, and perhaps you would have made assumptions about me when you learned that I worked in schools, which are the places that perhaps best fueled your sense of the absurd. We’d both have our reasons, I’m sure. Fortunately, when it comes to this sort of work, liking or not liking does not need to factor into capacity for deep appreciation.
You claimed that the best lessons of school were in the breaks, when your classmates beat you. Your education, you said, was reading ––forbidden books, especially–– and loafing. You were often ill. Puzzling over your dreams, the symbolism and possibility within them, you considered a possible way out. Of what? I wondered. And you said, The whole farce! Then I knew I loved you.
It was perhaps one long project you were on, a quest to get to the “real” of you. You kept a daily public diary also, but you preferred different lenses: sometimes polemic, other times self-absorbed lens. I am skeptical of claims to authenticity, but I have a soft spot for those committed to an aesthetic with relentless dedication. For this, I can love you also.
They called you “creepy as Poe” and “absurdist as Kafka” and you relentlessly criticized their forms––all of them, calling them covers for the conventions you despised. Refusing to be tamed, you cultivated immaturity as wisdom, imperfection as an antidote to the fake. Every artist has their obsessions; your grail was authenticity. “I am a circus,” you said, “what more do you want?” Hah! I thought. That’s all I need to know.
You raged at the teachers babbling clichés and poked at the nonsense of their often-hollow aphorisms, so devoid of meaning as to be deemed universally palatable substitutions for truth for anyone who prefers the easy nicety to real thinking. “Chirp, chirp, little chickie!” your hero announced.
Were any of your elders spared your criticism? You called out Schulz on his assent to conventions, you joked that Proust “found more in his cookie. . . than they found in years of smoking crematoria.” You called Kafka “unreadable” and lacking sex appeal. You called your diary the faithful dog of your soul. You did have a few nice things to say about Kierkegaard.
Rejecting institutions of honor, you baptized yourself a self-made man, planned a life of exile in obscurity, and were soon after celebrated. But Europe broke your heart. You were a bumpkin among sophisticates, and you died soon after.
Relentless in your quest not to be a type of writer, but yourself, you left behind a legacy at once brilliant, hilarious, dangerous, redemptive, perverse, irreverent, heartfelt, and voluminous. Today I celebrate your defiance of easy classification, and I celebrate your love of the absurd.
Titles, for example, you did only randomly. You chose names for your books like one names a dog – “to tell one from the other,” you said. You had, after all, the one faithful dog of your soul, your daily letters, and this was after all, the singular work of a life, continuous and ongoing in all of its embedded and wondrous contradictions.
You said, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” You reminded, “Don’t be fooled by your own wisdom.” You honored paying attention, observing “the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence.”
Thanks for leaving a trail. I’m glad to meet you. I love the way you challenge people to examine contradictions, how you challenge pedestal-making with irreverence, and how you combat calcification of statues built as stand-ins for truth by dancing with the fluid and absurd.
I hope to see more of you in years to come.
Follow-up: It didn’t occur to me until this morning to make this a series on Breadcrumbs. Until now, I hadn’t articulated the impulse to be in conversation with dead people I never met, nor had I acknowledged that it’s something I tend to do in my notebooks and in my head fairly regularly. I’ve done this once before on the blog, in a memo to artist Hieronymous Bosch, posted here: “Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work.” I look forward to more of these.
How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?
Against forgetting, give water to the plant
and notice the light in a stranger’s eye
––and the shadows.
Notice the work still waiting, against
what would have you close your eyes,
surrendering time, white flag waving
for a moment before it falls like a sheet
over the sleeping body, like a sheet
over the dead.
I’d lose my head, The old women would say,
If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to
hold the tether to what was less securely
attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life
if it isn’t attached, by the substance
of a series of tiny actions like clay around
the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise
Against forgetting, say to the child unsure
how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand
and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,
extend an invitation to the table,
to those cast out, disposed of,
dispossessed. This includes the children
before you and the ones made invisible
and the ones you once were.
To say, I see you, Here
we are and remember.
To notice the little bird in the low branch,
to say its name and listen for its response
to what you have not said. To walk in
the desert, in the dark, with water and
“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times
This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.
One of the challenges with a new project is that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing.
I’ve got a new monster lurking around me this week. He’s given me trouble before. I haven’t named him yet. Every time it occurs to me to notice, he goes, “Forget it!”
That’s his thing, forgetting. Not the kind that makes you wonder where you left your keys, but the kind that makes it easy to forget where you were in a new, not-yet-realized project, and what the next step is supposed to be, and why it matters. I think I know why he’s showing up now. One reason is because I am now moving to focus my evening writing time on developing a new manuscript, the outlines of which are not yet fully realized. And the second is because the return to school (full, unmodified schedule of the like that we haven’t seen since early March 2020) means that the pace of expectations and outside-world responsibilities in a given day is about to increase dramatically. My work as a teacher is work that I care about deeply, and it is also true that achieving a balance between these and other responsibilities and a writing life is a constant tension. Already there are team events, extracurriculars, a great deal more meetings and noises and last-minute events and lesson planning and homework help and lots of new things to learn, make, and do–– all of which matter.
And yet, this other thing I am trying to make, which is somehow tied to the very essence of my life, matters also. But the thing about creative work like this that you are putting your energy into something that does not yet exist. It’s an act of radical hope. And this kind of hope is often under attack.
Some of the challenges with a new project can be that no one’s asking or expecting anything, that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing. As I’ve been noticing this week and feeling a creeping low-grade anxiety about my slippery grasp on this thing I am trying to make. I use the mornings for early pages and usually these posts, and then comes the day, and all the activity that comes with it, and then, by the time afternoon writing hour strikes, I am often sitting at my desk trying to find my way back to something that seemed very urgent and clear when I was in a space of more focused attention.
That’s all I can say about this creature so far. I don’t have a face for him, or a name beyond Forget It. What I am developing now is a plan to deal with him. I am called back to one of my biggest takeaways from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: how it can be helpful to treat the artist-self as a child, in a spirit of play. Sure, I think, but when I’m tired and under stress I tend to also be too tired for play. Thinking of this I am prompted to consider how, as a teacher, I have plenty of experience working with young, usually reluctant and generally insecure writers, who also tend to be tired and under a great deal of stress. I know that reasonable demands paired with consistent structures and gentle encouragement can be most helpful in these situations. As I remember this now, I realize that while I may not have a full grasp on this monster’s anatomy, mannerisms, and preferences, I can grasp how easily he might win if I do not employ thoughtful proactive planning into my afternoon sessions. With this in mind, I begin to develop a plan that employs the best of what I have learned from working with students, who I always expect, even if I saw them one day or a few hours beforehand, will tend to arrive with a certain glazed-over sense of overwhelm and a sense of confusion or disorientation as to what, exactly, we are doing here. Well, I think. When you put it in those terms, we actually do know what to do, when it comes to this “Forget-It” force:
1. Post an agenda. Anticipate that at the end of the average “crazy” day I am going to need a written reminder as to what I am doing, where I left off, and what needs to happen in the day’s session. I would never think of having students begin the day’s work without reminding them back to it, and setting a clear purpose, time and length parameters, and some scaffolding tools and/or examples. I can write this the night before, as with lesson plans, and leave on my desk or desktop to review before I begin.
2. Provide an example when possible. An insecure writer or artist needs models. I can be on the lookout for these. This is something I have not proactively done with myself before, which recently struck me as rather absurd. Only when I was recently challenged to do an imitation exercise, did it occur to me to notice how I had foolishly resisted such practice, which made me realize how often I had been giving myself a challenge that went something like this: spend a lifetime reading what has come before you, and then, in a bold act of self-affirming will (whatever that is), reject it all and reinvent the wheel. Even though I have written about the value of Learning by Imitation, I need to give myself regular reminders that I don’t have to start from scratch. This can seem difficult with some projects, but there is always something that can be used (a prompt, a passage, a model of excellent dialogue, even a mood-setting song or work of art).
3. Set clear parameters. Just as I would with a class, I can be clear with my confused, possibly recalcitrant, and possibly insecure artist-self. As in,“By the end of this period you will have . . .” I will be specific and detailed in these instructions: how long, what’s included, how much time allowed.
4. If time is a parameter, watch it. In the evening hours, it’s generally unreasonable for me to expect uninterrupted time. I’m a single mom and there will be practice pickups, meals to make, math homework to check, and various other welcome responsibilities that are going to need my attention. I am also going to occasionally remember that there is an urgent email or phone call I never responded to. During hectic times like this it can be useful to use a time-tracker app which I start when the work session starts and pause every time I go off-task. It was eye opening when I first started using it last year. I learned that when it came to the evening hours, three hours of scheduled writing time tended to mean more like ninety minutes on task. So, I set a time-on-task goal and tended to be more effective.
This monster is especially pernicious, and I can already tell that I will need more than one post to make a plan for dealing with him. My gut tells me that the antidote to this “forget-it” force goes much deeper than task management. Until then, Remember.
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.
I keep metaphors on hand like tools for getting me out of tight psychic spaces. Many are regularly useful, like the tiny Philips screwdriver in the catchall drawer, even after they’ve become so clichéd that they would sound generic if I used them in writing. You know the ones, hope as the thing with feathers, and the bright light in the dark room. The beloved as a summer’s day, or the sun. The heart as the always-breaking part, its cracks the places through which some inner light shines. Snow like a bedcover, a partner as one’s other half, emotions like an amusement park ride, the premise of which is to simmer delight with suspense until they boil over into terrified laughter. The dead horse, still beaten; the late-coming blooms, time as a thief, running off with the riches still unspent. Years like a river upon which a body may be carried, against which the salmon might swim. Time at the bedside in the white costume of a nurse of the first great war, coming to heal.
These familiar metaphors can be called up as needed, summoned for the occasion. There’s comfort and security in returning to them. I’ll be the tree; you be the bird. I’ll be the nest; you be the egg. I’ll be the frightened, you be the sheltering wing, here is the basket, now take the eggs. Long road, steep hill, one foot at a time, there are always the bushes to shake.
Until they shake you such that your vision lands on one you’ve never seen before, and it’s like finding a new room in the house you’ve been living in for years. This happened the other day, as I was walking by an elementary school, and I looked through the fence, into the garden, to read the words painted in a child’s hand, in large letters, on plywood propped behind the raised beds, against the opposite fence.
“THE WORLD IS YOUR OY,” it proudly proclaimed, and I almost missed it, filling in the space with the missing letters I expected to see––as I do often, mainly with my own typos. Ah yes, I thought, the mollusk ready to eat, which is a delicacy when fresh and poison when left to sit too long. The thing to be shucked and opened, quivering briny flesh on the tongue, swallowed whole.
But then I stopped. No, it was not an oyster, as this young person had written it. Perhaps they were going that way, and then they got tagged it or something more interesting happened in the adjacent field–– a kickball game or an unexpected kite. Maybe the fire bell rang. Whatever the interruption, the result is clear, and what it leaves me with is a metaphor that’s just right at specific moments when other ones will not do. Yes, I think, wisdom from the letters of babes. The world is indeed, sometimes, just this: My Oy! Some tools are too wonderful to keep to oneself, so I have to write it here again. I’ll leave it to you to decide on the appropriate use.
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.
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.