Real Talk With Gallileo

On keeping time with heartbeats and the bumpy, dusty moon.

Today, I’ll be having another one of those one-sided conversations with a dead person, as I love to do from time to time when I find occasion to think about them. What got me on this track was learning that on this day in 1609, Gallileo Gallilei demonstrated his first telescope to lawmakers in Venice. I was wondering: Why, of all people, was it them? Perhaps he needed a permit. I have not yet found the answer to this question, but I did find some more questions.

Gallileo, I’ve been wondering.

What must it have been like, to notice ––while studying medicine at your father’s insistence, after he discouraged you from your calling as a priest, after he discouraged your interest in mathematics (on the grounds that neither vocation paid as well as a physicist)––that the chandelier above you, swinging in the wind at variable arcs, seemed to keep time with your heartbeat, regardless of the size of the arc? To discover, in the experiment that followed, that pendulums of any length will keep time with one another and the human heart?

What is it like to know what happened to this discovery, how it led––a century later–– to the creation of the first timepiece, which over time meant that people kept time, which over centuries meant that people were kept by time, which over centuries meant that people no longer tended to look at the sky or the shadows of a sundial to know the hour; that people would often be so rushed by the march of expectations corresponding to the commodification of minutes, that they would no longer stop to look up?

Apologies for this digression. Of course, I am projecting here. I am somewhat envious of your freedom for study––of your freedom to stop and examine things, period. That and the way that not only did you never need to introduce yourself with an ID number, you didn’t even use a last name. 

Of course, you had money troubles of your own, especially with your brother, a composer, constantly accruing debt to support his love of music. You had studied the arts, too, against the wishes of your father, and you befriended the painter Cignoli, who painted a Madonna on the moon, which was a common-enough image until you noticed the pockmarks on the moon.

I can’t help but think that his friendship with you had a hand in the painter’s decision to resist the convention of a mythical orb. I can’t help but think that time spent with you helped him to appreciate the poetry of the possibility that the celestial body elevating her feet need not be a perfect sphere of dreamlike luminescence, that it might instead be a rock not unlike the rocks of this world, suggestive of a sort of comical lopsidedness, with cracks and crevices in which everyday filth and ordinariness may easily accumulate, along with lunar dust and cosmic pests and possibly even space mildew.

I am grateful that your work made it possible to make certain associations between our most sublime conceptions––say, heaven––and the stuff that was hanging around everywhere, either invisible or appearing to be in the way of the men with their lofty goals, who preferred not to debase themselves with considerations of the cracks in surfaces, the way that the wind would get through, and the cold, the way you had to keep mending and stopping them like you had to keep changing and feeding and holding the crying babies, ––

gathering and chopping and seasoning and boiling and stewing and roasting and cleaning; to feed the noble man a single meal, just before you got back to the babies and before you got back to do it again, how sometimes, even after all this, it was still possible, for the length of sixty to a hundred heartbeats at night, ––

just after the children were asleep, to sit in a chair, looking up, feeling an ineffable pull toward a wonder and mystery that felt both vast and made of the same mystery that you had noticed gathering herbs, wrapping the soft body of an infant, and in the longings that persisted no matter how long they seemed to go unanswered.

Thank you for insisting on this connection, even though it meant you were outcast from the basilicas you loved, from the rituals you had once thought to administer yourself, from the silence of the naves with their candles and incense, and the awe of an intimate mystery in the air.  

I’d love to say more, but my second alarm is going off now, and I’ve not yet been awake for an hour. Time to check the sleeping baby, time to check the food, iron the clothes, pack the things of the day, all the while watching the clock––which marches, I know now, by the rhythm you first noticed in the chandeliers swinging above you as you sat with the books you meant to study, the assignments you meant to get to, the financial responsibilities you meant to meet, the appointments you meant to keep, the wandering heart you meant to tame, and you could not keep your eyes from wandering up, to rest on what you had yet to understand, having the insight to notice that even this was made of something as utterly familiar as the drum in your own chest. 

From Scratch: Breadcrumbs notes

This space is about showing up as a living, breathing, wondering being: with doubts, griefs, questions, and idiosyncrasies. I post here every morning as a way to move from the dream into the day.

This is where I show up daily to practice ways of looking and being.

I used to think I was alone in feeling so much of everything, all the time, everywhere. Then I learned that the stance of a poet is spinning, and it made more sense. Then I noticed that sometimes creative work can be lonely. I may work on a given manuscript for years. This may necessarily involve significant alone time at the page, but I don’t think anyone should have to feel like they’re practicing in isolation. I may be an extreme introvert, but what sustains me is still a sense of sharing in community. Over time, I learned that there were people all around me, also doing creative work, often also feeling alone.

Like me, they were sometimes afflicted with doubt, paralysis, or general malaise. Considering the forces running counter to creative heart-mind work in this world, at this time, I think these symptoms are to be expected, but not surrendered to, because the world needs more people sharing the fruits of their heart-minds. I wondered, what would it be like if we practiced this publicly? Against the machine, in honor of living here, in remembrance of the dead. And in remembrance of some of out initial best impulses, like play and love.

This space is about showing up as a living, breathing, wondering being: with doubts, griefs, questions, and idiosyncrasies. I post here every morning as a way to move from the dream into the day. If I can’t take some of my dream self with me, I’m not much good at the day. Then I go about the living: loving, teaching, and writing longer works for publication. Facing daily fears, doubts, frustrations, and heartaches. Dreaming into a better world.

Doing this each morning is a way to remind myself and hopefully others, that there is always something new to share. Creative work is a practice, and this is where I practice publicly, as an exercise in my faith in the process. To learn and show: there is always something new. The point is wonder, and discovery. Often what I find are more questions.

What do I write about here?

  • It varies because I start from scratch daily (that’s the point!). I have fifteen minutes to think of an idea, fifteen or so to write, with the idea of getting it linked, imaged and published each morning in one hour or less. I need to keep this limit strict, so as not to encroach on space for other commitments, writing and non-writing. I believe in the benefits of self-imposed constraints with creative practice.
  • Favorite themes involve: “this day in history” meditations, found poetry, “Earthling” meditations (in which my avatar, earthling, confronts some aspect of being in this world), remembrances, and the process of creating.
  • When applicable, I will share the process that led to the day’s post, in the spirit of sharing creative approaches.

I hope that some of what you see here will resonate with you. Even more, I hope that you will grow and create in a spirit of love and generosity. The world needs you.

Phobias

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.

One of the books I keep on my nightstand, within easy reach of my morning-coffee perch, is The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. There’s a prompt for every day of the year. Four out of five times I may read the prompt and go, “Huh. That’s cool,” and move on, and I keep checking. While not all prompts will resonate at a given time, all are technically doable, and there’s a wonderful variety. It is from this book that I developed the habit of checking to see what happened on this day in history when I’m looking for a practice exercise, and also of checking Craigslist for ideas. It’s a gem with a beautifully simple format. Today’s prompt is to consider the theme “phobias,” which is something Aimee Nezhukumatathil does so interestingly in her poem, “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.” That sounded like something I could do today, so here it is.

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.
Not the car exactly but riding in one.
Those figures that look human, but
aren’t. Thunder, of course, and lightning.
My grandfather, anticipating this fear, would
announce, when a storm came, Angels! They
were bowling, he told us. 

Some fear books; others, amphibians.
I sometimes have nightmares about steep
slopes. Time itself, the mirror, ridicule. I
can’t help but think these go together. The
confined space. Knees, even. Whole groups
of others: men, women, beautiful women,
teenagers, children, clowns. The ill, and
doctors. Touch itself, the color white, the
color black; small and large things. Death
and dead things; the figure 8. Weight gain,
paper. School seems like an obvious choice;
I hadn’t considered the color purple. Sleep,
holes, speed.

I read the list, impressed with the specificity
of options. Admiring, even, but I wonder,
what is the word for this ever-present knot,
this constant quaking from the inside out,
easier to hide than to still? When small, I
was not afraid of most grownups, only of 
having to become one, because while it
was clear that there would be expectations,
it was not so clear what they were. A common
concern was driving, how it was that my mother
could remember every turn, mostly, to all the 
endless places we went, and still get back home.
It saddened me to know that when my turn came
behind the wheel, I would probably disappear.

Unless! I brought breadcrumbs to leave a trail,
but consider Hansel and Gretel. They were careful,
but the birds ate their intentions home. The fire
of the oven, waiting in the dark woods, this is
what kept me in knots, the way I could stumble
and be cooked alive. But it wasn’t on the list, 
so maybe I dreamed it, as with other things,
Just butterflies, the growns would say, as though what
was happening was the flutter of iridescent wings
of a colony of new-transformed lives, ready to 
fly from this body’s own dark.

How We Celebrated Tiny Flames

We didn’t think about squandering, then,
and it never once occurred to us to save.

Remember when we shot our breaths 
out of ourselves, laughing
at the last loud fart? We couldn’t stop

And we sprayed gasping iridescent drops 
into the air like water from the spray 
nozzle of a garden hose, just for dancing.

We played chase like being hunted was a game,
like capture was a cartoon scene, we fell down
laughing. Wait, we said, I need to catch ––
like it was slow feathers falling from the sky
to be cupped in our open hands

––And remember, how we painted with it, too?
We blew our canvasses across car windows, 
fingertips tracing: here a smile, now a cat,
heart.

And sometimes it was smacked from us, as when we
fell back off a ladder or a swing, but the trick
to waiting was knowing the metaphor and trusting 
that if the next breath could be knocked out

like a ball from a basket, it could also come 
swishing back at the next run up the court,
catching nothing but the nets of our wide-stretched
throats.

We didn’t think about squandering, then, 
and it never once occurred to us to save 
any of what we spent so freely, those fortunes 
that we took for our inheritance. We had no way 

of knowing, then, how easily they could go. Really,
it takes only a certain amount of pressure, 
applied across a certain length of time, 
but how could we have begun to measure 

what we had yet to grow the strength 
to apply?

We couldn’t, not when 
time was what we flew threw, 
roaring our laughs 
like lions 
until they ran out.

Under All the Stars I Cannot Name

What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals?

On this day in 1923, poet Wislawa Szymborska was born. A winner of the Nobel Prize who once observed “perhaps” two in a thousand people like poetry (“Some Like Poetry”), she is celebrated for the way she explores the layered mysteries inherent in everyday experiences. 

Sometimes, a great poem can work as a blueprint for a much-needed ritual. In “Under a Certain Little Star” Szymborska explores the ritual of apology in new ways. What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals? It would have problems of its own, of course, but I can’t help but think that it must be a terrific improvement over a world where false certainty is celebrated as strength, apology maligned as weakness, and people are expected to be walking billboards for ideas and ideals, instead of as fallible and ever-changing creatures of flesh, blood, and dreams.

So today, I’ll be using Szymborska’s poem as a blueprint for enacting this ritual of apology, in celebration of the tremendous fallibility and impossible mystery of being human here. 

My apologies to tenderness for vowing I could do without,
and to fasting in general for my terrible performance.
May joy not be annoyed with my stalker’s watch.
May those disappeared dreams forgive me 
for pretending not to notice when they were 
kidnapped.

My apologies to space for not taking what was offered 
and appearing unintentionally ungrateful,
and to gratitude for so often making it look like a grocery list and not a flood.

Forgive me, misery, for still caring about the smell and chew of a fresh loaf of bread.
Forgive me, tender skin, for all of these oven burns, now scars.
My apologies to some great concertos I’ve never listened to, 
and to those that moved me deeply, for not sitting still.

My apologies to the cold woman on the hard bench, 
for savoring these blankets in the morning, 
for returning to them with coffee, and lingering as long as I am allowed.
Pardon my reckless heart its sudden leaking breaks.
Forgive me, solemnity, for laughing in the house of death,
forgive me, composure, for my melting face.

And to all the birds whose names I never managed to learn–– trees, too,
all those branched beings I claimed to love but did not plant, to the plants
I claimed to want but did not water, or watered too much, or kept in the wrong pots,
choking.

To domesticity, forgive these blood-soaked fangs. Faith, please notice
when I lose you, how I am always losing you; please come looking when I do. 
You can find me by my gait, like someone trying not to limp on a broken bone.
Bone, forgive my insistence on walking through your break.
Pride, forgive me when I can’t control the limp. 
Endure, hunger, that I may continue to move, just to feed you. 
Patience, don’t blame me for pretending we were sisters even when I didn’t return your calls.
My apologies to all those hopes I inadvertently inspired, which I could not answer.

And to love, for everything. 
And to honesty, for the way my eyes so often grow heavy when you speak. 
I am beyond excuses, sinking in the pit of my own making. Don’t hold it against me, words,
 for crying so much about wishing I had more to give, and then, 
when you give all you have, for guarding you in silence 
like a dragon over captive virgins he may not know.

Some Night at a Window

Naked feet on bare floors, elbows on the sill,
hands cup the lines of a jaw,  mirror

connecting the stars above the babbling towers 
whose shadows cloaked our daylight,
beyond the reach of 

hands cupping the lines of missing faces. Eyes 
reach anyway, holy useless as first songs
and the first games in the garden, 
out and out with the tops of our artifices
but not always the endless lines
of bodies in skies 
where the children of gardens 
still hide in the dark folds where invisible stars become

— and a new one, here 
        — in the quiet depths behind these sigh songs,

the lines of ourselves slipping,
and no names yet for the unborn
when we never named the dead

     — in the depths behind these breaths, 
reaching lines toward letters, 
ever into some beginning,
say the word.

Action/Reaction

Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.

If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it
—or if none of the hearers can connect 
the substance of the scream to the face 
of the wounded, whether because 
these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable 
to perceive how a body nearby could be capable 
of keening like that, or because the hearers are not 
in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human sounds, when considering a  
particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight
against any witness— did it happen? 

Same question may be posed 
with other variants. If the cry was piercing 
and potentially recognizable but muffled 
by the presence of a sudden hand 
against an open mouth, does it count?  
If the moment of the cry coincides 
with the collapse of the known world 
and the known world in question 
was once synonymous with the depths 
of the forest, did a cry even happen, 
if the place that it would have 
poured into was suddenly gone? 

Now consider other variables. 
If access is granted, but no one is told, 
does the person at the gates no one was trying 
to approach after years of denial get to shrug, 
raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based 
on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . . 

Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets 
to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing 
force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case 
of protection of children. A body will persist until 
it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens 
for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked, 
this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you 
shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door 
quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key 
and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?

Alma Thomas, Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Define: cry. Which sounds are included?
Define: pains. Which count?
Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here, 
who is screaming––and who has stopped?

Where do these faces go when they leave us?
Here’s a better question: why do we keep 
insisting that they are ours?

If someone shuts their eyes against some 
never-ending light, can they be considered 
a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river 
of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name 
for the resulting body? And if someone removes 
a dam and the river moves again, now altered 
in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?

If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars, 
do these vows have any bearing once obscured 
by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?

If breath denied fails to void the depth 
of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows?
The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of 
nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand 
grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original 
promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was 
discovered that the matter they contained was mostly 
open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes, 
haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?

Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound 
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note. 
Sing.

About the artistAlma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students. 

In the Waiting Room

Considering the anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States at this moment I was reminded to return to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting,” which returned me to the hope that inspired this response, this love note to America, for an occasion somewhere between Last Rites and Baptism.

Sparrow by RLGNGNZ on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 License

SPARROWS WAITING
We were sorting the Grapes of Wrath, 
waiting for the shift to be done. 
Our unrest was everywhere: 
flags and chanting; paint and the piercing 
of swords into the flesh at the sides of sworn enemies. 
When was our Last Supper, and when would it return?
Wonder, we looked for you everywhere, waiting for our numbers
to be called.

The whales waited elsewhere, 
bleeding oceans back into their ears;
do they hear each other through the current of it? 
We wanted to know 
what they’d been saying all along 
after hellos and we wanted to lie down again 
––the lovers, the weepers, the dreamers, 
across the Great Divide, our bodies bridges 
for the feet that could not believe 
unless they stepped across us, 
unless they put their hands in the wounds 
of their feet in our backs, back to the Lost Continent 
they’d been trained to disbelieve     America, 
we were waiting for your music for so long 
that when you hobbled back to the Dark Tower
your intimations of immortality bleeding out 
from stray bullet wounds, your torch arm falling 
slack, we couldn’t help ourselves     America, 
we circled you, we circled ourselves         no one 
was looking, but     we were there; we stood up, 
our single bodies     no longer the bridge 
it was our hands     Now        we held 
them         the shape of us unfastened 
from the overpass     ––still, we held,    some 
of us        even though         the gaps 
of our         form were         widening
our collective         path        an open mouth. 
Eye, be on your     sparrow now.      Watch us 
as we stand before ourselves

waiting

here.