Everything Can’t Be An Essay

Language is the same thing as paint. Sometimes you use it to communicate an easy message, easily. You don’t even need to describe what you’ve done because it’s right there in the picture, in the sentence. And sometimes you must use the tools you’ve inherited in funny little unsanctioned ways, and it won’t always make sense in language, what you’ve made, the picture a little abstract or confusing, because the language needs to do what it needs to do outside the boundaries of sense in order to indicate all the senses just beyond it. It needs to be funny or wrong, which is sometimes where you find more truth.

I have experiences outside of language all the time, and my job is to determine which ones are worth the friction of communicating them to another person, such as you.

My boyfriend is playing music in the other room. When he’s finished, his body emanates a kind of joy that can only be born from pure, pleasurable experience. No songs got recorded, no direct measurements of progress were taken. When he exits the room he is buoyant, and he smiles, and he carries himself like someone who doesn’t have to ask himself if he believes in the life he is living because his belief is deeper than thought, deep down in his bones, radiating outward and only eventually reaching his calloused fingers and exercised arms. “Muscled,” he will tell me to add, when he eventually reads this.

I am sitting on an oversized purple chair thinking, of course, about language. When I think about language I write about language. But it comes up in less obvious ways, too. I think about poems or movies, and I end up writing about language. Or I watch birds fly to and from our house to our neighbor’s yard, and I end up writing about language. Or I try really hard to just be a gardener, to make something basic grow during the season in which it is fair to expect it, and I watch it tenderly, astutely, changing with the same rhythm in which I’ve come to expect the seasons to change, too—expectations that are nonetheless thrown by a warming climate—and when I finally sit down at the keyboard, having pretended I was taking my time to get here, I end up writing about language. I write about writing, a grad school ghost regrettably tethered to my posture; the way academia, when it shows up still in me, continues to conflate proof with love. 

My new coach/therapist has me working with archetypes. And all my witchy friends are obsessed with crystals and stones. And I admit that I am someone who “has” an astrologer, now, in addition to a boss and a doctor. So it will come as no surprise that I am surrounded by people with spiritual, magical reasons for talking about the “higher” or “lighter” frequencies or “vibrations” that show up in this universe, as well as their corresponding oppositions, whether it be in rocks or planets or fragments of our contradictory selves. And because I am a person who, no matter what I’m thinking about, ends up writing about language, it occurs to me that writing, too, has its light and shadow sides. 

When I, the Writer, am at my best, I am full of passion for the challenge of grappling with language’s limitations. But when I, the Writer, am at my worst, lowest, weakest vibrations, the challenge of trying to put into language what one hopes is a life so rich and full that it expands beyond the constructed limits of words and their puny sentences leaves me feeling—to use a problematic metaphor—paralyzed. As if I might wish for the life to be smaller so that the words could at least catch up. So that the feeling of not being able to articulate an experience leaves me primed to be a victim of the world, mildly gaslit at all times as I accumulate experiences that I cannot describe. And so long as I’m down here squirming, I might as well make sure I’m not leaving any potential poems or essays behind, so that I feverishly look at the world not through the poet’s eye, but the publisher’s. Are you an essay? Is that an essay? Is there an essay here? Something I ought to grapple with and pull out and wrench through. I’ll teach you a lesson, I say beneath my breath, looking for something to write.  

I start to feel as if I am a person whose head is made up entirely of essays, each region of my brain a topic, each synapse a word. If I said I’d like to open my mouth and show you my brain, it would be only a metaphor, but the Writer in me, still at her worst, is demanding that metaphors and poetic flourishes be balanced by reality’s grit: that I must also be capable of opening up wide enough to show you the pulsating, complex organ of me, at the very least my cortex just beginning to peek through and greet the sun. I am trying to tell you something that I would, like a good literary girl, very much prefer to just show you.

There are things that live within me, so real as to be beyond all requests for verification, and which I sometimes cannot bring out of myself and into the light of the world without changing them entirely. My brain being a prime example.

How do I pull the essay out? The one born in a flash, me sitting in an oversized purple chair and thinking, of course, about language, but thinking just beyond its familiar fences and entering an almost trance-like state, so that as my ears fill up with my boyfriend’s renditions of Fleetwood Mac and Dave Rawling, I begin to see figments of all that lives just outside of language’s proverbial grasp, I mean I see the words coming and I see that they end, too, but they come so fast that I also see, in this woozy-fuzzy moment, the gigantic stature of everything that exists in this world that is also not language, gas and dust forming light-tails so that the words momentarily reach back to where they came from, tracing back toward the incident that predated their appearance. Something specific, a thing or a state or a feeling, always predates the appearance of words. And just like that, the music has stopped, I hear the toilet flushing, a cat is begging me to feed him please, and the dust-tail has disappeared along with the words that dragged them forward. The essay had been a moment, a feeling, one that is now mostly felt, a moment before a moment ago. I did not pull it out in time.

That any writing manages to land on the page is a complete and utter miracle, a precise 50-50 mixture of blind dedication and random luck. I stand outside, neck bent back, tongue outstretched, waiting for the weather to change so that I may catch a snowflake on my tongue. Or a raindrop in my palms. Or some sunshine on my exposed shoulder. It is passive preparation, like gearing up for the season one season ahead. It is a certain out-of-touch-ness that masquerades as contingency. “It,” of course, is writing.

Are you often here too? I ask my partner now that he’s stopped playing music in the other room. Or do you feel more in control of coming and going from this space? My partner is also a writer, so we long ago normalized such conversations. “This space” is the one where language bleats. 

I wouldn’t say in control, he says. But, he says, the less he writes and the more time he spends playing music in the other room, experiencing joy without the specters of proof or publication in his purview, without Academia awkwardly breathing down his neck, the less he cares about any of it. “It,” of course, is The Writing.

I am here all the time, I tell him. Joking about the notes I so often take in response to our conversations, even as I take notes now, in this very moment of speaking to him, a moment which will come to be experienced as nothing more than an essay that was constructed and edited and is now being read. A moment before many moments ago.

The best philosophers have died from this, my boyfriend eagerly reminds me. He takes a bite of an Impossible Whopper, a plate with a precise 50-50 mixture of french fries and onion rings balanced on the arm of his chair. Wittgenstein. Nietzsche. Not just the thinkers, but the writers, too. Kerouac, Hart Crane. We are slinking back down into the same conversation we have approximately two or three times a year, where we question and defend, and question and defend, in fervent turns, the various intersections between writing and suffering, between creative output and mental health. 

This is not art! I am saying, thinking, writing. I am writing but I am also not writing, another grad school trick/ghost. I am deep in my head, my boyfriend pecking me on the cheek—he has finished eating, my own food getting cold in the greasy bag—and reminding me to be nice to Sarah because he thinks she’s pretty great, and this business of watching birds and hearing music and being kissed by boyfriends only to end up writing about language means I’m thinking about writing about language rather than kissing him back. It means I cannot gauge a good essay from a bad essay from a non-essay from a bodily organ. It means the bird, whether I’m still watching her or not, eventually flies away. 

Writing the Body

I wrote my body, not my shadow, by writing to a friend with affection and openness. I wrote my body by eating toast naked in front of a mirror and watching myself chew and chew and knowing that I was nourishing my body and giving my body energy.

I wrote my body by facing it head on because our bodies are a kind of writing and living is a kind of writing and facing my body means acknowledging the agency in not being quiet about it. There are things I feel I can’t do with my body and then I do them anyway. That’s called, writing.

I wrote my body after putting only my shirt back on and sitting cross-legged on an afghan with the mirror to my left now, quick glances at my body to acknowledge my body. Writing is more than words on a page.

How is my body like writing? I asked myself earlier this week. What do I do in writing that I also wish I could do with my body? I wanted to know this, too.

Then I decided that accepting my body is a radical act, a feminist act, and that writing my thoughts down is also a feminist act, a radical act, and so to be more radical and more situated in my feminist stance I could keep writing about accepting my body, keep looking at my body more responsibly in the mirror.

It’s hard not to like and dislike one’s body within the systems already designed for us, the equations of value and appearances that we’re born into and in some ways can’t ever escape, not entirely, even as we rebuild our relationships to ourselves. You can’t unknow them or forget them. You can set them aside and learn other things and build other things and form other habits and remember old ones cautiously, informed by them in some way, the way that dismissal or refusal or running away is always informed by the dismissed, the refused, the away.

My body is a body that will eventually go away.

Good spaces are so fragile and fleeting. How can looking in the mirror, writing the body, writing about my body make me feel less fragile, more centered in a good space, self-commanded, asserted?

Is the goal to command one’s body?

I think it is okay to order goodness.

All the times in which I’ve let my hands hit the keyboard and my body synchronized a tiny bit further.

Sometimes I shower and sometimes I don’t—don’t wash my hair, don’t cut my nails, don’t wonder what I look like from every conceivable angle.

In most sentences you can replace “angle” with “anger” and the meaning holds.

Hold the anger, hold the quiet, hold the music, hold the words on the page until they stand on their own, in the meantime cradling their tender little necks.

Worry

That stupid dinosaur-crocodile hat is hanging right in front of me. “Hat” is a generous word. It is neon, and foamy, and cheap—much cheaper than the dollar I spent to be allowed to take it from the store. I pulled out my money and pictured the hat on my head, at work. I pictured any day suddenly like Halloween. I pictured calling it a crocodile when I need crocodile energy and calling it a dinosaur the rest of the time. I pictured the rest of me in dark colors. But instead it hangs near my front door, with the summer scarves and the extra totes, and it has not been Halloween once since I purchased it. Since purchasing it I have written on the days when I “feel” like writing instead of the real good thing that is writing on a daily basis, writing through the feelings, through their lack. Writing despite x, y, & z. Writing because you don’t need to be composed in order to write. Like today, stuck indoors because of the fires and the heavy smoke and subsequent hazardous air quality, and writing about the crocodile hat that fills me with rage because I know I will not grab it on my way out the door if I am told I must evacuate my home. I would grab other things, a few very clearly and fretting over many more. Rocks and seashells, some plastic trinkets I’ve had for 15 years or more, my sticker collection. I might forget my laptop, or one of the many bundles of instant photos we have lying about or tucked away. I’m stuck indoors because the state I live in is on fire and I’m trying to “write” without thinking “too much” of what I’m trying to write, trying to just “experience” the process and the act of writing without getting ahead of myself, and the crocodile hat upsets me because who knows what that dollar could do for a less selfish person, someone stuck outdoors and worried about getting ill or already ill and worried about growing sicker or maybe just done with being worried at all but really wishing they could buy a coke. A big fat cup of ice with sugar water to the rim. How cold and clear it might be in this difficult moment. There is so much pain in the world. In the store I had pictured myself walking through long beige and blue hallways with my hat on, pretending to be none other than myself. As if it mattered. As if authenticity pursued head on could dismantle anything. I’m too busy thinking about myself to be myself, which was where my mind was when I purchased the hat.


I heard that the Almeda fire that burned northward from Ashland to Central Point was started by a homeless gentleman. I heard that when the police arrested him, he said he was hot, and he was tired of being hot, and he thought if he started a fire maybe someone would take him somewhere with air-conditioning. 

I slept much better last night, my mom said, though she’s still sleeping on the couch, which allows for a better view out her largest front window. I only woke up a few times looking for smoke.

Some people live whole sections of their lives awake at night, wishing there was a window between them and their worry.

Nobody’s sorrow is better or worse. Nobody’s fear. Nobody’s trauma. 

Those statements above are true, but only if you look at them in the right direction. A sanctioned direction.

Look at my face through the window I sit behind and you’ll see it plain and true: worry. A girl’s affliction.


The chickens across the street don’t look worried. Not the squirrels or the cats, either. I worry about them all. I sit on a large purple chair, more expensive than any piece of furniture we’ve ever purchased and only inside our home because it is second-hand, and look outside as if hunting for concern on their little animal faces. I don’t find it. Which little animal faces am I most concerned about? I don’t find worry on the faces of the crows and I don’t find it either on the face of the woman with blue in her hair and earbuds in her ears, walking down the sidewalk, smoke billowing, everything dangerous, walking just like how I picture she walks on a normal day. The day is not normal and yet there she is. Nor do I see worry on the face of the man in the navy blue t-shirt smoking a cigarette and walking like his muscles told him not to stop no matter what. He looks upset. They always do, really. People like him and the woman don’t have their priorities straight, I think to myself in one of those pre-language thoughts, just learned instinct curdling in the areas of my chest not specifically occupied by a heart. Neither of them are wearing a protective mask, smoke virus or otherwise. The man and then the woman enter and then exit my view, and soon enough I am looking again at the black and white cat across the street, a giant cookie made of fur, grooming himself on the front porch just like I’d picture him grooming himself on a normal day. Are you gonna be alright, cat? The feeling is like a light beaming out of my chest.

The window I look through gives my day the much needed semblance of a container and a routine. It makes me feel like I belong somewhere, and that somewhere is not out there

All people have voices, and some people have the space in which to use them, the default public setting of being heard. Some people are empathizable. Easy to feel across the distance. 

Which comes first: the chicken, or my worry about the chicken? The feeling of crossing a distance in order to empathize with you, or the sense that you’re already close enough for my empathy to make it over there?

The chicken is on the fence now, one of them. The other one has taken to sleeping precariously in a tree. More reasons to worry—I basically manufacture them in my spare time. I care about the chickens with no effort at all, a bursting feeling.

Some people sleep in their cars every night. Some of those people are even the “lucky” ones.

If you are well, and you encounter a traumatic moment, the city might rally. Especially if you’re white. You might be greeted with opportunity and given access to resources. The community will likely “feel” your “pain.”

If you are not well, your life a string of traumatic moments, then it sounds like this is actually just your baseline and you will be difficult to empathize with. What did you do to end up here, anyway?

I get used to the repetitions—that’s what repetition does: primes me. Deludes me and the outer world right along with it. As if pattern diffuses a thing’s maliciousness. As if form trumps content. Normalized expectations sing, and I’m sad to confess I get used to the background music, just like you. I would like to expect a less patterned, imaginary world, and trace it until it is a real shape. I want to be shocked by the shocking thing that continues to greet the daily sun. I want to “do” “something” “good.”

The cat across the street is a very big cat. But the problems are bigger than the big cat.

The chickens are the only two chickens I know, so they constitute the place where my worry pools: on the fence, in the tree. “Ignorance is bliss,” except this is only true for the beholder. What about the chickens I don’t know? There must be more than just these two. How will I know to worry about all the others?

The gray chicken has leapt into the tree now. Before tucking himself into the safety of an inner branch, he floats on the outer leaves and flowering parts. He looks like an apple. He looks like something to pluck. He is a guitar, and a whole barnyard, and the entire ocean in a single drop of chicken. He is gray, with the requisite yellow and red parts. The white one, always anxious being left behind, only gets as high as the mailbox and then stares at his ascended partner. There used to be three chickens, actually. These bird-dinosaurs are the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more plucking and leaping and breathing and walking and sleeping and wishing out there. I notice what I notice. And what I don’t notice? I don’t notice it. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t there, hovering, maybe camouflaged, scared or hot or looking for a window, maybe even something near a breeze.

On Boundaries

Having good boundaries means you are going to feel people pushing bumping running bouncing pressing off of them, in other words: making contact. People are going to make contact with you. That’s the reason to have boundaries in the first place. It will not feel like outer space neutrality; it will not be as if no air has entered or exited the room. It will not turn “hard” into “easy.” It will not make difficulties disappear, caught in some chainlink fence while you stand yards away in the background, barely registering their presence from afar. You are the boundary. You are the fence. You are the thing, both caught and catching. You are the boundaries you hold. You will shift, because you will have found your footing, and then the world will continue to change around you, often approaching and sometimes at unbearable speeds. There is north, south, east, and west: how often are you facing one of them, after all? It is likely that no matter how restful you are even in this moment, there is a world somewhere approaching. 

The world continues to change around you whether you have good boundaries or not, but the point is that good boundaries do not stop the world from changing, do not translate into an experience of not ever seeing or feeling or otherwise sensing the difficult approach of another. They do not stop others’ existing, they simply protect the fact of your own.

Others may not understand your boundaries, or may not take the time to notice them, or might not even be equipped in the first place to recognize a boundary not of their own making. Boundaries won’t prevent contact with those who would attempt to break them: instead, they prevent the wrong kind of non-contact: the kind that smushes you: so that it’s like you’re gone: the kind where you perpetually fall backwards because it feels like the only way to keep the other person from climbing aboard you and doing all the terrible things that people do while standing on top or inside of your bubble (they pressure, they force, they think poorly, etc.). 

Some people will think poorly of you no matter how good you are, and their poor thinking does not mean a thing about your good goodness. This is called, “boundary.” How many times has a boundary gone extinct in response to the fear of poor thinking? It will feel a little uncomfortable because you are alive and good, which naturally makes one dream of perpetual openness. It is always a little uncomfortable when one living thing encounters another, even if they are both good and yet still different. Uncomfortable but riveting, like air coming and going. Like the moon in a different position every single night, shocking no matter how hard you try to understand the science behind its patterned movement. You don’t need to understand the moon or the difference between you and it and you don’t need to justify your boundaries and you don’t need to circle every single good feeling with a pen that outlines it entirely just to make it real. You don’t need to know about a good feeling to feel it. You mustn’t describe a good feeling just to fill up entirely with its contributions. You can brace yourself, choose to exist firmly, choose where your doors and windows are, let the feelings come and go and be a person occasionally associated with poor thoughts by those outside you. Who cares. Disappoint them! Boundaries won’t rid the interactions of all discomfort. They will turn the discomfort into fruit. They will make it so that even on your lowest feeling days, when the world seems constructed without your input, you might still find something sweet and earth-born waiting for your mouth. 

Five Unexplored Ideas

 

I am learning to tell the difference between writing and wishing.

 

*

 

A biggest fear: someone other than me not feeling understood.

My default setting: persistently nod along.

 

*

 

It is one of the most tragic banalities of human existence that everything you are not can be a significant factor in everything that you are.

 

*

 

These little unrelated pebbles, dropped randomly on the ground or in the water, it doesn’t matter where: I jump to avoid them and am changed.

 

*

 

I understand anything in this world by pushing it away. I mean by writing it down.

Writing: a checkpoint

The ‘too’ of a woman produces violent male reactions and, in addition, the enmity of other women, who every day are obliged to fight among themselves for the crumbs left by men. The ‘too’ of men produces general admiration and positions of power.”

Elena Ferrante

 

I am my better, more thoughtful self in the writing, and for a long time I wore this fact like a medal.

*

 

Language can be good and still mean nothing.

But the very purpose of language is to convey, to express, to pass through so as to unite—in other words, to mean. Language means. Girls are mean. This is why artists separate from their bodies over time, why poets walk away, why philosophers who have built something of themselves through language are sometimes unable to stay raveled after being submerged in the medium for too long. Words let you misplace yourself onto them and before you know it you’ve turned away from yourself entirely, the very thing your body was supposed to be—self—replaced by a sense of failure: words. Ghosts. Language and meaning made total strangers to each other. Bodies and lives, buried under sheets.

*

 

There’s no such thing as separating the art from the artist, so shut up about it. It is a myth. It is the boogey man. It is a dream trying to interfere with your waking life, but only while you sleep. It is a bad movie made by an even worse director. It is a lie. It is popular nonetheless.

Think about the artists you love, the work you love through them.

Now think about the thin, thin fabric that distinguishes love from hate.

Think about the things your body comes into contact with. Think about the things you put your body near.

Now think about the things you consume throughout your daily life without knowing where they came from. Stop consuming those things or change your relationship to their production immediately. Leave the country if you must.

Too much writing may separate me from myself, but that has no bearing on my public reception, nor the poorest of bad choices I choose to make. Words over here, mistakes over there, but somewhere, deep in the middle, they do touch. Everything touches, so be prepared.

*

 

I write in order to prove to myself that I have been a person, at least once.

I want writing that accounts for lives unlived. But there is a wide chasm of difference between “unspoken” and “unlived.” I forget that. Words make me feel as if I can skip the process entirely and go straight to the product, that I could write my way into perfectly crafted living and then pop my head up and join the world from there.

I write because writing is the best way I know of to consistently achieve the dizzying state of changed perspective: how to see new places (in your head), new shapes in which knowledge can be housed (in your head), new ways of looking at the same old thing (your head). Fiona Apple: “he said it’s all in your head / and I said so is everything / but he didn’t get it.” That thing you’ve spent countless hours staring at as if through; thing you’ve gently placed on shelves or in boxes or in new rooms in new apartments, stuff that’s accompanied your every move, legal documents, muscle & bone, everything fundamental to your social existence but which does not ask to be seen on a regular basis: your brain. And then you see it, lit with recognition, your strong writer’s body discovering a new way of looking at itself as a metaphor, because writing is always a metaphor, is always a translation, the words and sentences constituting most of what’s being seen, most of what you’re so worked up about, just language on a page that used to be not there. Writing makes much of little, makes little of too much.

What I mean to say is that I write in order to see my brain, and what I see instead are words. Then the process repeats. I am a girl trying to write her way into life, when words should instead be a natural extension of what’s already happening, what can truly be said to exist.

Writing can never truly exist, it can only be said to exist.

*

 

Girls exist like the act of writing: we move along the surface of things, always paying such close attention to the deeper feelings and needs and comforts, stuff we gesture toward but do not always contain (why should we have to contain everything?). Straddling, stuck in the middle. Not as valued as the original, nor the final product. A girl is a process that is never finished, only abandoned. Girls are expected to look left and then right and then left again, to shift and to backspace. How do we know when it’s safe to cross? It is never safe to cross when you are a girl walking down the street, owner of girl parts and dreams and compassion, everything soft. When can my insides be more than just my outsides beckoning?

*

 

Ferrante again: “Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.”

What you perfect in privacy will never translate into the public sphere until you first spend some time messing up there, out in the open, in front of others. My writer’s instinct created a life of mostly waiting to bypass embarrassment (a girl’s instinct?), bypass too-much-ness, and my ideas and my imagination fed that delusion, again and again. Figure things out, then turn toward the world, she said. A girl’s extinction?

*

 

Language gets in the way of talking.

Language is a mark of education. Is a commotion. Is a thing that you can talk about with some people and not others. Some people will understand where you’re coming from. And others won’t. Language is the least and the most of what’s in the way, at all times.

 

Everything I write feels like the last thing I will write. Exhausted, hard-fought, entirely distorted.

*

 

Shania Twain was born in 1946 to a small immigrant family. Shania Twain was burned at the stake for dressing as a man, among other travesties. Shania Twain graced the TV right as I began to calculate my own intrusions, my interests, the shape of my being a female-daughter-person. My dad stared at the screen in awe while my mother joked about Shania’s dancing, the denim costume, her wild hair, the way she moved, her symmetrical face. My dad practically left the room when women like that came on TV and my mother and I could still manage to laugh even if we were alone in the room with him, too, like artifacts.

I spent so long feeling stuck in the middle of things, school and divorce and weight and influence. Too-much-ness, and the way your own invisibility can be too much, too. I longed for adulthood so that I could begin skipping some of the bad experiences. Skip the process and go straight to the product. I was a child accidentally defining her own death. I was a monster spoiled by her own thirst for blood.

Whatever’s in front of me at any given moment: that’s what I assume I am supposed to be. A newspaper, an impulse, a costume, a music video.

Shania Twain, you’re part of the reason I’ve come to feel the way I do. You even show up in the writing.

There’s no center, just circle after circle after circle of mimicry. A lot like dancing.

*

 

I know what’s best for me, the writer says. So she writes. Cropped hair, less jewelry, a body unusually at rest. In my head, the medicine swerves and tunnels through each synapse, makes thought seem tangible. If I can touch it with my hand, with my headhand, who’s to tell me I’m wrong? So I smash any two ideas right up next to each other, as if ideas were as malleable as words, and wait for them to merge. Done. I make something new, I pretend it’s me. Write and write and write and write. Make assumptions about the few people I come in contact with. Always assume the worst. Pretend nothing has anything to do with me. And so, it doesn’t.

There is meat on my bones. I leave it there, for once.

I am delirious with hunger until I suddenly remember the tide, as if memory constitutes reality. Standing still, the ocean waves at me like I mean something to it, the shells and seagulls bob in and out of frame. Everything is a frame; everything is held by everything else. I pretend to know where things start and where they end. I punch a hole in the fabric of living and call what falls out an essay.

The monstrosity of a woman expressing her wants, her hopes, having any expectations at all.

Surely I can’t be the monster. Not a small embarrassing girl like me, pretending to write.

Writing allows you to pretend almost anything.

I want to be so many things but I end up a body folded into a paragraph. I won’t even open my mouth. What if something falls out?

I’m not good at pretending things don’t matter. Everything matters, which leads to good writing and poor friendships.

When did I learn that it was best to hide my problems, to protect my struggling as if it were the most intimate version of me?

Appearances. I don’t take myself seriously but I expect everyone else to, and that is the worst type of writer to be.

*

 

You want the life to be big and the writing to be condensed from it, so that all the details are important and true without needing to be quite thorough, which words will never be. If the living is small, even a small amount of words becomes an amount too large for the life, incomparable, so that your body is down here and the words are up there, expanding outward, like padding. Life shouldn’t be padded. Words shouldn’t be the place where your life gets bigger. Life should be a large one and then, in the small occasional moments, you write. There should be too much to fit on the page.

*

 

This girl thinks she can think her way through anything if she’s not careful. Unless she’s too careful. This girl will end up in a ditch, or behind an invisible screen, or turned into a frog, depending on the amount of care she produces.

If the screen is invisible, wouldn’t you see right through to her?

You’d think so.

*

 

Writing is the space between birth and death. Sometimes it’s awful.

Anything can be a surface if there’s more beneath it.

Language is always a surface. On good days, I press my hands down flat on it and try to hold still, tell Shania I forgive her.

Sir,

an elderly woman called out to me, what she thought was me, and indeed it was except I was no sir. Could you help me with something heavy? I said yes and brought my boyfriend out instead, as if supplying her with the more accurate version of her request, the sir she wanted. Are greetings just floating signifiers, or made of actual content? I suppose it depends on the context of interpretation: artist or viewer. If the woman’s intention was to produce invitation through contact, then it worked: I understood her request immediately, didn’t look over my shoulder for the others, would not have benefitted from clarification. Who, me? A few sentences ago, I almost wrote something about, “polite contact.” Is it ever polite to misunderstand someone? To brand them with your personal expectations of how the world works? The question assumes a superficiality antithetical to community, forcing “inclusion” to revolve around sight, the status quo of all human senses. Understanding demands space for difference and curiosity, which flower with appearances, sure, but only by firmly hidden roots, all the grounded stuff you can’t expect to see. To understand someone is to know that there will be truths both contradictory and unwitnessable. The only way out into the broad arena of true recognition is therefore through questioning and apprehending, and the elderly woman did both. She suggested a world in which my gender presentation and my biological sex may not reinforce each other, and she was polite to me regardless of the potential affront that stalks such incongruities. But by now, I am mistaking the viewer’s reception with the artist’s intent, imbuing her words with stance and premeditation. She simply thought I was a boy.

I brought my boyfriend out instead, without asking for his availability, having translated question into obligation. This woman needs your help. In the face of misunderstanding—was I embarrassed? feeling defensive?—I brought a man to solve what was then reinforced as a man’s problem. Why didn’t I just help her? Because I am no sir, and my drive in that moment to establish the few attributes I lack overpowered the possibility of the many I could contain—strength, fluidity, playfulness, understanding (the woman was, after all, quite old), or just being a good neighbor. I picked up all the implications of her greeting and found a way to carry both much more and much less than the situation asked of me.

Men have always turned “weight” into opportunity: muscles tasked with function, they rectify absences, fill holes, provide height when gravity bullies and receive praise through their lifted objects without having to become them. Weight, a woman’s problem that demands modification and restraint, becomes, in the context of dudes, a thing to absorb or pick up. I am engulfed by manly distinctions, a flame too close to my back. If words sometimes stick to the wrong body, which is modified by which? Why did I say wrong body instead of wrong words? Perhaps I could only prove I was not a sir through comparison and contrast, by taking the woman’s question seriously enough to insist I could only supply, but not become, the answer. When born of insecurity, need sometimes does nothing but highlight its own relativity: if I must find a man in order to establish my own lack of manhood, what does it mean to be a woman? I am not a sir, but perhaps not inherently a she, either.

Even landscapes can be made of habit and instruction. Land goes here, sky there, keep the horizontal median plush and predictable. But gender is pure context. Things weird or new look out of place against the backdrop of all that’s already been established as what is. Trace a line far back enough and you eventually find an initial point of contact between pencil and paper, context of the origin. Is it ever polite to misunderstand someone’s gender? If things are made up, and the social world is constructed, and humans are capable of change and growth, then the question is nonsense. Only when misunderstanding morphs into insistence does confusion become dangerous. But in the context of an elderly woman wearing thick glasses, crossing the street near our lilac bush and discovering my young, accessible body: it is simple reflex gone mildly rogue.

When people ask me questions, I sometimes wish to know their long-term expectation before answering. As if truth requires context or carries a faltering sense of responsibility. By truth I mean gender. Full of holes, defining itself against others and itself and the new day.

Sea Sick

To be willing to grow, you must be willing to be, at this stage, at least a tiny bit wrong.

 

I said wrong, not different.

 

When something or someone different has to be vouched for as being “okay,” “alright,” “I mean it’s fine if that’s what you choose…,” you are indicating a system which demands that perceived otherness or badness be accompanied by language. “She’s fine.” “I guess that’s okay.” Despite, despite, despite. Lifestyle, relationship, tone, design. Shape, size, etc.

 

My point is that it is a privilege to move through space unaccompanied by language.

To not alarm anyone by your need for explanations.

 

 

To be a disseminator of the language of approval is basically to disguise judgment as tolerance.

 

Some things don’t need to be said. Or shouldn’t have to be. A more tolerant world would, in fact, be mostly quiet.

 

I suppose oxygen is okay. I mean breathing is fine. It’s alright if a “deep breath” is what you prefer. But I wouldn’t take one myself.

Who says a single person needs to understand everything?

 

 

[           People who feel the need to vouch for otherness.

People who refuse to couch their fatherliness.

People who peruse and who mouth and who cover up the rest of us.

Here, let me explain this to you. I know how badly you want to understand.           ]

 

 

There are good things in the world that you’ll never understand:

How the sun works.

What gives water its blue-green precision.

Your birth,

or where and when excitement is distinctly born.

 

You want to understand because you can’t distinguish facts from love.

You can’t love me without thinking about me. Thinking through me. Right through the middle.

And what’s the point, you say, in thinking, unless you’re gonna do it all the way? All or nothing. Either stalling or bluffing. Ball and chain. Think until you understand comprehensively.

So that when you’re done thinking, you tell yourself you’ve arrived at comprehension. F-a-c-t.

 

 

You can’t see the rooms the doors of which you haven’t even opened.

You can’t see the frog in your throat.

 

There is a frog, and you love him. You want your love mirrored by the cold shape of unmoving statement. You want to understand love from the inside, as if it were capable of being emptied out. To dissect the frog, it must be dead. Then you’ll know so much about him. Your thoughts about the frog will be buoyed by

your own objective knife, called apprehension.

 

I am working on healthy boundaries:

Distinguishing no from yes.

Leaving a room when I must.

Not laughing out of habit.

Not picking up weight that belongs to another.

 

 

I watch “love” and “understanding” meander down the street, side by side.

Not interchangeable, but in many ways, yes, parallel.

And when the two diverge, I sometimes grasp the former, let my thinking brain go on ahead a few more blocks, however far it wants to go, while we stay behind, me and my heart, no longer wishing to replace presence with scrutiny.

 

The thinking, at times, interrupts the being. Segments it. Blood-letting, a slicing motion.

It says:

I think it’s okay. I mean, what you’re doing. I suppose I think it’s fine. If I can just see it from the inside first, take a closer look at the stuff naturally kept away from me, I think I’ll feel better releasing it back into the pond.

 

 

 

How To Raise Kids Without Having Any

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject…All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.”

~Susan Sontag

 

How are you supposed to be a person before you’ve become yourself?

When you’re 9, 10, 11 years old, handcuffed by the impending sea change of hormones and the inevitability of messing up, it’s hard to overemphasize the value in looking at everything that exists outside your boundaries and then making some hard choices about where to cross over. Do you hear what I’m saying? One becomes oneself by first loitering and failing, by drinking the strange potion of doing bad things and making what will eventually be seen as, in one context or many, mistakes. Bad because not allowed, mistakes because never again. You prank people, you send a neighbor’s trash can barreling down the street, you reveal words to friends told to you by other friends and find yourself, by the end of the week, lonely and speechless and bored. You judge people and turn away from opportunities. You hang out with peers you’re “not supposed to” and drink things you’re “not supposed to.” You do little at school, and then even less; you do bad in life on purpose. If the greatest thing about being 70, as May Sarton once told a stunned crowd, is that you are more of yourself than you’ve ever been before, then the shared truth of that fact is that you are hardly so when you’re young.

So what is the job of a parent? And how do we ensure that the duties are fulfilled when the nuclear unit, already so treacherous a shape, has exploded, leaving kids parentless, and single parents stretched beyond the thin membrane of their already tapering selves, and children vulnerable to the strange spectrum of homeless <—-> home after home after home, the displacement caused by hyper-placement, the unraveling of home from a house to a street, a street to a city, or one couch to another, night after night? Kids bounce, or they run, or they are placed elsewhere; or else they share space with numerous others and find themselves shuttled back and forth between visitations and conflicting schedules, their lives unfolding not in bedrooms and classrooms—the privilege of clearly defined, designated spaces—but filling up whatever empty cracks and corners they can sneak into. Bouncing and rebounding, running and shuttling: all those gerunds are the side-effect of unintentional splitting, whether it be sudden death or the earth opening up around a couple’s previous commitment, how we adults can sometimes change our minds, or leave our minds perfectly still for too long, only to find younger generations swallowed whole by the consequences. Abuse, neglect, or things simply catching up with us, which happens a lot, in my experience of being an adult: one day I’m doing the chasing, the next day I’m being chased. And while I never moved through foster care myself and, with a few minor exceptions, generally knew where I’d be sleeping each night, I was nevertheless a child of divorce, unwellness, and adults who refused agreement and compromise; of the shattering of normality, how we all pretended, according to our ages, that we could function through to the other side of whatever it was that consumed our household for all those years.

It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I found Nora Ephron: “…infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was.” The brain damage was, is, mine, and the infidelity my father’s, who brought a whole slew of damaged and damaging women—in image, in real life flesh—into our household, exposing me, at the earliest age I can remember, to the abusive notion that my gender could achieve value only through becoming sexually desirable to a certain type of man. Achieving, becoming—in other words, gender troubles. The thing about gerunds is that they take all the action out of the verb, they function by relinquishing their motion for the stillness of a noun; they hold still when you might’ve expected them to go forward a little, and I can’t think of a better way to describe being young and feeling out of control than that.

So what is the job of a parent, a support person, a trusted adult? You can’t help a person become themselves any faster than nature and empowerment allow. But you can help a child understand that they have options, that they can make things exist that did not exist before their making them. That they can be curious, fail broadly, try again. There’s a lot of time for trying again when you’re young. But the best way to encourage the person a child will become is to model the doing, the making, the being; in other words, the personhood. Kids see how we act and what we see, they learn through the act of witnessing. The job of the guardian is to foster spaces wherein youth may witness life’s bigness, fortified by patience and humility and, above all else, a creativity that growls over perfection’s whisper.

 

The other day, killing time in a doctor’s waiting room, my partner recounted some of his teenaged hijinks to me, spoke of how he and his friends once rearranged all the lawn décor on a series of houses a few streets from their own. The doctor hadn’t called me back yet, so I reciprocated by mentioning the time I once shot a bb gun into a school window; or how I’d stayed the night in a den with a bunch of seniors when my mom thought I was already home, how I had a man call the school and claim to be my father, excusing me from the day. Some of it worked out—by the skin of my teeth, I avoided certain natural consequences—and some of it didn’t (my mom had already called the school 30 minutes before us, looking for me, worried sick). None of this stuff has any bearing on the person I am today, beyond the simple and extraordinary fact that she was once me, and that she survived.

Posturing, denial, repression. Our adult methods for making sense of a chaotic world grow sophisticated as we fall more into ourselves, as we army crawl into the lives we’ve chosen. As you get older, you learn how to do more than just casually tiptoe across the boundaries you encounter and begin to harness the full force of your unique volition, sometimes setting new, expanded boundaries. Survival depends, at least in part, on a relationship with your younger self: that you learn to let the word “forgiveness” sit lightly on your tongue, that you understand how utterance conjures the good ideas which, in turn, become actions. But survival also depends on the experience of being young, being her, and having at least one adult who will listen to your new feelings and less good ideas and transitional states of mind and, rather than dismiss them, will take them no less seriously than what’s found in the heart of every single adult who, alive and mortal, sometimes changes their mind, too. Nobody stops growing, and that’s the shared intimacy of life and death across all generations, two sides of the same fabric—the same seam, the same pattern.

To alienate a young person in their journey toward becoming themselves is a form of abuse. To pretend their struggles are not normal, to react with shock more than curiosity and understanding, to try and replace steadiness with speed or vice versa. It is to close them up into little clamshells, to pretend they aren’t the same creatures who will one day make pearls of themselves, their feelings real in the same real world of your own.

We punish kids for not being better, yet we’re full of shock when, over time, they change. “You never used to like [fill in object here],” goes the classic parental saying, or, “you used to be so __________,” always said with a touch of ridicule. As if we want to take our little loves and freeze them in place at our own shifting will. Dear reader, how many pieces of your own comprehensive heart do you show the world, and when are they static? How often is your thought process conflicted, or full of thin holes, or not anything like what you’d once expected of it?

 

We can support youth, in professional as much as personal capacities, by showing them what it looks like to be a model of misfit survival. It is nothing short of magic to watch the walls go down when a young person reveals a dark sliver of themselves and you, adult person with power, don’t flinch. You understand, you remember, you empathize. It’s hard to make hard choices in frail circumstances, you think to yourself. Sometimes, survival is the only eligibility requirement when seeking a coping mechanism from a dark place, and you recall this by reflecting on your own once-bad choices and the ways they kept you reaching into tomorrow. Validation is a big, fraught word, but at its base, all it requires is understanding, any version of it, between two people.

What youth need from us: witnessing, contemplation. And I do mean the Sontag kind, where you recognize the worthiness of a young person to the point of momentarily forgetting about yourself; this is the reward of working with youth: an “already full” heart, how the stewardship of children and teens requires paying such complete attention that you can’t help but fill up with a tenderness bigger than yourself. And when the obstacles are larger? More and more consideration. And when young people find themselves inhabitants on the spectrum of homelessness <—-> home after home after home? Place and environment are things every young human has the right to count on, but care and open communication are places, too. Nonjudgmental language is an environment. Who is that person you could turn to all those years ago, when you were young and scared and needed someone to trust, someone whose lineage wasn’t bound up with yours? Think of that someone who kept you afloat. Now imagine under whose lifejacket you might be the ocean beneath.

Neither Tree Nor Person, But Both

Notes from a master gardener in training

Confidence. It is a thing I am working on, starting at the level of sentence. But I’m suspicious of getting there through calcified certainty alone, all those hard consonants that make it so easy to mistake the one with the others. Our culture values certainty, a gut directive that wants us believing in the knowability of unknown things, sometimes at the expense of context and lived experiences that suggest otherwise. If I let my perspective stop short at the edge of my knowing, I can muster up all the feelings of certainty and security that a western adult could ever wish for.

Yet here I am, trying to refuse them and anything else born of the same cultural command for summation, the same culture that birthed me. Perhaps what I’m after belongs to the family of characteristics that Joan Didion wrote about in her 1961 essay, “On Self-Respect:” “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” Confidence, in this sense, is not about knowing you are always right, but about laying down in the bed you’ve made regardless; “whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” This form of confidence involves the recognition that belief in oneself should be no more or less valuable than trial and error, that growth occurs through the complex interactions between agency and humility. The most productive questions are the ones willing to be paired with numerous answers, arrangements that might shift from time to time, no single context carrying more weight than any other.

This framework—confidence comprised of many options—seems to be the guiding philosophy of the master gardener. In lieu of competition and lecturing, classes are full of conversation and the sharing of knowledge, something that, when done expansively, can still include a man or a woman standing at the front of the room without declaring that the rest of us are without contributions. Any sense of human power over nature is replaced instead with something more like cross-species collaboration. The language of government seems almost entirely replaced with the language of community, starting—yes, I’m going to say it—from the ground up. No self-respecting gardener would do x, y, or z! Do you hear the way all possibility shuts down through such a statement? Do you hear how, with one poor phrase, one judgmental tone, you can conflate your own preferences with someone else’s? The job of the master gardener promises not to be making decisions on behalf of others, not to reinforce the hierarchies of choice. It is instead to take one’s own wisdom—trust in your experiences (the “master” part) and humility before nature (the “gardening” part)—and encourage a similar blossoming in those you meet: whether a friend, a community partner, or a desperate client seeking advice at a plant clinic, the master gardener knows that you, too, can look at a whole slew of options and choose, with confidence, a very good one for yourself.

 

Self-respect is, nevertheless, a funny thing to pursue, especially when you’re only just beginning its coursework many years after bolting out of the womb, confidence and all its cousins having shown up late to the party that is your social, human life. Throw in any number of extenuating circumstances—difficult childhoods, too-early experiences of death, lack of outdoor play paired with a surplus of “stranger danger”—and before you know it you’re an adult plagued with inwardness and passivity, looking to assert yourself in a culture already too full of aggressive declarations.

 

[ Passive (You) ⇒ Assertive (Where you’re aiming) ⇒ Aggressive (The world) ]

Figure 1- How do we correct, but not overcorrect?

 

I look at the world around me and see a dire need for flexibility and question marks, for classrooms no longer dismissing “I don’t know” as not good enough. For vulnerability and fluidity and active listening. There is a dearth of wild movements of the mind and permissiveness of the heart, is what I’m saying. So it’s especially confusing to find myself an adult trying to own herself and her voice and her actions while staring out at the world and wishing for less rampant ownership. Another way to put it: my need for internal substance, for a crash course in assertiveness, runs head first into my sense that the world around me is too rigid and too sure of itself.

How can I want one thing for myself and another thing for the culture surrounding me? How can I be so focused on watering my plants enough that I don’t water them too much? I cannot overemphasize my seriousness: how much is the right amount of water when the wrong amounts are so close to each other that they practically touch? How can I be, all at once, a person with things to say as well as a model of quiet, attentive listening?

The best gardeners, I suspect, are both: informed and full of new questions, willing to learn and willing to give things a try. Not scared of the thin space between “not enough” and “too much” because they’re well acquainted with the wide space called good enough, said in big outward breaths, the joyful everything that grows around and through constricted boundaries. They’re not waiting for permission, nor are they ignorant of the occasional need to pause and reconsider. The best gardeners have room for wilderness and room for craft, places for growing and places for roaming, and a willingness to tend, even to value, the differences between the two, a natural philosophy otherwise known as biodiversity.

 

Still, the unproductive patterns, the ones that keep us harmfully insecure and foolishly dismissive, are difficult to unlearn, even in the most welcoming of social situations. The minute the 2018 “Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Management Handbook” landed on my table during a master gardener class, a binder so large that it practically made noise, my inner-dialogue grew nervous and judgmental: I don’t know what this is, I don’t know how to use it, I will not be able to answer the questions that will surely be asked of me, not privately, not publicly, not even in small group format with my table of lovely, nonjudgmental peers. I wished in that moment that I already knew what I was there to learn. And this is the echoing disharmony of traditional classroom spaces, that backwards thinking that most of us grew up with and some of us saw further emphasized in higher education: to succeed in a space of learning, you have to already know about the subject at hand; to be most eligible for something, you have to not need it.

Not needing what you need. My arms practically cross themselves in grumpy refusal just typing that sentence out. It’s a concept so ridiculous and so juvenile that even Nature, given a human brain and an English-speaking tongue, could not understand it. Try explaining this fear to a personified tree and he would giggle, experiencing a whole range of sympathy and pity for us self-sabotaging humans. Yes, there are days where I think even trees would make better people.

 

It’s hard to find balance in an imbalanced world, much like it’s hard to do well in a class on a subject that’s brand new to you; these are not facts meant to counter-argue confidence, but to provide the soil in which it must grow.

Once, a yoga teacher put us all in tree pose, where you balance on one leg, as a room of us students wibble-wobbled our way through thirty difficult seconds. She remarked that we were all balancing perfectly, because balance isn’t about staying stick-straight and still. It’s about wobbling and adjusting each moment so that you get stronger and find more equilibrium.”[1]

For a pest’s natural enemies to survive, they must have a pest population on which to feed.”[2]

See how the very thing you’re trying to escape is sometimes the thing you need? To do poorly because you’re learning. To lean in the very direction that feels like falling. To fight against the pose because the fighting is the pose. To be a tree poorly because that’s how we get to be trees at all: wiggling and failing, knowing the value and limitations of our not-tree-ness and laying down in our garden beds anyway.

 

[1] October 2018 new moon horoscope for Taurus, Rookie.

[2] Chapter 20—“Integrated Pest Management,” Sustainable Gardening: The Oregon-Washington Master Gardener Handbook.