Children, Letting Go, Parenting

Language Immersion

water dragon

The motionless dragon in deep waters becomes the prey of the crabs.


– A fortune in a cookie in Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth

My mother is taking a Spanish class.  This is her retirement.  She also teaches ESL several days a week and is active in two book clubs.  Each spring, with a gaggle of bibliophiles, she travels to the UK for a mystery writers’ conference.  She goes to church, putters in the garden, cooks a meal almost every evening to share with my dad, and shows up at Bug’s school events.  She even pops by my house to give Noodle a daily walk while I’m at work.

All of this, and now Spanish.

“I need to do something to keep from being bored,” she says.

In all seriousness.  Bored.

Continue reading “Language Immersion”

Art, body, Creativity, Writing

Bowl Cut

MudMaid2

“Can bowls swim?”  a question asked.  I knew the answer they wanted was No.  But bowls could float, even heavy bowls, if flat and large enough. The large, flat-bottomed bowl of an ocean liner, for instance.  If Paul thought like that, too, he’d give the wrong answer.  They meant small inanimate household bowls.  Not the bowl of the deep ocean, say, holding currents, coral, plants, and creatures — itself floating on the earth’s liquid core of iron and nickel, whose swaying produces Earth’s magnetic field. Not the bowl of the earth floating — or, with so many life forms, was it swimming? — in space.


— Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love

It is all okay, just the way they say it is.  By every measure, it is fine.

Rise weary.  Shower off the animal, dress in unremarkable cloth.  Speak in operation manual dialect.  Meet only the eyes of the bus driver and snap straight the helicoid moment as you stride to claim your seat.

Write like a man, the librarian says.  She scrubs her emails now.  Each is an écorché peeled free of padding.  Each correspondence a naked, muscled machine, its purpose laid bare.

Maybe we danced before.

Maybe we pretend we haven’t forgotten the petronella turn.  Continue reading “Bowl Cut”

Poetry, Relationships

Vigilance

eggs

Eggshell is a shade
cool as pitted milk-soft carapace
and searing as canker, rope
burn across yoked tongue. It strains
against the unspoken
inchoate
yet swelling
power to rupture
the membrane
that keeps us
separate
yet nested
together. Caution fails,
a crack forms,
unleashing the wind
now hissing across
this uncrossable divide.

 

Image Credit: Still life by Jo Bradney

Choices, Love, Relationships

Sky’s Limit

There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

Nowhere in the Odyssey or Iliad will you find the color blue. Homer’s sea was dark as wine, his sky fingered rose. Indeed, the word itself is missing from the whole of ancient Greek.

This defies logic. The vast canopy envelops us in blue. What blindness could obscure those coruscating waves as the bolt of silk billows open to the day? Sapphire, azure, cobalt, cerulean. We see this now and maintain it must always have been so.

But this too: What name was glass when those first Mesopotamian beads fell from the fire? What did we call that handful of thatch when we ventured out from the cave and found ourselves in need of a roof? The people of Atacama never have foggy memories. And you, city dweller, suburban native, may live a whole lifetime without capturing in words the clank and groan of the pumpjack as it drinks up oil from under the broken steppe.

To know a thing is to name it. We describe what becomes familiar as our mind splits it from the mottled everything and our senses fight to trace its shape into being.

When a thing is everywhere it is nowhere. Sky becomes blue when we develop the capacity to make blue and the concurrent desire to trade in it. Indigo velvet, lush royal moire. Now we grind a once exceedingly rare pigment out to its dizzying extremes. Now we call up a spectrum of descriptors for the field across which the sun and stars make their journey.

Indeed, we have dozens of terms where we used to have none. These words pin our eyes to ever-finer slices of hue, and we discern every shade as a distinct and almost solid thing. It is impossible to un-see what’s fixed now on the canvas, so we assume these shades were born with the world.

We believe we name what exists, when really, we birth what we name.

Ask this: what might the sky be without lapis and cornflower? To the ancient Greeks, it could have been a copper valley laced with honeyed streams, or herringbone and almond root, or blood seeping through sheared wool. From dawn to dusk and around again, petal and wing and wine and jewel. The sky holds anything given a name.

But only that, and nothing more.

Now you pull the door closed as you leave.

You take our words, all the ones we’ve only just begun to distill and to weave and — yes, we were almost so bold, we came so close — to conceive.

You, one who was not until he was. In the anonymous swirl, a faceless other. I was as blind to you then as Homer to a 21st century sky. If my language had a word for you at all, it would have been as it is with “bird” until the plangent whipporwill calls down night, with “tree” until sweetgum briars bite tender feet. You were stranger, neighbor, father, man. The general is where things might have remained.

Then I saw you.

I see you.

You are.

Then we have in our hands the material of us, thread and patches, a whalebone form. But what is it? What word do we coin for this new architecture?

Do we even think to ask?

When the sand-burnt debris fell out of the fire, it could have been stone, it could have been trash. Its very existence was determined by the lexicon’s outer limits. Beyond that horizon line, all things embryonic swim in the invisible not-yet.

Until someone picks it up and says, this is something else.

The boundaries shift. The world expands.

Sifting through ash, someone finds it again, shares it, and someone else finds it yet again. They begin to recognize it as an it, to spin it and shape it, and the infant entity takes its place in the vocabulary of civilization.

How many beginnings are discarded or broken, how many — for want of notice — fail to hatch?

How many nameless wonders already walk among us that we are unable to see? What kaleidescopic marvels sing against our blind skin?

We can garnish our curiosity with courage. This ability is our human birthright, and we can let our minds split an almost imperceptible variance from the mottled everything. It is up to us to marshal the tremendous combined force of sense and choice, and to trace the shape into being.

Kinship becomes love when we develop the capacity to make love and the concurrent desire to trade in it.

Love becomes the invention into which we breathe life when we sift it from the ashes and say, this is.

We are.

This is something else.

 

Brain, Things I Can, Writing

87. Things I Can Exchange: Not for Is

Volunteers in the study were asked to hold a grip sensor as they heard a variety of verbs related to manual actions, like ‘throw’ or ‘scratch’, in different sentence structures. The researchers observed a significant increase in the strength of participants’ grip when words were presented in an affirmative sentence, but no such reaction when the same action words were presented in a negative context, such as ‘don’t throw’.

Writing advice from an unknown source: Replace any negative statement with an affirmative one.

“He does not go” becomes “he stays.”
“The delivery hasn’t shown up” becomes “the package has yet to arrive.”
“I haven’t showered” becomes “I need to shower” or “Let me clean up” or “I’m a fragrant mess.”

It seems simple enough. A game, really. It starts as play then becomes imperative. Then mission. Continue reading “87. Things I Can Exchange: Not for Is”

Choices, Relationships

Choice Words

We must appreciate the power of redescribing, the power of language to make new and different things possible and important — an appreciation which becomes possible only when one’s aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description.

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

You ask the color of my day.
I ask where will we go.
You say when we are old.
I say you show me this.
You ask what is exciting.
I ask which words
you want to hear instead.

The shadow question could steal
in. Does sometimes
voice
into form, flesh
into golem. Why are you so
Wrong with
Don’t you see
See why you don’t?

Yes is a synaptic response
to stiumli and also
a stimulus itself, an anatomy
not unlike that of
Can’t
and Will.

It is a fallacy
of misplaced concreteness
to claim we are
this way
or even that we are.

You and I are not us.
We make us.

I say this
(touch you here)
is why I do.

You ask what we choose.
I ask what will it take.
 

Co-Parenting, Family

If you Stop to Put Out the Fire, Turn to Page 8

My eye keeps tripping over the red square on the Google calendar. It says “Class Assignment Surveys Due” but I can’t recall if it’s for work or Bug or something else entirely. While I’m trying for the fourth time to re-arrange the month of June, my weary brain gives me a nudge. Remember? Yes. The survey is an annual collection of parental insight into our kids’ quirks and métiers. These descriptions supposedly help the school determine class assignments for the coming year. Our perspective is mere garnish on the overfull plate that our precious darlings serve up to teachers and playground monitors every day, but it must add some texture to the mélange.

I get on the horn to call Tee. “Surveys are due next Friday,” I say. “I think we have to pick them up at the office.” He doesn’t recall the email so we bounce around about the details before finding the PDF online. I ask Tee if we could each jot down some ideas and then combine them to submit to the school. He hedges before asking, “Why can’t we each just fill one out? I’m sure they won’t mind getting one from each of us.”

We have come to this juncture so many times, the page is coming loose from the binding. If you disengage, turn to page 47. If you try to collaborate, turn to page 82.

Continue reading “If you Stop to Put Out the Fire, Turn to Page 8”

Love, Relationships

Flushed and Fleshed

Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

So we stand in the low sun and try to flush out need with questions. As if need is the fat, slithering shush roiling the fallen leaves. As if words are the stick driving it to face us.

Smelling of mud and green apple candy, we lean against each other and try to flesh out need. As if our voices can give shape to something that may have just been a hiccup in the breeze.

I remember when love was a surging state. It had to rise up and flood the senses and then loving acts followed. Much like confidence. Like hope.

This was truth unexamined.

When does the possibility of bidirectional causation emerge? Is it when you grow up?

Or does seeing the relationship turn back on itself finally make you grow up?

Now I understand this: Act as if the capacity exists and you make it appear. You make it appear to be so, yes, and also to take shape, to arrive. Accumulate enough instances of contrived appreciation or optimism or boldness, and you become enamored. Hopeful. Brave.

Maybe like me, you don’t buy any of it. You’re sure you are fooling yourself and it might all come crashing down. Maybe you sort of wish you believed your choices are good ones and could possess the kind of conviction that clarifies each subsequent decision. Maybe you sort of envy the positive thinkers (upbeat or certain or — worse yet — both).

Like me, maybe you suspect the equanimity that must accompany conviction will never balm your fears. Indeed, doubt may itch at you until the day you die.

Face it. You are too far gone for faith. Or maybe too much here. You would never seal those doors lining the corridors of perception. A mind that knows (knows!) it is always missing something only needs a pinhole to chase light to its source. Your curiosity is the thrumming, silver string. It is one note that strikes at your key. You could no more still it than you could give up sight. Or sex. Or speech.

Like me, you want to move towards something. Like you, I want to stop moving and be.

We pause and hold the map between us. We start to draw along the contours. Instantly, the delineation becomes a perimeter. A boundary.

Even just tracing a route with our voices, we hedge.

Precision is folly. Orderly sequence is illusion.

Because the trail we choose forks. It always does. Yellow blazes then green and then maybe none at all. And here is a river, and here is a burl on a dying oak in the shape of a devil with a broken horn. Here is a sound like a creaking open door. Here is the shush, the movement at the edge of sight, the tunnel out from under the bounds (the bonds) we trusted held us to this place, and this place to the earth.

We lean against each other, word as breath drawing need.

Drawing it out. Filling it in.

We decide it is in fact a snake. With nothing more to go on than a single word from me, you step into the now-still leaves. I sense it. You name it. We add it to a collection that includes a single yellow butterfly and five slender minnows darting from their shade.

Today’s choice is the only one.

To you, I hold.

Like you to me.
 

Brain, Reading

Taken Literally, part II

Inside the brain of the reader, a transformation takes place. Words may become pictures to enjoy, or mysteries to be solved, or conversations to engage in. Sometimes readers surrender to a text and sometimes they scrap with it. Reading is woven into the rich fabric of experience, and it cannot be separated from speech, pleasure, challenge, play, and curiosity. As much as it is an activity, reading is a habit of mind.

From part I of Taken Literally on SmirkPretty, October 2011

It is not an assignment. I require nothing. No chide or nudge prompts him. I do not even issue an invitation.

“Hey, Mom. Look at this.” He plops down on the red sofa and I scoot over to make room. Not too much room, though. I wrap my arm around his belly as he flips open his latest library book. Out loud, he reads.

“What’s the main ingredient in puppy biscuits?”

I shrug. “Bacon?”

He looks up at me through his wild hair and grins. “Collie-flour!”

We both crack up and fall into each other. He turns to the next page. “Which vegetables do little dogs like best?”

“I dunno.” I screw my face up. “Carrots?”

Pup-peas!” He hollers.

We groan and moan and giggle through the rest of the book. My boy’s voice is low waves rolling the jokes up to where they crash on the punch line’s bright shore.

Here is register. Inflection. Vocabulary. Comic timing. This is no longer the dog paddle. It’s freestyle in open water.

He rides the current. Without even taking a breath, he plunges through words that have never shown up on a spelling list. Ingredient. Biscuit. Vegetable. We splash over and under every page together. Flitting through the sea of high-frequency wheres and yous are these surprises, these oddities. Rafting. Sunbathing. Hunting. He does not slow. Happened. Bloodhound. Goldfish. Tough.

He is doing this. My boy is reading.

And laughing.

Reading.

And surging.

This is not homework. It is not an assignment. He is choosing

reading.

And loving

reading.

Divorce, Poetry

Called Into Friend

You’re getting stronger every day
I write to her
name on a faceless band
of light. We are far
from separate selves, warp and weft of crossing
need, proximity, and cut from the same
tongue. Language mediates thought
they say
(and also must think)
language makes real
whatever we choose together
is enough
for truth. We discern
and determine
in the very same breath. So thankful
for you
she writes back. It could have been
never this. I could have picked
another answer in the classroom
where she came with the cracked
arc of her story. I could have picked
up the phone tonight and heard her
make me real
which I am not
certain is the case. The haze
at the fringes of iced dark
cuts like blades. It is winter
but only if we choose to call
together these waves and absences,
the frayed seams of our orbit,
and bind them into a word
like season. She and I are one
and the same
in a single blink, single
mothers now
there’s a term that weaves truth
right into its opposite. She calls me
love. I say she is a gift. We spin
the woolen clouds
of our yearning into letters and tie
the ends into sailor’s knots, good
nights, we make good
on promises we’ve finally begun
to warm and turn
into us.