Secret Canon

Excuse me while I drink summer through a firehose as medication for a particularly poor handling of northeast winter. A short how-to: live 17 days on a boat, snorkel every day, spend most of the time reading library books, eat slices of deli turkey straight from the not-cold-enough boat refrigerator, learn approximately 1.5 Greek words, stay awake for 1 sunset with some significant help, forget how to tie all the knots you were supposed to learn how to tie. And dance, dance! dance.

More on that later, but for now, the real reason I came here. I’m languishing (flourishing, really) in the heat of July and L. sends me an article. As I continue on my now-three-year experiment of reading mostly women, I thirst for a way to describe how I feel about suddenly understanding an entire planet, solar system, universe, black hole inside of me that I hadn’t even been able to put words to before. I’ve grown more wary of the self-centeredness of male writing, the way much of it chops life up to fit only the male author’s own tiny reality. So how much of my (our?) experience of the world would be different had we (also) been encouraged to read the secret canon, the one written from the female point of view? There are other interesting coincidences, but anyway, this piece by Audrey Wollen floored me.

I hold my women close, dead or not. Not-ness, of course, being our way of life. When I was asked to consider how men should be, I thought about how it must feel to not be not—a walking double negative. I can’t tell you how to be from this space of non-being. My boyfriend and I frequently get into arguments over my tendency to generalize. He loves specificity, context, nuance. I respect it, and I love those things too. But I usually speak in large categories, universal proclamations, talking like a manifesto even in gossip, in passing. I know stereotypes are stupid and harmful, for obvious reasons, but I’m willing to defend generalizations, as that’s all language seems like to me. A small, insufficient thing standing in for a big, complicated one.

I finally explained to him, when I talk about “men” and their power, their shortcomings, it is not for blindness to the subtleties of the individual or their circumstances. It is simply a practical solution for a lack of time. Do you want me to list every man who has done violence to me or my loved ones? I don’t know all their names. Trying to list them would be like recreating Borges’s map over a map—you know, that thing where they map the landscape so perfectly it just lays over it, doubling it. I can tell you my life in patriarchal harm, but it would take the length of my life over. I only have one.

I feel like I’m doing one of those negative space drawings in art class, tracing the air between the elbow, finding the blank edge. It is an impossible project, a feminist feeling. We spend a lot of time debating whether men should be written about, but I don’t know if “should” is the right verb. I don’t know if men can be written about, if it’s even a possibility. It’s simply not a sustainable model, as demonstrated by the impending end of the world. Every time you slice into the canon, girls rush out like ghosts. Lou, Paula, Katherine, Marina, so on and so on.

impermanence

I fell asleep one night in the middle of reading a paragraph I didn’t want to let go of. I wrote down mono no aware, so that I’d remember it the next day. The Japanese phrase (an empathy towards the inevitable passing of all things), reminds us to maintain awareness of impermanence: the first rule of life is that nothing lasts forever. The power of spring and autumn lies in their transience. I’ve been writing letters to my body, thanking it for being my home. Life isn’t easy on the body, but here it is still, steadfast. Still providing me a home. Knees are amazing.

***

We plan to meet at the farmer’s market. It’ll be… pretty early, he tries to warn me. I am relieved when I reach the top of the stairs coming out of the subway station: blue skies.

He teaches me about selecting oyster mushrooms, gives me leaves of sweet spinach to taste even as I glance at the vendor, wondering if it’s okay to just walk around tasting things.

“Don’t worry so much. Just put it in your mouth,” his eyes crinkle knowingly. Even in my thirties, I still haven’t gotten over double entendres. I vow that I never will. Apples, potatoes — Yukon gold. He balances the sourdough on the top of my head, and I laugh. It’s just warm enough that I don’t mind being outside, but still cold enough for him to ask me if I want apple cider. Of course I want apple cider.

When he chops vegetables, it sounds like that time he improvised on the djembe. I tell him I’m in a meeting, but I watch him out of the corner of my eye as he slices through the apple and tastes it. The Q train rumbles underneath us so that it feels like we’re suspended in the sky or in a secret cellar underground; one of the two. I write scattered notes about it. I don’t want to forget.

Some things that I tasted, I forget. I can’t remember the name of the apple, and I have never been able to find the same kind since. But other things I tasted, I can’t forget if I tried.

After we slather homemade jam on the sourdough and eat all the apple mash, his brown eyes grow soft. We’re sort of dancing around a subject, and to pass the time he talks about how much he admires the work I’ve done.

“What about you? Look what you can do with an apple.” I put more jam in my mouth.

“Well. It’s just food,” he says, his tone bordering on something between discontent and hunger.

For the sake of avoiding other topics, we debate the importance of technology versus food for a while, and he gets up to give me a cookbook from his shelf. His hand is tracing circles on my hand, and I close my eyes. I take the stance that a chef would be more coveted than a technical project manager in the event of an apocalypse, but in the end there is a larger point I am making about the importance of food.

Mono no aware,” I mutter at some point.

“What?” he asks.

“It’s nothing, I’ll tell you later.”

Ferran Adrià said, “Painting, music, movies, sculpture, theater, everything — we can survive without it. You have to eat, or else you die. Food is the only obligatory emotion.”

***

Poetry books are stacked across my desk because I’m recording poems for friends. This evening I recorded and sent this one to M., who requested something about reclaiming power. It’s by Ada Limón.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

***

That aphorism they say about April showers: now that I live somewhere with seasons, I can finally confirm that it’s true. The blooms fall all around me whenever I walk in the rain. I am already contemplating this year’s roaming battles: both emotional and physical. I am contemplating last year’s abundance, the tenderness, the growth from the tender places, the stagnancy, the struggle. The clouds that passed overhead and then cleared up. It’s not organized, it’s never been. I tidy and tidy, like Marie Kondo tells me to, but somehow it still feels so messy. How do I embrace all this uncertainty? Is it ok to be so affected? Are havens meant to be temporary? Aren’t our bodies, also? I’m lazy on the grass, staring up at the blossoming trees. The light from the sunset spreads so quickly, and leaves so steadfastly. C. writes, “Bad things, like all things, are just a type of light.” Well, then. I’ll take it, with open palms. I’ll take it all.

“you are beautiful”

The pressure of social norms seems to increase in the digital age. Social media places a new pressure on everyone to remain forever photogenic, forever young, forever thin and fit, forever wrinkle-free. While eating Instagrammable food.

The trope of “doing it for the ‘gram” has become an inescapable religion with impossible, Sisyphean expectations. We watch the stories of already-thin women lamenting that they are “so behind” in their Coachella diets, and other people proudly starving themselves before Burning Man (a festival ironically born out of radical inclusion). When women don’t eat, it is criticized as anorexia; when men don’t eat, it is lauded as “biohacking.”

With all the messaging about “wellness” and “clean eating” and “intermittent fasting,” do you really even know how or what to eat anymore?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes:

About two years ago, I decided to yield to what every statistic I knew was telling me and stop trying to lose weight at all. I decided to stop dieting, but when I did, I realized I couldn’t. I didn’t know what or how to eat. I couldn’t fathom planning my food without thinking first about its ability to help or hinder a weight-loss effort.

Do you feel pleasure at sitting down to a meal? Would you feel healthier anticipation about a trip if you didn’t worry so much about how your body looked?

Are we exhausted now by what we’ve defined as beauty?

Megan Nolan writes:

It has seemed to take up so much of my life, being desperate to not only be acceptable to look at, but also beautiful, exceptional, enchanting. What might I have experienced if I had not been trying to claw my way toward beauty? What things might I have thought, feelings might I have felt, if that space were freed up inside of myself?

What would it have been like to pass that mirror in my hometown, and to see myself — on the way to the library, or a party with friends, or a walk in the park — and simply feel glad that I was able to do those things, that I have a body that allows me to? What would it have been like not to look at it at all?