Category: writing

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

― Dan Albergotti

(thank you to Matthew Ogle’s Pome tinyletter for this poem)

***

The days roll and mash together. Like the dough for sourdough bread under certain hands. My fingers tap tap at the keyboard and I watch E. make a different kind of dough every day: Dumpling dough. Autumn maple rye dough. Lemon peel blueberry scone dough. Buttermilk biscuit dough. My twin sister, a physician, is being retrained to work in the ICU.

We watch Elton John’s living room benefit concert. We put on musicals in the living room. J. makes a Tik Tok video. We eat cake for breakfast. Every day I have this particular brand of “survivor’s guilt” – what can I do as a knowledge worker who has the privilege of working in the safety of my home? How can I help? I collect ways to help. It doesn’t feel like enough. I know there are people everywhere who need help. I practice my Mandarin to help answer a hotline for the elderly who need assistance. It doesn’t feel like enough.

Nature doesn’t notice, it moves forward anyway: the cherry blossoms burst into song. The rain falls from infinite blue skies. From my window, I can see the red-breasted robins dance together. I watch the flowers grow. My eyelashes fall out. I don’t finish any books, I read a few pages and can’t go on. There is currently no feeling of future except more sickness, more death, so I’m relieved that the same people text me every day. We text about groceries, the rain, the garlic scapes, dating over FaceTime. It is comforting to develop a pattern again. A. reminds me of the three words of intention I set at the beginning of this year: stillness. creativity. abundance.

Here, in the belly of the whale: all of this time, abundant time. Here, in the belly of the whale: all of this stillness, abundant stillness. Here, in the belly of the whale: all of this bread, abundant bread. Out there, people are dying. There will be more soup, E. tells me when I try not to finish the soup. I don’t believe him that there will be more, so I don’t finish the soup.

He makes more soup.

let it be absolutely winter

In February, it is too cold to meander: leisure takes a backseat to power walking through gallery openings. The wind rips through my hat but I try to find the beauty too, like the coziness of being outside looking into a window lit with warm light, watching other people drink cheap champagne and discuss art. There is a German word for this feeling, I am sure of it. The art-goers are nibbling on Chex Mix and in any other setting, the Chex Mix would be cheap but against the backdrop of nocturnal art and winter, it looks like the best damn snack in the world.

I frequent basement jazz clubs more often in the winter. Our coats strain against the random hooks scattered across the walls. This coats-on-hooks thing is uniquely wintry, something I had never experienced before in Texas. The constant scramble to make sure you have all the accessories at the end of the night: Scarf? Hat? Gloves? Multiple sweaters? I’m still not used to it. The orange-brown hue of Old Fashioned drinks illuminated by candles that blow out every few minutes from the opening door. The way the saxophone wraps itself around you like a purring animal – all of this, this can’t be replicated in the heat.

A few months ago, E. texted me that he was out buying a snow blower with his brother-in-law. I responded, “Wow, that’s New England AF.” E.’s response: “…Rose, we don’t live in New England.” (“She’s smart, I swear,” I heard him whisper later. I did deserve that.) Living most of my life in the very southern part of the country insulated me from having to know where “New England” really is, or definitively what the demarcation is. Not that if you had asked me to think about it I really would have made the mistake, but it was an honest snap retort that made us laugh later. I just think of New England as The Place Where There Is Cold Winter. And The Need For Snow Blowers.

It doesn’t ever get easier. Not this season, not these feelings, not this cold. But the light changes, yes. Or, how we see the light. Or how we use it, sometimes even to our delight.

AK asks me if I’ve been writing, and it’s hard to answer that sometimes life moves too quickly for writing. It moves at the pace of note-taking, frantic scraps. Fragments I scribble even when my fingers are freezing in the tunnels of wind. Poems I write down to think about later.

Speaking of the winter and New England, I can’t stop thinking about this:

Part of Me Wanting Everything to Live

This New England kind of love reminds me
of the potted chrysanthemum my husband
gave me. I cared for it faithfully,
turning the pot a quarter turn each day
as it sat by the window. Until the blossoms
hung with broken necks on the dry stems.
Cut off the dead parts and watched
green leaves begin, new buds open.
Thinking the chrysanthemum would not die
unless I forced it to. The new flowers
were smaller and smaller, resembling
little eyes awake and alone in the dark.
I was offended by the lessening,
by the cheap renewal. By a going on
that gradually left the important behind.
But now it’s different. I want the large
and near, and endings more final. If it must
be winter, let it be absolutely winter.

― Linda Gregg

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.

Addendum: another article explores the suggestion that women have less time to create.

I also wonder: what if we really did do the work to create a world where the sisters of Shakespeare and Mozart, or any woman, really, could thrive? What would happen if we decided women deserved the time to go to their dusky rooms and stay awhile at the kitchen table? 

The writer VS Naipaul claimed that no woman writer was his match, that women’s writing is too “sentimental”, their worldview too “narrow” – because, you know, men’s lives are the default for the human experience.