I miss people. As a self-declared introvert, I’m surprised, pleasantly – I miss people badly. The list of what I miss is endless. I miss their clean smells, their dirty smells, their mop of hair, their prickly beards. The irony of their eyebrows. Their slack lids, their twitch. Their sniffles and complaints about their sniffles. The bass timbre of their voices. The cloud of their breath, their own personal barometer. I miss their living quality. (And that’s just the face.)
I miss things of the senses. My senses gather confirmation of all kinds regarding external existence. They are the yes to my no or yes to my yes. They are charged fields that activate me, as plants churn sun with chlorophyll for energy. People and their vibe – they are the other to my I. The talk to my talk back. Without the other, how do I know I exist?
I am a skeptic of the virtual. The compilation of pixels will never convince me, viscerally, of life. And yet, do I have a choice?
Nothing is new under the sun, not even confinement. The sun is not new, narrow straits not new, the liberation story rolls like time in search of an ending. With Passover we should be done but we keep narrating, like old people forgetting we’ve already told it five thousand times. The more freedom, the more we struggle to know what it means. The truth of Exodus is on trial, in crisis. Salt waters crest to our chins. Awestruck, we know nothing can be said though we testify and babble in quivering attempt. We want to want more keenly. On high, the Lover is never quite satisfied; He sees our desire raw, though not raw enough.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
Of course we introverts have feelings. We know that real grief is sometimes too deep for words. The Covid-19 plague blew in with a whiplash of emotional states, laced with adrenaline and black humor. I made jokes, rolled my eyes in the vertigo of each shifting reality and read social media — until the torrent of words, emotions, anger, f-words, words, words, f-words, knocked me down.
What exhausted me was the snap mastery, the fear-driven rush to judgment. Then the need, akin to the Biblical Job’s friends, to mouth all-knowing vindications of tragedy. It didn’t leave much room for the kind of tongue-tied response of silence and awe that made me sit, shaken and numb and full of longing. I pulled in and pulled from my shelf the books of my companion poets. In the language game, whose words would stand up to reality? Great artists who had taken harrowing journeys and sent word back. Those guides brought me across the void, helped me mourn and feel sorrow for the immensity of what is being lost.
The weeks since then have been spinning by. Spring is celebrating itself. Pink buds wave towards the future while we are stuck on reruns. The new reality is taking shape. It is technological. It is busy while being stilled. It used to be a metaphor that if you’re not online, you’re invisible. Now it is a reality.
We can’t run into people in the agora/marketplace anymore; you have to show up in a de-centered agora, online world to show presence. Without the shelter of the body, eye contact, bodily judgement, warm smile, we have to cross the threshold from private imagination to screen. Tons of people do it. Others of us cringe. On the one hand, the invisible is swallowing our selves. On the other hand, one might argue that selves expressed on social media are never quite real anyway — and now we’re engaging in a whole series of endlessly mirrored and repeated recreations. We are caught in the tension of being made invisible, at home, cloistered away from it all, or online, performing an infinite reflecting mirror of self. Then there’s the obvious extention of the love-hate relationship: our screens are not only conduits of connection with loved ones and family, but also vectors of surveillance and control, as Debarati Senyal discusses in her excellent blog about Camus and Covid. https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2020/03/27/the-virus-and-the-plague-albert-camus-on-covid-19/
If you were looking for how-tos for introverts, I don’t yet have the manual. Check back over the next few weeks. I’ll be writing it as we go along!
Marfa. Its name precedes it as an art-oasis in the Chihuahuan Texan desert. It has a certain droll quality – and might suggest such drollness is part of its very nature. One can’t help but wonder, “What the hell are we doing here?” Donald Judd, the mastermind who purchased the former Fort D.A. Russell, with Dia Foundation, and installed 100 of his milled aluminum cubes of varying angles, might have relished the question. His answer, dry, droll, might be his very gesture of art. Self-referential, but here I am, in all my glory. It is what it is. Better than in a museum, leaning into the sparse empty desert where somehow, the human wants to put his mark, his query, the unfoldings of his mind. When I suggested to a guide, a lanky silver-bearded dude, that Judd had transformed violence of artillery sheds into art, the guide jumped quickly to deny intention: “Oh no! He wouldn’t have done that. The fort was cheap!” Equally, Dan Flavin, whose magnificent aura of flourescent tubes fills dank barracks, gave simple instructions on how to interpret his work: Don’t. it is what it is. Easy in, easy out. Don’t overthink it. Don’t imagine artists are acting as missionaries bringing the good (art) word to the land of pickup-trucks, Native and Latino and LBJ and Glenn Campbell. Or that they want anyone to be mystical even though the desert is open, and gorgeous, with a certain induction to metaphysical thought. The self-referential art culture that has grown around such an ambitious project will eventually lean outward, beyond itself, if you let it.
The Canadian writer Dionne Brand says when you go on a trip, you leave the table, the book on the table, everything behind; the book and the table know you’ll be an entirely different person when you get back.
That’s hyperbolic even for a poet-traveler like me. And yet, a little road trip across New Mexico and Texas has affected me; the strange beauty of the American desert has me saying, ya know, maybe this place isn’t that bad. (I guess I am a different person).
There are cities — humans in their settlements — and suddenly there are none. You strike out ahead on the straight and narrow into myth, the road and its companion big sky. You speed by land that is patterned with strange geometry of desert yucca, reoccurring over and over so that what you just passed is what you are still seeing. Bleached out, quiet. Empty scruff with shifting colors and light. Little tufts of cactus sprout on the bald land, dead but full of life. The road.
We were seeing ghost towns and big sky and lots of road. Baby antelopes feasting on desert agave, on desert willow and scruff.
When the land gives way to settlements again, one wonders about pressures that shape the human. We came to Roswell, a town where people swear UFOs landed. Out of town, a scent rises over the plain — stockyards, cattle squeezed into small spaces, then oil rigs and pumps. Then the relief of groves of pecan trees. The peaceful desolation on the sage desert gives way to industrial ravage. Boomtowns like Carlsbad sprout from the business of fracking, and people are slick and giddy with money. I’ve never seen so many trucks or ads for liability lawyers (“Get burned in an oil rig? Call the big guy.”)
The faces, the drawl, the ten-gallon hats, the gang of four cheerful sheriffs coming into a wood-paneled joint for their breakfast of huevos rancheros; even Tony, the Trump enthusiast who wanted to buy me dinner — all make rich the human landscape along the strange road.
Sometimes you miss a place as you’re there, and you’ve never been there before. Or Santa Fe, as my mother might say, slayed me. It isn’t hard to say why. 1) on my way to AWP, the literary conference this year in San Antonio, Texas, I stopped to see dear friends, who used to live next door and now live in paradise. From my window up on a mountain, Santa Fe lay sprawled like a flat lizard illuminated with lights. 2) The colors, oh that ochre earth, ground down from volcanoes. By some unseen hand, it seems to have made the entire town. 3) Night is perfumed by a cool air and hot scent, smoldering sage and pinion 4) Art. Native art museums, galleries, Georgia O’Keefe and if that isn’t enough, 5) Skiing at dizzy altitudes, in glades, that somehow feels mellow. Another country heard from.
While making dinner — or reflecting excitedly on the importance of making dinner while sipping wine — I began to shape ideas that have been pressing on me during the week. What had been expected and feared to happen in bad faith presidential action was happening. Many of us could see the vindictiveness coming; now it almost felt posthumous.
My anger had been simmering into something else: into a rich, bittersweet sorrow for the “we” of country. How distant we are from our “exceptional” goals (hardly the first time, hardly the last). What poor flawed creatures! In my wash of compassion, I felt that old-style pity. Recognizing my pivot, my poetic turn and dance move, I saw, again, that we can open to the other, be medicine to counteract the poison.
So here’s to pounding the garlic cloves with thyme with mortar and pestle! To sizzling peppers in a pan over the flame, to share. Here’s to winding up to the big question: Can everyday life be a moral response to political failure?
It has to be yes. In my kitchen, moral questions like these touch on either Torah or Tolstoy. Last night it was Tolstoy who imagines his character Pierre, in War and Peace, as a wartime captive witnessing the execution of prisoners. He sees an abyss, an unpassable wound. He can’t imagine how his world can continue. Unexpectedly, a peasant appears at his side, and says, “just eat this potato.” Generosity intrudes unexpectedly, and Pierre begins his repair.
One person’s potato is another’s oyster or apple. Or fig jam. Or fresh bread. Chicken tagine with lemon and olives. Salt cod with peppers. Once we get started, there really is no end.
I like to write, but boy, do I have trouble at times settling down. I love to write, even, but the other pole – the love of motion – makes it rough to sit at that desk. I’ve got to keep moving. I’m not the kind of writer to dictate into an IPhone as I’m walking, or as I’m doing spins on the dancefloor; so I do need my desk. Once I re-discover my desk as a long-lost love, I start to wander in my head.
I’ve paired up with a compatible subject for a poetry sequence — home/homelessness. It troubles the idea of home and explores the commonality of homelessness. Is it something about me, my tribe? Wandering Jews are well-known entity, starting with God ordering Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and get moving into the unknown. In the current cyclical readings of Torah, we are in Exodus, wandering in the desert.
My tribe as human? Metaphorically we might now feel that we are all wandering in the desert. The first thing my IPhone showed me this morning was a suggestion on the Home Screen: “It’s true that nothing makes sense.” What the —?
My imagination has taken me from the familiar metaphor of wandering in the desert — too well known! — to a newer whirling sensation. The ground under our feet is unstable, there’s a grave disturbance in gravity. Gravity, the holy grail of reason and science, is unreliable. There isn’t much ground under our feet at all.
The motion I often feel, by will or fate, is vertigo. When God displaced Abraham and Sarah, he sent them into vertigo to fracture their continuity and make them see life as completely new. Vertigo, the up-ender of received wisdoms and expectations. Vertigo, like Sappho’s bone-whirling eros. What vertigo shows us is this: it seems artificial these days to try to make sense from the same old positions. We have to stand elsewhere, otherwise. Turn ourselves upside down. Stand on our heads. Headstand. What an extraordinary pose in yoga. I can go upside down where, if I can hold still for a few minutes, I am aware of myself as a being en passage. It’s all beginning to make sense.
Time grows, after New Years, like a cauliflower– half handsome, half deformed, blooming at its own isotropic rate. On the 3rd we skate towards war; a plane of travelers crashes in Iran; Down Under, animals, mostly sheep, burn.
Did the bubbly not last long? At midnight we’d stomped and danced, undid ourselves like Mandelstam shaking caraway seeds from a sack.
Who needs hope anyway? The tough-minded put their faith in deeds –either you do or you don’t. Drink from that vase. Heave up the smothering haystack. Hammer the everyday into words. Honor the iguana. It’s not aspirational to love your neighbor. Put your cheek close, pull the bow, feel it quiver.
There is a phrase I toyed with in French many years ago: “le ciel, c’est assis sur mes sourcils.” The sky is sitting on my brows. That famous gray Paris sky was hovering close to my head during winters when we lived there. I bemoaned the lack of sun which only appeared at the sunset in a slant flash at horizon’s edge.
The phrase sounds fine in English too, with a gentle tweak: “the sky is sitting on my eyelids.” The disillusion, the dark atmosphere of the US last year felt by far more oppressive than it did under the zinc roofs in Paris. The toxicity of news and social media made me want to retreat; the isolation made me wonder how to go out. The trapped feeling, the negative voice seeps into the bones.
Early 2020 extended its hand, asking to put me on its dance card. Mais oui! I danced like a fool, dipping, spinning and getting breathless with fancy footwork. Instead of gravity, more light! So here’s to releasing Dionysian energies. To staying in touch with the body, clearing the mind and welcoming whatever passes, bright, dark and otherwise. Here’s to sanity, my friends, and here’s to equal doses of delirium, to love, to dwelling in the crazy ether of being together.