Friday, December 14, 2012


Thunderclouds forming a cream-white moon
Everything's going to be okay soon
Maybe tomorrow
Maybe the next day
-- The Mountain Goats, “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”

I’m prone to obsessions.

Just ask my children. They can attest to the hours upon hours they lost of their childhood, forced to listen, in the car as we drove, to one version after another of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” simply because I couldn’t get the song out of my head, convinced as I was (yes, I admit, I still am) that it was the greatest jazz composition of all time.

I have a hard time owning merely one book by an author. If I’ve read one that I love – José Saramago’s Blindness, for example – I then want to read them all, which of course I do not have the time for. But I can own them all, at least. I can line them up on the shelves in shimmering anticipation of that day when time opens like a delicate flower. (I know, of course, that time does not ever open like a delicate flower but instead pours forth toward some impossibly distant, never-to-be-seen ocean like a torrential storm-swollen stream. But that – by which I mean practicality, reason, logic – is not the point of obsession.)

Yes, I want to possess every work of the poet whose one perfectly made poem made me collapse in grateful misery. I want to taste every dish at a restaurant like the River & Rail in Roanoke simply because their sautéed Brussels sprouts with chicory and crème fraiche made me weep with exquisitely unadulterated joy.

Moderation is not – has never been – my other middle name.

Right now, I am obsessed with the green Thai tofu curry at Bull Branch in Lynchburg and the subtle differences in taste between mid- and high-shelf vodkas (between potato and wheat and rye, between Russian and Polish, Tito’s and Glacier, small batch and organic). I am obsessed with the poems of Rilke with their pensive ache, the funk-thump of a certain bass line (think: “Brick House” or “Mr. Big Stuff” or, best of all, James Brown’s “The Payback”) but also, you know, the tinkling piano in the next apartment and Eno-esque absences and drones and James Blake’s computer-concocted glitches and those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant, with both music and lyrics – and, by the way, as my children could tell you as well, with Music & Lyrics, that dreadfully loveable Hugh Grant & Drew Barrymore movie.

But what I’m really obsessed with these days, to get right down to the meat and bones, are my eyes, with the regimen of drops (four of this one, three of that, twice for two others) by which I divide each day’s hours, with the blur that descends across a book’s pages like a too-often-shown film spooling through the ever-dimming bulb of a school projector, the window blinds imperfectly drawn so that light sluices and slices like a trickling stream across the floor’s dusty gray linoleum squares and onto the desks’ chipped wood surfaces and rusted metal frames.

And because of all that stuff going on with my eyes, I’m obsessed with the exquisite but ultimately impossible pleasure of encountering the world through a persistently mindful aesthetic sensibility.

I know, I know, that last sentence wound up as pseudo-Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. What I meant to say was this:  I’m obsessed with trying to view the world and everything in it in a particular manner, as a concoction of light and texture and shape, each component replete with resonances and associations.

All of which is to say: I’m obsessed, at the moment, with seeing.


And so, as those who know me already know all too well, I’ve been taking photographs lately, lots and lots and lots of photographs – though not real photographs exactly. Instead, I’ve been using Instagram, that Facebook-acquired iPhone app that is a kind of visual equivalent of the haiku: tiny square images that can be manipulated in only a few particular prescribed ways: light, shadow, contrast, focus, saturation – or whatever the technical words for such things are. I’ve got no idea, really. I press a few buttons until I’ve got the closest approximation to beauty (which is to say sorrow, symmetry, asymmetry, grace, which is to say art) that I can manage.

I’m usually, I realize, a long way away from art with these pictures: there’s a kind of dullness, a lack of clarity, a lack of vision, so to speak, if you look too close. Of course, again and again that’s what the artist, any artist, comes up against: everything that the art he’s made isn’t. I would like to write an opera, compose a symphony. I would settle for singing one song, any song, with the right notes; I would die happy to write one verse of a hymn I could imagine a church choir singing.

My father, by the way, was obsessed with cameras. He collected them they way I do Mountain Goats minutia (For some Christmas, perhaps not this one but the next, won’t someone please get me the DVD of John Darnielle playing all of The Life of the World to Come? I’d be ever so grateful; my life would be nearly if not totally complete.), and while my father could explain the germane differences between Leicas and Hasselblads, while he could also cut open a body and reaffix ligament to joint, muscle to bone, I can only – well, to be honest, I don’t know exactly. What can I do?

Is it enough to demonstrate the American Sign Language gesture for vodka – two quick stabs with a pointer finger at the side of your throat? Probably not.

Is it enough to walk the pug James Brown through the fields and take in the line of trees, the curve of hillsides, the exquisite tangle of brush, the silhouettes of bare limbs against the sky at twilight? Is it enough to notice how all the world – books and children’s toys and silverware, tables and sofa cushions and slipper chairs, candles and jewelry boxes and wicker baskets, bowls of fruit and jars of pennies – organize themselves into colors and shapes and light and even, if you look close enough, as I’ve been trying and trying to do, like the real thing, like life itself, every bit of it: muscle and sinew and ache and solitude and grace and whatever name it is we give to transcendence. Maybe love. Maybe.

I think that’s enough.

My pictures aren’t much, I know, but they’re my own quiet stammering, the whispered pronouncement every artist, good or bad, tries to make: Look away. Look over here. You just might, for half a second, get a glimpse of your own life.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On Your Way Up to the Light

Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Find limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day...

... Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat's unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light

And stay alive
Just stay alive

      - The Mountain Goats "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1"

I'm kneeling on my wheelchair right up next to the club stage. It's all concrete, and dark, and the steadily increasing  press of bodies behind me. My feet, tucked up underneath me, are already going to sleep and John hasn't even come on yet. A group of college students who are, it occurs to me, probably at least as old as I am, have their arms around one another and are rocking back and forth more and more rapidly as their excitement mounts.  They are profoundly loving and unlovely: the boys are heavy and sweating and in glasses; the girls are gangly and stringy-haired; their sweaters are too small. They tell me they are a semester from graduation. They ask how much it hurt to get my eyebrow pierced, and when I tell them that it bled a lot but hardly hurt at all, they don't believe me. During the concert they will know the words to every single song from the new album, and call out requests for tracks released only on grainy cassette tape in the early 90's. They drove all the way from San Antonio. They will scream all night. During one brief pause after another song about a slow and terrible divorce the tallest girl leans toward me and says: the funny thing is, aren't we really too young to love a song like that?  

My life has had a lot of constants: poetry and music and mountains, my family and the bright open door of my childhood home, the scores of lovely people walking through it. Profound pleasure and grace.  Also: the small, dark fist of sadness at the center of everything, flexing when I wake. Sometimes it is a small pulse that matches my heartbeat, and I hardly notice it. Sometimes it is all I notice. I know by heart the litany that needs to go here: that I am lucky, that my life is good, that my struggles have been surmountable and that I've had enormous help, that at all costs I need to avoid being precious about sadness and art. I know all this utterly. I know that  to some extent I can and must labor through it and beyond it:  get up in the morning, go to the desk, make an incantation of small pleasures and regular gestures to keep me moving, do it all when I am the worst version of myself, when the world is greyest, and flattest, and least like a place I want to live in. 

The night after the concert I go to a party. It's at  a big house in East Austin that a friend just bought. The night is weirdly warm and we all collect outside on couches and folding chairs in the car-park. For a couple of hours people drink whiskey and beer, and flit conversation to conversation. Late, someone turns on music in an empty room: and people drift to the dance floor and become animals. Dancing will always have for me the particular allure of the foreign and impossible: the body completely let go, completely controlled. Tonight  it seems particularly wild and weird, limbs hurled around the room, heads thrown back, mouths open, all about excising something. People dance for hours, and I let myself be pulled to the floor to bob my own head to "Dancing in the Dark." It's cold and dirty. We go to bed in our teeshirts around dawn. The bodies of the women next to  me are warm and they are asleep instantly. Usually, I hate being young and feel ill suited for it. Tonight, it feels like the greatest gift anyone has ever given me, and I am all of a sudden desperately afraid of losing it. I am twenty one. The darkness knocks and knocks and knocks against the brightness.

I'm working on a longer essay about music. There's a line in it which says that listening to  the music that means the most to me is an exercise in loving what breaks my heart, in delighting in having it broken. Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive...

Sometimes I think I can smell the darkness on strangers, that the scent of it is part of what identifies them as people I could love. This is comforting and dangerous. Jump in front of trains all day.

The day after that party we all sat at the lake and agreed that often we'd happily give up writing, and the extreme joy  that sometimes takes us up completely, if, with it, we could also excavate the dark and find our way to some sort of solid middle ground. Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright.

A friend told me her mother called her selfish to be so pulled under by such rootless despair. On the phone,  my mother repeats to me my own litany of cautions. Often, I scare and baffle her.  Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light.

At night, this friend and I assure one another we will come up out of the dark, and that the things that sustain us will hold steady. And stay alive.

I know I'm risking  sounding overly dramatic here. I can hear it.  And I'm sure you can hear my youth and my propensity for navel-gazing and all those awful things. Is it better if I tell you that mostly I go to the grocery store, and do my laundry, and try to learn to make risotto, and burn it? Is it better if I tell you that as often as we all talk about darkness and poetry and how inexpertly we're trying to sustain and shape our lives, we talk about movies and food and how best to stay abreast of what's going on in the wider world? 

Because we do. Just stay alive...

It's the encore of that night and John is playing "This Year." Everyone in the audience knows every single goddamned word. It is completely ridiculous that I have actually wept tonight, and I know it.  Tonight I would not give it up: any of it, being young or sad or wounded or dumb. I am one of many devoted. I am some twenty-something girl. I am only here because of the darkness and the way it collides with the light. Knock. Knock. Knock. Like a bird against the window, like a fist against the door, like a heartbeat going on through to the next morning. It is lucky to love something like this. Like this one small thing could in fact, absurd as it seems, kill you or keep you alive. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rilke Again

When the last days come,
We shall see visions
More vivid than sunsets,
Brighter than stars.
We will recognize each other
And see ourselves for the first time
The way we really are.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Against Pollution”

I’m reading Rilke again. I’m here to tell you it’s not easy grabbing hold of poets, taking them by the scruff of their necks and shaking, demanding to know precisely what business they’re up to – and it’s especially maddening when, like Rilke is, they’re forever consorting with angels and gods and wandering spirits, ducking into the half-remembered twilight of childhood, forever turning toward us and then slipping away, these appearances and vanishings as abrupt and unexpected as the weather.

There’s always, in Rilke, some distant song, some strangely familiar melody, swaying the branches, rippling the leaves, the urgent whistling of a plover, a blind man’s, a drunkard’s, an idiot’s song. He grants to Orpheus the magic that is rightfully his own: he builds a temple inside our hearing, fills it with his song. Every day for Rilke is the Sabbath; every word rings slowly, as it does for Dylan Thomas, in the pebbles of the holy stream.

One moment Rilke strides forward, sheathed in wisdom’s armor; the next he cowers, admits he knows next to nothing. He searches and searches for the kingdom between joy and longing, between silence and song.

Really, in the end, all that matters to Rilke is the singing, not the song. A god can do it, he writes. But will you tell me how / a man can penetrate through the lyre’s strings?

Our mind is split, he goes on, and by our mind he means, of course, his own, this mind that dreams up, over and over, again and again, its own earthly undoing, its ceaseless lamentation, its sorrow song.

Learn / to forget that passionate music, he completes the third of his Sonnets to Orpheus. It will end. / True singing is a different breath, about / nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.

Don’t believe him, though. He’s just whistling in the dark. He is, as he knows full well, the singer. He is the one and only source for the song. God is dead or is otherwise occupied or has fled. Angels flutter their wings, foreboding but silent, at his ankles; dogs nip at his heels and scuttle away.

Only the poet remains, sheathed again in his armor. Let your presence, he declares, ring out like a bell / into the night.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Planting Again

and the plum tree hung heavy in my head
and the plum tree hung heavy in my heart
and the plum tree hung heavy over me
-- The Mountain Goats, “Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums”

The loneliest people in the whole wide world
Are the ones you’re never going to see again.
  -- The Mountain Goats, “Harlem Roulette”

So I’ve been planting again, the usual fall crops: broccoli and Brussels sprouts and cabbage, cauliflower and spinach, butter crunch and romaine lettuce. I’ve pulled the sweet potatoes out early because they were getting eaten by some sharp-toothed varmint, a squirrel or rat or rabbit that has cleverly eluded the lethal dangers of the garden’s electrified fence, the gouges in the sweet potatoes’ flesh truly alarming, like wounds scabbed over into dry dusty leather and then picked at, gnawed at, again and again. And though darkness arrives earlier with each passing day, the last of a dozen or so tomato vines is hanging in there for the slow, uncertain ripening. And my eyes are still not right.

This is the season when a certain sort of music swells within me, music with the vast reach and melancholy grandeur of a composer like Mahler, though Mahler (and classical music in general) always speaks to me less – especially given my intellectual and artistic inclinations – than I feel it ought to, as if its country of origin, and thus its accent, is so unfamiliar that I’m forever having trouble discerning, no matter how wise it might be, just what’s being said. And my eyes, my eyes, are still not right.

Instead, I find myself listening this time of year to what belongs to the sub-genre of rock-n-roll (or sub-sub-genre, perhaps? what do I know?) called post-rock, bands like MONO and Mogwai and Balmorhea and God Is An Astronaut and Explosions in the Sky and Caspian and Hammock and This Will Destroy You and Rothko and The Album Leaf, names that, taken together, precisely convey the weather this music portends: the clearest of evening skies gradually giving way to gentle ocean swells and gathering clouds and swirling winds that then coalesce into a calamitously relentless assault. And then, just when it seems the sky will crack open and the earth will split apart, a peaceful calm descends, something almost but not quite an absolute stillness, almost but not quite a perfect silence. It’s a silence, as John Ashbery writes in his poem “Some Trees,” already filled with voices, a canvas on which emerges a chorus of smiles, a winter morning – and just like that the clear evening sky returns, though now it crackles with some new electrical charge, heat lightning far far away, barely slipping above the horizon, like a camera flash at 2 a.m. in the house next door. What could possibly be going on over there? And still my eyes aren’t right.

I won’t list all the books I want to be reading right now, but there’s none more than Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, his account of the time he spent in hiding after a price, as the saying goes, was placed upon his head. That was 1989, when I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Rushdie was scheduled to read for us but didn’t; his whole life had been diverted. I noticed this week a small item in the news: along with the riots and demonstrations and embassy attacks across the Arab world because of the absurd and childish anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube, some Iranian cleric has announced that the reward for Rushdie’s execution has been raised from $2.8 to $3.3 million. Because of inflation? Just for the hell of it? Will there be a semi-annual adjustment? Time takes care of the devil’s work, doesn’t it? We’re all, by God, sentenced to death. Until then, though, what I’d like to do is read and write.

Here’s what happens, though, when I try to read, sometimes immediately, sometimes only after twenty or thirty minutes: my right eye waters and begins to ache; the sclera (the white of the eye) becomes lined with red; my vision gets blurrier and blurrier; sometimes I feel – or feel I feel -- a nerve running from my eye through my body (through head to back to groin to leg) and down into my toes. It’s a spectacular sensation though not particularly painful or intense, more like that distant flash of lightning on the dark horizon. It portends worse things to come, perhaps, and that’s when fear sinks its teeth into the flesh. Five doctors haven’t yet figured it out; I see a sixth this week. Maybe she’ll do better.

At least there’s this: No one has put a price on my head, and I love my plodding work in the garden: weed and hoe, plant and harvest. And I love more than ever, though I never imagined it could be so, the rise and swell and sway of music, the minor fall and the major lift, the incredible worlds to which music transports me, even with my eyes closed, in utter darkness. Especially then.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Dust Off the Idols

Dust off the idols.
Give them something to eat.
I think they're hungry.
I know I'm starving half to death.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Elijah”

Again and again I need to relearn how to be alone, how to fill those sudden silences. It’s Spring, so I can leave the doors open, keep an eye on the fox in the field beyond the line of trees: a blooming peach, three budding apple, four dogwood with still-coiled leaves, wood shavings set to twirl from the saw blade. He’s stalking something.

There are endless consolations: melancholy choruses, minor keys, words rising from the page, a procession of impossibly distant stars, a new constellation. I can tell myself the stories I already know: that I was once young, that joy settles upon a life like the sweet breath of a sleeping child, its sweetness already tinged with the faint, nearly imperceptible scent of something sour.

Oh, go on now. It’s only March, and I’ve already prepared this year’s garden, though I was too lazy – or possessed, as usual, of too little faith – to mark what I planted where, so in a few weeks when all the leaves begin to sprout from the rocky soil (I sift and sift but the rock-to-dirt ratio is never altered) and it’s time to thin and weed, I’ll have to ask someone who knows what’s what what’s what, if you know what I mean. These tiny twin crescents? These little green hearts? Spinach? Chard? Peas? Beets? 

And for fun, for the sheer pleasure of the asking: Turnstiles? Winnebagos? Cauldrons? Pantaloons? Krispy Kreme? Boy, this is getting away from me. It’s what always happens, my words gone wild, the very language itself supplanting the purpose to which I’d meant to put it, a gardener who again and again winds up growing only what’s inedible, favoring weeds over flowers, thorns over leaves, James Stevenson’s Worst Person in the World gone vacationing at Crab Beach.

Back to the matter at hand: my laziness, my garden. I know, of course, exactly who I’ll ask what’s what: the shy Buddhist come home to care for his mother. He kneels in his garden’s bed like a supplicant, cradles in his palm the seeds he has gathered as though they are prized relics: the dry chalk of saints’ bones, the petrified tears of the Virgin Mary. Which tears, though? There could be so many. When she first learned that she would bear a child? When that child was born? When he was crucified? When the stone was rolled away and he was – without first visiting her, without offering her succor or consolation – gone?

Maybe he’s not really a Buddhist; maybe I made that up. But he ought to be or, to look at it another way, he is to me, and that’s all that matters. His industry is endless: plywood sawn to repair the barn, dirt sifted through and dug and planted, patterns of leaves examined, pinched, evaluated.

I am always amazed how little I’ve learned in my going-on fifty-two years. I would like to build a cold-frame, patch our walls’ peeling plaster, play music, sing, speak another language, believe.

Yes, that’s the one more than any other, of course: believe. Who doesn’t want to believe, to have faith – that spring will follow winter, that the seeds will sprout, that there is beyond all this struggle and worry some real measure of succor, some consolation?

I will say this. It is when I am alone that I move nearest to belief, feel it lurking somewhere near in all that silence. I am not in such moments the stalking fox; I am instead whatever it is that he is stalking: bird or mouse or vole, whatever it might be that’s trying to make its way through the immense and terrifying and beautiful field.

All around: The scent of peach and apple, blossom and root and loam.

And above: The wide, unending sky.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Who Can Say?

There's going to come a day when you feel better.
You'll rise up free and easy on that day
and float from branch to branch,
lighter than the air.
Just when that day is coming, who can say? Who can say?
  -- The Mountain Goats, “Up the Wolves”

Back home in New Orleans, tomorrow is Mardi Gras. My brother Blair, who lives in Maryland, has gone down there; it’s his first Mardi Gras, he told me, in thirty-five years. Mine was thirty years or so ago, probably; I don’t really remember. But thirty years ago is when I left.

Back home in New Orleans.

I don’t know why it is, but I’m still stuck on this idea of home – of exactly where it resides inside me and why, of what I’ve got to do with this place that contains, now, nothing of me that isn’t history.

It’s words like that – words like history, was, once, remember, lost – that again and again rise to the surface when I think of home, muddy lures bobbing in murkier and murkier water.

That’s not all, though, of course. There are thousands and thousands of images: a monumental psychic flea-market table lined with all manner of priceless – which is to say worthless – items, every one of them dingy and ruined and dented and chipped, every one of them, well, old – left too long in some dank basement or dusty garage or moldy shoebox, every one affixed with a price that is, when push comes to shove, when banter and bluster give way at day’s end to humble concession, merely a token gesture, a frail assertion that surely each must possess something of abiding value.

Here’s the strangest thing of all – or maybe it’s not so strange; maybe it’s true of everyone’s past: I remember, at one and the same time, both everything and virtually nothing about my childhood. I can summon the precise degree of sharpness in the blades of grass on our front lawn; I can smell the sun’s scratchy heat on the pink and black brick wall of our house; I can feel the recoil of my limbs at the scuttling of lizards on the wooden fence in the backyard, the males rearing back their heads, red throats obscenely swollen. I can hear the briny crack and split of roaches’ smashed shells beneath my feet. I can feel the glow from the bulbs of the Philips stereo, the rough weave of the speakers’ cloth covers, the chill of the bent-fingered spindle at the center of the turntable. I can remember sliding along the smooth branches of City Park oaks or standing on the Filmore Avenue Bridge above Bayou St. John and letting the crab nets’ twined ropes crookedly uncoil in my cupped hands, feeling later the sharp pinch of a claw on a finger while trying to disengage one crab’s grip on its brother gripping its own claws to another, a game like the barrel of plastic monkeys except these crabs would fall, when they finally let loose, into my mother’s boiling pot in our kitchen.

Where’s the truth in all that memory? Where’s not just its skin but its substance? My adolescence was scarred, like a knife’s blade cutting into wood, by a lingering sorrow, an unrequited love, various attachments forsaken, the whip and recoil of anger and fear. But that must not be the whole story; there must have been, before the sorrows I can name, sorrows I cannot. Perhaps there’s a whole chain of such sorrows, all of them strung together like a devil’s demented version of a charm bracelet or carnival beads.

This is all too vague, I know, too inscrutable, too masked by metaphor, but there are still places to which I will not go – items laid out on that flea-market table that I will not buy or even pick up to inspect. The price is, I guess, still too high for me to harbor any hope that I can haggle it down to something I can afford.

I can’t afford any of it, not any more. I’ve got more years of happiness going now than I ever thought I’d get.

But there’s a price to that happiness as well, and it’s one that in many ways I’m weary of paying. I tell this to my students all the time: once there’s happiness, the story is done. When the conflict is resolved, there’s not much left we want to hear. They lived, we’re told, happily ever after. And that’s enough. We don’t need – don’t want – any more details.

There’s nothing to say about art that isn’t in one way or another about loss. It’s all those same words I mentioned earlier: was, once, remember.

That’s part of the answer, I suppose, why this place that is gone from my life, that has been gone these thirty years, remains alive for me. Back home in New Orleans. It is the place where sorrow lives.

For me. That’s what I meant to say, nothing more: For me it is the place where sorrow lives.

How odd it is to work myself toward such a conclusion on this particular day, on the eve of Mardi Gras, of the city’s giddy exultation, its celebration of all manner of earthly desire and delight.

Even so, even remembering Mardi Gras, I can’t get away from myself.  I remember less the raucous abandon and fabulous feathered masks than the dirty pants-cuffs revealed beneath revelers’ costume hems and the sour smell of warm beer drifting through the air and the stoic faces of the unshaven men who drove the grimy tractors that pulled the parade floats. I remember the unconvincingly tinny heft of silver and gold – and then purple and blue – doubloons and how they sailed through the air and then dizzily spun in the street until someone’s thick heavy shoe stomped them still. I remember the dirty wake behind each parade’s final float, the frighteningly stark spinning lights of police cars and fire trucks as the crowds scattered, occasional hoots and hollers here and there but mostly a silence that felt somehow resigned or even shameful, a reluctant admission that no one knew, really, what all the fuss had been about.

I am – I have been – a lucky man. I am grateful beyond measure for my life. I feel a bit like a weary refugee who, in all his aimless wandering, discovers that he has, by some great gift of grace, managed to cross the very border he’d given up any hope of finding. With a single step his despair becomes opportunity, his sorrow supplanted by joy.

Is this new country a place where he can live? Or will he forever, no matter the anguish left behind, find himself longing for home?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Just Another Thing About The Body

We were becoming what we are,
Collapsing stars.
- Collapsing Stars

Think of your body in pieces: slight, pale shaft of your ankle; cup of your lower lip; gulf above your collarbone, deepening at the shoulder; palm; knee; thumb; thigh; cheekbone; stomach; wrist. Sometimes I play this game with myself— focus insistently on a single shinbone or fingertip. The word for the cleft in your upper lip? it's philtrum. 


There are all kinds of reasons  to be occupied with your own body: pain, pleasure, vanity, hypochondria, medical necessity, grief, growth, aging, sudden scarring, or that cataclysmic shift into beauty that sometimes happens to girls about sixteen, who wake up, look in the mirror, and think:  Jesus, where did this face come from?  My own desire to map myself has some measure of most of these things in it.  

In its wholeness, my body betrays me on a regular basis: all stumble and stutter and shake, all soreness and bruising and tripping on the bathmat and lurching like an awful thing,  but in parts— in parts my body is remarkably unmarred, remarkably smooth and good and sometimes even giving.  A few little scars: one soft one on my spine, some others at my ankles and in the furrows behind my knees. Small reminders I've been peeled open, but not much. It always shocks me. I think, somehow, that there should be more evidence.  How is it that looking at my face, or my feet, or the widest moment of my wrist you can't see how wildly flawed it all is? 


Some things I've  known my whole life: it is not degenerative; I am not dying, at least not any more rapidly than most of us.

 I will probably need my knees replaced by forty. 

When you fall, you should turn your face away from the ground and, if you go hands first, bend your elbows or you'll break an arm. 

Pain can often be mostly concentrated away. Hierarchies of pain are impossible. I am so lucky.

Some things no one prepared me for:  I will probably never carry my own child. If I do, the stress on my body will rob me, maybe forever, of my ability to walk. A dear friend desperately wants to have a baby before it's too late, and worries she's waited too long, so I think about this more and more.  

When I stole myself to ask a lover if it bothered him, my faltering body, he said: it doesn't matter; it's such a small thing.         

 Often I am angriest about my inability to be really, truly, safely solitary.

 It's sometimes a problem for my work; my best readers learn to say: the body can't be so many things everywhere all the time.  

It awes me: stock-still, or in my peripheral vision, sometimes even moving: my arm coming up and down off the table. My God. 

I am afraid of this essay. Afraid it will be trite or self-pitying. Afraid I am doing it badly, or just wrong. Afraid it's rabidly selfish. Afraid I am only re-writing some version of this over and over again my whole life. But there have been so many reasons to write it lately.

 A few weeks ago I sat with a friend on her studio floor. We'd  been talking about women and gender and birth, and I said that I  often felt left out of these kinds of conversations about the feminine or what it means to be a woman, because there isn't space inside them for my kind of body or my experience of the world, and there isn't enough writing about it out there. That's what you're for, she said, and I wanted to kiss her and kill her: for seeing me, and being so goddamn unflinching about the whole thing.  She's right, of course. 


Listen, body, we are nobody's tragedy. Listen, I know you, I can name you all over. Listen, just a little farther to the desk chair, the sofa, the bed. Just a little more trouble. Just somebody's hand on the back of your neck. Just your shadow on the street.  Listen, I love you. Listen.