anguish (or tenderness)
we are driving somewhere to go skydiving, but we have to turn the car around because I forgot to pack my ripcord.
Maine was not too hot or too cold. It was a sleepless place, an empty vacationland stage. There was water and there was dirt, and tall grass that my dog kept eating. She kept eating the grass even though she wouldn't finish her breakfast. An anomaly. Is that the right word? I tried to reintroduce my beast to the wilderness for a while, where I thought she belonged, and when she turned her nose to the air, she seemed tired at best, lost at worst. She took the trails in reverse, stepping back into the car where I belted her in. I once read that if I were to crash the car while traveling just 30 mph, my 75-lb canine would become a 3,000 pound projectile. Thanks, physics, for helping me imagine my dog as a missile capable of killing me or someone else. I guess it's not physics to thank, though: it is everyone who has gone before me, faced the unexpected, and came out hurting and destroyed, or even devastated.
Last night, I dreamt that I was in a parking garage trying to steer clear of someone who was trying to hit me with his car. I wasn't in a car, though, and in parking garages, there really are no places to hide. Somehow I found myself in a small body crouched high on a shelf, out of his line of sight. I couldn't see his face through the windshield, but I knew he was driving. He kept circling and circling, looking for me as if I would suddenly appear: a target, a bullseye, his car the missile sent to destroy me. Instead of appearing, I took a deep breath and woke up.
I want to know what it is. I want to know what it symbolizes. It = my skin, the dog at my feet, the cracked spine in the middle of the leaf that just fell from the oak tree onto the windshield of the car I'm borrowing.
The car is grey, a Jetta. It has no name, but this seems fair.
My emotions belong; my emotions don't belong to me.
There are alternate explanations, she says. While she is not right, I am reminded that there may be parallel universes—dimensions or spaces or voids in which her alternate decisions live; the results of the decisions she could have made hang in the syrup sky as collapsed stars, their gravitational field pulling in everything except everything that could have happened.
All the sounds could be unheard, the touches taken back, the kisses dissolved, the unconscious spine ache cleared and intentions restated;
I could have happened another way.
We were at a party. It was in the suburbs. The houses were beige and grey. I could see aluminum siding and open skies and chimneys. You walked me up to your family members, who were standing in the front yard of an unknown house in some kind of receiving line.
I hugged your younger sister, whom I had heard about so many times, and not in all positive ways. I remembered the story you once told me about her and her friends as kids, how they ran away from you and huddled under the red umbrella, leaving you to get soaked in the downpour half a block away. In the dream your sister hugged me hard, like she meant it. I wondered who these people are, the ones who take hold of strangers and embrace them without fear. Was I a stranger, though? I needed the hug. Badly. I held her tight and released the stories I had heard about her. What can I say? I had to, I had to.
Then your father took hold of me with speed and a light touch. After a moment he stepped back, put his hands on his hips, and pushed his chest out like men do. "So," he said. "You're the one who calls."
Did I respond?
Turns out that the party was a wedding reception at a house. You and I were there together in the same space, which felt unusual and intimate. I watched you navigate the rooms, talk to people in the line for the buffet. You were wearing jeans and boots so I assumed it was fall, a season when things around us fall down and the days, despite our best intentions, feel shorter and shorter.
I don't drink beer. Never liked the taste. Instead, I indulge in a glass of Pinot, a packet of Fun Dip, a lukewarm Capri Sun. I go back decades because now is too difficult.
I used to say things like I was never good at math and can you figure out the tip? Now I'm drawn to calculating because there's always a formula that ends in something that feels like certainty.
I miss believing that I knew the answer.
I miss believing that I knew.
I miss believing.
I open my eyes in meditation to watch my dog dream. I tell myself you're breaking meditation, bad bad bad. A better part of me knows I watch because in the future, when now is too difficult, I'll want to think back and remember her twitching legs.
I once told my therapist that someone dear in my life really didn't understand me, and I found this frustrating. She was silent, blinked a few times, cleared her throat.
How could she possibly understand you?
In the 2010 film Rites of Love and Math, a renowned mathematician develops a formula for love and writes it on his beloved's abdomen in thick black ink. The only numbers in the formula are 0, 1, and infinity.
They call him The Ripper. He comes at night, when no one is paying attention, when no one is minding the block. He looks over his shoulder once, twice. When he is sure that no one is approaching, he rips through the garbage bags we left on the sidewalk and pours the contents onto the concrete. Stained t-shirts, squeezed ketchup packets, scratched off Lucky 7 lotto cards. A spelling test with a grade of 77. I before E except after C. Pieces of a ConEd bill shoved into a crumpled vente Starbucks cup. In the morning, we only know what he didn't take with him. We never know what those around us find most useful, what they feel they must take, what they carry. We know only what they leave behind.
They call her The Ripper. She comes in the early morning, just before dawn, so she might be confused as the owner of the garbage bags she's tearing into. "I threw something out by mistake," she might tell a stranger passing by, forging a half-smile, trying to hide her shame. She empties out the contents onto the sidewalk and sorts through them with care, like they were once alive. She pauses to consider the torn black bra, the clear plastic bags. She slides the empty box of matches open, then slides it closed. She pulls blonde hair out of a brush; a sudden breeze carries it down the block. She places the brush on top of her head and, for the first time in many years, runs it through her hair, dark with grime. Her upper arm muscles ache from having to respond to this movement, long ago made foreign. The ache is not just in her arms. She hears a nearby door slam and looks up. A blonde woman is staring at her from the door. The blonde woman. Her hair is smooth and shiny, as it has always been.
One time was at D's bonfire when I was in high school. End of June. Way back in the woods. School had just let out. We were all now seniors. Things don't matter as much to seniors. Just college applications and blowjobs and getting to the restaurant in time for your shift and having the car back in the driveway by midnight. But the night of the bonfire was the night when I watched J toss several calculus textbooks into the fire. He was laughing an awful laugh, sinister, his eyes wild. They were textbooks he had taken (stolen) from the classroom. Sure they were ancient and yes, we had all hated that class. We all had to show up for extra help at 6:30am because nothing made sense. (We had to lose sleep in order for something to make sense.) But I remember that was a moment when I felt the most disappointment in him: that he couldn't just let it go, that he let spite and hatred take over, that he had to burn something that wasn't his. I felt sad for my calculus teacher who, despite her seeming depression and sadness, still tried to help us. Now it was like her good intentions were going up in smoke.
I still don't know what functions or derivatives are, but that was the night I understood what it feels like for me to approach a limit.
I always try to start classes at Parsons with some sort of warm-up or icebreaker. The classes are generally quite small—15, 16 students at the most—so facilitating an environment where they can get to know each other feels important to me. Beyond that, it's also my hope that they can learn from themselves, to investigate what's brewing in their own lives and reflect on that. I think they are often encourage to look externally for advice, inspiration, and content. To me, to their advisors, to their peers. They just want someone to tell them what to do. This wish is often unsustainable, though, and I fear that the more I enable this kind of approach to learning, the more harm I'm doing than good.
In the effort to teach them to reflect on themselves—and to be open to what arises in that process—I include an exercise called Four Directions for Writing. This is a 20-25 minute free-writing exercise, so I tell students to respond in that manner: just write. If they speak more than one language, which many of my students do, I encourage them to write in whatever language they prefer in the moment. Write in more than one language if you like, I say. Just write something. I also tell them that no one will read their writing. They won't have to turn it in and it won't be graded.
Parsons students often feel relieved by this combination: language freedom, privacy, and producing creative work that will not be evaluated.
The four directions are below. I put them on the board or projector one at a time, and encourage the students to free-write for five minutes per direction:
1. Teach us something.
2. Confess something.
3. Contradict yourself.
4. Forgive yourself.
I usually write along with the students, allowing myself to reflect on what arises within myself when prompted with a direction.
I have come to understand that that the genius is in the order of these directions.
When encouraged to teach us something, the writer assumes a position of knowledge and superiority. The writer knows something that the reader may not know, so perhaps the ego takes over. Pride, arrogance, and confidence may also arise here. The writer can also tap into a choice of selecting what "us" means: the students in the class? Their friends, family, other peers?
But then, when asked to confess something, the writer sinks into herself. She might ask herself what she's done wrong. She might question her motives, might mull over what she said in haste the day before to that guy on the subway. She may have done something vile. Cheated, lied, stole. The self-possession that may have characterized the previous writing in the teach us something phase is often transformed into humility and maybe even shame.
What do the writer really know, though? Like any human, the writer is layered. She is a tangled web of emotions, doubt, unresolved trauma, lingering desires. When prompted to contradict yourself, the writer needs to step out of the humility and potential embarrassment of the previous writing and slide into her complexity. She said that thing or did that other thing, yes, but she really meant something else. She is an amalgam of questions. She has wishes that contradict her experience and deep longings that still exist despite her accumulated wisdom, life experience, and better judgment.
And where does the writer end up? Potentially anywhere. This kind of investigation could devolve into a spiral of self-loathing that I refer to (lovingly) as the vortex of awfulness. The beauty of the last direction, though, is that it pulls the writer toward self-love. Please, writer, forgive yourself. You are human. You fuck up and you make mistakes, even if you don't know they are misguided wrongdoings at the time. You fail. You fail again. You love hard and hurt yourself in the process. You invoke the deepest, saddest part of yourself, infuse it into your work, and it gets laughed at. What can you do? Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. You must.
Feedback from students is often encouraging. "I didn't really know where I was going with this." "Some stuff came up that I really wasn't expecting." "I feel clearer now."
If writing is, to some extent, being in the moment, four directions of writing asks the writer to investigate whatever comes up in the moment at not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one. The directions also offer the writer a short, experiential glimpse into what it means to be a flawed and promising human, and what it means to struggle and exist, however imperfectly, in a relational world.