Cello and the German Forest*

What have I done, into the darkness? Into the place of fear and terror? Into that place of uncertainty where you aren’t quite sure you’ll make it out alive?

There is a reason I give my watercolors away. They are dances, they are whimsy.  There is no danger in my collage work, pierced with thread as it may be.  There is nothing scary about an insect drawn in ink and watercolor, captured by tissue overlay.  There is peace, perhaps. There is beauty.

Art should be dangerous. I don’t mean that the result should be terrifying or risk actual injury— and maybe this is where I’ve been going about it wrong.  But something in the process should scare the creator. You should find yourself in a dark room, unsure if the oxygen is leaking out. You need to risk.

I remember writing the phrase risk everything in my notebook on the first day of graduate school. I wrote recklessly, I used anything that was part of my life to thread through text.  Everything was fair game.  We risked, yes, but we risked safely, to an audience that was with us, telling us, this risk is something I am doing too. I am with you. I wrote recklessly, and I published, and in the time it took for a collection to take hold and for it to be in my hand, I’d left a man I loved, but there was still love. Until he called me and said how could you?

I’m only now re-emerging from that question, trying to step away from the guilt.  Writing is exposure.  To write, you burrow down into your body and flay it open.  The problem is—fair game.  To love me means to risk that knife at your skin.

What is my terror? My fear is to be forgotten, to be nothing.  That’s every writer’s fear—that we have nothing of us left behind.  That we go gentle into that good night. We want to rage, we want that fire to be seen.  What happens when we’re also afraid of fire, when we sit with buckets to douse, in fear of the flame overcoming? In fear of the flame immolating not just our own bodies, but those of the ones closest to us?  We go a little quieter. I go a little quieter. A friend told me you are like a fishbowl without the glass.  A friend told me you crave too much attention. A friend told me you finally found your voice, I want to read it all.  The problem with a fishbowl is that it’s supposed to be made of glass, it’s supposed to keep some things inside.

Tonight I tried to tell my aunt about exhaustion, about the performance of exhaustion. I’ve been sleeping a lot, I’ve been moving slowly.  I’ve been so tired.  And so, then Exhaustion Performancewhat? There needs to be something generative from this place, this thinness, this transparency.  I keep thinking about a performance in college, where the audience was with me, against me, and then with me again as my body flushed and shook, as my muscles gave out. The problem, I said tonight, was that I was too strong. I didn’t see the performance through to the point where I had no choice.  That night, the recording ended and I dropped my arms, the dictionaries clapped to the ground and the performance slammed shut as I buckled my knees and slumped to the floor.  I fell because I chose to, not because I had no choice.  After the smattering of applause I stood up, I cleared the stage.  I could still move, I was not yet exhausted, I was performing at exhaustion, I was performing at surrender.

I don’t know that I have the strength to surrender choice.  This is why I am scared to lead climb—I am scared to fall.  I push to the edge and then back down to safety.  Down climb to where the rope will hold me instead of surrendering to the air.  Maybe this is why climbing has become my poem—I can physically approach that terror. I can touch the edge before backing down.

I am trying to trust my body more. I am trying to trust words more.  A friend asked me if I considered myself a good writer. Sure, I guess, I shrugged. Would you say you’ve mastered writing? he asked.  Not at all! And he ran through numbers until, cornered by science, I admitted slowly, in stages, that I’m good at this thing. A man came up to me at a bar and said How was the gym tonight? and when I was confused said, I know you, you’re one of the strong women who climbs at Stone Gardens. No, I’m not. Those are the other people, the ones I learn from, the ones I am nowhere near touching.

That internal editor. That little censor.  That voice telling me you don’t know enough, you aren’t strong enough, you should edit again, the line is shaky, the composition off.

This fall feels like a good time to head into the scary forest, to see what I’m capable of. It’s a dangerous place, and it’s scary and there will be tears and there will be terror and there will be a hell of a lot of you can’t do this, retreat to safety.

What have I risked of myself lately for art? Not enough.

*The German Forest is what the folks at Radiolab call the terrifying place when a story is lost.  The phrase comes from an experience during an investigation into Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Thanks to Jad Abumrad and Zoe Keating for “Embracing the Gut Churn” at Benaroya Hall (9/30/14).

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One thought on “Cello and the German Forest*

  1. I’ve heard you refer to climbing as your art. It was only after reading this post that I understood how different they are, how the very real life-and-death risks of climbing might keep you away from the German Forest in your other creative work. Yes, you always want to come back alive and (mostly) intact from a climb; retreating to safety means you live another day to go past what feel safe in the German Forest of your other creative work. Both can be terrifying, but you can take far more risks with your pen.

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