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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Dinosaurs and Names

Last night I went to a RadioLab live show with my aunt, uncle, and H. The night started with mishap—apparently it’s the Beaujolais Nouveau Wine Festival, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at Maximillian’s website. Foiled plan, turned off cell-phones, freezing cold… I was cranky pants by the time we made it to our very loud but only solution bar. My whole plan of nice conversation with a glass of wine turned to shouting across at each other and only catching snippets that resulted in questions like Do you have any metal in your body and By kidnapping children, I mean she WANTED to kidnap a toddler

RadioLab had just about the coolest dinosaur puppets I’ve ever seen, and the comedian who opened the whole thing was pretty funny.  In general, I think the In The Dark show was a little better, but they didn’t fail to amaze with stories and facts and a little bit of Dino Dancing.  I love how absolutely dorky the whole thing is. I think my favorite part, though, was the way they ended the piece about the death of the dinosaurs.  Multiple screens, a live video collage and swelling orchestral rock music. It’s hard to replicate in words (as most music/experiential moments are), and I hope that’s part of the broadcast when they put up the podcast.  I remember walking out sort of dazed by the ending of the show last time, and I sort of wish the dinosaur piece had been last and we’d left to that emotion, rather than where it ended with Reggie Watts. C’est la vie.

As we walked out we started talking about names. I love how many people I know have given themselves their names, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote that never actually made it to the blog about my fascination with middle names. There has been a recent spate of nicknames at my office, but I don’t ever seem to get one (that I know about at least).  Am I too stuffy? I think I take myself far too seriously.  The only nickname I’ve sort of had was Watson, but it was only because my friend lived on Baker Street in London for a while, and my name was only in response to his.  Pet names don’t really stick either. Maybe some day.  Anyway, here’s the essay, for your enjoyment.

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Maybe it started with the Broadway musical Cats.  I can’t tell you how many times my sister and I listened to the cassette, but it was enough.  If you aren’t familiar, there’s a song called “The Naming of Cats” in which the cats sing “But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,/And that is the name that you never will guess;/The name that no human research can discover–/But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess. “  There was power in this cat-name, and power in withholding it.  To name something was to know it—and as I think about it, I find this idea reoccurring in the stories that swirled around my childhood.  The NeverEnding Story ends in an act of naming. Malicious Rumplestiltskin is defeated when his name is called out and he stomps his way out of existence. The world is created as God names his creations. Mythology after mythology, names, and the knowing of names, is power.

My family has a duplicitous relationship with names.  My mother’s brother is Howard, David, Dave, and Doobie.  My cousin is Rami and Corrina.  My aunt is named Sharon but goes my Louise. Another aunt shifted from Ann to Anna, and was at some point something so complex I can’t remember it now.   In conversation names shifted while the subject remained the same. Corrina left the house and Rami boarded the train.  Howard was coming to Christmas late and Doobie walks in halfway through dinner.  One had to follow the subject, not the description.  There is also mimicry—both my father and brother are Michael, though my brother has a David between first and last to differentiate.  Strangely enough though, neither my sister nor I, nor my parents, had middle names.  It is as if, with the exhaustion of keeping everyone else straight, ours remained simple.  (My mother has since taken my stepfather’s last as her middle, and though she’s had it for years, it still hard for me to think of her as anything but her first and last name, written in her slanting script across the return address of envelopes.)

I used to feel envy towards the middle names that surrounded me.  I even gave one to myself for my eighth grade graduation, to match my best friend’s initials. The name didn’t stick – it wasn’t mine, and I knew it.  I can’t say when my envy shifted, but at some point my lack became an oddness that I am strangely proud of.  My (non) middle name will always be unknowable. It’s like the riddle that asks “What kind of gun do you use to kill a pink elephant” and answers “Have you ever seen a pink elephant?”

This riddle is a one way street. I get to ask a question I can never answer for myself.  Henry. Eric. Michael. William. Rene. Ryan. Robert. I learn middle names with a voracious appetite.  Each name is a thrill not unlike a first kiss, and, like my kisses, this attention is predominately focused on men.  I casually learn women’s names, but not with the same driven focus.  I drill myself on names and it’s utterly masculine. I list them to myself, first, middle, last.  Adam. Ian. I learn the stories of the middle name—what distant relative or folk hero his parents had in mind, how often the name is dusted off and worn.  Some middle names fit while others are more uncomfortable and clumsy on my tongue. Patrick. Richard. Andrew.  I try to remember them all, regardless.

I have yet to meet a man without three names, besides my father.  I wonder what I will do when confronted with an equal void. An unsolvable x. Will we create our own names? Maybe.  There’s something about an emptiness that asks to be filled.

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I’m headed out to Orcas Island for the annual Gorse Busting Fest, with some of the coolest and kindest people I know. We’ll work together, sweat together, eat together, and play endless rounds of Dominion. See you soon guys!

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