Monday, April 30, 2012

For years I've been growing an orange tree, one I bought in an airport and brought home in defiance of the recommended climate for orange trees. It has grown tall but never strong, refusing unsurprisingly to flower and bear fruit. Just now, for the first time, it has sprouted one single blossom. It still won't be growing oranges, but I am happy in this surprising flowering after so many years of only green.

In my Tennysoning I'm usually distracted by the Lotos-Eaters, a poem I came to in a roundabout way as a child through a mention in one of the Little House books. Lately I have been struck more and more by Ulysses, a poem that Tennyson wrote after the death of a friend. Ulysses is nowhere to be found in the Lotos-Eaters, although in the stories he bundles his crew back on the boat to continue their adventure home. By the time he shows up in Ulysses he has returned home and found himself beset by the restless, considering his eventual death and how little of himself is left. Eventually he begs his sailors--who are all, at this point in the story, dead in foreign lands anyway--to "Come, my friends,/'Tis not too late to seek a newer world./Push off, and sitting well in order smite/The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars, until I die." If you ask Tennyson, Ulysses spent the entire Odyssey striving to get back home only to realize once he got there how badly he wanted to leave. Ulysses was kind of a jerk, but it's hard to argue with the pull of adventure.

A dim conversational pathway recently led from the fruits of forgetting to mullein leaves, which are potentially what Ulysses waved at Circe in order to keep away from her spell and free his men. In the time of the Romans mullein was supposed to have an overpowering effect on demons, which made it a great thing to use for torches--what better way to light a path through the darkness than with the one thing that would definitely keep the demons away? (Boiled and put into water, mullein is also a plant that can cause fish to drown, which leads me to question the otherworldly integrity of fish.) I didn't really think about the mullein past that until one ended up in my hand yesterday, where it turned out to be soft and resistant to my nervous fidgeting. Seems to me these are obvious qualities for anything one might want to be using to unsettle the demons.

Friday, April 27, 2012

It was in the soft hours just before dawn, when the light has a watery gray quality even in my dark bedroom, that I came up with my plan to miniaturize you. The instructions for how had been there all the time, hidden in the even fall of your breathing and the scent that wafts up sometimes from the neck of your shirt. It's a common misconception that all that's needed to fit someone in your pocket is to build a shrink ray, but that's simply not true--each person miniaturizes in their own way.

Once I unlocked the plans it was only a matter of gathering the right tools. I assembled the machine in secret, gathering a wrench here and a pile of ashes there, the color yellow and a screwdriver and five elephant molars. A waterwheel and the headwaters of the Nile, five rocks from inner outerspace, a sledgehammer, three nails. All the things you would expect.

I don't know if I want you in my pocket, of course. Still, it's nice to know that I could if it turns out that I do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I've been thinking about the anechoic chamber in Minnesota, a room that cancels out nearly every single bit of external sound. You can't be in it for very long without needing to sit, because we orient ourselves in the world by the sounds around us. Without the cues that tell you how to balance and maneuver all you can hear is the inside of your own body, and you become too disoriented to stand. After 45 minutes in the room, you'll go mad. We can't hear only ourselves for very long; the world only makes sense when we can filter out our own most important noises from the cacophony. When the choices are larger than only one of us.

I've been thinking about when Adrienne Rich wrote "Tonight I think/no poetry/will serve" just in between lines about feelings and then lines about precision. I've been thinking about the overwhelming gurgle of our own lungs and eyes like poets sore from the sun, and how it all misses just when it could save everything, about the sharpest sweetness just past all of the words.

We sat in the sun this weekend, warming our bones and petting dogs and grilling, opening rooftop barbecue season in sundresses and spring pastels and ill-advised novelty drinks. I've been thinking about when Frank O'Hara wrote, "Now I am quietly waiting for/the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern." and how he was a man widely known for his warmth and passion. I've been thinking about the noises we might contain if we could find a room that canceled out the sound of our hearts and our lungs.

Friday, April 20, 2012

I've been reading the Icelandic Sagas in preparation for my trip, in my usual way. They're extra interesting in that they're the very prosiest of prose--when I think Medieval literature I think of all the poems, all the Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain. In the sagas the poets are still the most important, placed highest of the warriors (everyone in Iceland was a warrior, apparently), but the stories themselves are plain and matter-of-fact even when dealing with the most mythical of subject matter. From what I can tell no one seems to know why that is, why they're written in prose when poetry was overwhelmingly the convention of the time, although it seems consistent with everything I've heard about the ways and spirit of the Icelandic people.

Anyway, as a result I've been thinking a lot about nithing poles, the old Viking way of cursing an enemy. It's a pretty straightforward process--I don't think Vikings were really ones for subtlety. To raise a nithing pole all you have to do is carve a pole with runes of curses and stick it in the yard of your enemy with a freshly cut horse head on the top. In one of the early sagas Egil sets one up to make sure that the guardian spirits of a place can't find their home until they drive out his enemies, but the truth is that the tradition is still kept up today. Just a handful of years ago a farmer set up a nithing pole for his neighbor after the neighbor ran over his puppy, cursing him to be haunted until he was either outlawed or dead. (To be fair, puppies are really cute.)

Things keep going wrong around here, and I've been fighting down a rising wave of superstition. It's hard to not see omens and signs in everything when you're struggling against a tide that refuses to turn, especially when you naturally tread on the side of magical thinking. As a result Iceland is starting to loom in my head almost as a refuge, a whole land of people keeping up their old traditions and believing in the old ways, decapitated livestock and magic and all. Maybe there are answers to be found there.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Last night I walked home in the hour just after sunset, past thatches of dandelions with blooms still mostly held tightly together, gathering wishes from the soil. Scattered among them were a few that have already flowered and fallen, all white puffs in patches. So I guess some of our wishes are ready to be handed to the wind, the softest early ones heading out to colonize ahead of when they're lifted out and scattered by the handful. That feels about right.

My medical professionals have told me that my heart is working too hard lately, which is a conclusion that you could see from space; this is the only way my heart knows how to work. In any case, they assume that this is the cause of the careening my heart has been doing, trying to throw itself straight from my ribcage and out into orbit. I've been measuring it for a week or two now, to see if it is beating harder or faster, if it has picked up a rhythm you could dance to or a new irregularity to add to its uneven thump. As a result I'm building a slow electronic record of life lived at this pace, of building secrets late into the night or walking home in the soft twilight, of long naps on the couch or waking from dreams about drowning or staying for one drink too many talking too fast and laughing too loud. The only conclusions I have so far is that there are no conclusions at all.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I caught myself there, painting demons and unicorns on my walls, sleepwalking my way into disasters of my own making and following the unlikeliest of outcomes right over cliffs. The heart wanders where it will, of course, but every now and I again I wish that it would take the rest of me along with it. Sometimes I try to outline the shapes our days hammer into our hearts, all scratched and dented and ringing from the blows, to see if there's secretly a jigsaw puzzle in there. Sometimes I am almost brave enough to fit my hands around your edges, to walk out from the shadows and look right at your bruises though I am still afraid to meet your eyes. I want to tell you that I know all about the dread that takes root at the end of the night, the flames we just can't help but touch, the miracles we need more than air.

Late nights as the hours drag on it turns boring, looking for all these answers under all these stones, panning for gold when all I'd rather do is sleep, tightrope walking when all my training is in rodeo clowning. Still I'm sure that the only real option is to thrust our hands right into this fire, even though the outcomes are almost always to either burn badly or turn to glass. Especially since the alternative appears to be learning to ask for what I want instead of around it, which is a longer drop than from that tightrope and a sharper burn than from those flames. Better the demons that I know than the answers I can't anticipate, even if it is the coward's way out. I'll work my way around to the right side eventually, although by then I may very well have missed what I was looking for.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Three days of dancing:

1. On Thursday I started taking a salsa class. The framework for the class is that the leads stand in a big circle with follows switching from person to person. For a moment, moving awkwardly between strange and sweaty palms, I had a vision of the dance scenes in period dramas, of ladies in swishing skirts wafting daintily between partners. Our room was the opposite of that, clutching strangers and apologizing constantly, treading on toes and spinning off-balance, pushing my dampening bangs out of my eyes with a forearm. Slowly, eventually, getting it mostly right.

2. On Friday, two of my very favorite people were djing together, so I put on a new dress and my dancing shoes to match my towering good mood and prepared to get sweaty. Deep into the fun I slipped back out of the crowd and around to the other side of the bar to watch. This is my favorite part of a good party, stepping back to watch my loved ones have fun, dancing and laughing and unselfconsciously silly. Just as I settled down for a good happy wallow something in the technology went wrong and the music came to a crashing halt. Everyone dispersed to buy another drink or mop the sweat from their faces, and by the time it started up again no one remembered that it had ever stopped. Much later that night, in the smoky afterhours, members of the bar staff practiced salsa dancing with me to music that didn't match at all.

3. On Saturday we went to the demolition derby out in Monroe which left us well-placed to stop for a couple of pitchers of beer in nearby Sultan. We settled into a booth in the back flanked by peeling taxidermied deer just before the band picked up their instruments. They swung into covers of the hits from the 70's and 80's and we bopped around in our booth, singing and flailing, drawing amused stares and at least one thumbs up from the group of bikers nearby. Hours later, on the way out, the band cajoled us into staying for one last dance, unexpectedly starting up with Nine Inch Nails's "Closer". We shrugged and peeled our layers back off, almost never able to turn down a dance party, feeling slightly dissonant dancing to that song in that place and happy with all the ways there are to have fun.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

There's a ghost ship heading toward us, I hear, set adrift after last year's earthquake in Japan. It's been ambling across the ocean all this time, carrying mystery cargo and probably rotting. The first thing we intend to do when it shows up, it seems, is sink it.

Some of the news stories are calling the boat derelict, which is interesting. As usual, maritime law seems to be a matter of interpretation. Broadly, they call ships and their parts on top of the water flotsam, while derelict is what is on the bottom of the ocean without hope of reclaim. But then it seems that that's only derelict cargo, which is likely to sink anyway--you could abandon a ship on the high seas and still call it derelict. Theophilus Parsons gave the answer an even finer point in 1859 when he wrote his treatise on maritime law, explaining that a ship that is left with the intention of returning isn't a derelict ship. (If the whole ship is kidnapped, the ship is factually derelict, but not legally so. Assuming, I guess, that eventually the crew can escape the pirates and take their ship back? It seems that it has always been difficult to pen the sea in between the hard lines of our laws.) So from what I can gather the matter of dereliction works in the same way as that of salvage--what you call whatever is on or under the water begins with intent and only then leads to fact.

Which leads me back to our ghost ship. Japan didn't intend to cast this boat off, the Earth itself did that for them. The boat probably didn't intend to wander off into the ocean, although I suppose we can't really be sure about the feelings of boats. And yet at the same time the Japanese also don't appear intent on getting the boat back, while we are pretty sure we want to send it to the bottom of the ocean. So. By intending to punch it full of holes we are making sure that this boat is derelict, whatever it was when the ocean first shook it loose, but then what was it all these months while it was just wandering slowly across the waves? Just a ghost, I guess, drifting above all the fish and under all the clouds. It's only when we noticed it was there that it became something else.

Monday, April 02, 2012

I don't know about you, but I seem to have spilled milk all over this molehill, and am finding the path both treacherous and muddy. Seems like the better option would be to stop and go around. Or maybe just stop.

We went to a party at the Space Needle this weekend. Always before I've been up there in the daytime. From my apartment you can see cameras flashing from the observation deck in the twilight, twinkling like all the stars had come down close, and I've wondered what it looks like to watch the city dimming and turning dark from above. It was nice to be up there with my friends, watching the clouds wrapping themselves around us and my city spread out below. Mostly, this is a pretty nice life.