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Some things I would prefer not to look at too closely.

A hummingbird is one.

Also, my wishes.

I want to look at the hummingbird closely, but I would prefer not to, because seeing all the tiny, exquisite details – means that the bird is not moving. A still hummingbird is dead, like the one I found on the pavement this morning. The color drew my eye – I was expecting it to be a cicada. Its upper feathers are just the same iridescent green as a cicada (the living or dead, winged cicada, but not the amber molt), and it was the same size. Which, for a bird, is tiny. I think it must have hit the glass, as I found it just at the base of a large window.

(“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”)

It cannot have been there long, because the ants had not found it at all. I carried it home cupped in my hand, its body so light that I could only feel it there because the breeze caught its small, rigid wing, so that it gently vibrated against my fingers. Still humming even in death.

At home Mark and Seth and I bent our heads over it, sadly, curiously. We marvelled at its tiny curled black feet. Its shining green back. Its neat, perfect wings and tail. The long, clear tongue protruding from the long, black beak, which seemed to say that it died thirsty. That was the saddest detail, but also the most fascinating. How else would we ever have been able to look at a hummingbird tongue?

I can’t stop looking at it, and I wish I knew a way to preserve it (that is not horrible). But more than that I wish that, like the luna moth, it would turn out not to be dead after all – that it would suddenly begin to vibrate and then we could let it go and it would fly away.

I wish so many things. I’m basically a wishing machine. And I do firmly believe that Freud is right about dreams being the expression of wishes. Repressed wishes, he says, but I tend to think that dreams can also express wishes that are not repressed – wishes of which we can become conscious, but maybe would prefer not to. What I like about dreams, though, is the intricate ways they conceal or subvert the expression of those wishes, repressed or not. I like the dreamwork. I love the ways that my sleeping brain obscures, twists, and transforms my wishes into something artful, beautiful, and clever.

Like the dream where my friend is painting a portrait of my husband, but in the portrait he is transformed into a collection of smooth stones, covered in canvas and tied with string, and I am dressed in a fox costume made out of small, brightly painted, geometrically shaped pieces of wood. Maybe I’m revealing you all my secrets just by describing that, but I certainly haven’t puzzled it out. I’d rather not – I prefer not to see the wishes too plainly.

Because sometimes there is a dream that is not artful at all, that shows me exactly what I want so plainly that my heart aches for days afterwards. That’s the dream I woke up from this morning. That dream laid my wishes so fucking bare, it was like looking at the sun. I can’t tell all of it. But I was home, in the first and maybe last place that will ever feel like home. Just when I thought maybe this felt like home, there is the dream to measure that distance. My family was there – mother, aunts, uncles, cousins. I ran down the stairs; I leapt down the stairs. I practically flew down them. Someone I loved was sitting in a chair by the wood-burning stove. By the hearth. Smiling at me with such warmth.

Fuck you, dream. I don’t want to see that. It’s a joke – a mockery. If you see what you wish for too plainly, it will break your heart. I’d rather it blur, vibrate, fly away. I’d rather see it just in flashes than in such unflinching light. The dream isn’t alive; it’s beautiful, but it’s not alive.

Sometimes birds would get into that stovepipe. We’d hear them scratching and flapping all the way down. It was a long stovepipe. Once the noise was in the stove rather than in the pipe, we’d carefully open the door, and there would be a few moments of dark grabbing and desperate fluttering and then hands and bird would emerge, tense and covered in ashes. We would carry the bird outside, deposit it confused and dirty on the deck. I don’t remember those birds flying away, but I remember the frantic shivering of a bird in my hands, and the frantic pounding of my own heart, my panic caught from the bird. I don’t remember what those birds looked like, what kind of birds they were. We didn’t look at them – we didn’t have a chance. What was important was, we saved their lives.

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A few days after our Luna moth excitement, on the same walk between school and car, Mark and I found a caterpillar on the sidewalk. Of course, given all our recent talk about moths, butterflies, and lepidopteral transformations in general, we had to pick it up and bring it home. It was quite pretty – a yellow keyhole looking design down the middle of its back, and stripes of pale turquoise and brown on its sides. I tried to identify it online to find out what kinds of leaves it would eat, while Mark kept it from climbing out of a tupperware container. It turned out to be a forest tent moth caterpillar – entirely common, generally considered pests, but nevertheless an object of interest to both of us, so we gathered leaves and sticks and made it a home in a large mason jar to observe it.

I can’t say that I ever saw it actively eating, but it did actively produce some pretty large evidence of digestion, so I suppose it ate something. Given how big it was when we found it, I figured it must be in its last caterpillar instar. On the second day it spent most of the day in the neck of the jar, only moving enough to assure us it was still alive. On the third day it started to enclose itself in the pillowy white threads of a cocoon. I was watching it as I wrote this – the caterpillar still visible inside. It moved almost constantly, twisting and squirming itself around more and more tightly within the structure it was creating out of its own body. I must say, the process did not look comfortable. Actually it looked downright painful, and wasn’t very enjoyable to watch, however interesting. From the obliging internet I know that within the cocoon the caterpillar skin will split, and the pupa case will emerge. Then, after a while, the pupa itself will split, and the moth emerge. If all of this goes well, then we’ll observe the moth a bit and let it go. In the meantime, I’m feeling more unnerved by the whole thing than I would have expected.

As I was telling my students the other day, I think Lepidoptera are incredible as a species because of the way they grow and develop. All living things grow, but not all go through such radical changes. In addition, each instar develops inside the previous one, and bursts out of it, splitting the skin of its former incarnation – which is theoretically beautiful, but rather grotesque and violent in actuality. How is it even possible that all of these instars are the same being? And at what point does one instar stop being the one that is alive, and pass on life to the next? It would be like being pregnant, but knowing (somehow) that the thing with which you are pregnant is supposed to be yourself, and that giving birth to it (to you) will mean your own destruction. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Which is, I guess, not that different from how pregnancy actually does work, except the destruction isn’t a necessity, so instead, ideally, two instars go on to live individual lives, which is awesome. But as a mother, there are moments when you marvel and also grieve that this independent little being once got everything he (or she) needed from you, but now has the whole world to learn and grown in. Then again, it is comforting to remind myself, as a daughter, that I have not stopped needing my mother, or learning from her, and she helps me grow all the time.

It’s easy to leap to historical similes. Like the caterpillar creating its next incarnation inside itself, every generation creates within itself the generation that will succeed it, and we are told we must think of the future, live in the consideration of what we are creating for our children, our children’s children, and so on.

But don’t we want to snatch something for ourselves, too?

It is painful and uncomfortable to see and feel the ideas and assumptions of one age split open by the new life that is coming out of it. It is contradictory and confusing to think that what is emerging will be larger than that from which it emerges. While we are alive, instinct moves us to nourish and protect ourselves, but instinct also urges us to create life beyond ourselves. Then when that life is created, sometimes it seems to take energy and life from us – to tell us we have been misguided, misinformed, unjustified, simply wrong. That we don’t deserve life. Often the first meal of a newly emerged instar is the now dead remains of its previous self.

I’ve been going through my own changes. I see my close community, and many other communities of all sizes, going through changes. They are violent. They are pitting deeply help beliefs – often older ones – against deeply held beliefs based on newer ideas, discoveries, new ways of understanding and living. It’s terrifying. On a daily basis my anxiety tells me that the world is ending – even though I can look around and see that it’s right here, and not so much has changed. I hope, I hope, that what comes out of these changes will be bigger, more beautiful, worth all the pain of getting to it. But the question, from this moment inside the changes, is what will survive? What will survive of myself, what will survive of my community, what will survive of all our communities?

The whole thing would seem to be teleological – working toward the end – which we see as the moth, or butterfly. But in looking into moth life cycles I learned that many moths – Luna moths included – do not even have mouths. They live only a few days, and consume nothing for themselves. They live only to produce eggs. So what seems to us to be the end of the life cycle, because it is the most articulated and (to us) beautiful, is just another one of the stages, working to create the life that will succeed it – in the world not for itself, but for the future that it creates out of itself.

That’s a lesson, if not the most hopeful one. Just as we are not the end of the unfolding of history, neither should we consider anything we’ve created as an end in itself, no matter how beautiful or productive or how seemingly necessary. No generation is in the world only to consume – we must also actively work for the future, even if it seems that that future implies the destruction of the present state of things.

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Today, Earth Day, is my dad’s birthday as well. It’s easy to remember, because it’s appropriate. One of many memorable things about Dad is his love of earthworms. He liked to teach children about them, and children love to learn about worms. Case in point: Mark (little Mark) came home from school yesterday with a sheet of paper on which he had written some facts about worms.

“they have segmins. they poop drt to mack mor rich.”

He’s able to explain that rather more eloquently in conversation, and has been for years thanks to his Grandma and the composting worms she keeps in her garage or basement, depending on the season. Little Mark is well on his way to being as great a lover of worms as his Grandpa Mark.

I like worms just fine, but I tend more towards a love of caterpillars, and butterflies, and moths. I got that from my dad too, but more indirectly. There are so many things I miss about him; one of my most bitter thoughts is that he’ll never give me another book. In twenty-three years he gave me a remarkably large number of the books that have been important to me, from books I ended up dissertating about to books I’ve reread countless times for sheer pleasure. On the top of that list is “A Girl of the Limberlost,” by Gene Stratton-Porter. (Mom, apologies if you actually gave it to me – now I can’t actually remember!)

If you’ve never read “A Girl of the Limberlost” – I’m not surprised. I don’t think I’ve met anyone outside of my immediate family who has. It’s an old-fashioned novel in a lot of ways, and the world it’s about doesn’t exist anymore. The girl of the title, Elnora Comstock, lives on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp in Indiana, and collects butterflies and moths and other bits of nature to pay her way through school. I’ve read that book so many times. There’s no literary character I’ve so unswervingly admired, for my whole reading life. Elnora is good, and I wished so many times that I could be her.

Stratton-Porter was a naturalist as well as a novelist, and she describes nature with incredible detail and passion. It’s due to her, and Elnora, that I have always, always, wanted to see a Luna moth. It’s due to her vivid description that I know what a Luna moth looks like, even though I had never seen one – until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon I picked Mark up from school, and as we were walking to our car, there, on the grass by the sidewalk, was a Luna moth.

I kind of freaked out. The moth appeared to be dead – not moving, wings a bit tattered. We brought it home, and I proceeded to tell Mark to “BE CAREFUL!” every time he touched its antennae, or blew to make its wings move. Seth could not understand why I was being a crazy person about the moth, because he just doesn’t know about Elnora Comstock and the Limberlost. It’s okay, I don’t blame him. But I wanted to keep and preserve and stare at that moth for the rest of my life.

Until it turned out to be not dead. First it twitched an antenna. Then its wings began to vibrate. And then without warning it flew around the living room. There was shrieking, and frantic turning off of lights so it wouldn’t hurt itself flying at them, and we managed to get it outside. It didn’t move much after that – it was clearly at the end of its life. So Mark and I watched it for a while longer, and I took pictures, and we put some sugar down in front of it just in case, and then I went in to make dinner. When I came back out to check on it, it was gone.

Thanks for visiting, Luna moth. You couldn’t have come at a better time; I needed a reminder that the beautiful things of this world are not all gone.

“Elnora handed her mother a handsome black-walnut frame a foot and a half wide by two long. It finished a small shallow glass-covered box of birch bark, to the bottom of which clung a big night moth with delicate pale green wings and long exquisite trailers. A more beautiful thing would have been difficult to imagine.”

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Roar!

Roar!

There were a couple days when I didn’t get much sewing done. Cutting and planning, yes. Sewing, no. Thursday was devoted to getting up super early, driving an hour to the city for Seth’s third eye surgery. Blah. Exhausting. And then driving home, and Seth sleeping, and playing every game in the house to keep Mark entertained until I could put him to bed and do nothing for a while. And not fall asleep. But for a short while that evening I went to a Clothes Swap with some fabulous women, and came home with a whole bag full of amazing new shirts! Most of them are for me, but a couple got thrown at me with the words, “I think Mark needs this.”

Mark did need them both, but both were way too big for him, so I figured it would be a perfect chance to do some redesigning! The other one you may hear about tomorrow. Today, I played with the lions!

Here’s what the shirt looked like to begin with:

Classic

Classic

Awesome, but came down to his knees. It would take years to grow into. But I knew right away it wanted to be a raglan. And now it is:

The green knit strikes again, this time as sleeves.

The green knit strikes again, this time as sleeves.

You may notice I got some cool tape. It looks cool, but does not stick – this is the only photo I could get before the shirt fell down many times.

But it’s cuter on Mark anyway. Selfishly, I got him super excited about it, he put it on, and we went to the Botanic Garden to take pictures. Selfish, because it’s so stupidly hot today. His face was dripping with sweat by the time we left. But look at the cuteness!

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To make up for it, he’s now watching a movie in his underwear. In fact, I may or may not be blogging in my underwear and a Piggly Wiggly shirt. Classy, I know. It’s HOT.

Gosh, I love that shirt. And that boy.

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I have been meaning to participate in Kids Clothes Week forever! Or at least since the spring of 2009, which was when I discovered Elsie Marley (is it even necessary to link that? Is there anyone in the world of sewing and blogging who doesn’t already have Elsie Marley bookmarked?) But until now I’ve been too busy, or too disorganized, or my sewing machine was all packed away, or something.

For the last year now, though, I’ve been sewing things for Mark fairly consistently. Not as consistently as some amazing people, but I would say that at least once every couple of days he’s wearing at least one piece of clothing that I made. And they look good, and fit him and his personality, and wear well, and he likes them – which are all reasons that I’ve kept doing it. I even tackled sewing with knits! (And it was not a complete disaster.) So here I am, stepping up to the challenge, because I feel like I’m up to it!

And can I tell you about my recent victory? Yesterday I cut out the pieces for three shirts (you’ll see them soon, but that’s not the victory), piled them next to my sewing machine on my newly cleaned sewing table, like so:

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Yes, I was so happy about this that I took a picture. But then I remembered…. the last time I used my sewing machine. To make myself a dress. At the very last minute. Before I had to drive an hour to get to the airport. A dress I really didn’t have to make, but had convinced myself I did. And right when I was trying to sew the gathered skirt onto the top (it was knit, of course), I realized the machine was refusing to zigzag. Like, only picking up the bobbin thread on one side of the zigzag. To make a long story short, the dress did get finished without the use of the zigzag, I nearly had a panic attack, and it will probably fall apart the next time I try to wear it. Which will not be for a really long time, because it has long sleeves and is floor length, and it’s the summer in Oklahoma.

So yes, I remembered that the zigzag was broken. And then, like a fucking epic hero, I fixed it.

!!!!!

Did I know anything about sewing machine repair? NO. Do I now? Actually, kinda yes. The internet helped. And support from Facebook. I was so pleased with myself. I still am. This is me, being super pleased, when it was finally zigzagging happily:

Photo on 7-20-14 at 8.37 PM

Then there was bedtime for the child, and whatnot, but basically, at midnight I could not wait to start making something. I ended up sewing a whole shirt! This is my first time making a Flashback Skinny Tee, and I know I’m late to the party, but wow! It’s both remarkably easy, and remarkably fun. It turned out pretty well, with a few glitches,

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the glitches being mostly those two snags on the neckline – but since they were pretty symmetrical, I felt like I could live with them. But then (not in the middle of the night, but at a normal hour) I did this to it:

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😦

I had such a vision! This is a drawing that Mark did a while ago, that I’ve been carefully preserving for the very purpose of making t-shirts. I’ll probably have more to say about the drawing itself later – it’s a whole story. Anyway, this is NOT how I imagined it looking. I saw Meg’s post over at Oliver + S about using transfer paper, and I tried to find the same product. What I found was not what I was looking for. I thought just the image would transfer! But instead the paper itself just glues right onto the shirt. I HATE how it looks. So I’ve already started taking the shirt apart to redo it. And I learned from my mistakes, played with the coloring, added a border, trimmed the paper around it, and I think this is much better, though it’s still not my vision.

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But I do like it better. A lot better. It’s for a different kid, if that’s not obvious. And actually neither of those were for my own kid, who I have yet to get to, though there will be another green tee coming down the line. Still haven’t figured out how I’m going to tinker with that one.

Also, I think I’ve spent at least six hours sewing today – trying to make up for later in the week, since Seth has a surgery on Thursday.

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This is, also, a stunning poem. Possibly the shortest poem that has ever made me cry. Here it is:

“Body, Remember”

I just copied it out to send to a friend, with whom I have an ongoing poetry exchange. She always sends me the best things. This, I’m sending to her because the last time we were in the same place, she took me to a Korean bath, and paid for me to have my body scrubbed. I was hesitant about it – I don’t really ever get massages, or facials, or manicures, or in general pay anyone to do anything to my body. Which will probably not change, but still I ended up being very grateful for it. As I lay on a table and let a middle-aged Korean woman in black cotton lingerie take several layers of my skin off, I felt an extreme joy in the fact of having a body. That’s all, I was just glad of it. If I’d already read this poem, I might have said to myself, to my body, “Body, remember…”

Cavafy is writing from the perspective of the end of life – embodied life, any way. “Now that it’s all finally in the past,” he says. I can’t tell when the poem was written, if he was in fact at the end of his life. It doesn’t matter – but it’s a poem people should read to themselves at the end of life. “Body, remember not only how much you were loved,/ not only the beds you lay on,/ but also those desires that glowed openly/ in eyes that looked at you.”

Every body should have such things to remember. Re-member. (The Greek for “remember” does not work like that – it’s a felicity of the translation.)

It reminds me of one of Rilke’s early letters to Tsvetaeva. Written in May of 1926, his death (at the end of the year) is clearly, already, present to him. Responding to Tsvetaeva’s insistence that their correspondence “isn’t a question of Rilke the person…but of Rilke the spirit,” Rilke, whatever he is, writes, “you say, it is not a matter of Rilke the person. I, too, am at odds with him, with his body, with which such pure communication had always been possible that I often did not know which produced poems more happily: it, I, the two of us? … And now dis-cord, doubly cored, soul clad one way, body mummed another, different. In this sanatorium ever since December, but not quite allowing the doctor in, into the only relationship between self and self that can stand no mediator, (no go-between, who would make distances irrevocable; no translator, who would break it apart into two languages).”

In the relationship and communion of soul with body, poems are written. What a remarkable thinker. It is also a frightening but suggestive idea that doctors are often imperfect mediators, translators, or go-betweens for this communion and communication – often tragically imperfect. It is a tragedy to be in discord with one’s body, to be doubly cored and different from it. And yet, if not mediators, Cavafy reminds us that others, with eyes that glow and voices that tremble with desire for the body, can give a body back to itself in remembrance – remembrance of how it gave itself “to those desires too.”

 

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(I picked this picture out of all the others widely available online, because of the fabulous spectacles, and the precision of that collar.)

I am not feeling guilty about failing, from the very first, to write about a poem every day; my reason for not feeling guilty is that I actually stopped procrastinating last night and graded some %*#&ing papers. But I did read this poem yesterday, and then went ahead and read all of Cavafy’s poems included in the anthology, and then went online and found an archive and read a lot more – because he’s just incredible. And I didn’t know! I forgot what it feels like to discover a new poet that I love. It is, really, like falling in love. I’m falling hard for Constantine Cavafy. The online archive has multiple translations of most of his lyrics (multiple translations! swoon!), and also Greek texts for all of them, and consequently I’m also more excited about Greek than I have been in a long time. It’s not the kind of Greek I’m (still slightly) used to – i.e., not ancient – but I can puzzle through it somewhat handily with the translations alongside, and at least see more of the form, tell what the meter and rhyme scheme are, and just hear the words in my head. These words sound good in my head.

Here’s what I’m talking about, in the same translation (Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) that is included in the Ecco Anthology: “The City”

And the Greek, for whoever cares: Η Πόλις

The first thing that struck me about this poem was the symmetry. Two eight line stanzas. Each stanza capable of being neatly divided in half grammatically. That’s the case in both the original and the Keeley/Sherrard translation. Each stanza almost capable of being neatly divided into fourths grammatically, but the last four lines of the first stanza get in the way of that. And beyond the numbers, it’s symmetrical in utterance as well. The first stanza begins with “You say: …”, followed by a quoted speech that takes up the rest of the stanza. The second stanza is a response to what was said, and echoes both its structure and phrasing. In the translation there’s no rhyme scheme, but in the Greek both stanzas are ABBCCDDA. And the Greek – the Greek. It’s so beautiful. Just read this to yourself (and forgive me if I transliterate it awkwardly):

Eipes: “Tha pago s’ alle ge, tha pago s’ alle thalassa.

It doesn’t look  beautiful, especially transliterated, so you have to read it out loud so you can hear it. Thalassa has to be the most euphonious of all words for the sea, in any language. Is anybody going to fight me about that? La mer is good too, and obviously easy to play with in poetry, but more for what other words it sounds like. Speaking of French, and “la gouffre amer,” “The City” reminds me a lot of Baudelaire, and not just any old Baudelaire, but what I like to consider my Baudelaire: “Le Voyage.” The traces of “Le Voyage” are all over “The City” – in the dialogic structure, in the flat pronouncement that “You won’t find a new country, you won’t find another shore.” Cavafy writes, “Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,/ I see the black ruins of my life.” And Baudelaire says, “The world, monotone and small, today,/ Yesterday, tomorrow, makes us see our image.” (That’s just my workaday translation, not a fancy one.)

The party doesn’t end with just those two, though. If “The City” is talking to “The Voyage,” then it’s also talking to a lot of other poems – the Inferno and the Odyssey, just to name the most obvious. Wow, it’s like I never even left home! New poet, but all my same poems. Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look, I see the black ruins of my dissertation…  😉 But really, it’s not just me. Cavafy is actually much more authorized to be alluding to Homer than Baudelaire is, and his poetry is overtly calling out Dante and Homer all over the place. It’s Baudelaire who’s the stretch to bring in here. But anyway, this is totally a “Ulysses speaking from the flame” moment. (He’s got at least two others poems about that.) This is the guy talking who left home (or wanted to leave home) to seek new worlds, new civilizations (oh shit, has anybody ever talked about Star Trek and the Odyssey?), but didn’t end up seeing anything new after all, because there’s nothing new in the world, or out of it. Only the black ruins of everything you’ve burned up with your own flames.

Yeah, this poem is deep. And depressing, I’m sure my students would readily point out. That’s how I like my poetry.

I’m adding some new phrases to my cache of poetic mantras. When things get really bad, I chant to myself in my head, “La, tout n’est qu’ordre et beaute,/ Luxe, calme, et volupte.” Now I can change that up with, “Tha pago s’ alle ge, tha pago s’ alle thalassa” (“I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea”). Or, if I’m feeling really dark, “perasa kai rematza kai khalasa.”

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