The Undertow

Several months ago I sat staring down a mountain of work – meetings, grant deadlines, classes to plan, papers to grade, research for projects to be done – and I had an overwhelming desire to read a poem by Walt Whitman.

I didn’t need to read any one poem in particular, just the sense of Whitman and the spaciousness of his writerly vision. I felt so small and trapped and overwhelmed that I simply wanted to sit with words that invited me to spread myself back out, to imagine that there was something in the race I felt myself running that was not merely productive but also grand.

oh me.jpeg

Two days ago I sat in a circle with a room of friends at an Awesome Lady Squad meeting and shared my experience of sadness, of wondering, of questioning what it is that I am supposed to be doing with this life I am living. At the end of that meeting I shared a brief exchange with an artist some number of years ahead of me in which we both wondered if the kind of art that seems to be the predominant one being made is valuable in this moment, in this world, in the ways that a thing becomes meaningful to a life.

Today I sit in front of my computer, plenty of work waiting for me, but unable to splash the proverbial cold water on the face, brace up and get down to the business at hand. Instead I feel the need to write about the way my understanding is awash in questions about how to be useful to the people and places around me, about whether I can be honest in such questions, and how exactly to get started on the path that I sense lies ahead.

I have been working these past months on an art project about dying called The End. It has, in so many ways, become a provocation to me about what it means to truly live. To wholly accept that the time I will exist as finite, to understand that in truth I can only contribute a single verse or two to the larger song, that the song itself in is much larger than I can possibly be, if I am to honestly do that it feels like I might need to do something different. What that different thing is… well…

The near daily contact with such a fundamental fact does not make me sad, exactly. Rather it stirs up something I am still trying to give name to, something that has been in progress and process for a rather reasonable amount of time. I’ve written before about tectonic shifts, stepping back and walking around and away. And those are all some way of trying to name what’s emerging, a thing that feels like an undertow.

It’s a pull away from the shores of “excellence” and towards something more genuinely communal. It’s a drift from the need to control and hold those things I define as dear to me. It’s a willingness to allow what comes to unfold.

A little over a week ago I wrote a letter to my friend jesikah in California and thanked her for sending me a poem by Neruda in commemoration of my wedding. In the letter I tell her that the poem makes me think of a Georgian chant titled Shen Xar that was used in a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (directed by my collaborator Catharine Slusar) that I worked on at Bryn Mawr College. An ancient Georgian wedding hymn, the song survived the cultural purge of the Communists due to a notable lack of traditional religious imagery in its lyrics. This recording by an all male Georgian trio is a wonderful version I’ve listened to often these past few months.

I tell her that “I love this song and the way it cycles through the same quiet melody over and over again like a string of rosary beads, a slow working of its message that washes over you like waves.”

I tell her that I had some feminist qualms about the particular language of the letter in the scene the song was used, but that in the moment of performance, “one where an impossibly young college student stands on a rock amidst a pool of water holding a piece of paper in a quiet blue light, trying to give back to the world the love she know she holds, [the song] was so beautiful it didn’t matter.”

I send her the Neruda poem (left) written out next to the lyrics of the chant translated (right): neruda-shen-xar

The following week I teach the song to a group of my students at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training and it feels like the right thing to be doing in the first moment I see them after the national election.

I notice as I near the end of this writing that it feels unfinished, that the thesis seems still not to have emerged. I see that I am caught holding myself up in this moment, feeling the unrest between wanting to do something helpful, to be on the side of righteousness, and to simultaneously wrap a life’s meaning in something impossibly beautiful and grand and sad.

Today I know that I really want to live my life before I die; I want to know I have spent my time in this world like the Georgian sun – shining, brilliantly, myself.

And today, too, I can accept the heavy pull of towards the knowledge that says I am still trying to understand what that means.

– A

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