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Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance critic, and English instructor. Her book Find the Girl is coming out in April 2010 from Coffee House Press. Photo courtesy Lightsey Darst.

The Columnest: The Footlocker

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We […]

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We hadn’t picked out these things. We had acquired them at garage sales or in boxes of hand-me-downs, but that didn’t make us like them any less. Annually, these clothes had the strange appeal of seeming to belong to other children, of promising to make us other children when we put them on.

When my mother quit doing this, I don’t remember. I suppose we grew up and our now-bulkier winter things could be better stored in big Tupperwares under our beds. And then, there was the fact that we lived in Florida—north Florida, where there is a seasonal change known to residents as “winter,” but Florida nevertheless. In fact, looking back, I can hardly understand what it was all about, the footlocker, the mothballs. As a college student in Florida, I knew I had gloves, but I had no idea where they were. My warmest winter garment in regular use was an unlined leather jacket.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Maybe the winter clothes were a holdover from my mother’s own childhood. She grew up in Florida too, but somehow I imagine the world was a little colder then. My grandmother (another Floridian) routinely wore wool scarves and lined skirt suits. And I have a turn-of-the-century photograph of some mysterious old Aunt Amy standing in a full-length, long-sleeved wool dress, digging the point of her umbrella into the parched grass of central Florida. She looks unhappy, but not quite melting in her heavy clothes. Yes, the Little Ice Age, that must be it. Ended in about 1985, right?

Or, perhaps the winter clothes had to do with our annual trip to North Carolina: one week in the mountains every October. The first year we went, I was four-and-a-half, and it was the farthest north I’d ever been. We stayed that year in a house belonging to a minister friend of my grandmother’s, or to a minister friend of her minister—at any rate, it was a preacher’s house, a big house, a big old box of a house set in a sloping yard full of fallen leaves. About the actual inside of the house I remember very little, but I remember its basement. A basement! This was practically unheard of in Florida. And this basement had little windows high in the walls—too high for us to see out of, but a little swing hung from the basement rafters, and at the top of its arc my brother and I could see the brown leaves that lay bedded in all around the house.

A swing in the basement of a preacher’s house? What kind of gothic horror had we stumbled into? Surely I remember it wrong. That may be: I’ve never asked anyone in my family about this memory of mine. I like it too much; even if it’s wrong, I’m keeping it.

That is how childhood memories work, isn’t it? No one is ever quite sure about them. “I remember it this way—which is funny, because it couldn’t have been.” Or, as my father says in preface, when he’s uncertain whether he’s retelling his memory or someone else’s or a memory reconstructed from a photograph: “This may be an implanted memory.” For all their central vividness—of first-felt emotion, of self-making—childhood memories can be strangely fuzzy around the edges.

I recall a few I eventually had to reject as impossible. One involved my grandmother telling how my father (aged two or three) tumbled off the top of a two-story building and cracked his head open. In another, a pet crayfish marvelously revived—not only after death, but after I had chucked its body into the trash. A closer acquaintance with the consistency of the universe obliged me to give them both up: cracked heads stay cracked, dead crawdads stay dead. And the giving up, after some initial puzzlement, was easy: one must have been a misunderstanding, the other a dream confused with life.

I would be a different person if I had kept those memories; I gave up them up to become myself.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The footlocker held more than our warm clothes; in lower layers, it preserved cast-offs of my mother’s, things she was done wearing. Did she save them for me? I did eventually take a pintucked smock, red with white cuffs and collar and a pattern of tiny moons and suns. But the fringed suede miniskirt and vest set—I never even tried it on, and I don’t know why. My mother quit mentioning it was there. Her wedding dress, too—I used to see that every so often, lying folded under the floating shelf in the footlocker, off-white, empire-waist, with daisy chain embroidery. She didn’t bring it up when I came to be married, and neither did I.

Sometimes it seems that this whole set of memories—the footlocker, the strangers’ clothes (because my mother’s old clothes, too, described a stranger, someone I would never know), the house in Dillard with the basement swing—belongs to someone else. It’s tinged with the sunset orange of the seventies, a decade I don’t remember, though it made me. When I look this way, I become historical to myself, as curious as that photo of Aunt Amy. What is she thinking, how old is she? What does she already know? What has she given up to get here?

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest Goes to New York

Went to New York a few weeks ago. Everyone says that New York has never been more and less central: the capital of the world, agglomerating liquid power, know-how, and UHNWIs (what’s that? Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, of course), expelling artists and beekeepers to the outer boroughs and beyond. Indeed, Brooklyn struck me mostly […]

Louis Lozowick, New York, oil on canvas, ca. 1925. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Louis Lozowick, New York, oil on canvas, ca. 1925

Went to New York a few weeks ago. Everyone says that New York has never been more and less central: the capital of the world, agglomerating liquid power, know-how, and UHNWIs (what’s that? Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, of course), expelling artists and beekeepers to the outer boroughs and beyond. Indeed, Brooklyn struck me mostly as a lot of Durham—or Uptown Minneapolis, or Portland, etc, etc—plus, yes, brownstones, street fashion, and fantastic museums. New York is still New York, where you fall in love seven times a day, get your ass handed to you about as often, and then stumble into the tenderest silence in the shade of the Temple of Dendur.

View of the propylon gateway from inside Wadi Gharby Dendur / Dandour Temple, by François Chrétien Gau, 1819. Via.

View of the propylon gateway from inside Wadi Gharby Dendur / Dandour Temple, by François Chrétien Gau, 1819. (Via)

New York preaches the gospel of standing out from the crowd. I can see why so many New Yorkers have tattoos: you can’t be the buffest guy or the prettiest girl, you can’t have the shiniest hair or the most de mode haberdashery (because in New York there are people who make these things their jobs), but you can think up an original wing or word to emblazon on your shoulders or across the first joint of each finger. Dye your hair pink, for god’s sake! But not just any pink: cotton candy’s taken. I’m talking appearance because a flashy front is the quickest route to attention, but the same holds true in any arena. I recall a composer friend, resident in Brooklyn, running through genres in which other people could do as well as he, genres he accordingly dropped in favor of the one category in which he excelled everyone he knew. Shave yourself to a point. It makes sense!

That is, it makes sense in New York. Four days in the metropolis honed my game to the point where I vowed I’d never wear a less-than-magic blue (one tick off that teal and my eyes don’t glow) or write a line without fireworks, but the minute I got home to North Carolina, I chilled out. People, like plants, live relatively; put me in a rioting jungle and I will strain to reach that single crack of light, but set me on a rolling plain and I will spread this way and that, lackadaisically.

But is that really the question? Isn’t New York reality—everyone bunched together, the better to see where you stand? People go to New York to find out, and New Yorkers—by which I mean, as they mean, people who’ve lived there long enough to say they’ve survived—will fervently tell you their stories of clawing through to the real me: the lasting individual genius. Do you want to play the big game? New York asks you, and damn it’s persuasive about what that game consists of. The little island of Manhattan, bristling with buildings and bright all night, tunneled with subways, plastered with signs, every inch taken: this cityscape forms a spatial representation of the density of historical time. The skyscrapers are Shakespeare, Dickinson, Stein; or Picasso, Cezanne, Raphael; or Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire, Merce Cunningham. Walking those streets, you are an aspirant ant, and you can see exactly how far you have to go.

I’m making it sound terrifying and depressing, but as anyone who’s been there knows, it’s exciting! The streets are full of ants gazing upward, and the city hums with that hope and ambition: it is possibly the most optimistic place in America.

Frank O'Hara, 1965. Photo: Mario Schifano. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Frank O’Hara, 1965. Photo: Mario Schifano. Courtesy of Wikimedia

But let me interrupt myself for a moment: whence these adverbs, these exclamation marks, these enthusiastic eruptions? Obviously, I’ve been reading Frank O’Hara, preeminent poet of the New York moment. “I have in my hand only 35¢, it’s so meaningless to eat!” he exclaims in Music, a poem (like many of O’Hara’s) devoted to the temptations, sensations, and flurries of the immediate present, which nevertheless winds up with a wistful glance at the coming holiday season, in which there will be

no more fountains and no more rain,
and the stores stay open terribly late.

Note the adverb: O’Hara relies on these much-reviled parts of speech to suggest the ways the world’s colored by the perceiving mind. Now I am put in mind of the adverb “hopefully,” which we have all given up trying to use correctly—it means, or it used to mean, “full of hope,” as in “He grinned hopefully,” and it is misused in an expression such as “Hopefully, the door will open”—and this strikes me as somehow connected—because we are unable to keep our emotions, our hopes, from washing over the world we see.

That’s what New York does to me: theories and clauses springing, leapfrogging one over another. Half the time I can’t make sense of my notes when I get home.

At home just now, the tree people (mistakenly labeled “Tree Experts” on the side of their truck) have insulted rather than injured a massive and interfering ivy and butchered a maple, feeding half its canopy into their mobile chipper. There’s no sense saying anything to them. They’re just kids who’ve grown inured to their ugly task. But the poor tree! Yesterday it was full and proud, and today it’s a malformed, asymmetric straggler. Or is it a struggler? Pathetic fallacy! But O’Hara wouldn’t care as long as I ran with it:

here I am on the sidewalk
under the moonlike lamplight thinking how
precious moss is
so unique and greenly crushable if you can find it

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest: Like is More Than a Feeling

What I’ve noticed lately: New leaves unfold on the edge of vision, palely green, barely attached to their branches, clouds of color floating in the woods. Then redbud burns through, its magenta flowers clustered close to the trunks. Then the greens grow brighter, more attached. My students fall back on “I feel like” to suture […]

Source: weheartit.com and the-black-pandaa

Source: weheartit.com and the-black-pandaa

What I’ve noticed lately:

  • New leaves unfold on the edge of vision, palely green, barely attached to their branches, clouds of color floating in the woods. Then redbud burns through, its magenta flowers clustered close to the trunks. Then the greens grow brighter, more attached.
  • My students fall back on “I feel like” to suture their thoughts together: “I feel like Le Guin is saying. . .” Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t ban the word I outright, so I’m left trying to explain what’s wrong with this phrase. Is it the grammatical error of like? That is, our state of mind is not metaphorically similar to one in which Le Guin would mean whatever she means, our bodily or emotional condition—our feelings—do not suggest her meaning; we are not like an old man with a trick knee who can truly say he “feels like rain coming on.” Thus, we don’t feel like Le Guin means that we must move beyond our current ideas of happiness, we feel that Le Guin etc. But that’s hard to explain, a grammatical haze I don’t need; it reminds me of the despair I felt when one student asked me, “But why isn’t happy a verb?”

I’m not the only one to zero in on “I feel like.” In this Jezebel column, Katie J. M. Baker investigates the phrase’s rising use, especially among young women. She concludes that although it may suggest cringe-worthy weakness, it’s useful and respectful; her commenters trace it to therapy and office-speak, noting that “I feel like” is conflict-proof. Yes, and that’s exactly what bothers me: how “I feel like” replaces what could be an argument with a mere feeling. I may not “feel like” Peter Singer repeats himself, but if my students do, I can hardly say they’re wrong, because these are their feelings. And as for this phrase’s claim to superior respectfulness, we misunderstand the nature and purpose of argument if we think that a wash of interchangeable and equally valid “feelings” is preferable.

Maybe I should tell my students this. Feelings are not what we’re after; we want ideas backed up with evidence, we want proof. Or perhaps I should say that “I feel like” is clutter. Simply proceed with “Le Guin means. . .” Or perhaps this is a weak use of I. Your name is at the top of the page, I tell them; everyone knows this is what you think.

Any and all of these would be correct and appropriate answers for my college English students. But so far I haven’t addressed the matter at all, other than to highlight the offending words; I think—I feel like—there might be something more to it.

Travis Donovan, Illuminationem. Monofilament, light, motors, wood. 2010. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Travis Donovan, Illuminationem. Monofilament, light, motors, wood. 2010. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Recently, I sat on a bench in an art gallery (CAM Raleigh) in a dark and almost-vacant installation, waiting for art. Three spills of monofilament hung from the ceiling and pooled a little on the floor; dimly illuminated, they looked like ghost trees or the plaits of ancient giantesses. I had the sense the spills were moving, or perhaps changing color ever so slightly, from one pixie dust shade to another; I thought I could hear a faint whirr, like a moth’s wings by my ear. But when I tried to zero in on one change, kinetic, chromatic, or aural, it vanished—nothing but a wish or my pulse.

Later, I found out that the artwork—Illuminationem by Travis Donovan—is meant to gently wind and unwind to the rhythms of the sun, the moon, and the tides. When it works, it’s meditative, meditative and magic, as its three spinning strands fall into or out of sync, lag behind or race ahead. When I saw it, though, its finicky engines were on the fritz: thus that faint purr, fade, shift.

The other day I heard a professional say I feel like—a man being interviewed on NPR. He’d studied the number of deaths along a certain road leading into a remote American military base, and when the NPR host asked him what he was saying, whether the number meant something, instead of pulling out a statistical correlation—“the accident rate here is 5% higher than what we would expect for a similar group of people on a similar road” or something like that—he began, “I feel like. . .” and went on to give his feeling that something was wrong.

Now, when he said “I feel like,” you might think my hackles rose, but it wasn’t that; instead, my hair stood on end. It was as if the feeling was more important than the data could be—or as if what he was studying had turned out to be somehow occult, invisible to the usual points of proof.

What if cause and effect might sometimes come into being at the same time? What if, listening closely, you might hear the rustling of atoms split off by the forces of the future? Magical thinking. This morning I ran across this, in Lyn Hejinian’s The Cold of Poetry:

It is not the unknown but the imminence of the known that is mysterious, poetic, producing a state of heightened syntax.

And I noticed how the green I wasn’t sure a month ago I really saw now spreads over the woods: spring, unlikely and sure.

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest: Whistling in the Dark

I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today). Truly, […]

Flight 714, also known as Flight 714 to Sydney, is the twenty-second tale of The Adventures of Tintin released in 1968.

“Flight 714,” also known as “Flight 714 to Sydney,” was released in 1968 and is the 22nd tale of The Adventures of Tintin.

I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today).

Truly, my drive to work is not bad at all. The highway is busy and 70-miles-an-hour jolts me at 7 am, but dawn comes through the bare trees on the ridges with pink, purplish, apricot, or lemon veils of light, every day a slightly different spectrum glowing and shifting as I round the side of the big city I never see. Then I take my exit and turn off on a country road that winds down through the university’s agricultural extension, past an old mill with its lake and millwheel and geese, past the cows on the hillside with the blasted stump and the old split rail fence, past the church and the cemetery, past old farm houses and ’50s ranch homes and a mobile home park and a couple of posh new subdivisions, past the little family cemetery and the strawberry farm. It’s dreamy and misty and I hear myself say “oh!” whenever I see something I didn’t notice before—“oh!” to the first burst of daffodils, or, if the cows are close by the fence, “hello cows!” Would I rather be asleep? Of course. But I have to make a living. And I’ve learned to like my little dawn pilgrimage.

It’s the way back from work that gets me. I can’t separate from my job in time to enjoy the country road—and then I’m sucked into and stuck on the highway, which is simultaneously hectic and boring. Trying to keep myself to 70 and stay awake, to anticipate semis, entering traffic, and assorted assholes, I’m miserable.

Then I am dependent on the radio for relief. Like everyone else in my neighborhood/voting bloc/yoga class, I listen to National Public Radio. Now, while I like NPR, approve of it in general, and am immensely grateful that the service exists, etc, that does not accurately describe my actual feeling as I am driving that 25-minute highway stretch. No, my actual feeling is more capricious and mad—more Stockholm syndrome, with a little road rage thrown in. My inane crush on Kai Ryssdal (whom I never saw before I googled him a moment ago)—“Kai, you stud!” I coo or catcall him when he comes on—is matched by nothing but my riotous and unreasonable hatred of some other hosts I won’t mention. When the reporters cover something I’m interested in, I’m delighted with them and think they are good people; when they cover something that bores me, I hiss at them and make fun of their voices.

Here’s the only story I really want to hear at the moment: the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Why? Not because I’m morbid; I barely remember the Air France crash of 2009, and while the story of flight MH370 is probably a tragedy, we don’t know that for sure yet. For now it’s a mystery—and an exceptionally puzzling one, with clues cropping up here and there, experts and amateurs spouting opinions. Even Courtney Love is weighing in. Besides, the story of MH370 brings up Big Issues: it pits man against machine, country against country, and modern technology against the great beyond. Scads of volunteers scroll through satellite photos of the sea’s winking surface while we wonder: can anything be really lost these days? We’re incredulous—and a little excited, because for most Americans this story is without personal consequence, happening on the opposite side of the globe to a small crew of unlucky people.

For me, the story of flight MH370 echoes something long sunk in the mud of my mind: Flight 714, a Tintin comic in which a supersonic jet is hijacked and landed on a tiny Indonesian island. Amid ancient artifacts, devious millionaires, truth serums, telepathy, flying saucers, and a volcano, everything turns out fine, as usual in Tintin books. Perhaps that also affects my interest in MH370: the hope of a happy ending against the odds, a story that doesn’t end the way you know it probably will.

Yeats_Tombstone_(3585068950)

All this is awful, I know, this daydream induced by someone’s actual trouble. But that’s the state of the commuter, zooming over the blank land between one place and another, unattached, whistling idly and waiting for reality to begin again. As Yeats says,

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest: Life Seen Through Others’ Lenses

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. […]

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad, Minneapolis, MN, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad: Minneapolis, MN, 2014. All photos courtesy of the artist.

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. My fantasies foundered rapidly, but not before I took a few photos (something I rarely do) and uploaded one to Instagram. (What is Instagram, anyway? What’s with these streams of images? What do they tell us?)

I suppose the appeal of photos taken by ordinary people is that we can look through each other’s eyes. You live on the Isle of Skye, I live in North Carolina; you’re a professional ballerina or a hobby farmer or a stunt pilot, while I am a yoga teacher or a mother of three or a chocolatier; you’re black and I’m white, or you’re seventeen and I’m seventy. In short, you’re not ordinary, and neither am I.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

But this inherent diversity is undercut by the uniformity of our cameras and by their built-in filters (edge blur, vintage — and what’s this 1977 one do?), and by another filter: our shared sense of what makes for a good photo now. Conditions of weather and light, food in erotic soft focus, animals, babies; people seen from a lover’s angle; scenery framed so it seems already inside.

Like the rest of the wired world, photographer and poet Jeffrey Skemp is posting photos. His, though, go up on his blog in a brief series, remain available for ten days or so, and then disappear. Think of it as a show in an alley, the photos leaning casually against unfinished brick; his presentation has the same casual and fleeting quality.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter's Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter’s Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

I can’t pretend to objectivity here. I know Jeffrey; in fact, he took the author photo for my last book. And even if I could, what can I say about photographs? I’m no expert on their technique. All I can tell you is that these images look real and deliberate. Skemp photographs, in his first series, in a few locales (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Addis Ababa), and, though he sometimes gets “lucky” (a perfect reflection, a graceful shadow), more often, he tracks his subject with the patience and sincerity of a portraitist. He looks directly at whatever he’s interested in, and usually it looks back. When Skemp can’t get at what he wants to photograph—when he spies a moose head stuck to the wall in a museum basement, with vitrines and cabinets blocking his path to it—that frustrated communication becomes part of the image. Lovely, many of these images are, but the women he photographs are people before they are beautiful. The animals are beings. The “scenes” are alive too; the inanimate material objects and the immaterial artifacts of vision—an elegantly tall light pole or the reflection of a trash can in glass, the plastic bag creasing, pleating, puckering—have souls.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Skemp puts me in mind of a puzzle I’ve been reading about lately, the puzzle of Leibniz’s monad, which is an atom or a person or a thing, whatever can be singular, and which is the only reality, yet which only reflects the passing unrealities (whatever they are). Never mind — it’s complex and I don’t understand it. What I do understand is that this idea upturns our sense of what is real and what is autonomous, and Skemp’s photos do that, too. They redistribute life.

Now I’m thinking again about that 1977 filter. Oh, the old days of photographs! Remember the slide projector? Two or three weeks after a family vacation, we’d set up the screen, turn out the lights, and revisit our trip in pictures that were surprising because we had never seen them before—and by that piece of obviousness, I mean that we lived our trip in the usual four dimensions, through human eyes, and these were flat, still images. Moreover, these images seemed to come from the vantage of an additional traveler, from an eye that had seen the mountain as smaller than we all remembered, or had gazed on the waterfall until it blurred to a white fuzz, or had caught my mother looking absolutely beautiful and completely unlike herself (and she was beautiful—but none of us had ever seen that particular expression cross her face). That other traveler’s trace is as eerie, now that I think back on it, as any “angel” outlined in a cloud or a spray of light.

Last week, I wandered around the bend of a trail in a local park, and there, not a hundred feet from the parking lot, was a family cemetery. Two stones identified “Father and Mother” and “Sister,” the last buried in 1929; a half-dozen or so broken and blank stones stood for the broken and blank relations below. I stood a moment in my quandary: how to pay attention to these sudden long-dead. Then I snapped a picture—to share it with you, I suppose, once I figure out the right filter.

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

The Columnest: Uncomfortable in the Best of All Possible Worlds

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004? It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put […]

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004?

It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put the one very far from the other, to say that “swept away” might mean one thing to the American intellectual and quite another to someone with first-hand experience of such a sweeping. However, I have to admit that is still a comparison, a metaphor, and it brings out the perennial question: Can we really understand anything beyond our own experience?

I have just looked up the casualties from the tsunami and, no, I have to think 230,000 dead is beyond most imagining, loss on a scale incomprehensible to any but god. But that’s not the point either, exactly. Any one victim or survivor perceived only a piece of that. I want to say yes—because that is what this whole project of language is about, after all. We speak to each other, knowing that heart and home and loss are all relative, and yet feeling that we can be together in those words.

And yet, this assumption that we do speak to each other—you know that’s not completely true. Across some divides people don’t talk, or talk only in a partial way, without expectation of understanding. This has been brought home to me recently by the kerfuffle around Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen’s use of black bodies, by comments from outspoken women of color on my Facebook feed, and by the conversation surrounding #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: There are moments when I should not try to envelope another person’s experience in my own, when I should not imagine I can understand. There are moments to be uncomfortable, and moments to be silent.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The other week, when I said I felt I was riding a raveling edge, I meant that I’m aware of my wonderful luck in comparison to most of the human animals who have ever lived—aware, and maybe afraid. I think of all the people who have been completely unaware of that edge until they fell off it. I think of Lisbon: on October 31, 1755, one of the largest and most splendid cities in Europe, and the next day almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, a tenth to a fifth of its population dead.

Perhaps I’m thinking of Lisbon because I often, writing these columns, feel like a twenty-first century feminist Pangloss, sending you off with a chirpy utterance about how everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds—and Lisbon is the scene for part of Voltaire’s wicked satire. Now, in tenth grade European history, we found Pangloss’s optimism as ridiculous as it was meant to be, set amid disaster and cruelty, rape, torture, disease, and summary execution. But we were not so aware of our own optimism, the optimism of our culture.

I have been thinking, lately, about closure, what we recognize as closure, and thinking about how a satisfactory ending is likely culturally bound. What is a well-educated white woman’s sense of closure? I skimmed a book of poetry the other day, noting how every poem ended with a solemn line, a Saxon word, a quiet image. And I felt sick of it all. If I know the ending already, how can the poem be anything new? A vase of flowers—or anything, really—in a cracked window, lit by twilight? Forget it! You know this small town like the back of your hand. Short fiction is as bad. If the story ends with Jamey leaving in her beat-up Subaru or pick-up, whether or not she waves on her way out (a difference the writer sweated over), just stop. You’ve been here before. And in the personal essay—this form, in short—you can expect all the disparate threads to turn out to be part of some grand design.

Where, then, can we go? Gentle reader, I don’t know.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: The Romance of Riding a Raveling Edge

At a party in Durham, I get into a conversation that goes nowhere. That is, it goes on, but it violates the cardinal rules of party conversation: it is not about sex, and it does not show any signs of becoming about sex, either. I slide over to another conversation, which is about something a […]

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At a party in Durham, I get into a conversation that goes nowhere. That is, it goes on, but it violates the cardinal rules of party conversation: it is not about sex, and it does not show any signs of becoming about sex, either. I slide over to another conversation, which is about something a little less stiff, and then it is about bike cops. “I find bike cops endearing,” I declare.

“Which do you prefer,” someone asks, “bike cops or horse cops?”

Difficult question! The women ponder their relative merits, and then someone—it’s probably me—notes that there is “something kinky” about horse cops. The next conversation over stops. “Thank goodness!” exclaims the hostess, emptying the last of what must be a jeroboam (“surprisingly good, considering it only cost twelve dollars!”) into her cup. “It was nothing but boys talking about bike accidents before.”

I’ve met most of these people just once, at another party in the same “set”; their names, jobs, provenance are a soup in my mind. “You’re from Florida,” I say to one woman, waving my Solo cup of prosecco at her, “maybe Tampa, Orlando?”

She gives me a fish-eyed stare. “I’m from Pennsylvania, actually,” she says, as if she is rebuffing the fortune-teller at the fair, “which is about as far away as you can get.” I would have thought that was Alaska, but maybe she means temperamentally far away, which could be true: she looks very sensible, and Florida is where crazy people come from. When that got to be true, I’m not sure; I don’t think it was the case when I was growing up there. But between the 2000 election and the sinkholes and Swamplandia! and Florida Man on Twitter, my home state has become firmly established as a crazy place. Sure, I have stories, but who didn’t go to an off-brand Montessori with a circus net in the backyard? An off-brand Montessori that is now, I might add, an abandoned motel.

The Pennsylvanian and I mutually split, turning away from each other like double doors opening, and I shortly find myself in a line-up of three rather tipsy redheads, all leaning in to hear a fourth redhead, deadly sober, describe the circumstances of her long-distance relationship. They are allowed to see and sleep with other people, as long as they don’t fall in love. “Excuse me,” someone bursts in (is it me?), “but that’s—” Whoever it is puts her hand over her mouth.

“No, say it,” says the sober girl. “It’s bullshit.”

“It’s bullshit,” we agree.

“I’m doing the same thing,” one of the tipsy redheads proclaims. I’m starting to wonder whether any of us really have red hair. Maybe the sober girl; her skin has that ginger tinge. It turns out this other girl’s relationship is almost opposite: she and her erstwhile boyfriend are not in love and not planning to be together in the future, but they still sleep together. What the relationships have in common is sex without attachment, which I for one could never do. Those silly things—a curl of hair, the dimple of a back-muscle—how do you immunize yourself against them? How can you be a lover without loving?

Besides, everyone wants to be swept away, I think, even sensible Pennsylvanians. Everyone wants to fall in love, everyone wants to believe.

I FLY TO MINNEAPOLIS FOR THANKSGIVING. Outside it’s bitter: the air is white, the wind is mean, the landscape is pared down to its winter palette of browns, and the lakes, freshly skinned with ice, look like still photos of themselves. But inside, Minneapolis glows. In La Belle Vie, all chandeliers, banked candles, and cocktails like precious jewels—a red wine like a ruby, a gold-tinted martini—my love and Linda and I carry on a happy chatter. It’s the sort of conversation you remember almost nothing of later: stories, compliments, effusions of enthusiasm. We talk about—this I do remember—the postmodern leap, the moment when you accept that art does not need to make sense, does not need to be beautiful in any familiar way. Making this leap is like losing your religion, or like falling in love, in that there’s no guarantee it will happen to you, and you can’t really make it happen, but when it does, nothing is the same again.

We are all laughing as we talk, marveling at our good luck. But from the outside, from the other country, postmodern work looks dour and unfriendly; I remember that. The disconcerting freefall—art can be, I can be, the world can be entirely other, deeply unsettled—I remember touching the edge of that, like a child tasting wine, or a swimmer putting a toe in an undercurrent.

There are, of course, other stories haunting this romanticism of mine. In Sri Lanka, my friend asked our driver how he happened to become a vegetarian. He told us the story. He and his brother and his brother’s wife were all at home; his wife was up the hill, at the temple. Then the tsunami came. In a moment the home vanished in the wave. He and his brother clung to a storm wall and somehow survived; the brother’s wife was swept out to sea and never seen again. His own wife, up the hill at the temple, was fine. So he converted, became a vegetarian, became a driver. Everything they had was gone, and he had to start over.

Now, whose story am I telling, and how does it relate to the undertow? Two stories are simple enough. My friend and I, strangers in this beautiful island, dazed and foolish, but protected by our American passports and credit cards (and by Sri Lankan friends), could afford to let this new world wash over us. And the sister-in-law: I imagine her relation to that wave was simple enough. But I wonder about the driver—Ranil is his name: chastened but alive, eyes opened to his survival, how did he think of it all? I remember that he drank the strong highland tea so fast his mouth steamed when he spoke.

Back to Durham. One of the two tall buildings downtown, the SunTrust building, is in the midst of renovation; it’s becoming some kind of high-class art hotel. They’ve been taking the letters off the top, and they’ve stopped, the last couple of weeks, at RUST. It’s probably intentional: Durham is an odd place, and Durhamites can afford to laugh at their city’s dirty, rusty image now that Durham is in the midst of a boom.

Drinking my coffee, looking out at the sign from a renovated garage that is now a very hip little coffee shop, I have a sense of riding a raveling edge. A thousand miles away, my love’s getting on a plane to come back to me; I am diving into revisions of poems, peeling away my lines to feel the dark matter between.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: The Politics of Hair

Lately I’ve been cutting my own hair. It’s a way to spend some quality time with myself in the bathroom without staring at my own face constantly. I imagine I can’t be alone in having spent, probably, several months of my life looking at my face in the mirror, wondering what people see and what […]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lillith, oil on canvas, 1866–68, 1872–73. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lillith, oil on canvas, 1866–68, 1872–73. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.

Lately I’ve been cutting my own hair. It’s a way to spend some quality time with myself in the bathroom without staring at my own face constantly. I imagine I can’t be alone in having spent, probably, several months of my life looking at my face in the mirror, wondering what people see and what is that spot and where’s that dark hair on my chin. Compared to this, cutting my hair is meditative—plus, it’s free. I pluck up a bit of hair and skate down it with the embroidery scissors (what else am I going to use them for?). I’m curly, so it doesn’t matter what I do; everything blends back into the mane the moment after I cut it.

At least, I tell myself it doesn’t matter. Hair is political, and curly hair is worse. I remember getting my hair cut sometime in my early twenties, when it was a similarly unruly mess, and the hairdresser telling me that sometime I would want a “more professional” hair cut. I had no idea what she was talking about. Slowly the meaning has dawned on me—she meant hair no one could reproach me for—but I never have gotten that professional cut. Nor have I ever learned to handle the tools I would need for such a cut: blow-dryer, curling iron, god knows what else.

Why does any of this matter? A few years ago, I’m sitting in a job interview, wearing a suit. There’s cat hair on my suit, though I have lint-rolled myself. I’m not wearing hose or tights because it’s warm and frankly I don’t have a pair without a ladder in them. (I regard the ladders as fetching, if you want to know the truth.) That’s mistake number 2. Mistake number 1 is my hair, which in the humidity of July is more pubic bush than shellacked professional wig. I get that its drift makes me look “artsy,” unserious somehow, but—if you’re shaking your head at me now, I understand—I never thought it mattered before.

Surely, among all the cat gifs, cities you must see in your twenties (I’m thirty-five, so thanks for that!), and posture dos & don’ts for women, someone has composed a peppy timeline of such realizations. You know what I mean: Around three, you realize you are a finite self; around 19, you realize your parents are just people; around 27 (or 47, if you’re a late bloomer), you realize you’re not a rock star. I have one to add: Somewhere in your thirties, you realize that really successful people are crazy. What I mean is that high-achieving types in any field live their field. They are that thing all the time. It is their fun, their work, their dream, their first love. To “relax,” they read the blogs of their field. “Work-life balance” means nothing to them, because work is life and life is work.

Dear reader, are you one of them? I know I am not. Now let me say, briefly, I am immensely grateful for what I have. People I admire talk to me, and I am able to do many things I want to do. I get to, for example, write this column. But I also gaze out of the window, and I do things that have nothing to do with my career(s). Normally, this would not matter, because as far as I know, you and I, reader, do not want to be Lady Gaga. However, in this merciless state of our economy, Gaga’s commitment to never ever wearing pants is (metaphorically) trickling downward. A case in point: I made mistake number 3 when I asked my interviewers about their research interests—the professional equivalent of asking about their hobbies. One after another, they told me they had none. They all worked constantly. If they had some time, they would like to cook, maybe even eat. I must have looked shell-shocked as I tried to keep a listening smile plastered on my face. But I doubt it mattered, because they already knew I wasn’t their woman: my hair told them so.

Now, in case I have given you the impression of a flaneur with fabulous hair, let me disabuse you of that. It was Mandy who first told me about the hair championships—Mandy, who later had her mahogany crop shorn and dyed into a blue-black asymmetrical faux-hawk at Vidal Sassoon. Mandy waxed poetic about the hair performance, in which Adam and Eve, dressed only in their flowing tresses, emerged from the earth and kicked off a creation story replete with literally angel-headed hipsters. I don’t know what hair competition Mandy modeled for, but search for “hair championships” and you come across a gallery of “day styles” Cyndi Lauper never dreamed of, with hyped-up 80s bangs and vibrant orange sprays. “Hair art” brings up even more outré images—women transformed into birds of paradise, a man with a hair gecko on his head, women with octopi, trees, donkeys on their heads, along with slightly more wearable looks like hair balloons and heaps of multicolored braids.

bernice_art bernice_cov

No, I’m a little more like Fitzgerald’s Bernice. Remember Bernice? She’s an oddity among Fitzgerald’s heartless beauties, a shifting girl caught midstream in her story. When she finally bobs her hair, as she’s been threatening in order to gain everyone’s interest, she loses her beaux but gains—who knows what: I don’t think Fitzgerald did. He packs her off to Eau Claire at the end of the story, swinging her wicked cousin’s scissored braids. But surely she went to New York instead and became—not a star—but a person.

One more hair story? In New York, sitting at Hummus Kitchen, I watched a waitress come in. She put on her apron and took down her hair—a russet river that tumbled down to her hips, or it would have if it ever hung still. Instead, the tail of it, brushed to a burnished sheen, told stories of every step she took.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: I’m Google, Polyamory, Trisha Brown and Learning to Let Go

I’ve been taking release technique. Release is a type of modern dance born of the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. A Cliffs Notes history: sixties troublemakers, bored with “technique” and finding its history of elitism incompatible with their political beliefs and with the practices of their comrades in visual and other arts, began focusing […]

Screenshot from I am Google, a Tumblr of imagesby  Dina Kelberman

Screenshot from I’m Google by Dina Kelberman

I’ve been taking release technique. Release is a type of modern dance born of the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. A Cliffs Notes history: sixties troublemakers, bored with “technique” and finding its history of elitism incompatible with their political beliefs and with the practices of their comrades in visual and other arts, began focusing on dance as task, on uninflected, un-virtuoso, pedestrian dance. A dancer responding to a task is necessarily improvising; dancers pursuing improvisation for its own sake found that improvisation worked best with an open and capable body, one that could go in any direction at any moment. Throw in a pinch of Alexander Technique and other body-alignment systems, and you get release: a form of dance that prizes an open body, whether improvising with another or executing a combination.

What does release look like? The Trisha Brown Dance Company. Spinning into and through the floor. A traveling balance that disintegrates yet remains a balance. Constant flow. With her head thrown back, she spins with one leg up, then flips so the leg that was in front of her is now behind her body but still up, her head perilously low. She crumples into the floor but keeps going; a sweep sets her upright again, but tottering backward. Her arms reach for light.

I ask a friend in her twenties what’s trending in young sex. “Polyamory,” she says—not so much the practice but the public identity. People are polies now the way people are vegetarians, or redheads. We discuss the polies. Are they for real? The irony (or is it an irony at all?) is that the most sincere and solid polies my friend has run across seek not multiple lovers, but multiple loving relationships: more caresses, less sex. (I propose an axiom: whatever’s trending in sex is never about sex.) My friend and I, both happily coupled, come down on the side of monogamy. But the conclusion we reach, I can’t help noticing, makes a neat mirror image to our last conversational topic, freelancing versus having a “real job”—in which we voted for freelancing, because who wants to depend on one and only one?

Trisha Brown, Untitled (Set One), soft ground etching with relief roll on paper, 2006. Photo: Walker Art Center

Trisha Brown, Untitled (Set One), soft ground etching with relief roll on paper, 2006. Photo: Walker Art Center

Here’s something entrancing: I’m Google, the artist Dina Kelberman’s sprawling Tumblr. Once I decided to write about this site, I visited it every so often, intending to “assess” the scroll of images somehow and formulate some sentences. But I always get lost in plastic doll shoes, for example, remembering how once I had seven or eight pairs of these — all different colors, plus some spares — and how some clearly went with one doll or another, but other shoes mysteriously did not fit anybody’s feet. Why should dolls have shoes? Little high-heeled sandals, for example, or clumpy white Mary Janes. And then I scroll a little further and the worst, most gnawed-on shoes give way to melty bits of plastic and then to a negative-space blob that might be a hearing aid, and then splotches of Play-Doh, dough, then dirt buggies in blooming clouds of sand. I thought, when I first saw this site, that Kelberman had created some image-searching algorithm that served up the rolling carpet of color and pattern that is somehow also our world, but no: she trawls through Google for this stuff herself, matching a kid in a sand castle to a lunar crater to Crater Lake.

A few years back a student of mine, Brendan Dawson, created some “poems” out of Google image searches. He printed pages and pages, exhausting searches on phrases like “How to draw a fox.” The fun in these poems was seeing where images of hot women—the detritus of the internet—took over from cartoon red foxes. But when I try this myself now, my searches don’t work the same way. They don’t get exhausted, for one thing; they go on and on in a vast web of images, all connected one to another by ever more tenuous threads. For another, porn is no longer the baseline. Instead, my search unravels in pictures of people, homely pictures, office pictures, women smiling over diplomas, dogs, flowers, smiles of various types, network profile images, LinkedIn, Twitter — hello, here I am, pick me — from here to the horizon.

Screenshot from I am Google, a Tumblr by Dina Kelberman

Screenshot from I’m Google, a Tumblr by Dina Kelberman

I don’t find release technique easy. I’m ballet-trained, and ballet works in form and shape. I suspect this is not a helpful understanding of ballet, which might be why I’m here trying to learn to let my head move as I move. In ballet, the head remains erect on the stem of the neck; it inclines this way and that way, but its weight remains suspended. In some way the head is not of the body, not merely another limb or appendage, which is what it becomes in release. To put this another way: dances express ideals. The erect head of the ballet dancer expresses an ideal of vision and choice, of rational selfhood. The tumbling body of the release dancer expresses instinct in a storm—an ideal of openness, adaptation, abandonment, selflessness. As I attempt to spin about with my head in my armpit, I imagine a woman in 1973 telling herself I should be able to accept any arrangement of lovers.

What I love about I’m Google is how it flips between the abstract and the mundane without passing through grandeur or critique. What does that mean? I’m not at all sure. The images are all photographs, all factual; they represent elements of a world that remains mostly unknown to me. I imagine I will never see a jet dropping bright red retardant on a forest fire in real life. At the same time, the jet’s red streak becomes merely color and design as it blurs with a scarlet kayak and then a red clay track.

It’s as if you didn’t have to choose.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

The Columnest: To Be Rather Than To Seem

The barista has a tattoo: esse quam videri around a careful monochrome rendering of a longleaf pinecone. Esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem—is the motto of North Carolina, the state to which I’ve just moved after thirteen years in Minnesota; the longleaf pine is the state tree. The pinecone reminds me of my […]

William Henry Fox Talbot, photographer (English, 1800 - 1877) Leaves of Orchidea, April 1839, Photogenic drawing negative Image: 17.1 x 20.8 cm (6 3/4 x 8 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

William Henry Fox Talbot, photographer (English, 1800 – 1877). Leaves of Orchidea, April 1839, Photogenic drawing negative. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The barista has a tattoo: esse quam videri around a careful monochrome rendering of a longleaf pinecone. Esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem—is the motto of North Carolina, the state to which I’ve just moved after thirteen years in Minnesota; the longleaf pine is the state tree. The pinecone reminds me of my mother’s botanical illustrations, the hours she spent getting down the details of nuts, seeds, cross-sections viewed in her microscope. Art was far less important than accuracy; years after she quit doing the illustrations (a spate of spider lilies wore her out), she was still wondering what her botanical style might be, if she had one. Did she think of plants as playful and twining, their flower-heads nodding, Beatrix Potter style? On the evidence, she did not. Her plants are not people: they are complex biological mechanisms that transfer mineral flow from root and leaf to flower, then seed, then succeeding stem, root, leaf, flower. Once she had drawn the pinecone—reduced it to a schematic essence of black lines—she would carefully press a stick-on letter next to it so that it could be identified in the key: a: cone (female).

State mottos are a higgledy-piggledy mess, I learn from the interwebz, by which I mean Wikipedia. Most are in Latin, but some are in other languages, like Minnesota’s L’étoile du Nord, French for “Star of the North,” which seems less like a motto than a label. The punsters in Michigan went with Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice, a twisted version of Christopher Wren’s London memorial, meaning “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Because I studied Latin in high school I learned many of these mottos years ago and can greet Maine’s Dirigo (“I lead”) as an old friend, but others are new to me, like Montana’s up-front Oro y plata (“Gold and silver”), and then others are just new, like Kentucky’s Deo gratiam habeamus (“Let us be grateful to God”), adopted in 2002. When I go looking to see what caused Kentuckians to feel the need for gratitude in 2002, all I can find is their even more recent desire for a zingier line: in 2012, Kentucky saw a push for “Kentucky Kicks Ass” as a new state slogan.

So why North Carolina adopted Esse quam videri in 1893 remains a mystery.

Prada fall campaign. Photos by Steven Meisel (c) Prada

Prada fall campaign. Photos by Steven Meisel (c) Prada

Speaking of seeming, I’ve loved fashion as long as I can remember; “Style with Elsa Klensch,” anyone? The shimmering chrysalises of transformation spoke to me from the first. These days, my interest continues undimmed, but I have less and less tolerance for models. Consider the current Prada campaign. The clothes are lovely: a just-unbuttoned knit with an open portrait neck worn under a close-fitting jumper of leather or heavy wool, a flared tweed skirt, a belted coat with bell sleeves, all in soaked shades of scarlet, peacock, or wet asphalt. To me these garments suggest a woman in her prime, a romantic, who is in the midst of the moment of her life—call it a sensual awakening if you want—and yet is, in spite of everything, an innocent. For the first time in her life, she knows she doesn’t know her limits. She’s an optimist and a fool and she’s fascinating, and I want to see what she does next.

But for these passionate clothes the models have nothing but the same old faces, or rather the same young faces, absurdly projecting an experience and longing thin as the paper it’s printed on. What do they know about how that skin bared by one undone button feels on the first day of fall? Nothing, apparently: frozen in sexy face, they wait for the shoot to be over.

Models are an easy target, though. Maybe I should be picking on the photographers who prompt and frame their looks (here, Steven Meisel). Or maybe this whole theme strikes you as ridiculous. Benjamin Franklin would think so. He wrote this in his “The Way to Wealth” (1758): “And after all, of what use is this pride of appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It cannot promote health, or ease pain; it makes no increase of merit in the person, it creates envy, it hastens misfortune.”

esse

Esse quam videri: the source for the motto is the Roman orator Cicero, commenting on how most people would rather be thought virtuous than be so. Poor Cicero, things didn’t turn out well for him; in 43 BC, Marc Antony ordered his murder, and after he was killed, his severed hands and head were displayed in the Roman forum.

I’m a dance critic and a lifelong dancer. After thirty years in ballet class, ballet is my yoga, more or less; without it, I’m cranky and my body doesn’t work right. But since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had trouble finding a ballet home. All the classes I’ve tried have been expensive, far away, stuffed in a tiny room, or executed to canned music.

Restless and bereft of ballet, I head out for a kickboxing class. It’s my first, so I have no idea what to expect; will we be sparring or busting through blocks of wood? No: it turns out that we bounce around to music as we kick and jab at things. It’s a dance class, more or less. “Go for the chin! the chin!” the instructor screams, and all over the crowded room people pummel their imaginary assailants, who seem to have great reflexes, as they are constantly on the move. I find myself pulling my punches in as well as throwing them out; it feels nice on my shoulder to almost release and then reel back my momentum, but it is nothing like a real punch. The woman in front of me whales on air.

Esse quam videri tattoo” turns out to be Google’s fifth choice for the phrase. The barista is not alone. Image search takes you to head-spinningly contradictory photos of buff types displaying their new tattoo that asserts essence over appearance. One man flexes his philosophically inked pecs; he looks as if he’s eaten nothing but protein powder for the past week.

Still, I like the barista’s tat. She does real things with her biceps, like make coffee, and she lives in North Carolina, so why not? Appearance is not false simply because it is appearance. I still remember the shirt I wore to the revelation: a cornflower-blue button-down.

A friend of mine once told me she knew what I was going through. Turned out she was wrong.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

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