"I dwell in possibilities.”
The other day I was trying to figure out what community is, if I belonged to one. I decided to go ask my friend for a definition. My friend said,
“Sure, what do you want me to define?”
“Community,” I said, hopefully, for I was optimistic at the time and figured my friend would know for sure. If my friend didn’t know, nobody would. I quickly received an answer. Community is
“a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”
This is an exact quote.
It didn’t quite coincide with my feelings about the term, about the concept, so I asked if there was another definition. My friend obliged, and offered an alternative, saying community is
“a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”
This too came from the Internet, but was far superior to the first definition I had been provided. I told my friend thank you and went off to enjoy my day and my definition. I knew I was fortunate to have a dictionary as a friend, even an online one. Not everybody can say the same.
The reason I’m doing this research is that I have a homework assignment to do. I need to find a community somewhere, anywhere, and write about it. You might think that’s easy, that there are communities everywhere one looks. They’re almost unbearably common. That’s all well and good for some people, but I admit for me it’s a struggle. I don’t belong to a community, or at least I don’t think I do.
Maybe I should explain. This goes back to the two definitions my dictionary friend gave me. The first talks about a group of people. Well, I live alone. No people community around me. I rarely speak with my neighbors for some reason. They are not unpleasant, but we don’t have a lot in common except the same street. That’s not enough for me. I think the sticking point for this definition is the people part. Luckily, the dictionary, who is a really good friend but doesn’t live on my street or any other street for that matter, had the second option for me.
The second option, quoted above, leaves out people and goes to the feeling one gets from community: fellowship. Although this word is a bit tacky, I can work with it. Fellowship means, I think, not fighting, at least most of the time. The use of the term ‘others’ is great, because there’s nothing specific about who the others are. While I’m at it, I should mention there are lots of others around me, even though I live alone. Don’t worry, I can explain, but I’m not there yet.
Now we have the part of the definition - the second, not the first - that describes sharing. Attitudes, interests, goals. Well, that’s hard to pull off with most people, that I can guarantee. They disappoint, change their minds, abandon you, do all sorts of things that undermine all those nice community-like feelings and happenings. I mean, how many times has a friend, family member, or even a stranger, said something hurtful? Far too many. I try to avoid those experiences because I am a sensitive person. I cry easily. And have even been known to emit harsh, wracking sobs on occasion.
Dictionary is usually careful about hurting my feelings, thank goodness. (Please note that I have never been a friend to swearing, so I say things like goodness and darn, even if nowadays four-letter words can comprise an entire dialogue. Call me what you like. Prudish, old-fashioned, straight-laced. They’re all fine, in my book. Sticks and stones, right?)
The problem is, my attitudes and interests are all over the map, and I have yet to define my goals in life, might never get around to that.
Oh, now I’m distracted, but something just made me think of Emily. She has a habit of zinging me when I least expect it. I am not sure if that is a good or a bad thing, but she’s always hurling words at me. Stop, Emily! I need my solitude. Oh wait, so do you. Yet now you’re accosting me with things like this:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
I’ve never been able to unread those words, because heaven knows I’ve had more than one funeral in my brain that had to be dealt with.
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
That’s exactly it! Murderous, loud drums beating my mind into numbness. It isn’t pretty and makes me wonder if I’m going mad. That Emily, or rather her poem, gets on my nerves with all the stuff she makes up.
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
It’s torture thinking about boots of lead? Do they even exist? They’re in the poem, so they probably do. I can’t tell, however, if it’s the box or the boots that are creaking, so here I am, trapped in this poem that clearly has nothing to do with community and a whole lot to do with leaving one.
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
This begins to sound ridiculous. Space doesn’t sound like anything, ever. It’s silent. There are no bells in heaven. Plus this big ear is always listening, everywhere we go? (I do feel like a sinking ship now. Thank you, Emily, for lending me your funeral.
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
Maybe I can pull myself out of this - as opposed to reading this poem over and over - and get the heck (no swearing) out of here. My problem is that there’s either a typo in the next-to-last line or Emily made a mistake. You see, When I drop down, I don’t hit worlds. I hit words, lots of them. They may or may not hurt, but let me tell you, they can make me cry.
You may need more information.
Emily, you see, is not a person. She’s a poet and hasn’t been around for some time. As such, she’s just words. Zinging words, but words nevertheless. Like little, tiny arrows they are, and they tingle. She is always telling me, “Look here! Look over there!” So off I go, yet again, for the millionth time, to look at that certain slant of light, books shaped like frigates (or frigates shaped like books), feathered hope, and this cannonball: “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”
Don’t get me wrong, Rosetti (Christina, not her father of brother) is just as bad. I mean, what’s this with lines like “Remember me when I am gone away,” that just latch onto me like burrs or ticks and won’t let go? Sometimes Christina wakes me up from a sound sleep to tell me to remember her. So I do, I guess, because I’m a rememberer.
I remember, for example, when John Berger wrote “When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls.” He shouldn’t have written something like that, but he did. He had poems, too, like:
My heart born naked
was swaddled in lullabies.
Later alone it wore
poems for clothes.
Like a shirt
I carried on my back
the poetry I had read.
He must have been hallucinating, because I never saw anybody wearing poems for clothing. I do think you can carry them around with you, so he’s half right. Berger sure knew his words. I like them, like him, but he does make me wonder if he too had difficulty locating community?
Remember, I’m still working on finding “common attitudes, interests, and goals.” Those are really hard to come by, in my case, but I have to find a place to plunk myself down in the universe. I’m getting a bit desperate. Sometimes I just get the urge to run away and hide, then smart-aleck Mary Oliver says psssstt I’m over here. And I go over there, hoping to find what I’m looking for. She doesn’t make it easy for me when she asks questions like “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?” Too many hard questions. I try to answer, and I write, well I don’t write, I say out loud, again, just like Oliver does:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Yes, Mary, what else should we have done? You stroll through the fields and I tend to stroll elsewhere, through paths called pages or poems called pretty but powerful. I look over my shoulder, shaking a bit, and see Rosalía de Castro smiling - also from around Emily’s time - pointing to the spike she had driven into her heart and the black shadow she can’t shake off. She’s provided some of the worst punishment, and she didn’t even know English.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary O is on my case again, practically threatening me to get going and be somebody, do something. I’m trying, I’m trying. You see, I kind of have a lot of baggage, like Berger’s shirt that’s really made of words. Like Frost’s woods that aren’t his but he stops to look at them anyway. Like the other darn road, less traveled, except I’ve more or less traveled it. A lot.
Is there any hope for me? With or without feathers, I’ll take it.
This word world can have its advantages, however. Like how it helps us feel grief, disappointment, rage, and all those unpleasant things that are words with hurt built in and wrapped around them. Zora Neale Hurston raised her rage to new heights when she gave Janie this way of dealing in Their Eyes Were Watching God: "She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her then she went inside there to see what it was.” My goodness, Zora, you also keep me up at night sometimes with that one. I’ve been trying really hard to put things together, get some good, accurate definitions, and then you go building walls inside Janie (and me, by
extension). My question for you is:
“How much needs to fall off and break before the pieces just start spilling out?”
“Are the pieces made of glass or porcelain or caterpillars or are they just brittle clouds? Couldn’t you give us a hint?
I’m not one for watching God much, but birches, big rivers, lichens on rocks, maybe the caves at Pech-Merle in Occitania will count, right? Maybe I can never hope to fit my attitude, interests, or goals to those of a community. Maybe I was meant to be a loner, like Emily. She did have the brilliance to write:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Now this could be liar’s paradox, but that creates a funeral in my brain again just thinking about it. A Nobody who speaks is Somebody. What I need to ask so I can finish this assignment, is if there are a pair of us, are we a community? A pair of us, frog-like, croaking away, living in a bog.
However, that’s the problem. Life would be much simpler if I could just live in a bog, but I’m trapped here, trapped in my story, trapped in my books, bound up by my poems, lashed to the lines, to the words of the poems, stung and stapled by every snippet of every story or word I ever read. I am nothing more than what you are reading. Kadish, in The Weight of Ink, tackled the idea of identity from a very different angle, but she did a nice job. That gives me pause… Maybe I am not these words. Maybe I am only the ink that wrote them. And if ink was not used for writing, what, then, is the substance of this story you might still be reading?
Have you considered that there really are no identities in the world that matter? If you write “I’m Nobody!” you are somebody who writes. Your words never go away, like all the birds in Emily’s and Mary’s poems, in the poems of a lot of other people never go away. (If you knew Spanish, I’d include all of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s swallow piece, but let’s settle for “Volverán las oscuras golondrinas.” That’s enough to remind us how people like me, well, we cycle through words and the world. Yes, those dark swallows will always return. Lovely, aren’t they?
So now my homework is completed. I’ve covered a lot here - enough to know that the first definition Dictionary gave me, the one with humans in it, is definitely not for me. I’m the second definition of community, for sure. I live in, I am, a palimpsest. If you need to know the origin of the word, as I frequently do, it comes from Ancient Greek (like so many words do) and means “scraped clean, ready for new uses, new writing.” Such a striking word, I never put it down.
If you’ve ever had a chance to see a palimpsest up close, it might make you uneasy, all those layers from many writers in different time periods. Layered one atop another, because the parchment or animal skin was valuable and not to be wasted. My skin, I feel, is not to be wasted, and so I offer it up constantly to be pared down to the original color and texture, then reinscribed. The scribes could be any of the names mentioned above, or we could add Borges, Josephine Herbst and Hemingway, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, lots of mystery writers, and always more poetry.
Yes, write on me, erase me, I will never disappear, even if I am Nobody. You have now read my story and you now reside in my house. Thanks to John Berger (and the rest of the word world), I now have a community that fits.
Now, after all this talking, I am very thirsty. Emily wrote it, so I can write it too:
Bring me the sunset in a cup.