11: The Dirt of My Heart

In my journey to write a love story, I’ve realized how much a good romance, for me, entangles with heartbreak.

A good romance is tinged by heartbreak, is chasing heartbreak, or at least living perpetually in some kind of its shadow. Heartbreak, like nostalgia. Heartbreak, too, like betrayal or loneliness. Is the fullness of love complete without its crack? That annoying old question. I am not saying that feeling hurt makes us feel love more, no. But instead: love that can endure hardship is love that compels me. Love marked by life like water and dust. Love that slips into us through the fissures and fragments of time, the messiness of being human that inevitably leads us to disappointing or hurting or hurrying by one another. 

A pocket. A thing that 
can be turned inside out 
by anybody’s hand. Not 
a place for pebbles or loose 
change. Not to carry old 
receipts. It does not tear 
at the seam. It doesn’t have 
a seam. It cannot be torn.

“The heart is not” by danusha Laméris

I watched this rom com the other day that had a very good monologue scene in it—the lead’s roommates is getting married and giving a speech at her own engagement party. She says, “I’ve liked a lot of guys and a lot of things about them. But my grandma says you like because and you love despite.”

I’m taken by this proposal, even if I’m a little suspicious of it. But when I lean into its possibility—Sedgewick gently knocking on my temple, reminding me to be gentle with knowledge, reminding me to be curious and open rather than fearful and cold—I think about how in this intentional conjunction (because/despite) something opens up about the space where we love someone. Let’s look at it in the sentence right? When you like because—there is a cause. There is a direct correlation between what you like and why. A reason. But love defies reason. When you love despite—there is no cause. There is no reason. The root of despite is to observe from above. To look down on. Instinctively, in a society as obsessed as with hierarchy as we are, that feels potentially patronizing, problematic. What if it’s looking down on, like protection? Like patience? What if love was about distance—precious distance—the perfect distance to love someone and let them be. To love someone and let yourself be too.

More TikTok knowledge from me because that reminded me of a video I saw that said that boundaries are the distance you need to love yourself and love someone else too. When we love despite, we love as a choice. In a scene of the romance novel I didn’t get to write down because I was too busy being curled up in my someone’s arms, there is a moment at a coffee shop. One of the characters says to another, “I want you to choose me.” This character is pleading with another to open up to her. This character says, “I want you to see me and choose me.”

Hidden in that scene inside my head was the despite. What the character wasn’t saying—despite despite despite. Tell me you notice my despites and you choose me anyway. Tell me you could leave tomorrow but you won’t. No cause. No reason. You’ll stay because you can. You’ll stay because you want to for a reason too big to ever name.

Today I search for a name.
Not too long, they said,
nor short. A deer crashes
in the wood. A skunk
swaggers to the distant creek.
There is a moment, I think,
when the eyes speaks
and speak of a world too much.
Such a moment, a life.

“Toward dAwn” by James Welch

I sent my mother a photo of a passage from a book I’m reading the other day. She’s not talking to me at the time, but she reads my message.

I tell my friend Sadia that another sign of a good book is it makes me want to call my mom, or to share it with her. She loves Pinterest poetry which like, honestly? Same. Saima, at a reading last Saturday, said something similar about family and books and the sign of a good book being her giving it to her mom. They taught her to argue and to think critically and I remembered long car rides with my dad coming back from Ta’if, the slow courage he built in me to speak my mind, to disagree.

My grandma says that, of all the people she has known in her life, she misses her grandma the most. She says, i cared about her, but I didn’t know how to appreciate her. She was kind and hardworking, and she suffered so much. But i asked her to cook for me even when she was very old.

When my grandma tells me this, she is staring at the ground, her gray-white hair backlit against the sunny window. I feel, in that moment, a feeling I cannot put into words. As silly as it sounds, it somehow never occurred to me you could miss someone when you’re that old. She has missed her grandma for over fifty years, and that is so much longer than I have been alive.

“Grandmothers” from Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

Years ago, at the loneliest point of my entire life, I wrote about a walk in the forest, an elderly man walking alone, his wedding ring glinting in the dark. “Time is grief,” I wrote then. “No, grief is grief.”

More time has passed and more grief. I don’t know which answer is true or how to disagree with a memory.

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.

“My life was the size of my life” by Jane hirshfield

My friend Aly made a playlist called, a tentative definition of love. I love this playlist. I listen to it on my first night alone in weeks, and I feel lovely, a little lonely, and blessed in my life. It is scary to say this out loud (or on paper) (or in light) but I am so, so happy these days. I am happy just to be alive and that feels—strange. New. Good, but odd, and sometimes oddly layered in guilt but that’s a different story for a different day.

If I were to make a playlist right now called “a tentative definition of love,” I’d put John Mayer’s song “Stop This Train” on it for sure. My boyfriend played it at the guitar store the other day and the guy helping us started playing it from across the room and it startled him, in a lovely way. Like when I was leaving the pool bar to go home with Nat and I looked at her and said, “We live together.”

“Yes,” Nat said and I said, “We’re going home together.” And they said, “I know.”

This is the love I am tentatively defining. The love that surprises me with nothing but its presence. That says there’s nowhere else to be now. There’s nowhere to be but here.

Had a talk with my old man
Said, “Help me understand.”
He said, “Turn 68
You’ll renegotiate
Don’t stop this train
Don’t for a minute 
Change the place you’re in
And don’t think I couldn’t 
ever understand
I tried my hand
John, honestly
We’ll never stop this train.”

“Stop This Train” by John Mayer

I bought a guitar. I’m trying to do other things than poetry because I’m burnt out. I can’t even really read poetry lately, which is a major blow but maybe a reality check. I open a book and the words are there and the feeling is vaguely there but mostly I’m not. I’m somewhere else. Whatever valve poetry needs, mine is stuck. The well is dry. This is not a tragedy. After a harvest, the soil needs time to rest. My poetry is hibernating. Sleeping in the field, in the dirt of my heart. Eventually, I’ll come back and poetry will rouse and the field will be new. It will be better than new. It will be an entirely different place than I left it.

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.  

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.  

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.
   
The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
  
I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.

“FAmous” by Naomi Shihab Nye

I recently tried writing the novel too. I got about two sentences in before I thought to myself, “Wow, this sucks,” and then deleted the entire document. Sentences are difficult. Prose is unrelenting. There is nowhere to hide in fiction, despite the ruse that it is somehow more cloaked. Fiction strips the page to bone. My friend Lily would say, Use the bone to pick your teeth. Fati’s new book opens with an epigraph by Vievee Francis.

The secret to knowing the secret is to speak, but 
      we too often tell
the stories of no matter and avoid the one story 
       that doesn’t matter. 
In truth we are bound by one story, so you’d 
      think by now 
we’d tell it, at least to each other.

from When we were sisters by Fatimah Asghar

I still don’t know the secret or how to speak. But I’m getting closer, by living, by paying attention to the quality of my living and pressing into, every day, a new texture of freedom.

Etel Adnan wrote, “Renounce, if you can, a lie, every day, to yourself, and / or, to somebody else, and, gradually, you will, unknowingly, reach an epiphany.”

Well, here’s mine. I am happy because I am trying. Try, in the late fifteenth century, meant a “screen for sifting.” I am trying new kinds of art, new experiences, new emotions. Not to become a better artist or a better person, but to better know what art and the world can do. Can be. During a workshop on poetry and divination, Timothy Liu said: “You master tarot when you no longer need the cards. You master poetry when you no longer need the words.”

I am not trying to build a legacy. I am trying to build a life.

2 thoughts on “11: The Dirt of My Heart

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