Tell me what shape you are.
Not what shape you are IN. Not what KIND of shape you’re in. But your shape. What is the shape of your thoughts, your days, your heartbeat? What imprint does your presence leave as you move through space?
Sometimes I read these abandoned and forgotten prompts and think, ah! There is a reason I didn’t go with it. But maybe a reason, too, I didn’t nix it altogether.
The creative process is messy. Caterpillar soup–an image that has now come back to me twice in 12 hours. As Jon Katz writes so eloquently: “Death paves the way for life.”
What is the shape of your life? Of your death? Of the path you walk to knowledge–and I mean that quite literally.
Mani and I watched an incredibly beautiful and evocative documentary yesterday called On the Way to School. One of the children, a boy no older than 12 in India, says: “We come into the world with nothing and we leave the world with nothing.”
I look around my room, the shape of it filled with familiar objects and possessions. Things.
I did not come here with any of this, and I will not leave here with any of it, either. My wife is sleeping beside me as I write. I did not come here with her, and I will not leave here with her, unfathomable as that is. My children, my beautiful girls, are in California for a 10-day road-trip-of-a-lifetime with their dad. I did not come here with them, and I will not leave here with them, a thought that is simply too vast, too heart-breaking and heart-bursting, to contemplate. And yet.
The middle is where we get to come together.
What shape are you? It reminds me a little of a job interview question. What kind of tree are you? If you were a season, which season would you be? These can be fun, and they can be… ugh. And they can be portals, especially if I don’t roll my eyes and instead roll up my sleeves and say, ok. I’m game. Let’s play.
What shape am I?
Formless form and voidless void. Curve of hips and nipple lift. Feet on fire and hands on spine. The way it feels when you hug someone, really hug them, the way my friend Nyarkoa insisted we hug, not like white girls but belly to belly, breast to breast, cheek to cheek. I miss that friend. Better call her up.
This week, I said: Angels. Listen up. And then it dawned on me, oh my god! They are listening.
They’ve heard every last word and sigh and whisper and shout. All I have to do is look around and the evidence is everywhere. This doesn’t mean it’s all easy, but as Mani was saying last night, where on earth did this idea that it’s supposed to be easy come from? Probably the same place as the one where we stress about not being enough and other refrains of privilege.
The movie we watched — these children walk to school. A Kenyan brother and sister, blessed by their father, avoiding elephants to get there in time for the flag-raising. Three girls trekking a dozen miles across the Atlas Mountains, with a hen in a bag to trade for pastries later, a bum ankle, and friendship. Brothers in India, one paralyzed, a jerry-rigged wheelchair and the kindness of strangers, the littlest one cracking us up the whole time. A sister taking the reigns across the Patagonia plains, hair whipping in her face–don’t tell mama! They do this round-trip every day, with the exception of the Moroccan girls, who board at school for the week.
To say they go to great lengths in order to go to school is an understatement.
What is the shape of this world? My girls schlep to the end of the driveway and hop on the bus, complaining about the mean driver.
My hand on my heart, I watched this film and thought: We need to see it again, with them. Then thought: We need to visit these places. To be humbled out of our first-world stupor.
The world is not just one small pool of stories, of shapes.
I said to Mani: “We refer to ‘People of Color’ as other!” Ha. The whole world is “of color.” And here–a bubble. A grocery store, brightly lit, filling my cart. And the women I saw the other day walking on the sidewalk-less side of the road away from Target, large tote bags balanced on each one’s head. Home is far far away.
It’s a big world, and we’re all in it, a billion shapes moving around each other like stars. Blink, as Ferris Bueller reminded us thirty years ago, and you could miss it.
For my children, it may be a joke: When we were kids, we had to walk ten miles each way uphill in the snow to get to school…
But for these children’s grandchildren, this will be no joke. I have always wanted to disappear into the world. This is why: To learn. To see. To be minuscule in what I think I know and broken open by what I don’t. To play with children who–every single one–know the language of: eating. drinking. laughing. authority. safety. danger. silliness. burping. blessing.
Nothing has ever called me more than the children. Every single one of them–which may sound preposterous, but it feels true. The shape of it fits inside the valves and the ventricles, the atria, the chambers–the very ones I came here with that will one unknown-to-me day cease to keep me breathing.
I’m in love with the shapes of the stories and with the formless and the unseeable, the thing you have to squint to get a glimpse of. The fox in the driveway. The deer in the headlights. The bird on the wire. The child, now a woman. A man. A teacher. A father. A tree. A field. A shape like a river or the voice of my maternal grandmother: “Too ethnic!” This, just as the old country came pouring out of her mouth in song.
I write like this sometimes, with no shape. No intention. No premise or point. If you asked me why, I’d say I am the snake charmer and the snake itself and the vessel and the child wide-eyed watching all of this. Five feet and half an inch and one hundred and five pounds with hair that adds at least another two inches to my barefoot stature. I’d say read it as if you’re half-asleep, read it liminal and underwater and porous. Read it as you would a poem. Receive.
Not what shape are you in, but what is the shape of you? If you decide to tell me, don’t stop first to think about it, for this is the place where we get to enter not knowing together. Not having to make sense or sound smart. There’s no one to impress and no right answer, for we are no longer schoolchildren, and chances are if you’re reading this, you’re not digging two feet into the sand to get the day’s drinking water. We spend waaaaaay too much time worrying about shit that is really not a problem.
Cupping my hands, the shapeless water just for a quick second takes the shape of the bowl they make. I lift them to my mouth, and drink. I take it in. The more my shape changes, the more essence remains.