spoke* (spōk), past tense or archaic past participle of speak.
Today, I am on a plane from New Orleans, my hometown, to Dallas, and then I’ll get on another one to fly to Tucson, the desert town where I live.
Last Sunday, I was dancing—moving my feet and shaking my hips—to Rebirth Brass Band, a band from my hometown who was playing at a festival in Tucson. Trumpets and trombones. Snare drums. If there’s a sound the inside of my chest makes, I think it must sound like horns and drums. Blares and beats.
The Sunday before that, I was sitting talking with dear friends after four days of silence. Earlier that day, I prostrated myself on the floor in the direction of where my parents live, where my teachers are, where my community resides. Mala beads were placed over my head and I received a new name.
I am thinking about motion and staticity. I am thinking about what it means to move forward, what it means to hold still, to hold stillness.
I met my niece for the first time this weekend and as I held her in my arms, I was struck by her substance, her solidity. She is seven months old. She has not yet said her first word. She does not have an understanding of object permanence. She does not get peek-a-boo. She does not know her name. Yet she knows how to smile and make raspberries. She has obvious preferences: from when she wants to be held and when she wants to stand up to when she does and does not want to eat. She has already formed into a self and she is still in formation. Different each day and also still her. What a gift to watch these changes in increments. What a pleasure to watch her as she awakens to the world.
Is this then about spoke, about speaking? There is nothing more fleeting than words spoken. I spend my life impossibly torn between the desire to record every instant for posterity, to write every word spoken down, and the desire to throw away my pen and just listen, knowing I will not remember.
We are flying over the river now, the Crescent City is crescent because of the way the water bends into the land. If I put my hand on the window, I could trace the river’s path, no larger than the tip of my finger. Yesterday, I stood on the bank and watched seagulls overhead. I sat with my parents. We had gone to the French Quarter on Easter Sunday as we had when I was ten. When I was sixteen. When I was twenty-four. We caught the end of the Easter Parade and shiny purple, pink, white, and green beads joined the simple brown ones hanging around my neck. There seemed something fitting and sacred about each strand. My parents said that when they were last in the Quarter, they saw the portrait artist who drew me when I was ten. That drawing lost in the floodwaters that came when the levee broke. Or as my parents said, “We lost that one in Katrina.” What made this man a good portrait artist is the way he could capture the uniqueness of each individual’s eyes. I looked at my eyes and saw it was me. A year or two later, my dad and I went alone to the French Quarter on Easter. My parents had separated. When we saw the same artist he drew me and then, on the same paper, my dad. The two of us without my mother. I don’t remember seeing that portrait after they got back together.
On my flight to New Orleans a few days ago, I was sitting next to a mother and her son. The woman looked to be in her forties. The son looked to be about twelve. He intertwined his arm with hers and later, she cradled him against her body and they slept. I thought about this intimacy, tender because of its transience. Soon, this boy will begin to pull away from his mother, from this body that birthed him. Soon, those small intimacies will be grieved by his mother. I imagine her: sitting alone at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a mug of tea, remembering this flight or any other of the millions of tiny moments of closeness and hoping her son—now out with friends—is safe. But for now, they have each other and the closeness of their bodies, this proximity, feels like something sacred. I am both riveted by the tenderness and embarrassed to bear witness, sitting just inches away. This: the moment of a bubble before it breaks, a flower before the petals begin to fall, the last lingering note before the song is over.
Sometimes I feel awash in all the talking. Is there a time, I wonder, beyond and below what is spoken?
When I didn’t speak for four days, I noticed the energy spared. And I noticed how much could be communicated with a simple facial expression, a slow bow, the way one sits or stands. Intention isn’t always clear in language but it seems more clear in what the body says.
For our family get-together, my parents rented a bouncy castle. Strong nylon whose shape is held only by air. Air pumped in. Air moving around.
Sometimes, when I am speaking while walking, I stop mid-step. I have only realized recently that I do this. Or maybe I realized it and then forgot it and then realized it again. Someone could be five steps ahead of me before I realize, before they realize we are no longer walking together. One friend called this caesura an exclamation point. “An em dash?” I offered.
“For one day,” I told my students, “your mission is to communicate only in the form of questions. Be curious. See what happens when you have more space to listen.” It was hard, they told me. But many were shocked that their friends and classmates didn’t even notice their lack of declaration. In the absence of their statements, the others easily filled the space.
The flight is only an hour long. Soon we will land. Soon all the passengers will collect their purses and suitcases and plastic bags. They will move forward down the aisle. They will go home or on vacation. They will walk towards baggage claim and then on to funerals and hospitals, to weddings and baby showers. They will fall into the arms of lovers. They will get into the cars of family members. They will hug their roommates. They will stare at the gray heads of friends they haven’t seen in years. They will drive into cities teeming with people and countryside sparse with them. This flight will move from an immediate experience to an unremembered one. It will become part of a collective memory, one of many uneventful flights, defined only by its unremarkable nature: smooth air, easy takeoff, seamless landing, no delays. This time will collapse into empty space in their memory. Their slow movement through the sky will be marked only by fading numbers on cheap paper tucked into a paperback. Maybe a year from now, they will pick up the book they bought at the airport that they left unfinished. Maybe they will look at the date and the destinations and a specter of the person they sat next to will be conjured up in their memory. Or maybe they will, without looking, toss the slip of paper into the recycle pile, the last piece of evidence of this moment in the ether will be ground back into pulp from which new things will be made.
*composed 30,000 feet in the air