Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Four


By Lynn Crawford


I step down my home’s ladder, take a few steps, then stop. Put my forehead against one of the trees on my path, then my hands on its trunk and breathe. I touch my ears (the left, then the right) briefly to it, and spend a final, sweet moment of exchange between the rough, fragrant bark and my skin. I pat and kiss the tree, and continue on to the library for my morning practice with the head librarian. She has a tight schedule, so it is important that I am punctual.

Her office, on the building’s top level, has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the bay. When I visit in the afternoons and early evenings we both wear UV-protective glasses and maybe even wide brim hats, but now, in early morning, the sun is not strong.

On each end of her desk are neatly stacked notebooks. In the middle is her computer near a wooden cup holding pens and markers. Behind her workspace are shelves of books, photographs, plants, and herb pots. On either side of her desk are identical aerial trapeze stands. They are the reason for my visit and we start our practice on them right away. Today it is a half-hour on the stands, then a thorough ten-minute stretch on floor mats.

When finished, we, slightly moist, sit on her balcony. She has sparkling eyes and radiant skin. She moves like a panther. Her name is Rose.

Usually we part ways right after our session but because her first morning meeting was delayed we have a few extra moments.

Rose is generally quiet at this time of day. But now, maybe because of the short length of our practice, she speaks about life as motion, whether it is detectable to the human eye or not. And speaks of when she was young, traveled the world, and now, so many years later, how she can access each place, human, lake, bed, museum, meal, mountain she encountered. She just closes her eyes and visits that past in detail, remaining very happy to stay physically put here, in our current time zone, town, and library. Her position, family, friends, and the setting allow her to return to elements of what was rather than abandon them, only to pile on large and then larger amounts of new experiences.

We refer to our trapeze sessions as travel—the moves, the expenditure, the blend of ascending and descending, the wild exhilarations.

Incidentally, between our practice, the view, and Rose herself, I absorb what I can only describe as courage.

I sense difficult moods coming on long before they arrive, and aerial motion helps me cushion their appearance. So does tackling literary lines I find problematic, like this one from James Joyce:

“I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake.”

Mistakes, I am terrified of them. Not because I am timid or devoted to repetition, but because I am terrified of generating harm.

To myself and others.

I appreciate that mistakes lead to personal and community growth, and that we all make them regularly. My concern with making them, wanting to make them, then wanting to make them more, comes from caution. Because I keep in mind forms of harm a mistake might generate. I have no wish to harm more. Just being me, a single human, living the way I do on earth, I harm enough.

Joyce might be bettered by his mistakes, though. And I would never take that benefit from him.

This is not a very interesting discussion.

Still, I could spend an eternity on it, which is why trapeze practice comes in handy. I switch off settling into a rut and turn my focus to corporal activations in my muscles, organs, and tendons. I sweat even more than I do at home on my mat in front of a large window that looks into the woods when doing my exercise and dance steps.

I understand zero-mistake days are impossible. But this thinking and aerial bodywork together help me try, as best as I can, to accept and move with, and sometimes through, blunders.

Years ago I vowed never to say something negative about a literary line without balancing it with a beautiful one by the same author. So here are wondrous words from James Joyce. They possibly came because of, or after, a mistake. In any case they are from his book Ulysses:

“The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.”

There.
Beautiful.

After our practice, Rose and I sit for a period in alert stillness. Then she says, “My office. It’s my lookout post before moving downstairs to those crowds requiring my action. Here I see out. There I cannot see because I am within. I cannot imagine what or where I’d be without being able to do and have both.”

Rose rarely talks so deeply after our sessions and I sense that she fears making mistakes too. We’ve never discussed it but we both know. Anyone involved with trapeze work seriously considers mistakes.

I have (briefly) considered making lethal ones. For example, diving off Karl’s boat into shark-infested waters, or drinking poison.

Those would be mistakes. But the worst kind of mistake I would ever make would be one that caused harm to others. And that is something I probably do much more than I think or notice.

And that is what comes to mind when I read the first James Joyce quote. Me making a mistake and not even meaning it. Not even knowing or realizing it. If I am harmed, in contrast, I know. Immediately. And think, and can say, stop.

Rose and I are bound through our shared commitment to books but only sometimes discuss the volumes themselves. When we do speak of them it is wonderful. Especially when we do things we should not. For example, discuss character motivation or remove them, making them ours, re-enacting their speeches, outfits, home decor, and food choices.

Books and trees are my world but not my complete world. Because that includes humans. Especially Karl. For many reasons. But explaining any of them does us a disservice. Unless I just say that what we have is simple. For example, looking into each other’s eyes, holding each other’s shoulders, and both at once thinking, This.



Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
Nonfiction
Botanist, professor, mother, scientist, activist, and enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is “to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge in support of our shared goals of environmental sustainability.”


Things: A Story of the Sixties
By Georges Perec
Grove Press, 1967
Translated from the French by Helen Lane
[Les choses, 1965, Éditions Julliard]
Novel
French novelist, filmmaker, documentarian, and essayist Georges Perec was known for his formally complex works that focus on ordinary, everyday minutiae that often go unnoticed. He was affiliated with the mainly French group of writers known as Oulipo, a “workshop of potential literature.”







Possession


Is the land a source of belongings, or a source of belonging?
–Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer

Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Braiding Sweetgrass and Things address two systems essential for human survival: nature and commerce. Neither aligns with Emerson’s contention that earth “receives the dominion of man meekly.” His choice of the word meekness—“a quality of being quiet, gentle, righteous, and obedient”—reflects a misunderstanding of our planet, an error that persists in multiple forms today.

U.S. Poet Laureate, writer, and performer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Joy Harjo wrote, “When explorers first encountered my people, they called us heathens, sun worshippers. They didn’t understand that the sun is a relative and illuminates our path on this earth.”1

For Harjo, like Dr. Kimmerer, earth and its various and multiple life forms are comrades whose components and characteristics are designed to fit and work together. We all benefit from intermingling; for instance, listening to what Kimmerer calls “ancient conversations going on between mosses and rocks, poetry.”

Perec, true to his style, suggests the importance of natural surroundings through their absence. He never articulates it, but his book makes an argument for it. Nature’s appearance in Things is sporadic: a plant in an apartment, a body of water near a large, busy city, a drive past a “flowery meadow.” His landscape is one of messages, signs, and objects. Whether the elements are unremarkable (“fitted carpet”) or precious (“extremely soft plaited leather shoes”) he describes them in a distant tone, minutely detailed.

Nature is built with logic and can be a valuable comrade if humans would only recognize it. For example, earth is there for Jerome and Sylvie, but they are not there for it. The systems they buy into (cafés, clothes, cities, careers) have potential to be, but are not in themselves, reciprocal or trustworthy. Despite having educations, jobs, places to live, and expendable income, the two of them are—justifiably—uneasy:

“If someday something were to give way, such as an agency going out of business or their being seen as too old or too unreliable in their work, or one of them falling ill, that was all it would take for everything to come tumbling down. They had no prospects, no reserves. Their minds often turned to this subject anxiously.”

The regime they pursue and live requires income which means steady work but they cannot count on job security.

We learn what Jerome and Sylvie own, see, and covet, but not about their first kiss or eye color or families or the towns they grew up in.

Jerome feels wonderful when he puts on “a shirt of unimpeachable whiteness” but that is as far as a piece of clothing can go. The sensation won’t last or give back the way friendships or photosynthesizing plants can.

The objects Perec depicts are not themselves the problem; it is his character’s attachment to them. An attachment that Jean Baudrillard, when writing on Things, beautifully characterizes as “the absence of a relationship.” Perec carefully crafts these two characters’ “absence of relationships” with acquaintances, nature, their jobs, one another and, of course, themselves. The absences fill their lives.



If Things details ways nature, humans, and commerce are underutilized, Braiding Sweetgrass reminds us that it does not have to be that way. As usual, reading both books together sent me on a fertile information search. This one introduced me to the jingle or prayer dance, an indigenous practice that involves medicine, costumes, music, commerce, objects, dance, rebellion, and prayer.2

The healing jingle or prayer dance includes an outfit made from discarded “things,” specifically, rolled chewing tobacco or snuff can lids. Three hundred sixty-five of the metal cones (one for every day of the year) are repurposed when they are bent and tied together with ribbons and sewn like bells to make the dancer’s dress. Once the wearer moves, they make music and rhythms, described as “symphonic and jovial.” This use of things is nearly opposite of what’s depicted by Perec. 

There are different stories of its origin, including that it came from a dream an Ojibwe man had of movement in a costume that could heal a young girl who was ill. Jingle dance, attributed to three different Ojibwa communities, the Mille Lacs, Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the Whitefish Bay Ojibwa, developed as a form of rebellion because it came to be at a time when  ritualistic dance was illegal in the US.

This practice—the story, the clothing, the insurgence, the movement—remind us that Earth’s elements are not tools of service. They, alone or when combined with human-made objects (for example, snuff can lids) are brethren, bonding soil to insects to lakes to birds to bushes to mammals, stories, pictures, music, dance, and to one another.



Imaginary Dinner Party is a literary series by Lynn Crawford that explores “what happens when books join forces.” Read the archive:
Part One, Under Stories (spring 2021)
Part Two, Heal the People (summer 2021)
Part Three, Think Like a Detective (fall 2021)

Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016), and Paula Regossy (2020). She is currently working on her next novel, Closely Touched Things. An excerpt from that book, Take Away From the Total, was published in issue no. one of Three Fold.

Fig. 1 Photo by Brady Willette. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.
Fig. 2 Left to right: Rayne Northrup, Memengwaa Sam, Oginii Joseph, Jen Joseph Ameliyah Joseph. Photo by Brady Willette. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

Endnotes
1 Joy Harjo, “A Sacred Connection to the Sun,” NPR Weekend Edition Sunday, July 8, 2007
2  Harper Estey, “The History of the Jingle Dance,” National Congress of American Indians, August 12, 2020