Sorting

by swirlingthoughts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

 1.

Father tells the story of when, less than one year old, I was parked on the floor of his study. As he sat and wrote, the baby entertained herself. Quietly, he says. He should build a monument—I think—to such mute, nice, unobtrusive daughter giving him no trouble at all. Forget it. Father laughs, smirks and grins, making fun of me as he exclaims with a mocking tone, “Oh, that hair on the carpet!” He refers to the fact that I’d spend uncountable time (hours, he claims and I bet he lies) trying to lift from the rug a quasi-invisible hair, mesmerized by the delicate task I had chosen. Why is hard to guess and a question Father, for sure, never asked himself.

Father loves mimicking my hand and the painstaking efforts I made to round index and thumb, trying to pinch my booty between two small fingertips. Slowly. Closer and closer. A miss. Start again. Impervious, I seemed to possess patience in great store but Dad didn’t praise my virtue. He just found my repeated failures hilarious.

Many years later, I learned infants are divided in two kinds as it comes to neurological growth. Some begin with wide motion patterns—balance, fall and get up, crawl, walk, run. Some begin with fine coordination—the opposition of index and thumb allowing prehension. After they work out either skill, all switch their learning focus. Where they start, where they end doesn’t make a difference, at least not a substantial one.

Dad missing such specialized notions isn’t weird or a problem. Dad being so greatly amused by my zeal is actually a retrospective delight.

2.

She has given me a box of miscellaneous beads, sequins, rhinestones, you name it. I can’t help spending time I don’t have in order to sort things out. This is stronger than me. I have to do it, often to an unnecessary extent. I should draw a line but I seldom do. For example, I could stop my triage at ‘yellow glass ovals’ without bothering about exact size or shade. But I tend to go all the way through, multiplying categories and containers. Mine is a reflex of efficiency allowing me to quickly locate, when working, any supply I need. But I have to admit the awesome state such activity puts me in, the great pleasure I feel as I separate a large mess into neat little stacks.

Slowly, her presence seeps in—I am talking of the friend who gave me the box. I understand she has passed down a fortune worthier than the sum of its parts. These are just minutia, odds and ends meant to decorate costumes or dolls. Nothing precious is in the bunch. What makes it a treasure is how the collection occurred, how she gathered these shiny bits over time, how they came together.

I can see what caught her eyes in a thrift shop, on a market booth or a store shelf. I can guess when she cut out an old dress to salvage a rim or a piece of lace. I can figure out when she bent to lift from the sidewalk a lost earring. I see what she most loved—what colors, what forms, matte or glossy, strong, pale.

Her taste manifests itself and her life transpires, but fugaciously. As I am sorting it, her gift metamorphoses and it becomes mine. Like a game of Scrabble shaken off the board, little squares back into the satchel. Like DNA incessantly recombined.

3.

Why are heroines of fairytales routinely asked to sort things, if they wish to escape a terrible fate, simultaneously being awarded a marvelous one? The chores they are assigned are awfully hard. Truly, they are ‘impossible,’ but I’m wary of such term because it’s the very point of controversy. It’s the pivot around which plots shift and magic occurs—as the task is landed on the girl under the very assumption that she won’t be able to accomplish it. She is supposed to understand she will not and be terrified, discouraged, desperate. Then invariably she will succeed, proving the job was doable indeed.

I am not musing about the obvious message—believe in yourself, be brave and you’ll overcome all obstacles. Or about other moral lessons embedded in the same narrative trope—for example the importance of mutual solidarity, as the plight is usually solved by a myriad of creatures (ants, or birds… there are many variants) that come rescue the girl out of gratitude for some previous kindness of hers.

I don’t care for those moral lessons too much… What enthralls me is the nature of the chore itself—always implying tedious, minute sorting of a granary worth, let’s say, of lentils and peas. Usually during nighttime. Imagine the lighting… What, a candle or two? Will she go blind? She is crying torrents of tears, further blurring her sight. What’s the heroin-who-still-isn’t-one really doing? Why have those grains to be separated? Can’t they be boiled together? Wouldn’t the soup be tastier? And who mixed them up in the first place?

I have been wondering as if it were I—on my fours in the semidark, plucking dirty floorboards of a barn, a cellar, Blue Beard’s secret room or a donjon. What am I doing? Developing patience? Or the adroitness needed for the many tasks adult married life implies? Am I honing eye-hand coordination or doing something else to my brain? Something more important.

A few things come to mind. Lentils in many traditions mean money. Then, as I’m in a barn, I wonder if I am searching for a needle. Sometimes I am asked to sort hay from gold—in the moonlight they shine deceptively alike. Are they all that different? Not so sure… Is this an exercise in obedience, seen that the final prize is usually a husband? Mute obedience. Or blind, to be exact.

Wait, we are talking of a husband-prince, future king for a future queen. Is it all about wealth? Am I learning how to make inventories, how to supervise a plethora of property, trunks and trunks of a dowry I’ll never be able to utilize, but will need to pass down to my daughters? Am I getting used to perpetuate privilege?

I hope not. Then what am I doing in this cold, damp basement in the company of little mice, busy beetles and goodwilling spiders, as the night wears off and dawn is already blushing? I have no clue. In the meanwhile, I am done.

4.

I believe that when I sort things—especially tiny, lots of them, hard to identify… Right. Stop there. I feel when I’m sorting things I am elaborating identity. Mine? Perhaps, as I am not so sure of what identity is and to whom it belongs. Usually the term evokes an individually owned, whole, uncut, more or less solid something. I suspect that isn’t case. I fear that identity falls apart—rather exfoliates, loosens up—on a regular basis, maybe every day. It scatters on the floor, so to speak, and when it lies there it is hard to claim rights over the entire mess. As far as I’m concerned, identity is fond of impermanence. It intrinsically tends to dissolve.

But what is it? It’s a list, though not very orderly, of the things I am alike and those I am not. For example: female, white, dark-haired, green-eyed. Not tall, not wide-boned or a basketball player, not a scientist, a college professor or the driver of a yellow Ford Mustang.

It’s a list of things I am alike and of things I like—which ends up to have just the same function, to define me as well, by means of analogy. As per that silly game—if she were a flower, which flower? If she were a newspaper?  A ribbon? A bead?

I recall spending hours of wonder, as a child, in the company of Grandpa’s collection of stamps. His huge albums held specimens for every country of the world. What a marvelous Odyssey it was to travel across them—I sure never tired of it. As I went through the rows, it was natural to establish not only affinities but a hierarchy of them, culminating with the icons that I loved the most. I think such scales of pleasure—from dull to very intense—are just unavoidable. They provide a form of containment for the concept of self, a thin line determining what is us, what is other—or we wouldn’t be able to separate our hand from the tweezers it holds. Therefore, as I turn the pages I trace a contour—a light border—and I niche myself inside the shape it designs… I am more flower than building today, more river than flag. I am what I most like and what I most like defines me.

Only, such definition is frail as it’s made of a sum of parts—tiny things imperfectly glued, prone to come undone at the slightest draught from the window. Luckily it is that way. Luckily I have to start over from scratches. What if, as I sort things, I choose to like them all? I mean equally. I guess it can be done, but in turns.

5.

Yet again, why is this task so insisted upon? Why has the heroin to be beheaded if the rooster croaks and she still hasn’t split silk from cotton? Couldn’t we all muddle through, picking things from chaos as the need arises, spontaneously and randomly?  I believe we could. Sometimes I think the purpose of classifying chaos is to be allowed to create just another chaos and call it our own. Maybe that’s what individual lives are about… Discard previous tangles, make new ones, sign them with a flourish.

6.

Years ago, my brain started doing a bizarre game. It randomly produced insignificant memories. So irrelevant and small, I couldn’t believe they existed. I mean, like entering a grocery store and buying a bag of clothespins, but on that particular Wednesday of March of that particular year… details rendered with the obsessiveness of a Dutch painter. What I’m wearing. How much is inside the wallet I am fishing out of my purse. The face of the vendor.

Yes, yes. No. I have been tracking the hidden emotional contents that could make those trivial visions important—how they subtly and subliminally could relate with psychic material needing to be addressed, how they could collaterally resonate with meaningful experience. No and no. I can recognize thoughts and memories linked to a subconscious process on its way towards consciousness. They have a tinge of color, an echo although faint. The postcards I’m talking about do not. They mean nothing and they are wondrous for this very reason. It’s incredible, in other terms, that my memory could have kept those snapshots in perfect shape, though they are worth strictly nothing.

Every minute of our life is registered, scientists say. Nothing is lost, but virtually the majority of stuff is never retrieved, as it’s useless. Mostly like those records of private interactions—on the net, in the air—that governments steal and store but won’t access except for a crucial reason.

Nothing is lost but most of it rots in the dust of cupboards, buried in closets we don’t even know about. So I believe my brain spitting out inane figurines is not a good sign. It has lost control of its archives, I guess, and nonchalantly spews files on the carpet. Such behavior amuses me more than it worries me.

A friend who is a brain researcher once shared a theory stating that with age brains exfoliate—so to speak—shedding layers more recently formed, displaying older strata. That is why, she explained, elders don’t recall things just happened, while their ancient memories gradually come into focus. Was it just a metaphor? Her words left me in doubt. Not sure I could picture the mind as an onion.

It’s a giant library, I think. Rather a hardware store, and sometimes an earthquake occurs.

7.

But what happens, I can’t avoid asking, with those millions of stamps embodying our thoughts, ideas, sensory memories—colors, sounds, smells, voices and tastes? I know, of course, that they perish when we do. That seems kind of crazy, does it? Such waste. I could fancy a few cameos of me boarding a train or going to the bathroom, maybe fixing the TV antenna on the roof, to be of inspiration for someone who’d find them refreshing, who would learn something through them or just recombine them in such way they’d suddenly shine with significance.

Perhaps they could land on the desk of a poet seeking inspiration. There you go, take this, I have no place for it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could pack our memories as if they were countless bits of a puzzle—sure to discard any previous narrative, aka identity—stuff them in the mail before we close shop?

I am thinking of my brother because he died briskly, quite young, while we were—so to speak—in the midst of a conversation. No, we weren’t on the phone when he passed, but almost. During the days leading to his end we exchanged on so many topics… Things that he recalled or I did—the past. Present trivia of mutual concern. Future dreams. Somehow, I feel as if he were dead at mid-sentence. I am left with those fragments of his, hammering my brain with their incompleteness. I keep asking myself where the rest went. Yes, I know, of course, I know.

But I have this vision of little mice, beetles, sparrows. Minuscule ants out of the fairy tales I previously mentioned. There’s sweetness and a shade of delight to the very idea of those small animals. I see a tall mound of photograms, single words printed on slim cardboard strips, laminated little squares containing a letter, a number, a date, the name of a town. I see the ants carrying them one by one, far away, in as many directions as the radiuses of a circle wide like the planet, as the spokes of a wheel that never stops turning.

##

Photo at the top of the page by swirlingthoughts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Women, Walking

1.

As I sell my art and craft for a living—both in markets, street fairs or street festivals, and through galleries or stores—I walk miles. I don’t walk to the markets, of course. I load (rather overload) my car and drive to my destination. Then I carry my stuff (tables, canopies, racks and shelves, crates of potteries, heavy sculptures, large canvases) from my vehicle to their display location. Sometimes I use a wheeled contraption, but delicate items (the most numerous) need to be transported by hand, one by one, repeating ad libitum the trajectory between car and booth, store, or gallery. I don’t sweat, don’t fret. I breathe quietly. But I walk miles, several times a week. I have for my entire life.   

Therefore, this banal motion—plain and functional, parallel to the ground—is such a basic habit that I feel it defines me. I don’t just walk. I am a woman walking.

Quite an ambiguous label, as the first thing it unavoidably evokes is a peripatetic, a prostitute—one who treads the sidewalk back and forth seeking a client. The association doesn’t bother me at all. But the picture coming to mind as I self-define-while-in-motion is a different one.

I see women of my motherland (the far South of Italy) in the era of my childhood. Four, five decades ago. A time that seems remote. A universe lost and revolved.

***

I said ‘picture,’ yet the visual element of the memory is minimal, fleeting if not utterly absent. I remember those ladies in my spine (with a downward shiver, quick like a whiplash) and in my heels (meeting the ground with passion and ineluctability, embracing it, kissing it).

I said ‘ladies.’ A joke. No, they weren’t ladies. Or prostitutes. I said ‘heels’ meaning the body part, the round rear end of the human lower extremity. Calloused, for the very specimens I am referring to, and encountering the ground with such frankness that an intercourse couldn’t be avoided—a profound love affair due to the very absence of shoe heels (those prostheses meant, indeed, to avoid the sultry intimacy of body and soil).

Ladies wore heeled shoes by definition, at least in the era I am recalling. Fake heels signaled status, and a seductive purpose. They twisted and modified the act of walking, making it demonstrative rather than functional. Walking on even moderate heels is intended to be seen, acknowledged. It becomes a visual display and an auditive one—its clicking a Morse code sending faint yet clear messages. Here comes a female to be noticed.

***

Women I recall from my childhood, walking in their men’s shoes, worn sandals, or bare feet were essentially peasants. Sometimes nuns.

Also nuns progressed in the fashion that my body recognizes—fast, efficient and smooth, parallel to the surface of the earth, a vector. More or less, as their motion contained spurious elements, a whatnot, a disturbance I’m not sure I can pinpoint. Once more, perhaps, acoustic: the rustle of excess clothing, the unnecessary fluttering of veils offering to the surrounding air more friction than needed. The metallic chime of dangling rosaries, crosses, beads. The dull thumping of ropes, fringes, and tassels. A white noise, superfluous, distracting.

***

Walking women I recall from my childhood—nuns included—were working women.

They often carried things, like I do. Baskets, bundles, infants, animals, or a combination of the above. They used to carry heavy loads on their heads—an ability I imagined I should soon acquire, doubting I ever would, because it seemed superhuman.

In today’s Western world, I wonder who could balance on her head a jar full of water, a giant hamper of firewood plopped on a strip of cloth, on top of coiled hair, and no fasteners. Then walk miles on unpaved dirt roads, accidented riverbeds, rugged stone stairs of medieval hamlets, down the slope with the goats, on sensible, sensitive heels. A Pilates instructor, perhaps? A star modern dancer, top model? None of them.

Women carried the heavy stuff on their heads, for their hands and arms to afford other loads.

Aplomb. The straight line that falls from the fontanel—at the center of the imagined circumference whereupon the jar or hamper is placed—right between the heels, passing through the coccyx, the tail.

Aplomb. To achieve it, you need to keep your chin down. No, you can’t look up. Your perspective cannot be higher than eye level, the horizon. A terrestrial perspective. Pedestrian. As if all claims to elevation were barred.

***

When I (rapidly, as I really haven’t that much time for musing—these things need to be transported over there and they won’t do it on their own—I have distance to cover)…When subliminally, at a spinal level—gently, unobtrusively tickling my consciousness—I recognize myself as a walking woman, two figures always flicker in the back of my mind. They are vague, not truly familiar, unrelated to one another. Yet they invariably lit up.

2.

One of them is a literary reference. She is Yasushi Inoue’s mother, as the famous writer describes her in a memoir devoted to the last years of her life.Afflicted by dementia, she has withdrawn within a world of her own, barely recognizing her relatives, when one night she leaves her bed and runs into the street in a frenzy.

When she is found, she is steadily walking on the main road leading to a nearby village. Inoue describes it: “On one side were paddy fields a lever higher than the road, and on the other side were more paddy fields, but that side was terraced and the terraces ended in a ravine. Bathed in the white light of the moon, Mother was walking along this road. She was looking for me, the infant.”2

Prey of hallucinations, the eighty-five-year-old woman is reviving an episode that occurred when, at twenty-three, she thought that she had lost her baby (the writer himself). Desperate, she rushed out and started frantically on the road, looking for a toddler who had vanished in the middle of night. Heading anywhere and nowhere—her diminutive silhouette cut out by the moonlight. 

***

The brief passage describing the incident—rather the impression it leaves within the author’s psyche—is strikingly intense. It’s a small lens, yet powerful, under which the entire narrative comes into focus.

As he records his mother’s increasing evanescence, Inoue starts to reassess her overall incidence in his life, which appears to have been tenuous at best. Triggered by her lapsus, omissions, and apparently incoherent behaviors, he re-examines the past, and he is forced to admit that his mother embraced family life half-heartedly, more compelled by outside circumstances than by her own desire. Overwhelmed by the war and too many pregnancies, she even sent her boy to live with a relative, at a very early age. Therefore, their time together was minimal, their relationship nominal.

Having formed a happy, healthy bond with his substitute mother, Inoue didn’t register suffering due to his mother’s coldness, or so he believed. Only on witnessing the fading of her memory and mind, echoes of her remoteness reach the adult man, weaving a chilly shroud of disconnection and lovelessness.

***

Yet such gloomy veil is torn apart when young-old Mother rushes into the street in her night kimono. Perhaps freezing, perhaps in a sweat but not realizing it, probably barefooted, she engages on the road leading to the village of Nagano—a ravine at her side and the moon above her—running after the baby she believes (she knows?) she has lost (let go of? abandoned? given up?).

“In my mind’s eye I conjured up a picture of myself as an infant with my twenty-three-year-old mother walking along a road bathed in moonlight, searching for me. And there was another image—of myself in my sixtieth year, searching for my eighty-five-year-old mother on the same road. One picture was permeated by a chilling quality, the other by a certain awesomeness. These two images, however, immediately became juxtaposed and merged (…) The chill and the awe also fused and were penetrated by the piercing light of the moon.”3

***

I am not sure why this passage impressed me so much when I read it—to embed itself not in my mind, but in my body memory.

No doubt, the page is loaded with emotional meaning, as it witnesses the single time when the author realizes a connection between mother and child. Love and caring were there, at least at a given moment. In its fleetness, such epiphany leaves an indelible mark. It is both “chilly” and “awesome.” It possesses an evident healing quality, though no awareness of a wound in need to be cured was there.

What most strikes me is that such palpability of feeling doesn’t express itself in words—as it would be expected—or by holding hands, with hugs, caresses and kisses. It is expressed by walking, by the frenzy of Mother’s frail yet strong legs harpooning the road—the connection symbolized by the road itself.

3.

The other woman I see walking (the first image always merging with the second one) is unknown to me as well. My father mentioned her briefly—his dad’s mom, my great grandma.

The year is nineteen thirty. She is about fifty. Her husband has passed away. She has borne ten, eleven, twelve children? Some, of course, are grown up, but some are at home, and they need to be fed. She was left with lots on her hands and no trade—not an official one, though she doesn’t stop toiling from sunset to sundown.

But she doesn’t lose heart. She has letters composed for her, then sent to America or Germany, to call back a couple of immigrant sons. Help is wanted to put food on the table for the youngest. She sews, washes and irons, mends, embroiders, and so do her daughters. A few of them get married. One rises up the ladder and becomes a midwife. The early widow, indeed, keeps the family afloat.

That wasn’t so current. Father sketches his grandma’s profile with a certain pride. Tough, smart, fearless, resourceful. A hard woman, he says—a thin frame yet solid, strong-legged.

***

She had inherited a property about twenty miles away. Just a scrap of land, planted with olives trees and a vine—if cared for, it could provide yearly profits.

Twice a week, she went to survey it as needed. On foot, as she couldn’t afford transportation, but—said Father—she didn’t mind walking. She left in the wee hour and came back in the evening light. The round trip plus dealing with the farmhand took the day—most of it spent en route. 

Dust and rocks. Deserted country road, small paths, dry riverbeds. Atop, not the moon but a scorching sun. She wore black, her head scarved. On leaving, she had probably dampened her braids, then coiled and pinned them. They kept her skull moist, her brain cool.

She didn’t seem bothered, Father said, by the road. Straight like a flagpole and fast as a fox, an arrow. But—he adds with a sort of embarrassment—she couldn’t be defined a sweet, tender creature. On the brisk, hardy side.

***

I have wondered about those daylong pilgrimages, almost a hundred years ago, so distant from where I now live, so remote.

What did my great grandmother think about? Plausibly her property, and the practical issue she was well determined to solve. Other practical issues that she had left at home. Money and food. Chores and chores. Debts. Deadlines. A web of trivia. Small things, and inexorable. Like steps. Plain. One at the time. Forward, forward. Inexorable.

What else did this un-gentle, un-romantic, un-lyrical deambulating human being think about? Did she enjoy the rough, barren landscape? The verdure, in the appropriate season? Flowers? Birdsong? Not sure.

In so long a trajectory did she fall into a sort of trance, sometimes, as if trivia could vanish and just motion remain—this firm pulse, quiet impetus, this wave up and down her spine? She must have. Did she feel the soft friction of air, even in the noon heat? Even then, the fresh air. Perhaps, freedom.

##

Artwork at top of page is courtesy of the author.

Sources:

     1Inoue, Yasushi, Chronicle of My Mother, Kodansha International, New York, 1982

     2Ibid, p.106

     3Ibid, p.106