Wednesday, January 10, 2018

On Writing #147 : Sarah Campbell

Sarah Campbell 

A human being, its form tall and reedy in the skyline of other creatures, exists in a state of unstable equilibrium. Push a person with no warning, she’s probably going to fall over. And so, the dream of being unbruised and unbroken in space is foundational. 


A professional baker friend posts a parade of delicious food and drink to her Instagram. Many of these are tagged “#balance”--everything from an apple dutch baby with syrup pooling to a ten-layer salami sandwich on a flour-dusted bun to a drained martini glass, lone citrus peel curling at the bottom. As the hashtag recurred, I wondered if she was being ironic, subversively appropriating the language of wellness with images of decadent eating—#balance as in, you know, making sure to practice daily rituals of the really good life. But I don’t think she is; she’s just showing us what she makes with her own hands, what she loves, what nourishes her—what “balance” means to her, sincerely. 


To my English 101 students, I used to say, “Writing is a way of getting thinking done, so you may not know what it is you think until you’ve written it out. Take a look at your last paragraph. You’ll probably find your thesis woven somewhere in there.”

I heard a country western singer on the radio the other day say he often didn’t know what he felt about something until he wrote a song about it.  Steadfast in love with writing’s usefulness as a way to think things through, I had been wary of writing as a way to feel.

What could it sound and look like to write to find your central feeling? I didn’t know; I spent years looking the other way, fighting any emotional creep in my writing, even as it was often the lurking, originary motive of much of it. I thought I was maturing as a writer any time I stripped overt emotion from my poetry and prose, replacing it with oblique arrows pointing off-screen toward my feelings, or others’ feelings.

Once, choking on the emotional tsunami of a terrible event, I remember saying bitterly to myself, “I will never. Write. About this.”

Lately, however, I wonder if I’ve been wrong about writing-feeling. I wonder if instead I should have been angling for balance among the parts of its engine, rather than the strained illusion of control. What if the writing built itself from thought and feeling in magnificent détente at last; articulating opposites and equals; posting food and drink; tossing the dutch baby out and up with the martini? In this way, maybe my writing’s arrow and aim would be in working to keep the piece, like a person, standing upright through this and that. What does that even mean? I don’t know, I just come back to an appealing image of machinery, humming: all the components pushing against each other with acute precision and grace. I come back to a hashtag.

Which means, I come re-encounter, however metaphorically, an old foe of mine. Not feeling, but balance. My problem with balance goes way back, has tenacious, persistent roots in the back-body of my writing—which is to say, in me. 


You’re over-thinking it, Sarah. Just relax.

It’s hard to relax when you live with a wobble, an awareness of all the ways things go downhill. Beginning with a brief pair of stairs at age two, I have fallen down a kaleidoscope of slopes: paths, trails, sidewalks, ramps, and avenues.  I can fall down one inch, over a twig, off of nothing. I fall by telling myself not to fall. I fall to keep from falling—sprained an ankle once to halt a catapult off a cobblestone in Istanbul. I hit the ground and skid the length of a commuter bus on my butt after jogging past a tree root in Prospect Park. I flipped off my bike after hitting a pothole at 2am one night in Buffalo. Turning 33, in a bid to both celebrate my birthday and finally succeed at rollerskating, a skill I’d never had as a child, I slipped onto my ass and broke my tailbone. I recall sitting mid-rink, feet wheels out, absorbing the fact that I’d heard something inside me crunch. My friends circled and giggled. Falling is always funny to everyone but the fallen. And my friend Holly, a peerless source of empathy. She peered down at me with soul and sadness; she knew that something besides my coccyx was broken.

My optimism at 33 that I’d suddenly pick up rollerskating after a youth of never skating or blading was borderline delusional. I’d lived my whole life with repeated proof that I wasn’t good as an object-in-motion. This deficit stayed increasingly under the radar as I got older and better at avoiding physical balancing acts. At the same time, all three of my brothers surfed and skated. One of them, Quinn, tried a few times to teach me how to surf through a combination of jump-up-to-squat drills on the beach, pushing me out on a board in the breakers to try, and pep talks. He thought he could, with the right words, help me figure out how to stand on water—as if my inability to balance well was less a body problem and more a matter of conviction and having the right internal monologue, one which you knew was working if it eventually went silent. You’re over-thinking it, Sarah. Just relax.

I, too, believed that my fear of falling, no matter how fact-based, could be overcome through some alchemy of mind over matter (matter being my body), and if I could locate the will, and funnel it into my breath, my arms, my legs, my fingers and toes. I, too,  believed that my difficulty in staying upright while in motion was all in my head. 


It wasn’t, though. Yet in a way it was—it was all in my inner ear, to be exact. It took me years to really get it, the vestibular connection—years of spilling my guts everywhere. I have vomited en route to London, Los Angeles, Brussels, Caracas, Frankfurt, and Nice. I have been sick in vans in Corsica, ferries in Croatia, a fishing boat off of Cabo San Lucas, and in the driveway of my best friend’s suburban Virginia home. (That’s the short list.)

In one particularly spectacular incident, I puked about an hour after the car ride had ended. Not only had we arrived at our destination, Kings Dominion, a theme park, but I gone straight on stage and tap danced competitively in front of judges. I held “it” in, the nausea and panic rising in tandem through the whole song-and-dance, which in this case was “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters. We exited, kicking like 8th-grade-shaped Rockettes, stage left, and the moment we passed out of sight of the judges, I threw up into the alarmed/disgusted, erstwhile-so-excited face of Cindy, our blonde, erstwhile-bubbly dance instructor. We won first place. I was mortified for days, weeks, no, years afterwards. My cheeks blooming red at the memory of it, the whole horrible thing.

It took me years to understand that my tendency to throw up everywhere was related to my inability to move well on wheels, blades, or boards fitted to my feet over land, water, or snow. The same system was in play and akilter: motion sickness, I’ve read, is what builds when one part of the balance-sensing system detects the body in motion while the other parts of the system do not. Motion sickness is the felt manifestation of conflicting accounts of the body, by the body, to the body. The semicircular canals, their fluid, and sensory hair cells; the utricle and the saccule; the eyes; the acoustic nerve and other sensory nerves… the signals misfiring, the body scrambling to right itself, to read itself, to be unbruised and unbroken in space. 


Because of all my falling, because of more than a hundred journeys taken doubled over, chronically nauseated, I have come to fetishize balance. And now here I’m writing about this goal of finding it in writing, too. What’s my real problem?

Let it go, girl.

But can I let it go when I don’t quite know what it is? —in my body, in a dancer, a jet engine, a series of paragraphs or couplets, in an egg. Is it a mid-point between one pole and its opposite? A verticality or hovering condition attained through dozens of micromovements and wobbles whether in keeping a body upright or making a piece of writing just right? Is it the art of one hand, on one side, challenging the muscle of the other hand on the other side, fomenting a cloud of equilibrium and stability, of elegant debate, of gliding words, speed skating thought toward a perfect landing—stuck it!—from off the beam. 


I heard the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja discuss balance with an aerospace engineer and a tightrope walker (all sharing a mostly reverential tone for the concept, not unrelated to my lifelong state of wonder at people who “have” it). After forty minutes of conversation about what constitutes balance in flight, in machines, in music, on the wire, Kopatchinskaja proposed, the idea just then occurring to her, how important it was to not be balanced in art. Instead, she said, art should toss people into situations in which they can imagine themselves at the center of a tempest or earthquake. 


So now what? For writing, not only the dream of criticality and sharpness of thought, of finding a central feeling ….  

The engine’s fuel-to-explosion is elusive.

Hashtag balance. Hashtag forgetaboutit. Hashtag writewhatyouknow. Hashtag writewhatyoudon’t.

It isn’t just me, you see. We all fall down from the place of being unbruised and unbroken in space, and that’s when it gets interesting.

Sarah Campbell lives in Seattle, just off a ridge from which she (or you) can see the Cascades in the East and the Olympics in the West. She writes biomedical engineering articles for IEEE’s Pulse magazine, and also, endlessly, works on a book about how to finish projects.

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