april 16/RUN

4.2 miles
marshall loop + extra
30 degrees

Still winter. Still wearing running tights, vest, a thick orange sweatshirt. I wish it were warmer but, with the sun, I didn’t mind the cold. Soon, it will be too warm — at least, for me. The most memorable thing that happened on my run, beside what I write about below, in my “during the run” section, was seeing a big bald eagle soaring in the sky. I was running down the hill towards the lake street steps on the st. paul side, and there it was. I stopped for a minute to marvel, both at it, and my ability to still see and identify a bird flying above me. After I continued running, I thought about the bird flu that’s happening in Minnesota — a few days ago, I read a tweet about an owl family at Lake Nokomis that is suspected to have died from it. So sad to think about all of these beautiful birds dying. How big of an impact will this have on birds here? Looked it up and found an article. The picture of the owl, and the words about the young owls in the article — “extreme neurological distress”, is haunting.

before the run

Just as I was about to write that today’s “before the run” would offer a brief break from dirt, I realized that what Ocean Vuong is talking about so beautifully here in the video below, is what their mother planted for them: the ability to look patiently at the world in wonder and awe and with joy.


“Brief But Spectacular Take on Reclaiming Language for Joy” on PBS News Hour

When my mother passed in 2019, my whole life kind of contracted into 2 days. And what I mean by that is that when a loved one dies, you experience your life in just 2 days: today, when they are no longer here, and yesterday, the immense, vast yesterday, when they were here. And so my life, as I see it now, is demarcated, by one line: the yesterday, when my mother was with me, and now, when she is not.

I think you realize that when you lose your mother, no matter how old you are, you’re suddenly a child; you feel like an orphan. And so I went back to the blank page, which is the only safe space for me, the only space I have control over. And I guess I learned that by putting one word after another. The beauty is that we’re all going to lose our parents, and in this sense, death is the truest thing that we have, because it’s the one thing we are all heading towards. And when language can lift the veil, we can see each other.

My mother never really understood my vocation and my work. She couldn’t read. It perplexed her, you know. Why would all these folks come to hear your sad poems? But, when she came to my reading, she started to see how my language landed in other people’s bodies. And after a while she started to position her seat to look at the audience and she came to me one day and said, “I get it. People’s faces change when they’re listening to your lectures, to your words.” My mother taught me something, that you can look at something, at people and scenarios endlessly and still find something new. Just because you have seen it, does not mean you have known it. And so, the vocation of the artist, is to look at something with the faith that whatever you’re seeing, will keep giving meaning to you. And I think that patient looking was what she gifted me and it has to do with her sense of wonder. We think of terms like refuge, immigrant, war, survivor and we rarely think of wonder and awe. But I think when it comes to families and being raised by folks who are survivors, they keep wonder and awe closely to their chest. I learned so much from my mother’s joy in response to the world and the life she lived and that informs my artistic practice.

thoughts to ponder while running: what seeds did my mother plant for me? how does language land in our bodies? how do we grow the seeds from our ancestors in our bodies? what does it mean to look with patience? how do we find new meanings? if what we look at gives meaning to us, what do/can we give to it? what can look mean beyond literal vision/sight?

during the run

Without really intending it, the last question, “What can look mean beyond literal vision/sight?,” was the one that I remember thinking about. Here’s how it happened: Running above the floodplain forest, through the tunnel of trees, I started hearing the gentle whooshing of car wheels above me. Whoossshhh whoossshhh whoossshhh in a steady rhythm. Then I heard something creaking just below me — the wind passing through the trees, making the bare branches creak or groan. Is it only the wind pushing a branch, or is this squeak from branches rubbing against each other? Or both? Or, am I hearing a squirrel or a bird or something completely different? Anyway, I thought about that creaking sound and how its cause is invisible and unknown/uncertain. Then I thought about something I read this morning in Elisa Gabbert’s excellent essay, “The Shape of a Void: Toward a Definition of Poetry”:

They [poets] write in the line, in the company of the void. That changes how you write — and more profoundly, how you think, and even how you are, your mode of being. When you write in the line, there is always an awareness of the mystery, of what is left out. This is why, I suppose, poems can be so confounding. Empty space on the page, that absence of language, provides no clues. But it doesn’t communicate nothing — rather, it communicates nothing. It speaks void, it telegraphs mystery.

By “mystery” I don’t mean metaphor or disguise. Poetry doesn’t, or shouldn’t, achieve mystery only by hiding the known, or translating the known into other, less familiar language. The mystery is unknowing, the unknown — as in Jennifer Huang’s “Departure”: “The things I don’t know have stayed/In this home.” The mystery is the missing mountain in Shane McCrae’s “The Butterflies the Mountain and the Lake”:

the / Butterflies monarch butterflies huge swarms they
Migrate and as they migrate south as they
Cross Lake Superior instead of flying

South straight across they fly
South over the water then fly east
still over the water then fly south again / And now
biologists believe they turn to avoid a mountain
That disappeared millennia ago.

The missing mountain is still there.

Poetry writes around what’s unknown or missing or can’t be seen. So, maybe the creaking noise of the wind or a tree or something else is a poem–a noise being made around an absent tree or the invisible wind? That was a lot of words for me to try to translate my sudden flash of understanding, which only lasted from the lowest point of the trail, where the four fences meet, to the top, past the old stone steps!

I remember also thinking that it’s difficult to set out on a run with a specific task — think about this! — and stick to it. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Instead of stubbornly trying to make the ideas come, I try to let go and let whatever happens happen. For me, running helps with this; I’m putting enough effort into running that I usually can’t give too much energy to thinking about this or that thing. Right after having this thought (if I’m remembering correctly), I stopped thinking and started listening, then whoossshhh whoossshhh

after the run

As I started writing about the creaking noise, which might have been a tree, I was reminded of a beautiful poem I posted last summer:

Cello/ Dorianne Laux

When a dead tree falls in a forest
it often falls into the arms
of a living tree. The dead,
thus embraced, rasp in wind,
slowly carving a niche
in the living branch, shearing away
the rough outer flesh, revealing
the pinkish, yellowish, feverish
inner bark. For years
the dead tree rubs its fallen body
against the living, building
its dead music, making its raw mark,
wearing the tough bough down
as it moans and bends, the deep
rosined bow sound of the living
shouldering the dead.

Getting back to Ocean Vuong and their words about grief, I want to think more about what we might plant in the ground for future selves, or future generations, and what understanding of time that requires. Maybe tomorrow my focus will be on planting seeds and gardens and gardening time?

addendum: found the whole poem about the monarchs’ missing mountain migration:

A Walk as Bright and Green as Spring as Cold as Winter/ Shane McCrae

At forty most often neighbor even as / We walk together

Want everywhere we go to go home everywhere

but oh / Oh did you see the story

About the butterflies the mountain and the lake

the / Butterflies monarch butterflies huge swarms they

Migrate and as they migrate south as they

Cross Lake Superior instead of flying

South straight across they fly south

over the water then fly east

still over the water then fly southlllllagain and now / Biologists believe they

turn to avoid a mountain

That disappeared millennia ago / And did you

know I didn’t no one butterfly

lives long enough to fly the whole

migration / From the beginning to the end they

Lay eggs along the way

just / As you and I most often neighbor / Migrate together in our daughter

over a dark lake

We make with joy the child we make

And mountains are reborn in her

I love this poem. I’ve done some research (google + google scholar) trying to find the scientific study that claims that monarch migrate around a missing mountain, but can’t find anything. Why does it matter? It doesn’t have to be scientifically true (as in, proven through a close study/set of experiments), to be a wonderful bit of information — whether there’s evidence or not, I like imagining that’s what they’re doing, but when scientists are invoked (in the popular headlines about this topic), I’d like to read more about what scientists actually said and how they came to this conclusion.