I had room in my schedule for one fun class this semester, so I’m taking a creative writing course called The Art of the Essay. My professor is a real life fairy godmother who is awake to the musical wonder of words with a passion I’ve never seen before. It’s infectious!
A few weeks ago, we read excerpts from Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book and wrote small zuihitsu essays of our own.
The (Cool Side of the) Pillow Book(let)
1. You realize you’re still the same twelve year old, walking around inside of this looser skin. Shying into a crowded room at the party, shoulder first, edging along the wall and entering with the smallest amount of yourself. You scan the room for a familiar face and dread all of the eyes looking back.
It’s the first day of middle school all of the time. Carpool lane, mom drops you off into the foreign smell: linoleum and gymnasium and the sticky sweet fog of Axe Body Spray: Chocolate Temptation. Why are eighth graders so tall? Why is your stomach always dropping? Fingers stained red from hot Cheeto bartering. The jolting bang of slamming lockers. The jittery fear of being called on in class. It’s all in you. You will always feel a little in the way.
2. Things that no one notices — the way shadows get all soft along the edges, almost indistinguishable where light ends and dark begins. The growing mold.
3. Men quite in love with themselves I find particularly repulsive. Nashville is overripe with plenty, usually the disheveled-hipster-Kerouac-guitarist types talking through other band’s sets. They smoke American Spirits. They scan the crowd when onstage at a show and think, “I know who I could go home with.” They leave before the next act plays. They see girls as a means to an end and only value the opinions of other guys. They believe they are God’s Gift To Women™. They are unpaid emotional labor. They are a year’s worth of therapy.
I project this loathsome innerliness onto most boys that I sum to fit the bill. It is a mode of self-protection. It is a mode of self-inflation. They don’t need any more praise from me. I won’t give them the satisfaction.
(I know there is danger in this Feeling Like You’ve Gotten To The Bottom Of Someone. I know my innards are just as stained. But I will keep a healthy distance, still.)
4. You immediately regret darting your eyes away from the homeless man on the side of the road when you’re the first at the red light on 16th and Wedgewood. He has seen you calculate your giving. You wish that you could melt into the driver’s seat, evaporate into the hot air and leave the hazards on.
You immediately regret saying “no” to the offer of water. You were trying to be polite but really you are thirsty. You think of your mother, the damning yeluenta and this inherited curse of shame at admitting want or need. You ask to use the bathroom and cup your hands beneath the faucet.
You immediately regret lashing out at your sister. With a surgeon’s precision, you splice the soft spot and she opens. Watching her face crumble, you are crumbling, too. Pleading in your mind:
RETURN TO SENDER
5. Vines that cured my depression — BBQ sauce on my t*tties, Oovoo Javer, everything Gabe Gundacker, I love you bitch — I ain’t ever gon stop loving you… biiiitch, Miss Keisha??!!!!, Ebony Jenkins, IRIDOCYCLYSIS, Look at allllll these chickens!, So you just gonna bring me a birthday gift on my birthday to my birthday party on my birthday with a birthday gift?
6. I stop to hear the lilting voice fluttering down into resolution with the black piano keys. Dancing in dissonance atop the melody, finally sinking into resolve. It is autumn now, and the wet wind is welcome on my face.
7. Things that remind me of my mother — oatmeal stuck to the bottom of the pot, grits with sugar and milk, old wooden spoons, blurry sunset photos, vitamin B12, bursting red-orange marigolds, the soft underside of magnolia leaves, ginger candies, paisley print flowy shirts, pineapple upside down cake, the embroidered pillow section of TJ Maxx, hopping birds.
8. It’s beautiful the way golden hour sets my kitchen aglow. Somewhere between 5 and 6 pm comes the familiar warm wash, streaming in like a tide over table chair and tile, receding back beneath the gingham curtains on my window. It is an enchantment, casting a spell over all kitchen appliances: the blender sparkles with mischief, the softened butter and knife is a sculpture awaking. The pile of dishes in the sink: a still life study (too beautiful to disturb by washing, of course). The water in the flower vase glimmers electric with light and color. Iridescent, crystalline, refracting rainbow edges.
I hold my breath and look away. This feels too sacred a moment to witness. The sunlight reaches the hairs on my arm and pulls me back into my body. Mulls me back into the now.
“Drink it up,” she whispers, “Drink your fill.”
9. Crusts — Corner brownies. Crunch giving into chewy chocolate center. The crisp bite of a fresh and salty french fry. A buttery, flaky pie dough – sturdy to contain the perfect fruit to crust ratio. The border lines of a fresh chocolate chip cookie. Cornbread edges in cast iron, golden brown and flavorful. Marriage of butter and bread in perfect bite. The best for last.
10. Things that make the heart lurch with anxiety — sending a risky text, watching the wave cycle of dots as they type (an ellipses doing the worm), merging lanes on the interstate at 80 mph, a phone call from mom in the middle of the night, updating your LinkedIn profile, “We need to talk.”, picking up your phone after it’s fallen facedown on concrete, seeing your crush at the grocery store when you’ve just finished a run, running into a professor when you haven’t turned in the paper yet, stories of medical malpractice, anesthesia, watching a toddler teeter on the edge of a couch, imagining all of the ways you could die, piranhas.
The fear of being misunderstood, when you search the eyes in front of you and see the miles between who you are and who they think you to be.
Yes, the heart is a creature incredibly prone to lurching. And all other hearts around you are lurching, too.
11. Questions I ask myself after 11pm at night — why are you lonely? Why does it matter? How come it works out for some people? How do you hold loosely? How do you know?
Who are we to each other? Outgrown coats, constricting? Clean mirrors? Revealing, unbiased, all we scramble to conceal? What connects us still? Will it ever dissolve? Unmar? Are we always the scar upon the land?
12. A flood of relief — the gulp of breath after a good cry, a friend calling your bluff, when a poem captures that full and inarticulate thing.
13. Nails on chalkboard. Gravel on gravel. Velcro straps ripped undone. Scraping your knees on carpet.
14. The perfect sweet potato — is smooth and firm, free of pockets or residual roots. Darker purple beneath the dirt, if you can help it. When you cut into it, you’ll be greeted by a cheering and robust orange. The knife ought to slice right through without any spongy give (or it’s sat atop your fridge too long). Sometimes little white beads of milky liquid will collect along the surface of the cut like a constellation. This is wonderful.
To prepare: setting a med/high fire beneath your seasoned cast iron, plop a generous dollop of coconut oil in the center. Watch it melt from white and spread, glistening in the black pan. Coconut oil? you think. Trust me.
Next, Herbamare. This is a seasoning salt blend that makes vegetables taste like candy. Generously sprinkle, listen to the sizzle crackle of the potatoes as they crisp. You may faintly discern the oil being stained a turmeric shade of yellow. This is lovely.
Flip and turn and stir until all sides of the slices are golden brown. Some may catch and turn near black. This is okay.
Put in your favorite bowl and let cool for 30 seconds. Encircle the bowl crisscrossed on your favorite corner of the couch. Wrap yourself in your mother’s old gabi. Enjoy.
15. You know? The way the edges of your lips sort of sting after a large popcorn at the movies? When you come in from outside and smell like sun? The sick, boyish pleasure of peeling a scab?
16. Moments that feel like “too much” — walking down a grand staircase, where the steps are spaced just far enough apart to slow your walk. Eating cheesecake.