moving through air
I’m lying down on the rough black rug in my room. On my back, I feel every tough piece of dirt and lint that the rug hides. This rug was here when i got here, last summer after moving from chicago. I’m trying to do yoga moves – the doctor in chicago told me, at my “yearly check-up”, that i needed to start to do yoga and stretches everyday to help my body and my scoliosis. I haven’t been. D hugged me the other day and squeezed my uneven and protruding shoulder blades like two handles, and jokingly threatened to break them off. I think of detachment of the body. On the rug, i’m not thinking about any of that. I’m thinking about another rug, the carpet in my parents’ living room. In many memories combined into one, i’m watching my dad do stretches, years ago. He had a particular jerky way of doing sit-ups. I remember thinking he was doing it wrong, he was so fast as he lifted his back off the carpeted floor. Maybe i can even hear his breathing pattern. My dad liked to wear black fuzzy sweatbands like an athlete. He liked to do pull-ups on the pull-up bar in the laundry room door frame. He had that crunching tool that you squeeze in your fist for strong hand muscles. In the memory, i’m on the floor, too, from floor level, watching. At my eye’s reach, the legs of the coffee table, the tv table. I’m not actually there. I’m on the black rug, unable to move. Why am i watching him, in the back of my mind, of the past? The memory detaches me from my life, when i need to be taking care of myself.
There are “first-times” still happening for me in the pandemic, although I don't know how celebratory they should feel. Sometimes i don’t even realize it until later. At true/false film festival on friday night of the fest in columbia, mo, i went to see a movie in a theater for the first time since early 2020. I went by myself, since H and M were trying to catch a different film about volcanoes (that ended up being at capacity anyway). I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie alone. It was something I used to do when I lived in columbia – i could just walk to the independent cinema from campus. I remember watching the kathleen hanna doc by myself, sniffling, sitting so close to the screen my face hurt. At true/false this year, in the “theater” (it was actually a church auditorium transformed for the festival) i found a seat by the aisle. A fancy couple sat next to me and immediately took off their masks. The husband was scrolling on his lit-up iphone in the dark as the lights went out. I felt self-conscious, as a loner, how do people perceive me. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. My mask felt honestly uncomfortable, and the seat was too — my back couldn’t hit right on the back of the chair.
The film is called “i didn’t see you there” and i went into it thinking it was a film about circus freaks and how this relates to disability rights in the US. this was from reading the film description in the pamphlet. I dunno if i’m a shitty reader or if people are shitty description writers, because i wouldn’t say the film is rlly about that. Or at least i wouldn’t define the piece of art that way. I’m tempted to try to describe it to you…
the film was created by this filmmaker reid davenport by filming his daily life as a wheelchair user navigating his life in the bay area, traveling on bus and rail, and flying home to the east coast on planes. In the city, in the quiet suburbs where his family lives, he starts reading this fragmented essay over the images, inspired by the big red top of a circus tent that appeared in his neighborhood. to share the loneliness of being disabled in america, and how sharing his experience becomes a spectacle of it. He attaches a camera to his wheelchair as he goes around, and we see it from his vision. we see the texture of the city streets moving like pixelated quilts of minerals. a true city-walking essay, a flaneur film. We see how people interact with him as a burden. discrimination in this stupid country where people do not value or consider disabled people’s lives. And we see his reflection in the storefront window as he goes for his ramblings around, but we never see him. We see his hands fumbling to pour a drink and smoke weed at home, we see his hairy toes in the shower. We never see him, but we see him. How the camera can act as an eye, the essay acts as the mind. For a brief couple of hours, we get to see someone’s life.
In one voiceover, he says simply, “i keep having dreams that i’m playing guitar.” the colors of city nighttime fall across the wide windows of the public bus. Meditation of daily traveling. Life is. Walking around. Nonfiction is. Paying attention.
How can i describe a film to someone else? It’s the same as trying to describe my life here. How do i describe my tears in a dark theater? i was crying because this was one of the best experimental essays i’ve ever seen. How lucky i was, to sit alone, to encounter a film that i will think about for the rest of my life. I realized then, i was doing what i loved, and how i missed that – experiencing art about someone else, and feeling so deeply towards it.
during the Q&A between reid davenport, his producers and editors, and a film industry person as facilitator, i must’ve gotten out my notebook:
-puncture in experience
After the film was over, i saw reid davenport outside the auditorium and i walked up to him timidly and said thank you for your beautiful film. I don’t know if the word “beautiful” is helpful for articulation. I felt awkward afterwards, but i wanted him to know.
The next entry in my notebook are questions and thoughts for another filmmaker, aliona van der horst, since i was to facilitate a Q&A with her for her film the next day (i worked as a screener for the festival all last fall.) this film was about a woman finding her father’s history of WWII as a russian prisoner of war. I had been really nervous for this interview, since the new war between russia and ukraine was happening in real time. How could i possibly gather history into questions, how could i, an american, really partake in a discussion of russian destruction, and also, how could i not, for america is too part of worldwide psychotic evils and death. In the film, there’s all these images of bodies, zooming in on anonymous men. To zoom in on a human. Sometimes my mind clenches and turns into a lightening pattern of suffering when i close my eyes… explosions, disappearance of families… of course, somewhere not too far back in history, my shtetl family lived through wars in russia/ukraine, too. Will we keep living through this terrible world.
-what was your initial personal relationship to this film, the subject ____, and how is your relationship to this film changing as the world changes?
-unfolding the discovery of events
-archival footage is poetic and devastating… for me, archives are about discovery and chance, and hence deeply related to experimental forms.
I ended up speaking to the filmmaker through a zoom call, because she was recovering from covid, and was stuck in the netherlands. When we spoke, her face filled the entire theater screen, and i stood below her like a child staring up at my creator. In the netherlands, it was 2:30 in the morning. She gave long, long answers to my questions. She said the subject of the film, a writer, has a similar russian family background as her. and that’s how they met, by admiring each other’s writing and films. the writer is writing a book about this history, too. Her dad, her “only connection to world history.” It’s funny because one of my questions could’ve been: why explore this as a nonfiction visual film instead of as written literature? the filmmaker discussed the archives, which she appropriated from WWII propaganda footage of the prisoners. she had to change the coloring of the captured imagery so it would look less “nightmarish”. She said, in the face of every prisoner, the subject saw her father’s face, his story.
these daughters of russians, creating work, trying to find their parents. to be a daughter as being a writer. how do you be a daughter for your whole life? i think maria stepanova said this in “in memory of memory”, but i can’t be too sure: i want to think about “daughter” as an artistic identity.
At his gym, my dad is getting a special appointment with his therapist named aaron, who is also a wheelchair user. He always calls my dad “brother”. They are crowded by several girls younger than me, who are training to be physical therapists. I always come visit my parents at the gym on tuesdays, since it’s right across the street from the community college where i work. My mom tells me i can stay and watch the appointment, so i do. The girls attach wires with sticky pads to my dad’s hand and arm, where an electrical current goes through to nerve points, to wake up a certain level of motion when he stretches out his arm and hand. This is the side of him that used to be paralyzed. Aaron describes this injury to the therapists-in-training, and gives them the run-down of my dad’s unique case. He says, it’s a traumatic brain injury but it’s very stroke-like. I start to wonder if this therapist knows my dad’s story or not, since it’s not something my parents readily reveal. But he does know the intricate difficulty of my dad’s thumb, the elasticity of certain muscles, he’s very knowledgeable in these bodily things.
On that day, he wanted my dad to go very slow. He had a spice bottle with parmesan cheese inside to use as a therapy object. After the treatment with the wires, the therapist had my dad try to place his hand on top of the spice bottle, just laying his palm flat. My dad had a lot of trouble with this, since he’s been working so hard to relearn how to grip onto objects with that hand. It’s time to refine your movements, the therapist said. Think of this movement in slow steps: the hand hovers over the bottle, the hand lowers, the hand sets on top of the cap in the middle of the palm. The brain works like this, but faster, we barely notice that we go about the world in these increments. My dad’s hand automatically closes in on the bottle in swift muscle memory. His body and his brain struggle to communicate. He repeats the motion over and over with the therapist on the weird cheese container, frustratingly, trying so hard to not grasp it.
I’ve been having lots of discussions (i won’t use the word “arguments”) with D about how to live right now. I’ve been going to work, I’ve been going to indoor concerts, and the shady bug concert had 200+ people there. I wear a mask whenever i’m inside with other people, even if other people aren’t wearing them. D’s argument is that i might as well take the mask off, since i’m already at the high-risk event anyway. He says that going to these shows is like walking into a burning house, and hoping i’ll be okay bc i have shoes on. I disagree with this metaphor, i think the mask does help. but maybe i’m in denial just as much as the maskless. I don’t know. All i know is that i want to keep living. For me, going to shows is part of my life. I used to think that life was long, but i don’t believe that anymore. I don’t know how much longer i have, or anyone. I try to protect myself, i try to protect others, even if people around me have given up due to fatigue or wishful thinking that the virus is “over”. For me, i’m too paranoid to believe that. I feel like we have years to go.
Not everyone wants to think about long-term effects. Some of us will become disabled or gain new illnesses from constant exposure to covid, and there’s little to no government resources, support, or acknowledgment that long-term effects of the organs exist. I want to talk about this with my coworkers who choose not to mask in our small poorly-ventilated room. But this is all individualism now. There’s no “we’re all in this together” anymore. Everyone has different theories, different metaphors, and different mind blocks that are getting us through this time. We all make up our own logics to feel ok about doing (or not doing) anything.
For months i’ve been having anxiety attacks once a week about covid exposures and covid scares. A couple times, i’ve suddenly fallen ill this spring. The illness feels like covid, but is something else. A simple cold. Or right now, i’m experiencing intense springtime allergies from tree pollen. It’s because i haven’t lived in st. louis in the spring since 2018, maybe my body isn’t used to it. On cherokee street close to where i live, the trees are giant dandelions, glowing with blooms, fluffing over the street like lace canopies. Each gust of wind, the petals of the flowers pick up like wedding rice. What’s in the air? To be afraid of the air is really something. American air. I’m trying to wean myself into this pollen-filled world, i’m sitting outside in my backyard writing this while the dog sits in her corner by the gate, watching and sniffing. For her, the air is full of information.
I did something i don’t usually do, which is that i asked for help on the internet. I asked what other people do to deal with unrelenting covid anxiety. some of my friends responded and said i should find a distraction – watch youtube videos or play video games. Someone said, u need to smoke a cigarette. Most of these answers actually made me feel very cared for. Maybe i am craving validation of experience. A friend from chicago sent me a long dm of multiple messages, giving me step by step advice about ingesting half a melatonin before bed. She said, as a side note, you may also want to limit your time spent on twitter reading independent news sources.
Recently, i tried to ease my anxiety by imagining thick buckles around my wrists and ankles so i couldn’t move. The binding, in my imagination, was leather, but it didn’t feel like a sexual fantasy per se. Thinking about the feeling of having no control, but having control over that no-controlness through my thoughts, was calming. The tighter the invisible restraints held me in, the more i could breathe. A trick of the mind.
Kate zambreno said something about how writing is one of the only spaces to discuss messy shit of our interior selves, since we work so hard to pretend to be unmessy in our exterior, public lives.
A couple nights ago, i went to the show. It was at CBGB on south grand, which i hadn’t been inside of since january 2020. I wanted to pay attention to the interior while i was there – a true st. louis dive bar treasure. On the brick wall by the girl’s bathroom, there was the decorative rug with the stag design that C made. On the wall, there’s lots of graffiti and stickers of old friends’ bands. By the bar, i looked at the vintage long framed art piece of a bird. It feels like i live in st. louis, truly live here, when i’m inside a bar like this. And i stood up front to listen to my friend’s band and they were bad. Someone threw a weird sock with holes over their head and ran to the stage and sang on the last song, and that was ok. I looked around and only a few of us were wearing masks inside. i counted three men who i used to date. i watched the touring band from the window. My sister and i sighed and wished we could still walk to mangia, the 3am bar where you could order a greasy slice of pizza, that closed during the pandemic. I walked up to an old pal to say hi, who upon seeing me said, “running into you rocks!!” I said goodbye to my sister. I walked to my car, where i had coincidentally parked right outside her old boyfriend’s old house. The historical strings go on and on. In chicago, i felt like a nobody, and in st. louis i still hold onto that humble shyness, even though my life is everywhere here. Sometimes i feel it and sometimes i don’t.
there is something holy about being alone. i’m able to feel my senses, nakedly. But more than anything, i wish i had people close to me everywhere i go.
I was at work, and saw my mom texted me: “i want to show you the cherry blossoms.”
It was tuesday, so i went to go visit them at my dad’s gym again, and take a short walk with my mom around the forest park lake. People go fishing there just like humboldt park. She said it was important that we got back to the gym by 5pm, because my dad had a special therapy appointment again. On the walk, we went past a little field of thick yellow grasses, where we suddenly saw a big bird of prey swoop down and camouflage into the threads. We only could really see his wings, as if they were tangled in there. When we got to the cherry blossom trees by a bench, we both took pictures of each other. the vine-like branches bleached their blossoms towards the blue sky. In my picture of my mom, if i zoom in on her face, she’s smiling pure joy. The cherry blossom branches remind me of wings with feathers.
Back at the gym, it’s clear that my dad is going to try a new piece of equipment for the first time with the therapists. Wearing my tights and dress and clogs from work, i sit around watching, as they do measurements on my dad’s legs to get him ready to get hooked up. The machine looks like a crane with some fragments of robotics on a treadmill attached to a tv. They clamp my dad in the machine with the measured straps and harness, and he’s hooked up to a pulley system, his hands gripping the handles of the treadmill. My dad lifts off the ground, and then he’s lowered to the treadmill. The machine moves him into a walking position -- he walks upright with a natural gait. The therapist says, this is supposed to remind the brain what walking feels like. The robot is moving my dad, but he’s moving his legs, too. There’s a videogame on the tv, and if my dad pushes hard enough, the little astronaut character on the game climbs a moonscape, building smoke exhaust from my dad’s effort.
I swear, some of the first movies ever filmed with cameras were of a person walking. Walking across the studio room. I read about this in a book once, or watched it in a documentary. Some kind of essay on imagery or photography. I look it up and i find the true image of the first film ever made, in a stop motion grid of black and white forms: a man riding a horse.
My dad on the treadmill. His long legs are moving in a way they used to. I’m sitting low in a chair, watching. My dad is walking tall. My heart is beating.
There’s this image i always think about from the summer of 2018 before the rotator cuff surgery. My family and I were in washington state before my cousins’ wedding, and we had walked to a farmer’s market in the small town where we were staying. Unlike the midwest, washington towns around seattle have really intense hills. The walk home from the market, i was strolling with my sister, carrying our chosen organic fruit. For whatever reason, my dad wanted to walk ahead of us. In my memory’s video camera, i see his body from afar, tiny, walking all the way up a big hill on a sandy strip of sidewalk. flaneur. He walks so far ahead, i can’t see him anymore.
After ten minutes or more on the treadmill device, my dad is unhooked and settles back into his wheelchair. His therapist aaron seems really excited about how well he did. He wants my dad to try practicing walking with his cane across the gym floor. Just like the parmesan jar, he needs to go very slow this time, taking each step with thought. In the carefulness of the activity, and his mind activated by the robotic motion (a device to remind the brain what walking feels like…), my dad places each foot flat on the ground, almost steady. His movements, while extremely slow, are improved. i see the therapist’s celebratory reaction. we are all saying “wow”.
Out in the parking lot, my parents and i linger in the sun of the cherry blossom day. I say, “dad, that was so awesome.” my mom says, “you have an awesome dad.” my dad tries to say something to me about the week, about how it’s cardinals opening game, or that on friday my parents will be going to memphis to see bob dylan and go to museums, a trip they would’ve planned before my dad’s injury or the pandemic. His words are caught, and he can’t say what he wants to say, which happens sometimes. i look at his face and try to read him, like a familial power. His eyes are caught in the sun. green. I linger.