Slowing Down in Thunder Alley

Ask yourself: where is my slowness?

The where of our slowness helps tell us who we are. Yes, strangely.

It points to our principal place of real being. My being real. My true existence. The space where I am most alive and most conscious.

My moral space.

The where of our slowness indicates what brings us peace and contentment, for slowness is like mercury in a thermometer. It gives a reading of our soul’s temperature. Like it or not, we are measured beings. I measure myself, if I am aware and listening.

My answer to the where of my slowness: Thunder Alley.

Of course, it’s not mine. It’s ours. Public, social.

But I live in a city where houses have wreaked havoc on natural habitats. Where yards with buildings and housing units have substituted for sustainable natural abodes. Where humans have created dominion at the expense of the plants and animals that had been there for much longer than our lungs.

The crickets and butterflies are already gone. The opossums are threatened. The flies are untouched because they feed on human garbage. The ubiquitous grey squirrels are there since they are ingenious.

But other animals, more susceptible to disruption and interference, have fled. Without a real choice, they’ve simply vanished. Probably forever. They’ve left a void that cannot be filled. Like many of the non-human species that need large swathes of untouched land and water for their survival.

My alley still holds out hope. For me and for my non-human comrades. Which is why it remains my place of slowness.

My slowness involves communing with “nature.” Nature for me is just another way of saying the non-human. My slowness feels like drips of latex from a rubber tree, swirling down a helix.

If you live in a city, perhaps your alley can teach you something. Not just about yourself. About what is not human in the world.

But in order for the alley to teach you, I can guess that your slowness must reside there. It is not a teaching that can be learned in front of an unnatural screen.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where I’m a prep cook and dishwasher. Wondrous, right? In the “untouched” Pacific Northwest. Liberal and open. Environmentally aware. Swarming with protectors of nature and preservers of the non-human. Home of the Xerces Society and the Hoyt Arboretum. With a “cool vibe,” a laid-backness, a cold rasta/punk undertone to every interaction. Ideal. You can get over the passive-aggressiveness that comes with angst-ridden rebelliousness. That’s part of the charm.

As for nature in my city, my word! The riches! It’s an urban space with broad swathes of riverfront parks. A place with the largest public park in the U.S.A. (Forest Park). Two rivers and a dozen close tributaries that feed the “fresh” water. An atmosphere of outdoorspersonship. Hiking. Skiing. Rafting. Climbing. You name it, we got it, all within an hour.

And if you’re bougie, take in the Willamette Valley and its fruit and nut orchards, wine country and foxes in thickets out near McMinnville, the mansions in the west hills where there’s sure to be art-speak and martinis overlooking the rose gardens, and the Columbia River Gorge with its sweeping vistas, a wind for all winds for the sailors and surfers, and spectacles like the Peregrine Falcon diving 180 miles an hour to spear a sparrow.

It is still just a city.

So in it, where do I find solace, besides these close but inaccessible places?

Inaccessible because of traffic congestion. Because everyone and their dog is moving here. Because housing developments are eating up habitats the endangered species, like the Fender’s Blue butterflies, need to continue surviving. Where do I find solace as someone who cares about human habits in the face of the greatest mass extinction of species the earth has ever known, thanks to the capitalistic anthropocene? Where can I go to soothe my soul?

My alley on 32nd and Emerson is called “Thunder Alley.” It’s not one of those archetypal dark downtown alleys, full of drugs and murder, that get a bad rap for good reason. There are no garbage bins behind the backside of a tall, brick building. Concrete is foreign. The alley is part dirt, part crumbly gravel. Along its sides are the fences of human habitations, as well as a couple of unused garages. The “weeds” grow freely, thank goodness. The fly-catchers, blue jays, sap suckers and squirrels compete with the crows for dominance along its narrow stretch from Alberta to Killingsworth Street.

This alley is unkempt, safe, a wild place, abandoned and deserted and forgotten. A place for safe wildness.

I wander the network of alleys here in the Alberta Arts district until I run into impassable brambles of Himalayan blackberries.

Thunder Alley’s principal claim to fame is nothing, but I know, because I live and wander and sit here frequently, that in its landscape, as roof, is one of the most magnificent trees I’ve ever seen: an American Chestnut. Huge leaved beauty, quite tall (60 feet?), grey limbs in winter like an inosculation of neurons. A cognitive image.

This chesnut tree defies the diseased extinction of its species. For, if we were aware, we would know that the chestnut is in grave danger.

Yet none of this is exactly my point. I’m not trying to say that cities are bad. I’m not trying to declare that Portland is changing for the negative. Gentrification is making sure that the city is sparkling clean for tourist and newcomers alike. Rid of its seedy history, its racism, and its violent old western heyday vibe which strangely grafted with the fruits of hippy and grunge explosions. None of this is my point.

I sit here and stare at the sun. The sun makes me think of permanence. There is change in the world. Things–like creatures and plants–are eradicated. Humans themselves are displaced and replaced.

The sun makes me hope as it warms half of my face against the cold draft of wind that has first passed through the Doug firs and crow feathers to reach my ears. I hear nothing of speed this early at dawn as the faint brush of pink illuminates the cirrus and the fingernail moon still clings to the bright planet beside her. What I hear, sadly in some ways, is my own wish for slowness.

We underestimate the value of just being in contemplation. We overestimate the value of action and accomplishment.

I’m all for shoveling snow. I’m all for chopping winter’s wood with an axe and not a chainsaw. That actually makes me more of a human. More muscular. More authentic. And then I’ll go read a book by Pessoa, by Celan, by Sloterdijk, Plath or Valente. Poetry and philosophy live with me here, in Thunder Alley. All alongside the blue jay, the strange beetle, the moth.

Wherever you live, find your “alley.” Find a place of wildness you can walk down. Discover the overgrown and unkempt. Get away from concrete. To let your feet sink into mud after a lovely spring rain. To watch the vanilla grow next to violets and the passionflowers your neighbors planted which flop over the fence and run close to the ground until they are able to bloom. Find a strip of natural peace near your house and go there, leaving the screens and the valuables of domestic, technological life. Electric screens are meaningless to raccoons. The insulated electric wires stringing among houses are just rope bridges for squirrels. Why should electronics be meaningful to you on the nights when you are supposed slowly to be yourself?

You are part of a larger whole. The “alley” is yours to discover. Walk. Listen. Observe. Breathe living depth in your own alley of slowness.

Writing Art-like? An aesthetic wish


Many of us want our writing to be beautiful in form as much as in content. That’s probably why we, if we’re poets and novelists, go through experimental phases, scratching shapes of words across the page in strange formations. Embellishing the content with unusual patterns and syntax as the words tumble up and down and across and askew as though a sketchwork.

When we think of the “art of writing,” how many of us are thinking about the actual shape of writing (as a picture seen) and not the content (as a voice heard)? Poets and novelists are concerned with visual presentation. But how beautiful as artworks are most of these efforts? Even in poetry, content is what provides most of what passes for the “beautiful” in language. May I lament this, finding in it not as much justification for writing as I would wish?

Language gets along fine without writing. Writing seems to me to be an excess, a luxury, something inessential to language itself. The essential is orality, not literacy. Language only needs writing if it wishes to become visible. To go beyond the audible. Writing en-visions language. That’s basic. By instantiating language in visual material, writing participates in that ancient artistic obsession with making language appear to the eyes.

Yet if the visible is such a writerly emphasis, why are so many works less than beautiful visually? It’s a wonder given our age of image-worship.

Hieroglyphs and ideograms are beautiful because their language is essentially pictographic. Egyptian script, Mayan glyphs, Chinese characters. These approach artistic status in a way that typography cannot. They are graphic, pictorial, painterly. I can see why someone would find writing in this way a form of art, a calligraphy. Beyond content, it feeds the desire for creating visual beauty.

Visually, then, typography seems destined to need the addition of illustrations to make the page aesthetically stimulating and appealing to the eyes. The Book of Kells. Or take Blake. Poetry embellished on the outside by pictures that aren’t the language itself, purfled and deckled around the actual writing. Exterior adornments associated with the writing, but by no means interior and essential to the writing. Meant to create an artistic impression, but superfluous. If you took Blake’s illustrations away, his writing’s value would be left untouched and unscathed. It would remain a visual disappointment, but that’s the fault of the writing itself. Adding pictures is attractive, but not essential.

So if the essential form of writing does not create the visually stunning artwork that could stand alone without content, what is it doing aesthetically?

For our visually unsatisfying language as I said, we tend to switch our focus to its content in order to justify writing’s existence. It’s the content, we say, that’s beautiful, not necessarily the form. As though orality can’t quite supply ample content for linguistic creation? As though the verbal needs visual content to satisfy the deep play of the imaginative? As though envisionment makes language more sacred and durable, even if it lacks pulchritude? Okay. So writing is about content, not appearance. I’m still not that impressed with this line of thinking.

I would say that if we need writing, if we have any inherent justification for doing it, it should be as a contributor to artistic form, not just to content. I feel disappointed that language, even when the content works, is often visually banal.

All this leads me to suggest that writing and our relation to it today is at heart a case of visual obsession that never goes far enough. Of the fascination with the visual that has been with us throughout history, but that we are not doing enough to advance by making the shapes and patterns of writing be themselves artworks. Our writing doesn’t achieve the height of artistry because it lacks the pictography it would need if it were to be much more pleasing to the eyes. More art-like.

Can we invent an English pictography? Can we translate English language into hieroglyphs or ideograms that would make for a beautiful calligraphy?

— J.C.S.

The Anachronist – Language as Time Machine – Part Un

The Anachronist – Language as Time Machine – Part Un

Do you feel anachronistic sometimes? Bypassed, left in the dust, outside of our times, unable to keep up? A stranger to contemporary speed and noise and fashion, not up-to-date on the latest, preferring older notions that are more difficult to find, leaning like a fossil nostalgically toward the simpler, slower, quieter, more ascetic and more reflective places? Do you find yourself loving physical processes and admiring artwork or ideas that others have never heard of (because those things are olden) or thought to try out and may even find disturbingly obsolete and “backwards,” if not downright crazy to tout as significant? Does the contemporary world of incessant, quick-paced change and barreling novelty sometimes bury you in shame for wanting to slow down and evaluate the past for your identity’s sake? There are plenty of us who feel anachronistic and out of time-place, so here are some reflections on why that’s an okay feeling to have.

First, think about what really changes over time. Technology. Social systems. Personal situations. These changes alter our environment and human behavior. New patterns form. For example, millions today (including adults) are under the tantalizing sway of video games. This is a new behavior pattern not possible fifty years ago. A direct result of the application of electricity and programming. In terms of reading, many spend all their time now surfing the Internet, whereas in the past they may have had a book in their lap. Socially, new freedoms may emerge from social protest and activism that changes a socio-political system. This kind of change is wrought by social movements that gain steam. Often these are good, like the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and civil rights for everyone. Revolutions are real. Other things that change for people and societies over time are philosophical bents, prejudices and religious views. This is undeniable. People experience personal growth or conversion, or childish views simply fade away with experience and open exposure to other perspectives.

But here’s a tricky question that requires dialogue and reflection: are such technological, social and religious changes to our environment, to the anthroposphere and to our behavior truly essential to human being?

Situations have always changed for persons given new contexts that arise for them or given the accidental workings of a different day. Fate brings a new person surprisingly into your life, or takes someone away. You experience an unexpected trauma. Such blows of fate, good or bad, have altered human lives since the beginning of time. Think of the biblical story of Joseph being sold by his own brothers as a slave into Egypt. That’s how far back this stuff goes. Then a new product hits our market and people consume it. That’s another change: the introduction of new kinds of things that didn’t formerly exist. This is typically the result, for us, of capitalism.

All of these changes involve human ingenuity in action, transforming certain possibilities for the use of time, energy and rights. Are any of these changes essential? They may be unavoidable and desirable, or avoidable and undesirable. I would merely say this: all of these changes are somehow exterior to us as humans. Whether avoidable or not, they come from outside. While they may affect our interiors, they do not essentially change our interiors. In other words, despite what many pundits say about the glorious future of technological and social innovations that often promise progress, fulfillment and happiness (while just as often bringing disappointment), these changes leave the essence of humanity untouched. This is true even when they affect the material world for better or worse. Therein is the key to the anachronist’s resistance. To the anachronist who is firm and self-confident (which it’s hard to be today), all the infinite mutations that society has undergone in the past decades has not changed who he or she actually is.

Every one of us will have those stories about “back when I grew up, we didn’t have . . .” You’d fill in the ellipse with the newest technological gadgets or services, right? For me, the sentence would finish with cell phones, the Internet, Google searches, YouTube videos, blah blah blah. For you?

Is novelty really real, then, and essential? Is there so much innovation around us that the past has become marginalized, unrecognizable, and its good models totally undesirable? (I wish to open the question only, the question of whether the past can influence us for good, not to say that historical example is in any way universally good, which clearly it is not.) When we speak of the new, it is almost always with reference to technological “advances” that exist now but did not exist back then. Certainly, novelty is real. But are its innovations essential to living well? If technological change or market evolution are inessential to the human spirit and its psychology of desires and emotions, then novelty is only affecting the superficial aspects of life. Novelty occurs on the surface, on the outside. It is not phasing the deeper drives, instincts, desires, basic emotions and elements of who we are as humans (in our selves and not within some distorted social construction) and have always been. That’s what I mean by the “essential” here. The essential is not defined by how others view or treat us, but by how we feel, think and desire. If we are fortunate, we will also have the freedom to practice those essences in actuality on the streets, in our homes and at our workplaces.

So innovation seems to affect the outside of us, not the inside. Despite technological and political change, for example, my heart still wants the kind of love I’ve always wanted. I still feel sad at the same things I did as a child, although now that sadness keeps expanding in adulthood to new happenings and insights of growth. I still want to revel in joy and wish I had more of the ecstatic. I don’t want to suffer and struggle, but yet I can’t prevent that from occurring. I believe that history and story show these kinds of desires to be perennial to human being.

I would say novelty’s not all that different than a fad, while my heart and mind and gut, the seats of spirit and will and emotion, experience no fads. They may undergo transformation and growth over time. Usually this involves discovering a larger perspective, vitiating prejudice, opening up the repressed parts of the self to vulnerability and trust and creativity, and such like beautiful processes. Experience and social movement has something to do with this transformation, but not technological change or something more banal. Sometimes it might stem from a progressive political platform that captures your imagination and heart. Sometimes it’s a new art style, a new game or a new health movement. “New” being relative, of course. Yet if you think about it as a whole, the “new” rarely if ever refers to more essential aspects of human psychology. Let me ask this: Has a new emotion been created since biblical times or since the dawn of the industrial revolution? How about a new kind of basic desire? I doubt it. The same emotions and desires have been around thousands of years, unchanged even if defined differently in different cultures. Usually the new taps into one of these ancient essences, proposing a novel approach to the same old problem that declares itself fresh and better than all the former ways. Much of the time, of course, this claim is ludicrous. What makes someone a good judge of novelty is historical perspective, if not intuition. Could I judge how great Basquiat was if I didn’t know anything about Gauguin, Klimt, Hopper, Turner, or Rembrandt? I could speak, but how much weightier would my words be if my mouth showed knowledge of the history of painting? Isn’t it more interesting and beneficial to have conversations with historically informed persons over those who have rejected learning history and enjoying story?

Now, second, think about what might not change. I’ve already shown my hand on this. I would venture to say that what doesn’t change are human emotions and desires. The struggle for living authentic lives is part of this. If emotions evolve over time, would we be able to grasp and get behind the great love stories, say anything in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Porgy and Bess, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, or, more recently, “The Jeffersons”? If human feelings get altered so much, would we sympathize with the great Christmas stories about sad children from the 1960s? Or feel that tremendous rush while walking around the Kaaba stone as people felt over a 1,000 years ago? Would we identify today with the speeches of Dr. M. L. King, Jr. or Malcolm X? Would we be able to listen to older music with joy if those old songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Mistinguett, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday, or Louis Armstrong didn’t still touch us? How about Beethoven’s symphonies? Or how am I able to comprehend and enjoy a Japanese film plot, an Iranian poem, and an Argentinean novel if there are such essential differences in humans over time and between cultures. (In no way do I deny cultural differences, I’m just pointing out that in essence, I believe, humans are humans, even in different cultural contexts. We are certainly equals.) Even if the language is not high caliber–if it doesn’t reach the robust power of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault–language still has the potential to transport readers and listeners in story and thought to something essential and enduring about human being.

There’s an abiding-through-time of human psychology despite changes, superficial or significant, that suggests that we stay essentially the same in our core. We want the same things across time, no matter culture or the hindrances of historical conditions. We want romantic love, acceptance, recognition for work, respect, family safety, freedom to control our own destiny, adventure perhaps. Some go farther and lust for power and wealth. The point is that these feelings and dreams endure everywhere at all times, so far as I can tell, albeit it in cultural variations. If we fail to get these essences met, we rebel or we choose fantasy and escape, the stuff of self-comfort.

Language, as time machine, is one of our media by which to connect with the history of human essence. It is by language, particularly in books, that we can transport ourselves all over time, looking for stories about what love and sadness (for example) have meant and looked like in others’ expressions. Without language, could we so easily trace our connections to humanity at large and across time? Could we form cross-cultural and cross-temporal bonds? Could we draw conclusions about ourselves as part of a larger, story-telling species that evolves externally but not so much internally? Foraging in the past for mirrors and echoes of our selves is possible because human essence seems to resist basic interior transformation over time. We are fortunate for this.

— J.C.S.

In Struggle, What?

In struggle, we win our spirits and our freedom. Why would we expect an absence of suffering or the presence of caring? Perhaps the innocence of childhood carried into adulthood belies the truth. For without suffering and in the midst of caring, we would not have our singular road that is self-faith, nor our motive that is self-creation. Isn’t that part of what we want: the opportunity to create our own world in a spirit of freedom and self-determination? Perhaps nothing could be achieved without that adversity that meets us with the uncaring gaze of a blank, insensitive social world or a voice whose power prohibits our steps forward. We won’t faint at this. Sometimes, if we must, we can retreat into the Eden of fantasy or stir up the longings for naievete. Mostly we face head-on the odyssey with its perils and frustrations to overcome, transgressing barriers if we must when they are not in our best interest. Remember the Argonauts? Remember the Twins’ descent into Xibalba? The creative life is a committed quest that encounters dangers. Through creativity we out-trick the trials, temptations, detours. Creativity is the answer. It can be envisioned as a quilt as much as a road. A quilt-quest, a discovery-patchwork of endeavors, each with its own transient history that joins continuously with the next square and the previous square.

Pessoa and Lispector, for example, were fulfillments of the smart dreamer type. They had no theories, for that also bored them, but their stories are thought-dreams combining aesthetics with intelligence. Their reclusive response to life made them artistic saints. They acted like spiritual hermits, but were creative dreamers, lonely and intelligent monastics of imagination. Hildegard of Bingen. Kazantzakis. Nietzsche. Rilke. Jabes. Cioran, maybe.

Writing is a way of living. Writing is not all of living, and living is not all of writing. Some of us love and write out of a way of living love.

Many charms exist to help us through. We have each to possess our own charm and live it out in the world.

It’s important that we join together to uphold the forms of creative struggle that we are.

Just a quick morning thought. – J. Celan Smith