The River’s Nervous Surface

“Closer, at the base of the hill, fish and eels drew quick seams along the river’s nervous surface. From hideouts in the rushes frogs serenaded.” -John Keene

Instead of going to Toronto this weekend to hear Fred Moten speak, I ended up last minute getting to hear John Keene just around the corner from me here in Montreal, reading from Counternarratives and a new novel. When I told him that his writing inspired me to write these essays he asked for the url. So, on the off chance that he finds the little receipt I wrote it on…a couple of his gorgeous sentences to begin.

It’s midnight again. I don’t have my computer. I have a computer I bought at the big chain electronics store downtown which they told me to use while mine is being repaired. Not that they loaned it to me.  I had to buy it, but the sales girl signed the receipt so I can return it easily. This one is incredibly difficult to type on, and the space bar sticks. I fear this hour is going to yield much less than usual. There’s also the low grade misery I’ve been dragging around all day, for no good reason.  A day of little mishaps and neurotic musings in a life of abundance and privilege.  My misery repulses me from myself, which makes me more miserable.

I’m also at my kitchen table instead of my desk, because this ugly beast doesn’t fit on the desk.  I don’t know if any good at all can come of this hour.  I have to press the spacebar three or four times for it to respond. So much of the flow of the last fourteen essays is to the credit of a great spacebar.  It happens like that, so often, doesn’t it. You never can know the true source of your troubles or deliverance.  Not when it comes down to the details. I didn’t know how great that old spacebar was. How much of my rhythm and momentum were resting on it.

My thoughts can’t move at this pace.

I don’t want to tell you about my moody, grim day.  Too many of these essays have been in that diarist vein.  I have piles of diaries. Full of nothing.  The gassy spill off of my emotions.  I’ve always been susceptible to moodiness. I don’t know.  I don’t think I can pull this off without a working spacebar.  But my computer might be gone for up to three weeks.  I can’t wait that long.  I’ll lose the momentum I’ve gained here. My experiment will be ruined.

My emotions have had the better of me since my earliest memories.  In fact, my very first memory is of me screaming without cease for hours.  I was less than two years old, younger than my little nephew, T-bird, is now. I remember the sensation of the sound in my body, remember holding my mouth open. I remember clenching my hands closed. I remember when the breath ran out and how it would rush back in on its own.  I see my father in the doorway to the kitchen.  He is so tall. My focus in on his denim knees. But my eyes are blurry.  I have this memory.  Actually, I can go back in the memory to what came before.  The reason I was screaming.  The scream, though, I still consider the first, because it is ringing in my mind even now, thirty seven years later.

I have other memories like this.  Of my body in some kind of extremis. They are special memories, in the sense that they have a particular taste, a particular hue. There are so many kinds of memories. Each part of the body has a different way to remember.  The hands, the nose, the dreams (dreams? A body part? Interesting.  Like an organ?  Like eyes, but to see into the dark.)

Another memory I have like the scream is the day I first dislocated my kneecap.

Damn. I’m halfway done the hour. This feels awful.  I don’t know why I’m doing it.  My entire day has felt like this. Things I love are full of obstacles.  Today my speaker, my headphones and my computer all broke.  Today I went to Linda Rabin’s continuum class (a sound-and-movement somatic practice) which normally sets my whole body into shimmering light but today it left me feeling awful.  Heavy and misaligned, leaden, lumpy, grumpy, disoriented.  The other times I’ve tried this practice it’s been the deepest kind of illumination.  It’s a wonderful thing.  You begin with sounds, making syllabic sounds that are (to me) like the sounds the universe makes in its myriad voices. Whispered Ahhs, Puffed Cheek Os, the gruff sound of an espresso machine’s steamer (a kind of front-of-mouth gurgle), Shhhhhs, Eeeees. You use the sounds to awaken and relate the body to itself.  At a certain point, the Will recedes, and the body takes over.  Then, after moving without purpose, rhythm, melody, but simply following what seems irrational but is full of more  intelligence than all my books combined and yet which is unnamable. But, like memory, there are so very many kinds of intelligence. (What if I just write without spaces? Could I manage to add them all in during the thirty minute editing time?) But, once the body is speaking, the Will reappears, now a partner. It becomes like a call and response.  The instinct leading, the will responding.  The inner landscape of sensation becomes a place of its own, a place to dance.  But tonight did not feel like that at all.  First, I was already in pieces over the day and its weary ripples, but also we worked with the legs.  Linda said to me, after the class, the legs are hardest  to access with the sound. Indeed, I felt unrelated to mine.  Except that the old dislocation of the knee returned to my consciousness.  She said the legs are so imbued  with their habits, they are hard to reawaken. We just use them to propel us from here to there. I felt it.  Even with my eyes closed I could find no grace.

My parents put my brother and I into Tae Kwon Do classes when we were little, and living in Ottawa.  Our teacher was Mr. Phap Lu, now Master Lu, then he was a new Korean immigrant, a young man, short and shiny haired and broad-shouldered and boulder-calved, who was winning big competitions, and had a relationship with the founder of our branch of Tae Kwon Do (ITF). He had a wonderful humour, but he was very strict with the form and matter of what he was teaching us.  I was nine and Aron was seven. We loved it. I remember that I often felt overwhelmed walking into the group.  It was in a strip mall, upstairs, gray carpet, a wall of mirrors, the tenets and agreements high up near the ceiling.  Tenets: Courtesy Integrity Perseverance Self Control Indomitable Spirit. I still live by them. Oath: I will observe the tenets of Tae Kwon Do. I will always respect my instructors and seniors. I will never misuse Tae Kwon Do. I will be a champion of freedom and justice. I will build a more peaceful world. We said these weekly, then bi weekly, then for the last few years, three sometimes four times a week. I’m realizing just now how deeply they laid their routes in my body and soul.

I remember when I was ten breaking my first wooden board with a kick. It’s an incredible feeling.  As we approached our black belts, there were more and more boards, held together by three or four other students, two people holding the wrists of the two who gripped the boards, and sometimes a fifth behind them all, bracing.  Three, four, five inches of wood. Every year another was added. Spinning kicks, flying kicks. I think this shaped my creative imagination as much as any of my more esoteric experiences.  In fact, this is where we learned to meditate and visualize.

There are so, so many Tae Kwon Do stories I want to share! If only I wasn’t writing so slowly, and hammering helplessly on this spacebar.  Maybe next time.  And I wanted to tell you why I was screaming, when I was sixteen months old, so loud that my thirty seven year old self still responds. In fact, the scream was the root, not the reason but the root, of the rejection complex I’ve spent the  last  seven years working with.

I’m opening up more threads than I can follow in this piece. I want to apologize to you, my few readers.  Not being able to type means that the no-hesitation flow is impeded, and it’s affecting the thinking.  No longer the fiery whisk of a dragon’s talk to follow into the sentences.  Instead, I feel like I’m walking a very big, old, grumpy dog. Eighteen minutes left.  Ugh.

Well, the day of the dislocation was a Saturday.  I was eighteen.  I had short curly hair, and what I now know but did not know then, had a lithe, lean, fierce body.  We had earned black belts, maybe eight months or a year or so ago.  We were competing at the Canadian National Championships. We had been training.  For the black belt test we did a hundred pushups and a hundred sit-ups.  I can’t imagine it now.  Memory. And body memories.  That one is gone.  Why? I can recall that I did it, but I can’t remember how it felt. Maybe because the body wasn’t flooded with emotion. It was something we’d built up to over time.

In any case, on the day of the tournament I remember we were about to get into my parent’s car. I had to go upstairs to put on the freshly ironed top of my dobak.  I remember being in my bedroom, with the little single trundle bed that is still there, and looking in the mirror, and throwing punches and kicks to the soundtrack of Naughty by Nature’s Knock Em Out the Box. Which is pretty funny to me now, but at the time I was not being ironic. I was planning to win.

I remember before that, during the training for the Nationals, after running five miles (which even at that peak of my physicality was awful, I’ve never been a good runner, maybe that’s why the legs were so awful in Linda’s class today, I don’t know) after the run we watched some tapes of some sparring matches, practice matches that we’d done earlier in the week. In one of them, which I won by points, I had been kicked or punched in the face fourteen times.  Mister Lu was furious, of course, because I wasn’t blocking, but when I think of it now, I wonder how much adrenaline there must have been for me to not feel those blows.  I also remember the blows I took as a little child in the Saskatoon schoolyard, and how different those felt.

Only six minutes left. I resent this spacebar so much. There is no way I can tell you the story.  I’m going to try.  But I feel sad to rush it.

We got to the school, Pinecrest, maybe, where the tournament was being held.  It was a hot, sunny, muggy Ottawa day. I had been dating one of the third degree black belts, Mpinga Ngoy. There were two young teachers, pretty much the same age as I, who were about three years ahead of Aron and I in training.  Richie and Mpinga.  I’d been in love with Richie since I was nine years old, but I was dating Mpinga. Who was also an amazing young man. He was gentle, and extremely physically strong, and easy to laugh and tease, and an exacting but gracious teacher.  Mpinga taught me to kiss in movie theatres. He’s gone now.  He died suddenly on a treadmill two years ago. I don’t think he could have been forty. But, his sister, Cherrie, trained at a different dojang.  And she was my competition in age and rank (men and women competed separately.  She was my rival.  And, I think because I was dating her older brother, couldn’t stand the sight of me.  I decided to intimidate her.

I began leaping around, showing off the spinning flying kicks that I’d been practicing for the patterns part of the competition. (Rats.  There’s my timer.  I’m just going to give myself two paragraphs to finish this.) Cherrie was stretching, and glaring at me.

I felt it as I took off. A bad angle. When I landed on the sweaty lawn my foot slipped into a little divot in the grass.  I felt it slide down, then backward.  I heard a loud crack. It took about five long, slow seconds for the pain to arrive. It came from above me, and settled on me like ash or a smothering blanket.  I tried to touch my leg but I couldn’t. I didn’t know where to look. Aron and my parents were already inside.  It was Cherrie who came running up.  Are you okay?  Get me some ice, I said. I pulled my pant leg up.  I could see a lump on the side of my leg.  I could see the weird, unfamiliar shape of it. I don’t know what came over me. I put my hand under the lump and shoved my knee cap back into place. She ran.  She came back with ice, Tylenol and my mother. I iced it, and after about twenty minutes, I stood. I managed to walk into the gym.  I didn’t see Mpinga or Aron, but Richie was sitting in an empty ring.  I saw my dad in the bleachers, and mom went to join him.  I don’t remember if she tried to stop me from competing, or anything. I remember walking into the school,but the memory is all of the sole of my left foot. Nothing else.

Richie was judging. Cherrie sat down, I was up first. There was another girl with me (we did the patterns in pairs). I made the first move, which landed all my weight on my good leg.  The second one was the same on the other side. Crunch. I was down. Rich was beside me in a second, then I saw my parents, my brother, Cherrie all around me.  Rich was kneeling beside me.  Canyou tell me what happened, he asked.  I’m too embarrassed, I whispered. My mom said, an ambulance is coming.

Why was I so embarrassed? It’s always been that way.  When I’m sick, or injured I feel humiliated. I’m not entirely sure why.  It might come back to the scream, which maybe I’ll get to next time.

That was pretty much the end of a decade of Tae Kwon Do for me.  After my knee healed I kept going back too soon, and it never healed fully. I was never able to leap and fly and swipe my legs the way I used to.


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