I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.
You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labelled bones.
No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.
- 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
- 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
- 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
- 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
- 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
- 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
- 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
- 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
- 4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
- 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
— Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
by Li-Young Lee
The moon from any window is one part
The part I can’t see
is everything my sister keeps to herself.
One part my dead brother’s sleepless brow,
the other part the time I waste, the time
I won’t have.
But which is the lion
killed for the sake of the honey inside him,
and which the wine, stranded
in a valley, unredeemed?
And don’t forget the curtains. Don’t forget the wind
in the trees, or my mother’s voice saying things
that will take my whole life to come true.
One part earnest child grown tall
in his mother’s doorway, and one a last look
over the shoulder before leaving.
And never forget it answers to no address,
but calls wave after wave
to a path or thirst. Never forget
the candle climbing down
without glancing back.
And what about the heart
counting alone, out loud, in that game
in which the many hide from the one?
Never forget the cry
completely hollowed of the dying one
who cried it.
Only in such pure outpouring
is there room for all this night.
One of my best friends called his big career move “getting off other people’s ladders,” and that struck me as wise advice. You want to write beautiful stories about things you care about? You can do that, so who cares if you don’t end up writing profiles for The New Yorker? You can move around within the profession in more interesting ways than people could before.