How to Ask

first published by great weather for MEDIA

 

Audre Lorde asked, “what are the words you do not yet have?”

I ask my students to bring to class the largest sack they can find. Made from forest or skirt or their least favorite weather pattern.

But it must be the curvature of empty, I add.

I arrive early and some of the students are sucking on the neon haze of their cell phones. One travels their neck and shoulder to places I’ve never been to before because of the music collected in the drum of their ears.

When it is time, I ask them to clear their desks of everything but their sack.

(They are quite used to these odd requests from me.)

I am wearing pants, color of crushed moss, with long-distance pockets.

Dig long fingers—once described as emaciated pianos—down deep and lift out as many question marks as I could fit inside.

I dump them onto desk and ask my students what they see.

Lines. Curls. Arches. A mountain?

Each student receives a question mark to place into their sack. The ones who insist get more.

We walk around the room with our voices, practicing how to use our question marks.

Lorde wrote, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

I urge my students to rise. They clutch their sacks, which beg to be filled.

Here is when I begin the list of what will go inside our sacks:

  1. the discolored fist-marks on skin
  2. the hisses, hauntings, hunted parts of us
  3. mirrors or any reflective glass that forgets to disclose our most important bits: our insides
  4. every pronoun that mispronounced us
  5. all the no’s incorrectly heard as yes
  6. our childhood (optional)
  7. the memory of that time someone told us to let go of reaching because arms are never long enough to get us out and through
  8. every single box which has boxed us in
  9. that scar hidden behind a different one, shaped like an EXIT sign
  10. the words: I can’t

Our muscles grow vocal chords, working hard to lift what now overflows.

Some students are still confused. Several are crying.

Audre Lorde reminded us, “We were never meant to survive.”

So I ask my students, what can we do to remain?

I can tell them all about how classrooms felt like cliffs to me and I jumped more times than I can remember. That the few times I remained were because a teacher gave me a sack to fill with words. And questions. And dreams. And poems.

I can tell them that I still hoard questions marks in my pockets and beneath my tongue because there is so much I do not know and cannot claim to understand.

I can tell them that for every time I was incorrectly pronounced, I could feel my mouth’s zipper get thicker and stronger and tougher. Creating my invisibility.

But it’s not about me. So, I wait for them to decide how to feel. How to react. How to respond. Give them paper to write on and words to read to fuel their question marks.

To keep them here a little longer.

Which keeps me here too.

 

getting louder now.

We compare bodies and languages to learn all the ways we can create hybrid forms of thought. I count the words growing out of your chest. Some are longer and more difficult to pronounce. You practice pronunciation of each syllable into my ear and remind me that I have vocabulary on my skin as well. You encourage me to stretch out my roots and unlatch my silence(s). You welcome my umms. You tell me that this earth is round like our vision. Like our ability to run away but return. When we speak, we not only remind others but ourselves the power and meaning of all these contemplations.

here, there is life. here, there is body. here, there is awareness that we are always in draft mode.

You hold yourself far differently when you present your body in a way that expresses all your letters. Twenty-six in the English alphabet, but on you, there are symbols and instrumentation, breath work and ingredients poured into skin. On days you go nude, you hunch a bit more. On days you flatten, your shoulders are flag-wavers, saluting sky.

All of this is intentional.

On that evening you entered dark bar wearing placards of body parts not quite attainable or desired by you, you explained in silent gait that not everything on a body needs to match. You think of the moment you first fell in love with collage. The cut-up of images and texts, glued together to create something else. When you call yourself performance artist, you channel this medium. Your bones are uncut, but everything else has become a hodge-podge of imagery and experimental discourse of gender and identity on skin.

Everything is deliberate. Nothing means nothing. All of this makes sense because it arrives on you from you.