Conversation and Hippos

my parents took me to see the cherry blossoms in this sweet velvet skirt suit

A few years before I read about Escobar’s hippos (I am not going to be the 36th person to tell you about Pablo Escobar’s hippos, but let’s agree: they are fascinating), I heard a story on NPR about the lost dream of American hippopotamus ranching. The story I heard attributed the plan’s failure to the inefficiency of the postal service. Theoretically, if email had been around, there would be hippo bacon on the menu at IHOP. For a few weeks my friend and I have been carrying on a conversation across the country via post. I’ll reply to a note then receive something from him the next day and know that he’ll get my previous note several days after he’s sent his, but it’s not a reply to the most recent letter…but if he reads it as such it will be very confusing. It’s very complicated, and made more so by the fact that I tend toward writing difficult to discern nonsense–letters from the perspective of characters I made up and he has no context for, hippo facts etc. Absolute randomness. Point is, I can see how the hippo ranching planners might have gotten their wires crossed.

Even in a face to face conversation, wires get crossed. The thing we are trying to communicate is not always the thing we are communicating. The things we hear are not always the things that are being said, nor are they even necessarily a response to what we’ve just said. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear, sometimes we hear what we expect to hear. Recently I had an alarming conversation with someone who is normally Just Fine. But this person was unhappy with a decision I’d made and sort of lost their shit on me. I am glad to say, I am not accustomed to being yelled at. Grownups don’t do that, or at least grownups I choose to keep in my life don’t. The only people who raise their voices at me are my kids, and they don’t do it often (or without consequence). This person kept sort of yelling, “I don’t think you’re hearing me!” And I kept saying back, in my very slow way, “I hear you, but I don’t agree.” And again, “You don’t hear me!!” I can hear you and still not agree with you. You can hear me saying that, and still believe that if you say it louder, I’ll somehow magically see the light.

Last week in the elevator at work, a man asked me a series of questions about my origin and employment, invited me to lunch (“It must be your lunch time,” he said. “No, it’s ten in the morning.”) and then touched my arm three times after I declined. This annoyed the shit out of me, as you can imagine. But I didn’t communicate that, because I am a nice girl who doesn’t want to embarrass even someone who is being an asshole. And also, I am only a woman and the world is full of very scary men-who-could-harm-me. So if I see this man again, he will think that his behavior was okay, that he can keep asking, keep putting his hand on my arm, that I might say yes. He probably didn’t read my tight-lipped smile or move toward the far wall of the elevator as deep discomfort. He probably just saw a smile. What the fuck does one do? I am (I think) around the halfway point of my life, and I still don’t know. I’m thinking a lot about the ways we listen to one another, and how important it is to listen with more than just our ears. We do it all the time, but we override it, often so caught up in what we ourselves are going to say next, what we had planned to say. The point of conversation, friendship, connection is to respond to the people around us, not recite what we had planned to recite. I am certainly guilty of this often.

Sometimes in my open writing group, hardly any writing is done. It’s not my favorite thing, but it happens, because that’s what my beautiful open-hearted writers need on occasion. Sometimes I walk in planning to do one exercise and after listening to the room for a few minutes, change track completely. Which might mean that I don’t have the handouts that I’m so fond of giving out, which isn’t ideal, but I’d rather change my standard than stay attached to an agenda that won’t serve the room.

Here’s a poem to read and think about. I love how quickly it moves. What do you think the stick is a metaphor for? Some personal sense of imagination/strength/hope? What has been with you, shifting shape and use through all of life’s changes? Or you know, write whatever you want to write. Write one sentence that makes you smile and you’ll have done this right. All my love.

The Stick

by Nicole Callihan

At the mouth of the cave was a stick.
These are the things I did with the stick:
chewed it, waved it to the sky, poked myself
in the eye, pretended it was a daisy, pretended
it was an orchid, a tulip, lily, cigarette,
made it into a gun and shot my brother,
nudged my brother to make sure he was dead,
nudged my brother to make sure he wasn’t dead,
licked it like a lollipop, sang into it like a microphone,
brushed my hair with it, brushed my tongue,
gagged myself with it, gagged myself again,
made myself throw-up, made myself cry,
made myself look pretty, made myself
sit in the car alone, made myself practice
writing my first name with the last name
of a boy I loved, whipped my knuckles with it,
my thighs, dug little stars into my forearm,
tried to beat off a man, tried to beat him harder,
tried to use it as a megaphone, tried to pry
my mouth open and say the words out loud,
made it into a Calculus equation, an airplane,
a gun again, pointed it to the sky,
prayed over it, moved to Brooklyn with it,
took it to the bar, punished it, ignored it,
pretended it wasn’t mine, put it in the corner
of that dirty little apartment on 12th Street,
let the cat piss on it, wrote bad poems about it,
slept with it, let it touch me in places I had never
been touched, let it scratch the very itch it made,
took it to a candlelit dinner, packed it up into a U-Haul,
turned it into an altar for my wedding,
danced with it instead of with my father,
took it on my honeymoon, didn’t breathe a word of it
to my husband, shoved it to the back of the junk drawer
in our new home, forgot where I put it, searched for it,
found it only after I forgot I was looking,
let it accompany me to the hospital, bit on it
while the baby was being born, bit on it
while the next baby, the sick one, was being aborted,
bit on it when the littlest was born, tried to prod myself
awake—my God, I was tired, all those years of nursing,
of thermometers and backrubs and mommy,
mommy don’t go—started sleeping with it
under my pillow, took it to therapy, gave it a name,
hid it behind my back when my husband walked in,
danced with it, wrote it an inappropriate email,
wished I had buried it by the mouth of the cave
when I still remembered where the cave was,
used it to call my mother to see if she remembered
the cave, turned it into a peace offering, until finally
I tied a string to it and dangled the string into the river.
There, after one thousand years, I caught a fish.
But the fish was too small, so I threw it back in.


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