The Korean clown performed a little ritual before beginning his act. It was not entirely clear at first that he was the performer.
Four musicians took their positions with their backs to us, facing an open field in front of the river. Three men wearing traditional celestial blue gowns and black Korean gats—a high cylinder on top of a wide brim—and one woman in white, bareheaded, sitting with their instruments. Not far in front of them a rope was stretched between two pairs of rough-hewn crossbeams, and then anchored to the ground with a heavy spike at each end. At a certain point two men appeared from the side strolling toward the rope.
Both of them were dressed all in white, the younger one in traditional robes and traditional black gat like the musicians, the older in tighter fitting garments, with a tight white head covering strapped to his chin, and a small straw-colored gat perched slightly askew atop.
They stopped for a moment near the center of the rope. The young man stood facing center with his feet together and his hands gathered at his waist, holding a closed fan. The older man looked to the side as if expecting or hoping or worrying that someone else might be coming.
Nobody was coming.
He walked over to the crossbeams on one side and pulled on the rope, and finding it slack pulled hard with his foot braced against the beam, tested the rope again, and returned to the center. At some point music started, and he may have said a few words. Then he stepped over to a little altar set up at the foot of one of the crossbeams: a small bowl piled high with apples and a smaller, empty bowl on a low table, with a green bottle of cheap soju set on the floor in front.
He poured some soju into the empty bowl and then splashed a bit more on each of the four crossbeams. He missed one of them and went back to get it right before moving on to the next. He may have been speaking a bit, or muttering, or silent. Then he moved back to the middle and began or resumed saying presumably silly things, though nobody was laughing very much. He raised two fingers to emphasize a point, or as if making a pledge, and he had a quiet mischief in his eyes. Two sprigs of wild ginger sprouted from his too-small hat.
A light drizzle was falling.
He walked over to the rope again all the way over to the big spike. He slipped off slippers I hadn’t quite noticed he was wearing, and he rubbed the bottoms of his feet—white socks—with his hands, then stepped onto the rope. Did he take a second step? He did not like the feel, he stepped back down, slipped on his slippers, tightened the rope, said nothing.
His assistant stood center stage behind the rope, wholly composed yet conveying anxiety. A woman came to hold an umbrella over the violinist and her instrument, squatting behind her, holding her phone up in her free hand to film the man at the rope.
He slipped off his slippers again, rubbed his feet—the bottoms of his white socks—stepped on the rope, took a second step and a third, fourth, fifth until he reached the crossbeams where he paused. Then he stepped out onto the central stretch and as he stepped he spread—suddenly—a large red fan in his right hand, which he held above his head like a backdrop to his hat—parallel to the rope. He walked forward and stopped in the middle, stood there a moment, then walked backwards the way he had come and over the crossbeams, down the rope to the stake and his slippers, which he slipped back on again.
He came to the center, bowed to us, looked off to the side, then walked off in that direction without looking back. His assistant stood back and to the side, bowing when he did but more mildly, and followed him off.
There was applause but not much or for long. It was as if the clown were understood to be an interlude, background noise in the transition from one spectacle to the next, some of which involved horses or laser light shows… a way to fill up some space and time, to lightly occupy someone’s attention in between matters of more consequence.
I wish I had a ritual, I thought, or maybe I do and don’t know what it is, don’t know what rituals I do perform in all my foolishness. All of us, I would imagine, travel in that same or similar boats. Our performance too is born of a seemingly random entrance though attended by celestial music. Our hat also may betray pretensions to identities that are askew from realistic expectations and too small to be convincing, and we too have help but are essentially on our own.
We too venture onto a cord that stretches above nothing, and we use what we can to keep ourselves from falling. We go forward, stop, then back the way we came, and we’re gone, recognized somewhat and then, it would seem, forgotten, an interlude of little consequence, perhaps a curiosity and bit of entertainment, background noise and then nothing.
We too place ourselves in a position of some peril, balanced insecurely above an abyss. We are to do this before the eyes of others, for others, but also for ourselves—the line between is hard to find.
We are responsible for our own safety. We want to make sure the cord we are about to venture out on is secure. We do what we can to make it so.
We may say stuff of little consequence, but we may make pledges too, and perhaps these pledges are kept. We may also produce and sustain a backdrop to our hats, which may also be crucial in maintaining our balance.
And we are cautious, we hesitate before the next step however necessary, scripted, or understood to follow. It must be so or else we’d fall. Even when the cord is not tremendously high, the stakes are considerable.
Whatever rituals I may have inherited and developed as best I could to deal with these existential conditions, I would like to believe that others, more purposefully deliberative, might be more effective still, or at least more satisfying in some way, might bring me in touch with the nature of those conditions in ways that foster comprehension and compassion and comfort, for me, and that touch too on how we connect with each other and with the universe. It seems it’s not too much to ask. The clown can do it.
Perhaps then I am being asked to be a clown, to seek my wisdom there, or at least my ritual, to seek my discipline in that calling, take my vows in that order. I can’t walk on a rope but I can find something like that, something I can do but can fail at too, in front of others, with risk of possible real harm to myself. Other than simply living, I mean, which is also something I can do but can fail at too, in front of others, with risk of real harm. But something more clearly visible, an image of that enterprise, not the life we are immersed in but a metaphor for it. And something that brings delight. (The clown’s work is always to bring delight.)
And then I will need to devise my ritual to perform to bless the space of that action, that risk, and it must be real, the ritual like the risk must be real.
The devising is the problem (or one of several). The Korean clown doesn’t devise his ritual, he inherits it and enacts it and is understood instantly, even prior to performing it, by his audience as soon as they see the little altar and the bottle of soju if not before, as soon as they see the rope or on their way down to the festival. I don’t have that luxury. What would my audience understand as a ritual that I myself could sincerely perform, what ritual in expectation and performance could we share?
A devised ritual is a prosthetic ritual, a replacement for something that isn’t there.
Or maybe that shared ritual does exist and I just don’t recognize it yet—as if I still need to discover a part of my own body.
But first, what act to perform, what risk to undertake?
I walk down Main Street, seeking inspiration, suggestion, connection, impulse…
I reappear. While everything appears to be different, in fact nothing much has really changed.
I walked down Main Street every day for a month without ‘noticing anything’ in particular. It was hot, sunny, humid, there weren’t many people out and about except in their cars. I wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, I tried different kinds of shoes, I enjoyed the walk almost every time—it only very rarely felt like a chore—still, whatever. It was all too familiar, to pay fresh attention seemed forced, a false way of being there—or I should say here. But not paying fresh attention, I might as well have been going to the gym.
One time I walked down and back on Second Street instead, another familiar route that somehow suddenly struck me this time as a kind of bucolic paradise. Second Street is parallel to Main and only a block away, but I was amazed, on Second, at how dim the sound of cars and trucks on Main sounded as they whizzed by. Their wheels on the pavement and their engines were only a distant hum hardly worth noticing. Birds chirping nearby were louder. Green vine-covered trees overhung the road and scraggly lawns and gardens lined it like some vision of abundance and tranquility—though this effect only lasted a day or two.
Then I went back to Main Street. And then I stopped—I thought maybe what I was seeking could only really be sought, or found, in private, although a public act in the end, a tightrope, a pratfall, a display before an audience for the delight of the audience. Maybe I had to find my ritual privately, maybe I had to go into some kind of seclusion to find what I was seeking, the image of my clown being, the tightrope act, the banana peel, the pie in the face.
So I went home. I sat in a chair very deliberately for the hour I would have spent walking downtown and back—not ‘doing’ anything (washing dishes, checking email), not meditating, just sitting and paying attention inside and out. An hour a day didn’t seem a long time to do this but it turned out to be incredibly difficult. I tried sitting in various places, mixing it up for extended or intermittent periods of time, in the living room, on the porch, downstairs, outside—I tried laying down, on a bed, on the floor, on the ground—I tried standing on my head. Standing on my head felt promising, except I couldn’t do it for long and only by devoting absolutely all my attention to maintaining the position.
One day when I tried remaining on my feet and moving inside and around the house, as I would have been had I been walking downtown and back, two other Korean clowns came to mind. I saw one of them at the festival where I saw the tightrope walker, and the other at a sand festival on a beach in Busan. The first seemed to be more a comic than a clown—in the twenty minutes I watched him he did nothing I could see but stand front and center speaking to the audience arranged on folding chairs on three sides of him, rather close in, who laughed occasionally, sometimes heartily, but mainly simply listened. And then he was done. But he was dressed like a clown: bright rouge cheeks, gigantic false beauty mark and blackened tooth, foolish hat, patches on his too-short pants, lady’s slippers. He carried a large fan which he opened and closed to dramatic effect—the only thing I saw that could be considered an ‘action’ other than standing and speaking—and a tin can hung at his waist from a leather strap across his shoulder, and a tambourine on a string. Could he be showing me the way?
The clown on the beach also did nothing but stand and speak in the few moments I watched him, although when I first approached he was (I think) just finished extinguishing several flaming torches he must have been juggling—there was a wide space cleared around him, with a boombox placed at the center in the circle of audience listening to him speak. He wore a Superman costume complete with cape, plastic pompadour and rubber boots, and carried a black felt hat in his hands—perhaps Clark Kent’s. He spoke in a sad tone with a mournful expression on his face and twisted the hat’s brim nervously, facing only one side though the audience made a complete circle around him, with giant sand sculptures behind him and the East Sea beyond. He seemed a less likely model, but there he was. Juggling flame like tightrope walking a simple trick seemingly harder and more dangerous than it is. This could be a clue. Maybe standing surrounded on three sides wearing outlandish clothes and doing nothing but talking was that other clown’s tightrope or juggling act.
I continued at home like this for a while and then decided—and this felt in its decisiveness like my first clown act, although I realize even earlier, more uncertain moves may well have been considered so—to go back downtown but this time just to sit. I would sit and look at people as they walked by and if I wanted to speak to them, I would.
Many people, it turned out, did not enjoy being spoken to, although I believe I was always polite and appropriate in my interactions with them. I would sit on the courthouse steps—that seemed a good place to plant myself, no place more public than that—or sometimes on a bench outside the Stagger Inn. Generally I would go in the late morning when the lawyers and business people were walking about, going up and down those steps and past that bench—but if I was going to the Stagger I might wait until the early evening when some of those same lawyers plus various old hippies and college kids would be going in and out. But rarely did it matter where I was or when, for the most part it was entirely easy to ignore me—nothing easier—other than an occasional (or regular) drunk leaving the bar to smoke a cigarette or on his way home, who would stop and exchange pleasantries with me.
The first person who spoke in response to a comment of mine—this was on the fourth day of sitting on the steps, though for the first two I didn’t say a word to anyone—was a woman heading into the building with a colleague, I assumed, both wearing heels and carrying briefcases. They were chatting as they approached but stopped as they came past me, turning to look at me, and I said “Nice day” and the one closest to me said “Not for everyone” and they continued on their way. That seemed, in a strange way, promising, but I don’t believe I ever saw those two again.
I had given particular care to my clothing and overall appearance—whatever else it was, I knew it had to be deliberate. I blackened a tooth. I wore plaid socks with sandals, overall shorts, just a hint of lipstick. My hair and beard, normally uncombed and ungroomed, remained so. At first I carried nothing in my hands, but that began to bother me, so I brought a stick to fiddle with, or a ball to bounce, or one time a pinwheel. I didn’t look too out of place but enough, I hoped, to open up a different range of responses in people.
Twice, once a woman once a man stopped and looked at me with stern disapproval and said “I’m sorry, you should not be sitting here.” I looked up at them and smiled, showing my tooth, and they both took a step back, or at least their faces did, dropping suddenly into incomprehension mixed with fear tinged with disgust and then sudden dawning recognition: I was (maybe) playing at something—at missing a tooth—and where before the suspicion that I might be crazy maybe disturbed them, now the likelihood that I was not seemed to enrage them even more—made them crazy, so to speak. Both then—it was the same gesture—opened their mouths wide at me, scandalized, and walked off stomping, huffing and puffing.
One man stopped and said “Move it, buddy.” I had said nothing to him. I looked up and smiled. His expression didn’t change. “Come on,” and nudged me with his shoe. I stood up, I had nothing in my hands that day, I lifted them up as if holding water in them to show him they were empty, but he was unappeased. He did not look at me—at my face—he kept his head down, his gaze low—maybe he saw my knee. But he could tell I was there, obviously. And obviously I was threatening him in some way simply by virtue of being there.
“I’m not your buddy” I said and made an exaggerated sad face. “That’s right, you’re not” he said, still gesturing rigidly for me to leave. “But you called me buddy, so I was confused” I said and smiled, showing him my tooth. He made a visible effort to restrain himself and walked away, and I sat back down. Later a security guard appeared saying someone had complained of my presence as a nuisance and even an impediment to justice—the guard conceded that this was a stretch but asked me to move on and I did. I saw the guard a few times after that and he pretended not to see me. I never saw the other guy.
Mainly people ignored me. Even people who had seen me before and possibly said something to me—you shouldn’t block the stairs! was mainly what I heard– when they walked by again later even they seemed to ignore me, mainly.
Some people of course took pleasure in my being there—the occasional child, certainly, the occasional adult pointing smiling, laughing. Where’s the circus? one man asked, laughing, walking up the stairs not waiting for an answer.
Good question, I thought.
Then I thought no, really good question.
Where’s the circus? It’s not on the courthouse steps, outside the bar, or anywhere else downtown. A blackened tooth creates a space—a touch of lipstick too—but not a space anyone is prepared to enter anytime downtown. How can I not have seen this? The tightrope walker and his audience met at the festival. Not only do I need an audience, and a ritual, and a performance, I also need a festival, or at least a space in which my performance is expected, indeed, even taken for granted.
A space, an expectation—that’s what I needed. I had understood about the space—that’s why I started walking downtown in the first place—but I hadn’t recognized the role of expectation in shaping the space. The black tooth, the lipstick, the pinwheel, all this created a kind of space around me, sure, but it didn’t extend very far, and people, evidently, were sometimes still startled to come upon me—it was too sudden, there wasn’t space enough for their expectation to take hold, let alone to simmer or to savor. Not like the tightrope walker, whose audience could afford to take him for granted—he was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing. I wanted to be like him, a clown performing an action (blessed by a ritual) for the delight of an audience, and I needed to be in a space—part of the delight—where I was expected to be, doing the kinds of things I might be expected to do. I didn’t want to startle or frighten anyone (even if I was happy to play with being afraid—or sad—or enraged, for moments at a time). But I had no such space available to me. I was expected nowhere.
Even when I considered ‘where’ more broadly a question of ‘when’– familiar spaces at unfamiliar times—there was nowhere I could go and be expected to perform my action (which I had yet to discover) in the natural way of the clowns with the fans or flaming torches. There was home, of course, and work, and these spaces involved expected actions you might (or might not) say were intended for the delight of an audience, but those spaces, actions, and delights were not the same, were more complex and meaningful. I was seeking something simple, and in some way meaningless—or only playing with meaning. Something with no use but delight.
Just like the ritual I have yet to devise for the action I had yet to conceive, I would have to create the space of expectation too, where people would come to be delighted, not startled or annoyed, and this I knew would mean appropriating some other space normally given over to other purposes. This part at least was perfectly normal. Not every day at the beach is a sand festival; the big top comes and goes.
So I started walking downtown again but this time more purposefully, not waiting for inspiration to strike but engaged in the deliberate task of making myself known, making it possible even to take me for granted, part of an expected background. (I had to acknowledge however too that inspiration clearly had struck on those early wanderings, only taking some time to manifest itself, as in a delayed reaction or the planting of a seed.) I strode about the streets in a regular grid at a steady clip neither fast nor slow so as not to alarm or annoy, pausing only to open the post office door for someone, or the door of the little grocers or the bakery—always bowing and smiling, gesturing courteously with my free hand, generally silent but for some occasional grunt of approval or invitation or gratitude—or to stop traffic at a crosswalk where someone wanted to cross. I waved enthusiastically to many people, some on a regular basis, but passing people on the sidewalk I was generally entirely sedate and ordinary in my comportment. I may show them the tooth, and they could see the lipstick if they looked—I knew the lipstick could be a problem for some, but it drew the eye to the tooth, and I thought it was worth the trouble—and I had pinned a big button on the overalls saying “CLOWN” like one of the pins the jurors wear on lunch break from the courthouse. But I didn’t perform any action other than letting myself be seen in the space in which later I would be expected to perform.
For three weeks I made the same round at the same time, often opening doors for the same people, every day for three hours in the afternoon, when I figured people might be more open to a little diversion, less narrowly intent on getting to the tasks at hand. People began to smile at me and to wave back. One woman asked me if the circus was in town, at which I smiled as broadly and bowed as deeply as I could, sweeping the ground with my imaginary hat—she had already moved on. Kids asked me if I knew any tricks, to which I shrugged my shoulders and looked sad or happy. An old man leaving the post office stopped and looked at me, then walked off laughing, shaking his head, stooped over shuffling along. I could tell that I was creating my space of expectation, but I could also tell that it was going to take more than a little while, and I still didn’t know what I was going to be doing there. I also realized that if I waited too long, the expectation would wear off, and any action I might perform could again startle or disturb. What I had to do was create the space for my action, and the expectation of an action, and then perform it before the whole situation deflated and collapsed.
So for the next three weeks—these last three weeks—I modified my routine a bit, making a couple of longer stops along the way, preparing the ground, so to speak, for some specific as yet unspecified action. I stopped under the trees in the little park next to the library and did little stretching exercises. Occasionally when someone looked at me as they went past I called out “Just trying to get in shape!” And I stopped for a minute or two in the parking lot behind the courthouse near where the smokers come out on their breaks—I did some stretching there too. I still don’t know what I’m doing but I think I know now where I’ll be doing it, and I’ve begun to believe that people will be looking for me to do it, and prepared, even eager, to be delighted when I do.
Then it occurred to me: It might not hurt to have a teacher. It might, but it might not, and in either case it might help me to find my way. But to find a clown teacher was a whole other problem.
It was as if I was suspended over a small abyss, balanced precariously on a narrow, wavering cord, unsure how to proceed whether forward or back the way I came—more than unsure, stuck, it would seem incapable of moving either backward or forward.
So I made myself an image of this situation. I started walking for a couple of minutes under the trees and in the parking lot along an imaginary line or crack in the asphalt, my arms outstretched as if balancing precariously, my back swaying to stay upright, though I was planted firmly on the ground. I took a deep breath before starting and when I got stuck simply hopped to the side and approached the beginning of the line again, or the crack, or of some other line or crack if I was feeling frustrated or simply thought a change would do me good. A couple of minutes by the library, a couple of minutes behind the courthouse, a little stretching beforehand and afterward a little cheer, raising my clasped hands to one side and the other—just once each—whispering “hooray for me.” No one could hear me. Cars went by or stopped at the light by the park, and went in or out of the courthouse lot, people strolled by with their dogs or pushing babies, kids sat by the fountain on the other side of the library, nobody was paying attention; even the smokers behind the courthouse weren’t close enough to notice I was saying anything. One of them once noticed something just from watching that seemed to offend him—“it’s not as easy as it looks” is what he said, stepping toward me tossing his butt in my direction, as if he thought I was making fun of him and his well-suited friends—but mainly I was simply ignored, perhaps nodded and smiled at, nothing special. Even when I brought a fat piece of chalk to the parking lot and drew a straight line on the asphalt to try my luck and skill, if anyone paid me any mind I wasn’t much aware of it, generally. I felt myself moving oh so slowly, but steadily toward my goal, my desire, my clown’s vow.
Maybe a fan would help, or a balancing pole. Or maybe the problem was more mental than physical, less about balance and more about intention, about what I’m trying to do here, or why this particular chicken is crossing this particular road.
Nobody could call it really dangerous—the risks are more metaphysical than anything. Nobody could as yet call it really delightful either. What I’m trying to do here in one way is simply to be here, but at the same time to craft an image of that state of being, and to inhabit that image. Harder than it sounds, it turns out, even if neither particularly dangerous to oneself nor delightful to others—because metaphysical, because invisible. How to make it visible?
There was still the question of a teacher. I had rejected it out of hand before I even began on the grounds that a teacher implied a school, at least a school of thought, and I wasn’t interested in schooling, in fact I was interested precisely in not schooling. But it occurred to me now that a teacher or teachers could be found anywhere, not necessarily in schools, not necessarily even aware of themselves as teachers but found, so to speak, by their students, who make them into teachers. So here was another task before me, to look about me at once as openly as possible—open to the possibility that anyone or anything might be my teacher—and as purposefully focused as possible, demanding of everything I saw whether or not it might be my teacher, at least a teacher, wondering still what it was I had to learn, or wanted to learn. I was going to have to look in a whole new way.
Occasionally but with some regularity I would of course see or be seen by someone I knew. They might wave or call out and I might wave or nod or say hi. This has gone on since I first started hanging out on the courthouse steps or at the pub—since before that, of course—but when I started looking for a teacher, or looking to see if I had or might have a teacher, I started wondering if any people I knew already were, or could be, and I hadn’t realized it. It could be anyone, of course, including anyone I didn’t know, including people I’d never seen before as well as anyone I might have only read or heard about, or met or known in passing years ago. It could even be, I supposed, an animal, even, perhaps, a plant, a tree, a flower or algal bloom. It’s almost too much to consider. And this too, I realize, is a type of clown moment, like carrying a tall, tall stack of cups to which you continue to add, to the swaying wavering top, additional cups, while riding, perhaps, a small unicycle. Who or what in the world might show me the way? The question itself is a tiny tricycle that falls over as soon as I try to sit on it and ride.
Then yesterday Eddie stopped to talk to me. He pointed to my pin. “Clown,” he said, looking at me and smiling, as if awaiting an explanation.
I said “I have no explanation, Eddie. It’s just what I’m up to these days.” He nodded, maybe disappointed. I said “I can’t seem to help myself.” He said “That’s okay, that’s okay,” laughing and backing away.
I watched him carefully as he walked away and I thought: maybe this whole clown thing is all wrong.
For two weeks now I’ve been indoors. I pulled the shades, kept the lights low and kept quiet. If I have to go out (three times so far) I wear a ballcap and shades, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. I smile at anyone I know and mind my own business with everyone else.
I worry that perhaps I am throwing away all the work I’ve been doing these recent weeks trying to establish the spaces I inhabited—the park, the parking lot—as spaces of expectation for my act, if not all the work I’ve done since I saw the first Korean clown approaching his rope. But what could I do? What did I want anyway? I wanted a ritual that would mark an action of mine that would help me understand my life. I wanted to have compassion for myself and for others, I wanted to take comfort in the process, however seemingly at times fruitless.
Maybe ‘clown’ had nothing to do with it. Maybe it wasn’t about risk so much—the tightrope, the torch juggling—as just our old friends failure and success (and the fear of either). Maybe it wasn’t about delighting any audience either. Maybe the audience was only myself and delight simply the reaffirmation that I exist. Pain would do just as well, I suppose.
Maybe all this is ‘clown’ too.
Maybe I was already ‘doing it’, performing my action, failing or succeeding at it, by which I come in part to understand my life—without realizing it.
What have I been doing anyway? Regardless of whether I’ve been opening doors at the post office or grocery store or sitting in the back room with the lights off or acknowledging imaginary cheers in the courthouse parking lot—what is it that I have been doing? This, anyway, is certainly a clown question. Like staring blankly at a wall. (How else should one stare at a wall?)
What is it that I have been doing? I understand that keeping the shades drawn won’t help me answer the question (though keeping them down may have helped lead me to ask it) and I prepare myself to leave the house again, as needed, that is I prepare myself to live as normally as possible, coming and going as I please, with none but quotidian intent—to reflect, if possible, on what it is I have been doing, both since I saw the Korean clown and before.
I hadn’t forgotten about the teacher. Going about my daily business I kept my eyes open and my ears alert to possibilities.
I developed a routine which I figured would help me keep those senses tuned without either overwhelming or dulling them. The routine was regular but variable, affording a certain comfort while allowing or requiring certain choices to be made.
I walked down to the café for breakfast and took a slightly longer way home each day (generally the same slightly longer way). I spent a little time on the computer, like a daily obeisance, and a half hour doing little exercises and stretches for my arms and legs and back, I took a long walk every day through the woods around town, a nap on the couch before or after, and at some point spent at least a moment with one or another notebook, trying to track the flickers and shadows of my mind. I had lunch with friends as frequently as possible and saw them given happily or not to their own purposes and situations.
I knew my teacher could appear at any moment and in any form, animate or inanimate, and I knew that I might already be performing the action that I sought, my tightrope act, the image of my existential posture in this world, and the ritual that would bless it—I might even be performing that too. So I went about as attentive as I could be, at the same time trying not to appear too conspicuously attentive, not to tense up—I knew that the searching could preclude the finding.
And at a certain point for reasons which I will never be able to explain I became interested in trees. I mean, I had always appreciated and been interested in trees, but I had never quite recognized my interest, and now seemingly suddenly I began to search them out more particularly.
I thought of it, when I thought of it at all, as a way of coming to understand ‘where I am’, a way to situate myself. It was of no particular use to me beyond that, and beyond occupying my time and attention—there was nothing I could do with the knowledge for instance that the little pocket of woods around my house was composed of black walnut, cottonwood, sycamore, maple, cherry, hackberry, elm, and oak of various kinds… but I came to find it compelling to examine these trees and learn to identify them. Perhaps they, of course, were my teachers too. It can be hard to listen closely enough.
I was stopped along the trail around the old lagoon on the edge of town looking up into what I thought might or might not be a black walnut when a young woman stopped to ask “whatcha lookin’ at?” and when I told her she said “oh, I thought it was some spiderweb or something.” She was sweaty from running, smiling, and continued on her way. I thought maybe this is something I could do, go out into the world and look at nature, I mean look fixedly at it, to draw the attention of others, and send them on their way smiling.
Maybe that’s what I’d been trying to do all along—simply see the world around me, step back a bit to get an angle on it, keep my eyes and ears open and engaged. Is that dangerous? Sure it is, and harder than it looks. But I was determined, apparently, in whichever form it took, to pursue that practice, and in some measure to draw others into it.
This seemed to me a major discovery, as if I finally had solid ground to stand on, a new continent. Now the question was how to show it, not just do it but make it visible, like the clown stepping out on that rope makes visible his own journey, his own desire in spite of everything.
I went back downtown.
Someday I may come to understand all this, but what that understanding will be worth is not at all clear.
I went back to the front of the courthouse, but this time to the trees that lined the sidewalk in front, and starting with the young pear across from the steps and moving down the row in the direction of the Stagger, I gave each tree a few minutes of my attention. I didn’t spend too much time—I didn’t want to look like some wacko—just enough to settle myself a little bit, take in the leaves, their shape and color and configurations, and the bark and branching and base, depending on the tree and no doubt other conditions external and internal maybe a minute to three or even four or five minutes per tree—sometimes, just to keep things from being or becoming rigidly formulaic, taking a tree in from two or three angles and sometimes maintaining only one position, leaving other perspectives for other times, other lights. The rhythms of car and foot traffic seemed to mean that nobody would see me but once or twice anyway, and more or less fleetingly, so my persistence in the act wouldn’t come to seem bizarre—I would just be a guy seen in passing who was spending a moment of dedicated attention to a tree on Main Street, which would leave at most some trace or perhaps micro counterweight to the task at hand to which they were committed, and would bring them a small sanguinary rush, a pulse of pleasure, a tiny release. Or they might see me the next day too, and the next, and the same—the ones who passed on foot most certainly might—until perhaps at some point they would begin to consider me somewhat more deliberately and reflect on what it was I might be doing, searching even for some explanation that would allow them to stop considering me deliberately much at all—and in that case we would see what followed.
And so I was doing it and representing it at the same time, looking at—let’s call it—the world, and being seen to be doing it in a safely predictable iconic image, framed for consideration in time and space each day on Main Street. The first day I probably spent an hour—I wasn’t watching the clock!—and worked my way two blocks down that side of the street, up to the donut shop. There’s a tree every fifteen feet or so, two different types—I didn’t bother with names, I just started with the leaves, observing their features and variations up close and gazing more generally over the shape and color they made as a whole… returning to each tree day after day, I could have almost given them personal names. Soon I had made it two blocks further down, where the city plantings end in front of the service station, and crossed the street and back up the other side, working three days a week for an hour or two, picking up where I left off, or backtracking, or starting over.
I wasn’t wearing anything special other than a t-shirt with a picture of a tree on the front and the back which I wore every day for these excursions.
Of course people talked to me from time to time, friends, acquaintances and strangers. The comments and questions were of many types but never even slightly hostile—I wasn’t blocking anyone’s steps and I was careful to leave the sidewalk clear when anyone was approaching. Lots of folks just smiled as they passed by, and many paid me no mind, but some were curious, like the sweaty woman on the trail, and if some were ironic—smiling “still at it?”—others were encouraging—“you go, dude” one kid said to me, giving a thumb’s up.
One day Kip came up to me while I was looking up over a rooftop on South Main at a big spreading tree thoroughly covered, even choked, with vines but thriving. By this time I’d been out there for a while already and we’d had occasion to chat before about this and that including what I was doing. He understood and wished me well, and this one time standing with me for a moment looking at the ivy-covered tree he said “You know there’s no end to it” smiling as he turned to go on his way.
He was right of course, there is no end, to the tree itself or to the project I was undertaking—it could never be completed—to look at nature, to take it in, and to draw others to it. I could soon be looking at trees well beyond Main, and looking beyond trees to shrubs and grasses and vines, pebbles and clouds and stars, wind and humidity. And then of course animals and people and all that people bring with their activities both external and internal. Suddenly the entire universe was present to me standing there on Main. There was nowhere else to be.
And I understood immediately that here—somewhere around here—was my ritual, some way to mark and honor this endlessness, this continuous interconnection of everything with everything—to honor the nature of nature. Not that nature needs the gesture, but to help myself know where I was, for whatever that knowledge might be worth.
In the end of course it turned out to be the simplest thing imaginable, if not necessarily the most obvious. For one thing, the action was to be seen by any and all, but was the ritual necessarily as public as the action, like the soju ceremony was, or was the important thing about the ritual simply that it was done, whether it was seen to be done or not? And, as always the question, was the ritual perhaps something I was already performing in some way without even recognizing it? The splash of whiskey, the bowl of fruit, the tiny table mark the space and mark the moment, appease the tightrope gods of who knows what happens next, allow the clown to situate himself and steady his breath. I wanted to do that too, and I also wanted endlessness, an expression of endlessness, a recognition of endlessness, a gesture toward endlessness.
I continued working my way down the street and up the other side, examining trees in their various aspects and conditions, soon enough turning the corner and continuing past the library. I figured as long as I could manage to keep going, the rest would eventually emerge. Birds entered the trees, did their thing and left, insects could be seen from time to time flitting about, alighting on a leaf, trekking up the trunk, clouds passed behind the crowns… at times I let my attention drift with any of these– sometimes following a little cloud I might appear to be merely strolling down the sidewalk like anyone else. People said hi (or not) or stopped to chat, about the trees or the clouds or a hummingbird moth (I think) I’d never seen before—in broad daylight, feeding on some flowers—from time to time a friend would come by and we’d go get lunch or coffee or just walk around the block together—and all this too, like the insects and the birds, seemed to me an extension of those trees, which I had begun to think of more as rivers, branching, flowing rivers in both time and space.
I didn’t let the weather stop me, in the rain there was even more information, behavior of leaves, tones and textures of bark… and when the leaves dropped still more, in rain or snow or under clear skies, not to mention when buds began to appear, apparently under development invisibly for some time already. I didn’t go every day—I wanted to avoid the temptation of rote—but I didn’t let a week go by, and generally went out several times a week at least for a little bit. I wore the t-shirt when I could, even unseen under sweaters and winter coats, and sometimes dispensed with it under such conditions too, carrying it, so to speak, in my mind. I might wear green socks, or a green one and brown one.
The rhythms of my breathing had altered long before I became aware of it, I couldn’t place when—in some gradual way, of course—beginning with my time in front of the trees and then seeping out into my other interactions and default settings in yet another branch of endlessness, another expression, really, of love and joy. More words to warm the heart of a clown. I loved the trees and the trees loved me, it seemed to me, whatever they might have said about it—it seemed to me they spoke mighty plainly. They held nothing back.
Nobody could have predicted it. I had lived among these large—sometimes enormous—creatures all my life, and had paid only the most passing attention.
As summer rolled around again and deepened and ripened I sometimes forgot altogether about the ritual, though something or other was bound to remind me before too long. An ad for whiskey on the side of a truck passing by, a person in uniform or a person in all (or mostly) white or black, a rope or the image of a rope: any of these could snap me out of pure tree reverie, to remind me of what I was looking for, that… gesture that would express, and bless, the enterprise I was undertaking.
The clown splashed his soju. It had to wet the wood, it was meant to do something to the beams that held the rope, and to the moment of ascent. There was something in the soju but also something in the spilling of the soju—the wasting of it—that seemed essential. Or not wasting, clearly—a precious substance put to precious use, just not the usual—not wasted but sacrificed: a gesture of ‘not me’ that would redound to him after all, to the success of his venture on the rope. He was at once casual about it all and insistent that the gesture be completed successfully, going back to splash the beams when he didn’t get it right the first time. A spark of holy fire, a sacrifice—at the same time a small gesture: in essence symbolic (though there is no symbol without effect)—a splash, not a smash, soju not blood. An observance, a recognition of certain realities, e.g. for the clown on the rope, that he may fall.
The people watching him were there to see him, in one way or another, whether deliberately or by chance killing time between other events at the festival. Nobody was watching me and anyone who saw me was only passing by, mostly in cars, or moving quickly on foot, heading somewhere. Marking the space—and the opening of a moment—centering my breath—manifesting endlessness (momentarily, gesturally)… none of this could be shared, unfortunately, in this setting. It was all on me.
Less a decision than something I noticed I had begun doing, each time I set out on my observances walking downtown I would pay particular attention to the drivers in their cars passing by, what little I could see of them, shadowy figures mostly when not in flashes through bright glare, fleeting fragments at best. The backs of their heads and shoulders, their faces full on or in profile, or drifting from one view to another occupied me all the way to the courthouse sometimes. Less a kind of attention and more a kind of trance—I was occupied—a kind of surrender when the gaze goes slightly slack. I could only enter this state once I reached Main Street and the flow of traffic, but it made me consider too the space of time from when I left the house until I got there. Why had I never considered it before? Two blocks down a leafy street and across an abandoned parking lot was all there was, and generally it was a time to make a kind of inadvertent mental dump, like a dog shaking its coat dry, shedding details of the morning’s preoccupations, bills paid, arrangements in progress, stuff to remember… but there were trees there as well, and there was a parking lot and its abandonment, and the map of my action, of my attention, continued to expand until it began sometimes just a few steps from my door at a giant hackberry that loomed over the house.
Inside, clearly, there was still something to do—this was evident for the clown as well. It wasn’t just the sturdiness of the beam that had to be prepared. What was I doing? Going out two or three times a week to look at the world for a little bit, I got dressed, pulled on my shoes and hat, made sure I had my glasses—there wasn’t much to do in that regard. I stood at the window and looked out. I said some words to myself, it didn’t matter what.
The clown had to go up on the rope. The audience was waiting. I never had to go out at all. Or I could go out and turn back at any point without performing my public act, as if the clown were to come out standing below the rope and look to the side for some sign or assistance and not receiving it, stride off again. Virtually unthinkable for him, but for me no problem. I was free to come and go at will or whim. He was launched over the abyss as soon as he stepped out in front. But maybe I was too, in spite of how things looked.
I stood at the window and silently said some words. Or I stood there without a thought. In any case I understood in such moments that I was seeking something, wanting something, lacking something—the ritual, for lack of a better word, a gesture that would put me in touch with the conditions of my existence in a way that fostered compassion and comfort and connection with others and with the universe in all its endlessness—and that precisely this lack or observing this lack was in effect my ritual observance: an impulse more than an idea, a necessary expression of anxiety and desire. I had been performing this little rite since I first saw the Korean clown, seeking and lacking what I already had, without knowing it. Nothing new there.
What happens now? No splash of bourbon or bend of knee, no sequence of procedural steps, just a silent, private moment when the eyes widen and the world sharpens, randomly at virtually any moment but especially, more reliably when I am about to walk outside, making sure so to speak that the rope is taut. It’s as if I were assuring myself that there was no net. A gesture, a broad sweep of the arm, to the empty space beneath my imaginary tightrope.
I am standing on almost nothing, over nothing. Here we go.
Jeffrey Skoblow was born in New York and lives in Edwardsville, Illinois. He is the author of Attendance: Stories about Teaching, and In a Trance: On Paleo Art, along with two scholarly experiments, Paradise Dislocated: Morris, Politics, Art and Dooble Tongue: Burns, Scots, Contradiction, and numerous articles on literary subjects ranging from contemporary Scottish poetry and Victorian book arts to Amiri Baraka and Bob Dylan, as well as on pedagogical matters, and short fiction and poetry.