The 2021 Honeybee Prize for Nonfiction; Selected by Marco Wilkinson:
Here, Gone, Again | Sarah Lass
It is late May in a quiet corner of New England. I sit on a hill that tumbles towards a pond in two definitive slopes: the first precipitous drop from the quiet street above empties into an inviting grassy expanse before dropping off again towards the water. Two edges, two drops, separated by the fleeting respite of horizontality. Green flesh whispers softly to green flesh. Every so often, the water shivers.
It isn’t warm. Summer is tentative. Evening slinks across the lawn, bringing with it a more assertive chill. Above, an echelon of geese parts the sky. The formation circles, circles again, and then descends. Two wings stretch out from each plump feathered body, doming elegantly over unseen supports. The approach to the pond’s surface is met with increasing exclamation and outcry. “It’s happening,” they shout—vehement, uncertain, alarmed, ecstatic. “We’re landing! It’s happening!”
The next day, I’m back at the pond, but this time in the dance studio nestled on its banks. I stand with my back pressed against the wall, the generous expanse of the studio floor spilling out from my toes. These are trees underfoot: oak. Two bodies move a few yards away, beginning their exquisite play of weight and tone and rhythm and reference and space and relationship and and and; they listen, they offer, they listen. Light drapes across limbs like a soft, indulgent fabric, continually redoing its weave on their bodies. We have begun. We are improvising. I could reach the two bodies in a few steps if I wanted, but I stay on my edge, simultaneously dilating myself open and extending myself outward into the action. The brew of that meeting place—between my attention and their movement—will tell me something about what’s happening. This is how my body can begin its strange calculations, etching emergent formulas across and through itself. There will be no resolution or conclusion, only the narrowest of windows into revelation: now. Enter now. All I can do is be ready to answer the call—whenever, whatever, however it emerges. Attachment, in this circumstance, is impediment.
The moment arrives and I go. I don’t decide to do it, but suddenly I am in it. I arrive into the free-fall of composing. I trip and stumble (sometimes literally, more often figuratively). I’ve released myself from the demands of logic, but I am still involved in sense-making, just with a more expansive understanding of what that means and how it happens. Occasionally, in this regard, I find a fleeting foothold. What are we doing? I know from experience that if I look at the question directly, I’ll have no hope of answering (and answering is not even of primary concern). More reliable (and more interesting) is a mantra: this is happening. The unblemished spread of oak, the generous emptiness of the room, the landscape of light and shadow—it all gives the impression of controlled conditions, the circumstances of laboratory work. But in addition to this winnowed focus, the world goes on. We are in it. It is in us. Conditions are anything but controlled. Even though we experiment and question, improvisation is not a laboratory—it is a garden and an unruly one at that.
More dancers arrive, forming a loose cluster nearby. They are clouds gathering before a storm. They are the unruly chorus of instruments that greets the arriving orchestra-goer, all tuning towards whatever lies ahead. They are the scattered chants that ultimately build into protest. I don’t think these things there in the studio, in the moment of perceiving them. Naming them in this way will slow me down. I will miss things. More perilous still, if I name them and require that they meet and maintain whatever moniker I have assigned them, then they cannot become anything else. No—they are all of these things and none of these things. They are people moving together—here, now—and I know what they’re doing just like I know how the clouds gather and the orchestra prepares and the chants build.
I drop into a peculiar rhythm as I travel around the group, feeling a syncopation of my right toe, tail bone, and left shoulder. To say I feel it isn’t quite right, though. I don’t simply feel it—I feel into it, like when I stretch my hand into a glove and reach around for the fingers. I excavate the sensation. I am active inside of it. I commit myself to the rhythm even as (or especially as) I wonder about it. On the opposite side of the group—itself wrapped up in some imprecise geometry of embrace—another body loops about languidly. She is a moon in orbit. She shifts her pelvis this way and that, flirting with momentum as she falls in half-circles, her limbs trailing, ribbon-like. My rhythm cedes into increased muscular tone; I begin to feel desire. I want physical contact. I want pressure. A body brushes up against my own, spilling into me from my left hip up to my shoulders. It is warm, steady, reliable, and still moving. The fleshy surface offered dips gently downward. Here is support, if you want it. I do. I fall into it. I am carried—delivered from my location on the periphery into the tangled mass. I feel what it is to share my weight with another; to stay active without leading; to experience a shift. I feel what it is to be moved. This is happening.
To say our dance is collaborative is true. Since we don’t know what will happen or how it will come about, our primary commitment is to being together. However, being together does not mean agreeing. In fact, in order to discover anything at all we have to challenge one another—a little, a lot, just enough—so that we all have the sense—no matter where we are or what we’re doing—of being on the brink and at our limits. I remember the playful contests of childhood. I bet I can make it to the fence before you. Whoever does the most cartwheels wins. Let’s see how fast we can go. The game is proposed not so much to bring about the outcome, but rather to engage the players. We hold hands (or arms or legs or feet or all manner of imaginative ephemera) at the lip of a precipice. We step into it together.
I think of the geese. Webbed feet splay in readiness, stretching into the rapidly closing space between palmate and pond. Wings beat with new desperation and bleating voices reach a chaotic zenith. Feathers fan, their tips reaching out and up like the ends of paintbrushes dragged from upper canvas to lower. Water welcomes ample bellies and breasts with fanfare, sloshing and spraying in jubilation. This has happened before and yet, it is somehow still surprising. A few final exchanges and expletives amplify the excitement, and then the urgent discussion is over. Quiet returns. The water parts gently just as the sky did above. Fine lines of disruption trail each perky tailfeather, the ripples extending into a ghost of the V-shape marked, when airborne, by fellow fowl. The geese land, but glide on, the voyage not ended, but altered.
I don’t know that luck is responsible, but it always feels lucky, coming upon that thing on the other side of composing—that thing that we’re hoping to reach through the act of composing. Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like we’ve made it; authorship is not absent, but it’s also not the point. Whatever it is—that thing—it emerges. It catches us. We land in it.
I am tempted to say that our dance crystalizes. This is not the wrong word to use, but it is also not the right one. There is certainly a coalescing and a clarity. There is a kind of undeniability of structure and form (no matter where the dance falls on the spectrum of those terms). And yet, the dance does not solidify. It is not immobile. It is not set. Perhaps we could say this: it goes from being many things to not being many things. Or, similarly, it goes from not being some things to not being most things. Or we could liken it to the experience of hiking up a mountain, of finding one’s way through trees and brush, looking through shaded density, winding and weaving through foliage, possibly losing one’s way any number of times, and then, finally, emerging into the clearing or onto the mountain-top lookout and feeling the accompanying quieting and stilling, the sense of wide-eyed arrival.
I describe this because of the feeling—the quieting, the stilling, the wide-eyed arrival—but landing in that thing on the other side of composing is, truthfully, nothing like hiking to the forest clearing or the mountain lookout. It is more like wandering the tundra, without commitment to route, to destination, or even to eventual return; it is like setting off with the commitment only to go, and then—on the way and in the midst—discovering a mossy stone, which you bend down to caress with complete devotion for a time; and then, later, looking to the sky to find a bird accompanying you from above, tracking it and you for a while as you move in an unlikely duet; it is like when, later still, you become transfixed by the crunch of your feet in concert with the chirp of an insect. One thing about the thing on the other side of composing is this: the mossy stone leads to the bird, and the bird gives way to the crunch and the chirp. The clearing leads, once again, to the woods. The thing we’ve found—precious and specific—keeps moving, slipping away, becoming something else. In other words, the grassy expanse drops into the next hill. The hill empties into the pond. The geese take flight again.
Over the course of two quiet afternoons in July 2020 I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I finish it sitting on the hill by the pond. My back leans against its first sloping incline, my legs sprawl out into the grassy field. The sun has lain down across my skin like a warm, gentle body wrapped intimately around my own. A breeze picks up, toys with becoming a wind, and then decides against it. Flowers bloom.
“There’s so many of us,” the ghost Richie says in the book’s final pages. Though he has discovered the circumstances of his death, there is no redemption for Richie, who had hoped that the knowledge might help him “cross the waters,” “be home,” “become the song.” There is no redemption for the countless other ghosts, who Jojo, the novel’s young black protagonist, encounters in the story’s final pages. “They perch like birds but look as people” on the branches of a great tree in the woods behind Jojo’s house. The ghosts—men, women, the elderly, and the newborn, those who lived two hundred years ago and those who lived last week—look out at Jojo from their crowded branches in the gathering dark and tell him about their deaths with their eyes, each one singularly horrific. That these ghosts might know their own murders and still have no peace intimates that such horrors remain unresolved, remain present, remain alive. “The ghosts don’t still, don’t rise, don’t ascend and disappear.” Even when Jojo’s little sister Kayla commands them to go home, they stay. There can be no ascension—no resolution—while the horror continues. And it does. It goes on and on and on.
Why the protests that surged across the nation in the spring of 2020 gained such momentum and garnered such widespread involvement will likely be the source of research and discussion for decades to come. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery ignited the wave of outrage, but the murder of black and brown people by white police officers was not and is not new. What was it about that time in particular that, more than any other in recent history, made inaction—especially within white communities—finally unconscionable? George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. These were the names shouted out in call and response in the gathering heat of approaching summer—these names, these singular people, murdered in singularly horrific ways. And yet. There’s so many of us. Standing in a city street in May, facing a police precinct lined with unmoving, armed officers, I added my voice to the chorus, shaping the names to summon the people and I felt how many, many more arrive.
It is one thing to know of racism—to know it is present and operational and monstrous—and it is another to know racism. The ability to experience a distinction is a privilege afforded by racism. It is one thing to perceive the motor of white supremacy—to hear it, to feel it, to see its gears and pistons, well-oiled by systemic and systematized hate. It is another to discover oneself an operator of this motor and a benefactor of its machinations; it is another still to find its wiring extending into and through one’s body, to feel it ignite when picked at, to become intimately acquainted with its unoriginal methods of trickery: deflection, disguise, disassociation. The spring and summer of 2020 felt to be characterized, in some ways and some white communities, by this profoundly overdue realization. Now. Enter now.
Posts proliferate. Emails are sent. Books published years ago and long available are suddenly out of stock. Solidarity is professed and action steps, communicated; racial violence and injustice of every guise is condemned, vehemently. I lose count of the number of posts I see. I am part of the problem. I have not done enough. I have been complacent. I have been complicit. I can see now. Newsfeeds repurposed as confessionals host hoards of penitents, all piling in with the requisite contrition and the necessary disclosures. The noise, the commotion, the fanfare— here is a landing of sorts.
The net of bodies into which I’ve been deposited continues knotting and unknotting itself. Those involved dart through empty pockets of space, which balloon open between moving masses and then pop closed, punctured by continued action. The speed at which they appear and disappear thrills. The moon—that dancer flung outward from the ensemble—seems to have metabolized the loping circles which carried her wildly through space moments before, that unruly curving and carving now traveling through the interior of her form, buffeting her from the inside-out.
Though there have been a couple of spatial reconfigurations and though a number of seconds have now elapsed between what was happening and what is happening, the facts of the dance remain largely unchanged. And yet, in the midst of it all, I perceive a kind of sharpening, as if we all, having entered an unfamiliar room without glasses and having stumbled about there for a time, have now found and donned our much-needed eyewear. This is happening has led us to this, this, this. Moss. Chirp. Bird. Attached as this may be to them, it is also more than them; dependent upon them, but also irreducible to them. This swells beyond its facts—exceeds them—lifting off from them the moment it lands in them.
I remember another dance, from years earlier. “What if attention is the dance?” Jennifer Monson called out from a corner of St. Mark’s Church on a hot afternoon in July 2017. We had turned off all the lights, perhaps in an attempt to trick ourselves into believing the space was cooler than it actually was, or perhaps in order to better facilitate the score we were exploring—something about light and shadow. I was at the back of the church, at the perimeter of the wood floor that blankets it, surrounded by the thirty or so other dancers participating in the workshop. I was a couple of feet from one of the poles that supports the church’s second-story balcony, which now provides office space for a couple of arts organizations but which ones, I discovered while reading a New York Times review of choreographer Reggie Wilson’s work, served as a slave gallery.
I was pouring myself into and out of an ill-defined corridor of light which beamed down from the west side of the building to the east. I had been doing this somewhat aimlessly for a few minutes, winnowing my focus to the prompts offered so that I might be led—via the confluence of my activity, imagination, and curiosity—into expanded presence. I had been largely unsuccessful until Jennifer Monson’s provocation. The question materialized in the air like a sculpture. As we danced, we moved around it, surveying it from various perspectives so we might come to understand something about it.
Upon hearing it, I suddenly perceived my own form as nothing more and nothing less than a landscape of light and shadow—one which was contiguous with the landscape of light and shadow around me. I tracked the estuary of these light-based landscapes—my own and the room’s—and I discovered that I could be moved according to the refraction of the room’s light through the various fleshy densities of my form. Dark matter meets warm light, splinters and scatters, eddies, pools, pours back towards darkness, tends to itself there, meets more shadow, commotion, agitation, uproar, light spreads, shadow beckons. This. The landing was not in movement, exactly—not in the compositional particulars of time, space, gesture, effort, though all of these were certainly present and happening; it was instead in a way of attending to what was already happening.
If the dance is not, in fact, its facts—if it is not the moss or the chirp or the bird, not the movement that takes me into and out of that corridor of light—but rather a matter of attention in relation to these facts, then I wonder if the dance isn’t always, already happening, if it isn’t perpetually underway. If this is the case, then there is nothing to make, but rather everything to find. The missing element—the element that shepherds us, ultimately, to this—is attention, which is not to be confused with awareness, a related but by no means synonymous term. As we have seen, we can be aware of something without attending to it; I can know of something without knowing it.
In an episode of the podcast Code Switch, hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby question why white people showed up and spoke out in the summer of 2020. “Some major shift appears to be happening with a large cohort of white people. But why now?” Meraji and Demby ask. After posing that very question—“why now?”—to their many new white followers on Instagram, a theme emerged: white people saw other white people speaking out. Whereas previously it had felt conspicuous to discuss and post about racial injustice and violence, it now felt conspicuous not to. There was both pressure and permission in white communities to say something, Meraji and Demy explain, but regardless of the specific rationale, action arose due to dynamics between white people. “Few people who responded to me said that they had become activated because of social proximity to black people,” Meraji continues. “So, while much of the conceptual space and groundwork for this moment was laid by black organizers, these messages suggest that much of this political foment among white people is happening because of contact with other white people.”
I try to remember who it was, that dancer who transplanted me into the tangled mass of bodies, carrying me from the periphery into the fray, to that place where, eventually, we came upon the dance? Does it matter that I know who it was who carried me? Absolutely. It matters that I am here, certainly, and it also matters how I came to be here. If I know who it was who moved me, I can call upon this as the composition continues. It matters because it tells me something about how I might attend to the dance now—in this new moment—and now—in this one. The dance doesn’t stop, and if I do, I am no longer a part of it. It is important to be here, to have landed, but it is most important not to stay here. There are countless clearings to reach.
The geese float across the surface of the pond. Their journey appears calm, but I know it’s a ruse. Just below the water’s surface the webbed feet that trailed them like rutters in flight have been repurposed as motors. They paddle themselves forward in flurries of undisclosed activity—a few seconds of quick, insistent kicks at the water around them, a few seconds of rest. Repeat. They remind me that stillness is a myth, simply a slowing of perpetual, though sometimes imperceptible motion. They reach the center of the pond and then, responsive to some impulse or stimuli unknown to me, they cry out to each other. They beat their wings with a muscularity that seems to alarm even them, hoisting themselves from the water with heroic though inelegant effort. Their transition to flight seems most difficult in the intermediate space between pond and sky, the horizon, its underneath riding the seam of the earth and its top indicating with a peculiar clarity (considering the imprecise nature of the term) that realm we describe as “above.” The work is arduous, but eventually, the geese gain the sky. How strange and beautiful—to watch momentum increase in an upward trajectory. They circle, collecting themselves and each other, and then set off across the treetops which surround the pond, heading towards the mountain a few miles away. They disappear behind the trees. I do not know where they’ll land.
I wonder what it’s like on the other side of revolution. I wonder who I am there. I write this because it’s true—I do wonder—but my formulation is misleading. I am already happening, already underway. So, too, is revolution. Instead of wondering, then, I continue. I activate and inquire in the intermediate; I ready myself for engagement; I enter before I’m ready; I fall; I commit without commentary; I lose and am lost; I marvel: I embrace: I let it all go: I delight and exclaim with each arrival; I expect departure; I attend; I attend again; I attend differently.
One might say I am made and re-made over the course of things. One might say I am undone, over and over. Which of these is more correct is, perhaps, not the most interesting question. It is not that we are remade or undone, but simply changed—here, and then elsewhere, this and then this.
Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York: Scriber, 2017.
Kourlas, Gia. “Review: Connecting Dance and Worship With Poetic Imagination,” The New
York Times, (New York: NY), Jan 8, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/arts/dance/reggie-wilson-review.html.
Demby, Gene and Shereen Marisol Meraji. “Why Now, White People,” Code
Switch. Podcast audio. June 16, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/16/878963732/why-now-white-people.
About the Author:
Sarah Lass is a Colorado-raised, Massachusetts-based dancer, writer, and educator. Her current book project, Small Dances, is a collection of essays which connects the work of dance to the work of building a more tender, more compassionate, and more joyful world. Her essay, “Ephemeral Does Not Mean Impermanent,” was recently published in the 2021 issue of The Briar Cliff Review. Lass received her MFA in Dance from Smith College in 2018 and graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College in 2013. She has taught dance courses at Smith, Hampshire, Marlboro, and Keene State Colleges.