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[Background music, instrumental.]
I’m Tracy K. Smith and this is The Slowdown.
You know how they say that, when confronted with a photo, most peoples’ natural inclination is to seek out themselves? I suspect this might also be the case on videoconferencing platforms. I have Zoom meetings most every day, and I hate to admit it, but of all the faces in the tiny grid, my eyes keep gravitating back to my own. Is that what I look like when I talk? I find myself thinking. How is that the expression I make when I listen? What’s up with my mouth? And on, and on. I think I may have found the true culprit of the “Zoom headache.”
My kids are the same way. For them, Face Time is just a chance to make loony faces in what is, essentially, a flashy mirror. With a tap of button I hadn’t previously known existed, they can turn themselves into foxes, or sharks, or—much to my dismay—poo emojis. Which is why it’s so exciting when I find them enthralled by a mound of dirt in the backyard, or bent over the pages of an actual book. They’ve wriggled free of the human compulsion for self-scrutiny. For however long it lasts, they’ve forgotten themselves entirely.
The same goes for me when I sink into a good book, or sit in the backyard chasing after a woodland creature with just my eyes. That rapturous self-forgetting helps me temporarily cut ties who I am, and what I lack, and how soon I ought to get back to the task of trying to keep up with my betters. It’s been hard to get to that state under the current conditions. Everywhere I look, there’s evidence of me. Best are the days when something unexpected takes me by surprise. A song comes on, even a song I’ve heard a thousand times before, but this time it opens up a new door. Or, I turn the page onto a rapturous metaphor and finally, thankfully, I’m carried far far away from the cage of my own self-regard.
I guess this is another of the lifesaving properties of art: the ability to carry us far beyond the limits of our known selves. Because the world is full of fascinating perspectives, and sometimes one very good form of self-care is to get lost in the world outside your head.
Today’s poem is “The Piano Speaks,” by Sandra Beasley.
The Piano Speaks
After Erik Satie
For an hour I forgot my fat self,
my neurotic innards, my addiction to alignment.
For an hour I forgot my fear of rain.
For an hour I was a salamander
shimmying through the kelp in search of shore,
and under his fingers the notes slid loose
from my belly in a long jellyrope of eggs
that took root in the mud. And what
would hatch, I did not know—
a lie. A waltz. An apostle of glass.
For an hour I stood on two legs
and ran. For an hour I panted and galloped.
For an hour I was a maple tree,
and under the summer of his fingers
the notes seeded and winged away
in the clutch of small, elegant helicopters.
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The Slowdown is a production of American Public Radio in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.
Update: The Slowdown has added an automated transcript service.