In the distance

By Catherine Keefe


“…far to the edge of desolation
suspicious of any poetry
even to exchange a hello…”

from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil
Translated from Indonesian by John H. McGlynn

In the distance, on the Bell Canyon Trail, are Santiago and Mojeska peaks. In the distance
of one week’s time two classrooms full of students will look up at me as if
I have something to teach them. In the distance of ancient geology I see
where oceans once covered this land, have now receded. In the distance
of imagination lies my chance to reseed hope, to teach how we might learn
to stop and listen to one another’s stories of our time together on this earth,
a blip. In the distance I see all of us working together as if we are not
each other’s enemy, but all the killing is. In the distance I see lands
without borders between
what it means to be human.

Ideas already freely cross borders. One of my favorite carefully curated online sites for international literature in translation is Words Without Borders, where I found the poem that contains the excerpt which opens this post. I’ll close with the last stanza of the poem

excerpt from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil

my palm resigned to resting
on desire still hopeful

can you only be felt
while taste is the experience of each of us
until you possess a range of understanding
untraceable by any and all senses
with no time limit however brief
then you intentionally slip longing
on each breeze converging
to then pit melancholy ’gainst action
time booked time and time again

Read something in translation today. You can read all of “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil by clicking the hyperlink.

Say hello to someone you don’t know.
In the distance I see us together. What do you see?

For more “In the distance” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 16,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.


Is it short in here, or is it just me?

I’m standing in the cereal aisle of my corner Albertsons when I notice a little woman stretching on her toes, clenched white teeth tensed between lips puckered in a scowl.  She asks me to grab a box of Grape Nuts just out of reach.

“Why do they put all the good cereal up so high? I’ll tell you why,” she says without waiting for my guess. “It’s a conspiracy against short people!”

She tells me this as if I plotted the whole thing to shame her into a grocery aisle conversation.  She shakes her head and those tight little lips melt down into a frown.

“Or,” I say, leaning in close, like a collaborator.  “It’s to get strangers to speak to one another.”

I hand her the box, raise my left eyebrow and give her a beaming smile.  Then I sashay away on my long, long legs and hurry home to tell you all about it.  And in the telling, I begin to laugh and laugh.  What a gift these things are that create conversation among strangers!  How, how, how very large!

I am large, or huge, monstrous or leggy. Elevated.  Tall. Whatever adjective you choose, the fact is I’m six feet tall; the average American woman stands around five feet four.  People count on a tall woman to be strong, fearless, accustomed to the staring and the Amazonian expectations based on nothing more than a 36 inch inseam.  Truth is, I’m afraid of rattlesnakes, big surf, and even though I’m not hungry, I’ll eat a giant stack of graham crackers smeared with homemade vanilla frosting before I face an empty page and wonder what the heck to tell you about on a Thursday because I fear sounding stupid, provincial, or, forgive me, small.

Is this just a lesson in how contrasts create tension to drive a narrative forward? Maybe.  Is it true?  Definitely.  Is it metaphor?

I’m in the middle of preparing my syllabi for the new semester and I read an interview in which author Nicole Walker wonders if by creating metaphor we might be mowing over small precious things. “Is the problem with comparing the large to the small that the world becomes reduced?” You can read the interview here if you like.

I think metaphor unites us in more of a knitted together sort of way rather than a shark gobbling a guppy process. Sometimes a writer, or any other human being, needs to cast a shadow when the real thing is either unavailable or inaccessible.

But we need to realize that one person’s reality or perception isn’t automatically universal, nor accurate, as I’ve learned from a lifetime of tall comments.

I’ve only met you sitting down, I had no idea you were so tall.
A colleague said this to me when our paths crossed at a restaurant.  Usually she’s sitting behind her desk when we converse.

You’re so big, you must be really, really old.
I laughed when the cutest little preschooler in a pink ruffle dress said this to me because it made so much sense and also because of the mortified look on her mother’s face.

You don’t look that tall.
I get this response a lot when strangers ask how tall I am and I tell them the truth. I wonder: What does “that tall” look like to you?  Must we constrain ourselves to an audience’s expectations?

It’s a great time to be tall.
Well I guess so.  But it’s been a pretty great time to be tall ever since the seventh grade when I wrote in my diary, “Dear God. Please let me shrink. Not too much, just a little every day. And please let my clothes and shoes shrink too.”

I don’t want to shrink anymore. One of my favorite ways to expand my mind is to read literature in translation.  If you’d like to grow too, check out “Words Without Borders”, the Online Magazine for International Literature.  It’s a conspiracy against small minds and way less fattening than graham crackers with frosting.

Here’s wishing you a million chances to grow today.