Stephanie Sauer

A Triangle Is the Most Stable Formation

Destroy: as play

On the sidewalk, a dead branch landed perfectly upright on its three equal spires. The urge in me to crush it goes like this: focus narrows as I fantasize stepping my full weight upon the apex of this balanced anomaly, feel the thing shatter, the crunch of it shocking my ears and rippling through muscle. The impulse to demolish this accidental perfection rushes through as joy. A pointless, playful joy. 

Instead, I pass to the side of the makeshift monument and hope another child finds it. 

The desire to destroy, though, does not leave me. It does leave the unsteady heartbeat I’ve come to know as marking giddiness. It leaves the memory of fun I took in destroying perfectly made things: mailing bubbles, green fronds stripped of their stems, sturdy cardboard boxes, seedpods that fell like helicopters, a fully bloomed dandelion, a sap-laced pinecone in a camping fire. 

Now that I am grown, I bring this play into making. It does not always present as fun. Sometimes destroying becomes confused with pain or ache or defiance. Sometimes it is purposeful. Sometimes, impulsive. I wonder if it would be better to simply admit that it is fun, that I cannot make without also wrecking. 


Dying: an inventory

Scarves, silk (12)
Handkerchiefs, cotton (6)
Gloves, paired (9)
Purses (13)
Pleated polyester pants, size 8 (6)
Denim pants, high-waisted, brown, size 10 (2)
Denim pants, low-rise, blue, size 10-14 (3)
Socks, paired (19)
Socks, unpaired (5)
Shoes, paired (26)
Bath robes (5)
Brassiere, lace, 32DDD (11)
Brassiere, satin, 32DDD (7)
Pantyhose, worn (21)
Pantyhose, unopened boxes (8)
Flat sheets, King (14)
Fitted sheets, King (3)
Pillowcases (28)
Beach towels (5)
Wash cloths (23)
Macramé plant hangars (2)
Filing cabinets (3)
Typewriters, electric (1)
Typewriters, manual (1)
Adding machine (1)
Display case, lighted (1)
Santa Clause figurines (33)
Christmas lights, strings of unused (18)
Christmas lights, strings of used (11)
Christmas-themed collectors’ plates (32)
Collectors’ plates (82)
Artworks, made by grandchildren (11)
Artworks, made by self (7)
Artworks, other (12)
Oil paint, tubes (34)
Paint brushes (9)
Gun cabinet (1)
Shotguns (5)
Handguns (1)
False teeth, sets (2)
Nail clippers (5)
Roller sets (4)
Lipstick tubes (17)
Lipstick tubes inherited from deceased sister (14)
Hair dryers (2)
Books (94)
CD/Cassette Players (2)
CDs (61)
Cassettes (27)
VHS players, working (1)
VHS players, broken (1)
DVD players, broken (2)
VHS tapes (24)
DVDs (19)
Tea pots (5)
Tea cups (53)
Cookbooks (24)
Recipe box (1)
Silverware, pieces (108)
Blankets (11)
Keys (89)


Dying: a beginning

After the last exhale, I braid a crown atop her head and sit in the stillness. There will be no viewing, no funeral, only fire.


Improvise: a body

In composing a poem, I do not know where the words, the sounds are heading, only that the ink is seeping around the ballpoint and onto the fibers of what was once living. Sound leads. 

But still, composing a poem never feels quite like improvising. The page is safe, too easy to crumple when no one is watching. To improvise requires witness and vulnerability, otherwise it is only a draft. 

I did not set out to learn about improvisation from Sophia. I was perfectly content with my drafting and my writing of scripts before performances. I had only signed up for the “traditional Oriental dance class” advertised at the neighborhood gym one night in the limbo that is a Chicago winter. A tall slip of a woman in flowing layers greeted us each as we unlaced our sneakers and stripped off our socks. 

Newcomers were advised to not use a coin skirt for at least our first few classes so as to avoid distraction by our own hips. Instead, Sophia lined us up in front of the mirrored wall under florescent lights in a room that smelled of day-old sweat and lemony Pledge, Pilates balls coloring the corners. She instructed us to stand with the weight of our bodies grounded in our heels, which should be almost touching. Toes out at a 45° angle, a triangle is the most stable formation. Knees bent. Shoulders back. Chest up. Chin out. Belly taut. Arms a loose oval, with fingers meeting at the bottom. A position my cells remembered from ballet.

To the tune of a song none of us had before heard, Sophia demonstrated the isolations: head, fingers, hand, arm, torso, hip. True to the format of every dance class I had ever attended, including the impromptu banda lesson from a friend at the county fair in Colima, we went the hour stacking movements together until we generated a nice little choreography of which to be proud. Classes continued this way, a savored break from writing. I practiced pivots and formed curvatures that, once embedded in muscle, I did not have to think about.

Months in, when the world was not so much frozen solid as frozen brittle, Sophia offered those of us who wanted more challenge a chance to form a small group with her on Tuesday nights in Rogers Park. Three of us accepted and trudged our way up north to meet her outside a studio basement she had rented for three hours at a time. Things there started off as familiar: she pressing PLAY on the portable CD player, leading us through warm-ups and isolations; we following with some by-then familiar sets. Soon, though, she asked us to improvise the next ten beats. Go! I was terrified, but we all moved simultaneously so that no one was paying attention to anyone else. A draft.

The rest of class moved this way, a blend of memorized steps and dips into trusting that our bodies would simply take us. A trusting, too, of the music. In the following weeks, she eased us deeper and deeper into the trusting. First, as short, solo improvisations of several beats when she pointed our way. Then came the day we were to improvise an entire song alone in front of the others. A song we had never heard. She explained that this had been the way traditional dancers perform, the way she had performed decades ago in venues throughout the city, always with a live band, each improvising off the other. We were given no warning. We were two hours in on a random Tuesday, sweaty and already a bit out of our heads. 

Still, I panicked. Thoughts raced. We all had coin skirts, but the other dancers were more experienced. One had even been performing in bars and was only there to sharpen her skills. I did not even trust my own body yet. I’d felt betrayed by it, having just recovered from a year of eczema so severe it had me sleeping in wet clothing while wrapped in 15-gallon garbage bags, even at the height of winter. It was a treatment specialists recommend for infants and finally prescribed to me when it became clear that nothing else worked, flesh aflame from the inside, no steroids or dietary changes helping. I raged at my body, feared it. But there in the basement, I filled with sadness and a new urge to befriend the body from which I’d been so severed. My turn came. Sophia played a Sephardic track that began with quiet strumming and vocals the pitch of pain. I began with finger isolations that traveled up my arms, then melodic lines extending to my hips, curving eights. Timed clapping rose and I let the sound stamp my right heal into the ground. Then left. Left, again. Rage swallowed up the sorrow that had hollowed thought. At the return of guitar, I found myself led by body the way I had been led by poetry. Hips flittered vocals. Arms outlined the whip of a string. Torso set fluid in a half whirl marked by heal slamming wood, adding sound. I lost I in the dervish, was filled and filling. Absorbed at the height of a hip pop, a smile. The song ended on the sharp edge of a wail. I closed my eyes and let the silence inside, let my palms tingle. 

I moved out of Chicago that next fall and I never found a dance instructor to compare. But in the performances I have given since, I rarely read from a script. I memorize the sounds and practice the beats, but when the lights dim and the air goes quiet, I improvise. It is a license I never believed myself capable of assuming, for language had too long resided out of body. 


Dying: still dead

Six months and she is still dead. No reckoning, only ache. Nothing will begin again. Sometimes, it is just a dying. This dying is only bearable because there was love. 


Failure: a beginning

Mid-performance, my technology failed. Costumed and flushed, I battled with the laptop from which I was to project a short video I’d made. The audience sat still, then began to stir. The spell of the performance had broken. The air went limp. A participant, then two, tried making the video play, but nothing came of our efforts. I apologized to those in attendance and asked if they still had patience for the film. I could replace the laptop, but would have to walk from the venue over to my collaborator’s apartment four blocks away to borrow hers. They were patient people and were in a place that served libations, so my collaborator and I branded it an intermission and left the stage in costume, devastated. Caught off guard, I broke character. I was not a seasoned performer. I was a planner and a perfectionist and I was mortified by this failing, did not act on my feet. I began the usual self-reprimand in the subjunctive tense. But as we walked and gained distance from the heat, the humor that infused the piece I was performing began to infuse me. I had no choice but to see this chaos as part of the making and as part of the making of me, a humbling. 

When we returned to the venue, we loaded the film and it played easily. The response of the crowd was generous and most stayed for more libations. 

In the days and weeks that followed, I felt a new kind of courage. I was no longer afraid of performing. My worst fears—a remarkedly botched performance and being revealed as openly embarrassed in front of a crowd of people—had come to pass and I had survived. I soon began to love this failure. I began to feel free not from it but because of it. Nothing else, in fact, could have freed me.


Dying: an intermission

Before the last breath, there is a waking, a final aliveness. Muscles lift, eyes open and fix and see, voice pierces chords not struck in weeks. The one who has been drowning in memory and forgetting, in pain and pee, refusing to drink or eat, speaking a language that contains no syntax and no translation, suddenly squeezes my hand and looks at me clean and tells the shimmery, whispery, crystalline thing. In the time after the dying, this touch this seeing this sound hold me. Is everything, only. There is no time in dying, only this touch this seeing this sound. And all that quiet.


Destroy: a making

I once wrote toward a book for an entire year. I was proud of my Discipline, of the Steadiness and Steadfastness that led to Productivity. I propped myself up with these values from a culture built on capital and progress. 

Trouble was, at the end of that year, I did not like the writing. I did not like the book my writing was becoming. I was bored by it and wanted no one else to be bored by it either. So, I threw out all the writing that bored me. What remained were three short entries, the first three entries. This writing excited me. 

I must qualify here: I did not simply throw the rest of the writing out all at once. I began by following the advice of another woman who writes. She must have known it would be hard for a human who had lived so few years to throw away all the work she had done in one of those years. She must have also known that it is hard for a US American to admit that labor has not amounted to something. She urged me to print the manuscript and cut into it with scissors, to cut up each section into a separate body. Then, I was to separate those bodies into piles marked DEFINITELY NOT, MAYBE, and DEFINITELY. Rather than throw out the piles marked DEFINITELY NOT and MAYBE, I placed their contents into manila folders and filed them away. I did as she’d instructed and never looked at their contents again, not even to this day, but their existence made the erasing and the writing possible. Everything opened out from their lack and the book I was writing became the book I wanted to write. 


Dying: a beginning that is also a middle

The calendar tells me three years have passed. I spread the heavy ash of her bones and sinews high in the Sierras, onto fresh snow. She hated the cold but loved these peaks, would love this view. We stay there together, me and what is left. I’d kept her remaining gray matter in a mason jar near me at all times, not quite ready to be orphaned. 

Three years, I am told, is a long time. I am not so sure.


Dying: an end that is also a middle

There is no time in dying.


Stephanie Sauer is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of Almonds Are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press) and The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force (University of Texas Press). Her work has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, Sacatar, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a Barbara Deming Memorial Award for Nonfiction. She teaches prose writing in Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas program and develops Lólmen Publications for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. @spoonsinthewoods.