Monday, May 9, 2016

"Like Water Through a Sieve," by Anne Nesbet

Last weekend I was celebrating Independent Bookstore Day by wandering happily through my second of TWO within-walking-distance independent bookstores, Pegasus Books (the other wonderful local store is Books Inc., Berkeley), when I noticed a little table with squares of paper scattered across--and on each piece of paper was what seemed to be a few words or a phrase in mirror writing. A card explained: these were sentences from Alice Through the Looking-Glass, turned into temporary tattoos. Volunteers were being asked to adopt one of these little literary tattoos, apply it to some friendly patch of skin, take a photo of the phrase, and send it to the people running this project so it could be stitched together with a gazillion other photos of word-tattoos and turned into a new, breathtakingly crazy online edition of Through the Looking-Glass.

Well, now, listen. They had me at "Alice"! All the rest was blah-blah-blah details. I was in. Of course, I wanted to be part of a living Looking-Glass! I nabbed one of the little tattoos and brought it home quick as could be, so I could set about BECOMING ART. I read the instructions many times, but quickly.

"1. Write down or remember your number."

There was a four-digit number on the tattoo, so that the organizers could later sort our emailed photos into book order. So cleverly arranged.

"2. Rip, fold, or cut your number off, so that it is not applied. 3.--"

Oh, goodness, how hard could this be? I grabbed a wet paper towel and applied that tattoo to my arm. I could feel myself BECOMING ART! It was a little drippy, but thrilling! I counted out the thirty seconds at fever speed. Long enough, surely. Let's look! ART! --

There it was, my own tattooed sentence, looking grand: "Like water through a sieve."  Let's be honest, I got one of the best lines on that table, didn't I? "Like water through a sieve"! That's so great! That's philosophical! Maybe I should get a real tattoo saying that, "Like water through a--OH, RATS!"

I had forgotten to cut the little number off. So on my arm was the Alice phrase--and an unsightly four-digit number.

My right hand reacted before my brain even picked up the neuron-phone. My right hand reached over and scritched that ugly number out, quick as quickest quick--GONE.

Now I was really Art! Except--OH RATS AGAIN!!

I had just destroyed the only link between my gorgeous Alice tattoo and the rest of the book project.

I looked sadly at my speedy right hand, but there were no numbers left, nope: just a bit of powdery black debris under my fingernail.

.....So, friends, have you reread the Alice books recently? Do you see where this is going? Are the little hairs that respond to coincidence and magic beginning to leap up on the back of your neck?

Because for one thing, I may have flunked Following Instructions, but even in my failure to Follow Instructions, I was definitely, positively following Alice! I had just more or less managed to reenact Alice's adventures in the hall with the tiny door into the garden and the key to the door on the top of the glass table and when she's tall she can't get through the door and when she shrinks small she can't reach the key and up and down and up and down it's all a fiasco until we all nearly drown in a pool of our own tears.........

And then, speaking of moisture and mental failure, what did my new tattoo say again? "Like water through a sieve"!

That is my mind at work: like water through a sieve. Oh, my, yes.

It's from the White Knight's song (I went back and looked it up):

"'Who are you, aged man?' I said.
'And how is it you live?'
And his answer trickled through my head,
Like water through a sieve . . . ."

The sad story of my life is that all too many things just trickle through my head, like water through a sieve.

On the other hand, let me just point out that sieves are potentially very creative objects. Ideas trickle through in lovely trickly patterns. We can't hold onto all the details, maybe, but that just means we have to get very good at making details up--or at writing details down, so that we can find them later. The holes in the sieve are what make it a sieve--our own gaps and flaws make us what we are, don't they?


And then I laughed and thought happily about sieves for quite some time, and about all the sieve-like flaws and gaps and scars and fails that make me Me. Even if I am not exactly ART, I am--because of (not despite) all those flaws and gaps and scars and fails--an artist, a writer, a sieve that works a little bit of magic on the world trickling through it.

What flaw or gap or scar or fear or failure is your secret creative strength, if I may ask? "How is it you live?" as the question goes in the White Knight's song.

Remember that the Knight himself, like all writers, tends to fall off his horse quite a bit ("he had a habit of now and then falling off sideways"). If we remember how close the word "riding" is to "writing," we can find ourselves reading the story a little differently:

"'The great art of riding [or writing!],' the Knight suddenly began in a loud voice, waving his right arm as he spoke, 'is to keep----' Here the sentence ended as suddenly as it had begun, as the Knight fell heavily on the top of his head exactly in the path where Alice was walking."

To keep--

falling and flowing!

--like water through a sieve.


  1. Like most writers (at least I venture this is the case), I can get happily lost in my thoughts and pay no attention to the needs of others. What, did you actually say something? And I agreed to it? (My children love these states of amnesia. They generally ask for and receive the moon.)

    1. Getting lost in your thoughts is a good example of a possibly helpful weakness, isn't it? You may seem scattered to the Outside World, but actually you are exhibiting a talent for extreme focus! :)

  2. What an interesting project, Alice is a wonderful pick because of all the lovely quotes like the one you picked. This really makes me want to do a re-read!

    1. I've loved ALICE all my life! Such brilliance everywhere....

  3. This speaks to the magic of writing and how we wander - and that this path is not "step by step instruction". A fun and whimsical post, Anne!

    1. Oh, my, it certainly isn't "step by step" in any organized, predictable way, is it? Thanks for your comment, Donna!

  4. This sounds like something I'd do too! But the tattoo looked nice. =)

    1. I find I like having a literary line on my arm for a week . . . . Maybe temporary tattoos are the fashion wave of the future??


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!