Sanna Wani's "Tomorrow is a Place"

Thoughts on time, slowness, & the consequences of urgency.

Tomorrow is a Place

We meet at a coffee shop. So much time has passed and who is time? Who is waiting by the windowsill? We make plans to go to a museum but we go to a bookshop instead. We’re leaning in, learning how to talk to each other again. I say, I’m obsessed with my grief and she says, I’m always in mourning. She laughs and it’s an extension of her body. She laughs and it moves the whole room. I say, My home is an extension of my body and she says, Most days are better with a long walk. The world moves without us—so we tend to a garden, a graveyard, a pot on the windowsill. Death is a comfort because it says, Transform but don’t hurry. There is a tenderness to growing older and we are listening for it. Steadier ways to move through the world and we are learning them. A way to touch your own body. A touch that says, Dig deeper. There, in the ground, there is our memory. I am near enough my roots. Time is my friend. Tomorrow is a place we are together.

first published in Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day (2021)

I first read this poem when it was published in Poem-a-Day back in January, and I still think about it. At the time this was published, I was — we were — more than eight months into a pandemic that changed the way we lived, mourned, talked, and enacted love, loss, desire, pain, growth, and any and all feelings we hold within ourselves. And so that line — I’m always in mourning — felt real and true. A sentence to describe the dailiness of life.

I think what I love about this poem is the intimate we. For the better part of a year, despite the collective nature of this specific suffering, there has been so much emphasis on the individual. Refusals to wear masks. Corporations pressuring against the formation of unions. A kind of populism that says it serves the whims of individual choice, when so much of individual choice is dictated — whether we want to believe it or not — by things more powerful than us.

I have spent this week reading Jenny Diski’s Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told, and in one pointed essay, she writes:

Like physical pain, which each individual is asked to assess on their own scale of one to ten, how much hurt you have received and how devastating it has been for you is too subjective to bear much comparison.

Later, she writes:

Whatever hurts you hurts, and however damaged you’ve been is how damaged you are.

Throughout the essay, Diski pushes for a more empathetic view of suffering, rather than the all-to-common formula of stacking up one’s suffering against someone else’s, which feels like a decision we make in the absence of community, when collective thinking and consideration is no longer valued. Sometimes the world’s pressured insistence for us to focus on the individual nature of our suffering makes us madder, lonelier, and far more isolated because of what we feel like we should feel, because of who we feel like we should be after comparing ourselves to others. As Diski writes:

Sometimes you need to bury yourself, to be enabled to sit the worst out without the world pulling at you, asking you what the matter is, or reminding you of the things you should but can’t be doing.

I think Diski is right, and I think it is sad that Diski is right. Sad that we live in a world that pulls at you, even in your loneliness. Sad that we live in a world that pushes you into loneliness, commodifies every aspect of your life, transforms the good intentions of care into something that can be bought and sold. Self-care, I have come to realize, is more about making yourself desirable rather than healthier. It’s about transforming yourself into something worthy of being valued by society, rather than valued inherently for who you are: complicated, thoughtful, messy, creative, tired, exhausted, beautiful, fragile, strong, whatever and whoever and however you define whatever and whoever and however you are. In another essay, Diski quotes Simone de Beauvoir:

One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.

I think of that de Beauvoir quote when I read Sanna Wani’s work today. And it’s why, when you do encounter something as grace-filled as today’s poem by Sanna Wani, it feels transcendent. Within the poem is a kind of antidote to Diski’s point, and proof of de Beauvoir’s: you don’t have to bury yourself if you live among the kind of companion and compassion that allows you to be alone even when you are not, the kind of companion and compassion that permits you to be who or what you need. I think of that when Wani writes:

We’re leaning in, learning how to talk to each other again. I say, I’m obsessed with my grief and she says, I’m always in mourning. She laughs and it’s an extension of her body. She laughs and it moves the whole room. I say, My home is an extension of my body and she says, Most days are better with a long walk.

Present with these lines is the slow, seeming-easy compassion of witness. The we that began the poem breaks into the individual singulars — just for a moment. And in that moment, we, as readers, get to witness the way in which the two people in this poem are “learning how to talk to each other again.” And isn’t it beautiful? And heartbreaking? And funny, almost joyful? One person’s grief is complimented by the other’s mourning. They are alike in that way. They are heard. And one person’s laughter is loved and seen for what it is — “an extension of her body.” And not just that — it is acknowledged as home when Wani writes: My home is an extension of my body. Wani places the description of one friend’s laughter into the other friend’s language. In such a way, we see these people for who they are — not just two people learning how to talk again, but two people knowing, truly, how to love.

Immediately after, Wani writes:

The world moves without us—so we tend to a garden, a graveyard, a pot on the windowsill. Death is a comfort because it says, Transform but don’t hurry. There is a tenderness to growing older and we are listening for it. Steadier ways to move through the world and we are learning them.

The we returns, and two people of the poem are united again in the face of the world that “moves without” them. And it does, doesn’t it? And as it does, it — unlike the voice of death in this poem that says don’t hurry — says hurry, keep up. I love the subversion in this poem, the way death and aging are depicted as tender. And they are, aren’t they? They are filled with their own terrors, but most of the terrors that are ascribed to death and aging have little to do with such things and more to do with the way the world says stay young, stay beautiful.

But what I am drawn to most of all is the way in which today’s poem advocates for a kind of compassionate slowness. A steadiness. It’s echoed in the poem’s final lines:

Time is my friend. Tomorrow is a place we are together.

How often has the world told you to seize today? How often has the world reminded you of the present, and what must be done within it, and what must be bought, and what must be achieved? And when the future is mentioned, how often is it a place where — because of what you bought today, or what you did — you are a better version of you? There is no time like the present. Work like there is no tomorrow. Tomorrow’s you begins today. Hard work pays off. I, too, have had a t-shirt that said something like this. The adages of today have a specific ring to them. They are so universalized and pop-friendly that they are once ironic and pervasive. You make fun of someone saying there is no time like the present, only to scroll through the internet to find someone shouting it to someone else on a basketball court, or in a movie, or amidst a classroom.

I’ve been thinking of urgency so much lately. It’s the kind of word that cements itself into our daily consciousness as we move through our ordinary worlds. It permeates into the decision-making behind nearly every action. It’s leveraged as a way to get us to purchase things, yes, but it’s also leveraged as a way to utilize our best intentions. Because everything is so present, everything is also so scarce. Everything is lobbying for our attention. Even good things, too — or things, I should say, that seek our attention because of some moral need. The current focus on the ongoing, longstanding crisis in Palestine — and Palestine should and must be free — is competing with ads, articles, and viral videos for your attention. And nearly each and every thing is competing with a sense of urgency, knowing that if your attention is lost, then it is lost for good.

The problem with urgency is that it is inherently racist and capitalist. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the so-called father of scientific management — which, in large part, influenced the kind of top-down, hierarchical workplace culture that pervades so much of the Western world today — once noticed, early on, the wastes of a capitalist system that abused the planet. He said:

We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.

And yet, his response to such a thing was the following:

We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination. And for this reason, even though our daily loss from this source is greater than from our waste of material things, the one has stirred us deeply, while the other has moved us but little.

Rather than reflecting on the way in which the system of capitalist industry, which promoted progress at the cost of so much — human life, the natural world, social equity, and more — might be changed, subverted, or destroyed, instead Taylor mourned the way in which humans were inefficient, and sought to imagine a way in which they could be more efficient, and less wasteful as stewards not of the world, but of capitalism. What he imagined was a system that further alienated people from their labor, a system that forced individuals in a workplace to view themselves as individuals rather than a collective, a system that pushed people to compete with others within the same community, a system that served a select few as the rest were managed, rearranged, adjusted, and — when deemed inefficient, not urgent enough, no longer valued — fired.

I mourn Taylor’s lack of imagination. I mourn the lack of imagination of so many. Today’s poem is the kind of imagination that is truly powerful. It imagines a world of slowness, steadiness, slight inconveniences, long walks with nowhere to go. If it sounds idyllic, it’s because it is: our world sells us on a future of efficiency rather than the drawn-out compassion of friendship, which is long and full of paths that go every which way at once. Because the present is so hyper-commodified as the gateway to some never-to-be-achieved future, the notion of slowness as a radical way of life is almost laughable. But slowness is radical. It is not slowness that got us here, to this place of deep inequity, this place of hyper-anxiety, this place of lonely individuality. Urgency brought us here. Efficiency. Not wasting time. The very idea that time could be wasted. The very idea that what we experience within time — friendship, compassion, even, as de Beauvoir writes, indignation — could not be of inherent worth and value. This could not be further from the truth.

Time is my friend, Sanna Wani writes. It is. No one tells us that, but it is. It’s there with you always. It knows all of your intricacies. It knows the way sometimes, anxious before leaving my apartment, I start to see little things that need to be tucked away. I restack my books, play one single chord on a guitar. Time notices that. It’s there with me for that. Time sits with you when you stop to sit on your way to meeting a friend, a little anxious, paradoxically, not to be alone. Time is there when you miss your stop on the train. It’s there, right beside you. It’s there when you say fuck, I’m going to be late. Time’s there. And it’s alright. You’ll be late. It’s okay. If only we could treat one another the way time treats us. Some would say time ages us. It doesn’t. We age, and time ages with us. When we fight time, we age a little more, maybe a little faster. I know. It sucks. But it’s okay. Time comes back. Time never left. Time hangs out with us for a bit. Shares our french fries. Listens to our sorrow. Is in the picture where you have a stain on your shirt. Yeah, that one. It knows where you hide it. Time loves you anyway. Loves you still. Time is my friend. I want to love in the way time loves me.

A note:

I hate to engage in any form of self-promotion, but here is some. This summer, if you are interested, I am teaching two virtual workshops for The Stables — a creative collective based in Philadelphia.

The first is a 3 hour poetry workshop on Sunday, June 27th. In it, we will use the phrase “Let me begin again,” borrowed from Terrance Hayes’ poem “The Same City,” as a way to explore reimagination and permission. It will be a fun one (I hope!). Cost is $30. You can sign up here.

The second is a 4-week workshop that meets for a couple hours each Tuesday in July. This one — titled “Permission to Be Generous” — will use generosity, allowance, and a love of the word “and” as a way to give ourselves permission to write into the so-much-ness of ourselves, and refuse endings (at times). This will be a more typical poetry/multi-genre workshop in the sense that we will be generative and generous, and will hopefully emerge from the four weeks with some work we are proud of, some new understandings of permission and allowance, and some good company. Cost is $75. You can sign up here.