THE TENDERNESS PROJECT
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tender

to care, to be sensitive, to tend, to exchange

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The Tenderness Project is a collaborative act of pointing, and imagining, and sharing, and gathering.  A collaborative gathering in and gathering up.  A listening.  An inquiry.  An experiment.  An archive.  A seam. 

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"granny" bobbie hayden

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trey hayden

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Ice & Spread

Though you put the cubes in still,

it was always something funny to you

that I liked ice in my orange juice.

And funny to me you had anything

to do with benedictine, as it oozed

deceptively in salt though the color

of mint. To make it you’d juice

a cucumber and mix in whichever white

spread to give it body and balance. It’s not

enough to love salt or spices on your

toast, which I think a lot learn too late,

already satisfied in some grave though still,

munching. Cucumber gives the dip

surprise. It’s enough to eat a sandwich

with the stuff spread thin or thick and say

you’ve eaten well, no matter who’s picky

and disdains it. I always took my bread

plain, which was pretending it tasted

good without wanting anything to do with what

could’ve come next, the push

it promised, and it’s just benedictine,

 

you’ve made it a hundred times I’m sure.

A hundred people could make a hundred

things and still not glimpse into them such an

other with so little as cucumber

and sandwich bread.

 

Sometimes I came so close

to tasting it that my pinky

dangled above the rim of the bowl

and shook in a circle until your feet

hit the floor of the hall and I returned

to my glass of juice, took it back, let

ice hit my mouth to cool it, and in that way

let my lip become a brim into which poured

what—earlier and with hands which for all

my life have seemed deliberately and tirelessly

to shape—you, Bobbie, granny

though you’d never let me say a thing so gaudy,

had poured.

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john rhodes hayden

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taylor alyson lewis

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three years

 

1.

Through the bars of my rented balcony,

Atlanta seems painted small and ephemeral.

Masticated gum and cotton-candy-blush children stride

skirting smoldering rubber on asphalt-

black and bleeding with rainwater.

 

I fear that any notion of home has no place in a

city of manipulated steel and dying heroes.

The spaces I called my sanctuaries,

places I have been deferred or devoutly deviant-

suddenly stood emptied by my own rejection of them.

Perhaps I was not built for meaning.

Perhaps I was not built at all, but sprang up from red clay soil,

Strung like a bow, the arrow of my desire.

 

I could one day plunge to the bottom of this world

and find soft-skinned purchase in wet gravel.

Peel my frozen face from the concrete and see red.

Press my cheek against the dirt,

hear the footsteps of dreamers,

maybe dream myself.

 

2.

You ever been so damn soft you melted

Through the cracks of the sidewalk like butter?

Remembered the brownness of her hand

on the small of your neck? You ever loved

so damn deeply that the moon was jealous and

stalked your sleeping black bodies, searching

for fire? In love, I have felt everything;

I would thank her that gifted me empathy.

I have never been so naked—I have

never felt the wind and the sun, as now.

Her name behind my teeth, a prayer for grace.

Her body absorbed by the ocean’s floor.

Yet my young soul stands alone, bidding

for hers to join in my awakening.


 

3.

an experiment of living

the vacuum dragged across the chipped floor

my first time cooking for someone

other than my open mouth

(besides my mama)

a softness of breath

a kept promise

the spring equinox

manifested in smoke

the small ridiculous creature

we call our child

her brown eyes tracking the movements

of our connected bodies—

the salt and steam of commitment

your naked selflessness

enrobed in cotton

the cinnamon/chocolate brown of our nipples

taut against the cold

the high blue windows

the balcony

the morning paranoia of forgetfulness

the screaming and

the water and

our eyes

the brown beef broth of routine

a chaste kiss at a traffic light

 

i love you over the phone

i love you in the car

i love you through the blooming green arch

and beyond it

 
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phillip sauerbeck

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dao strom

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I wanted to make something vulnerable for TENDERNESS. Or I wanted to make myself vulnerable, expose some gentle space or enter it, to encounter softness, to admit it, dare to inhabit it, a pliable aspect in the self in response to hardness, to force, to all the deadening weight, the dehumanizations, of history, the past, hungers, hauntings. I wanted to hold something soft that might soften me, for a moment, or at least an attempt at a moment. In a remote northern place (another country than America) I cut up photocopies of photographs of a past era - a past war - and laid them out next to the bodies of birds. As I held them I felt tenderness for the birds, and tenderness woke in me, toward the past, toward all our little forgotten bodies.
 

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tyler wilkinson

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Way late and way behind.. but your question has been in my mind ever since receiving your note.

 

I wonder if tenderness reflects ones capacity to be supple. I know that in a drawing a supply hand is an obedient hand.. this is something like tenderness..

 

In any case. I hope the project is going well and this message finds you equally well!

 

My best. T

 
To me, one of the most mysterious and often painful forms of tenderness is that of an adult child caring for their aging parent. My grandmother has recently become less and less able to care for herself, and my mother has stepped in to help, despite a difficult past between them. Caring for a parent can be a heartbreaking reversal of fortune for anyone. There is a kind of courage in accepting this change and stepping in where you’re needed, and a deep tenderness in trying to protect the decisions of those who are no longer able to be independent.

rachel taube

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until the elevator comes

Do you remember her name?

—Who?

—Seth’s new wife? Es? The new wife?

—Do you mean his old girlfriend, Esther?

—No, his new wife.

—He doesn’t have a new wife.

—You know, I’m not mad, but they didn’t invite me to the wedding. And they won’t get me out of here. I hate it here.

—I’m not married. There was no wedding.

—I know you’re not married. His wedding. Do you know her name?

—No, I don’t know.

—You never call me anymore. You used to call all the time, on your way home from work.

—I know.

—I’m not mad, but you didn’t ask my permission before moving so far away.

I imagine my grandmother on the other end of the line, sitting in her wheelchair. It’s a recent concession to her age, though she can still walk when she needs to. Her legs are swollen now, my mother tells me, because she won’t put them up like the doctor has told her to, and she has a gold fang hanging from her gum where she won’t replace her dentures. Her hair is still thick, though, and maybe that bodes well for my old age.

She’s right—I haven’t called her in weeks. I did recently move, to North Carolina for school, and I am busy, and I no longer have those walks home from work. But these are excuses that I tell myself and her. Really, I was afraid that, when she picked up, she might no longer know who I was.

—You know Rachel, you’re my favorite niece.

—You’re my favorite grandma.

—It’s so strange, no one knows her name. I don’t think Seth will be at Thanksgiving.

—He’ll be there.

—Oh okay. I’ll just pull Seth aside at Thanksgiving to ask him.

Shortly after my grandmother turned 94, she forgot who my mother was. She still knows me and my brother. She still knows my father, Seth, and that he is her son-in-law, and certainly that he is married to a woman who visits frequently. But my mother, both that woman and not, has dropped out of her world.

To be a daughter is in no instance an easy thing, but this is particularly true when your mother ceases to exist. We are promises and roadblocks and most of all we are mirrors. The world, which was formerly like a lake reflecting our images, my grandmother and my mother and me, now roils like the ocean sloshing off a flat earth.

A few weeks ago, my grandmother tried to escape from her caregiver. She dressed and walked down the hall and stood by the elevator in the middle of the night, waiting for it to come, refusing to return to her room. She waited and waited for the elevator until the sun rose and then set again. Until the earth circled its star and towers crumbled and reemerged from the dust and we blew ourselves up and the sun exploded and the universe exploded and the world restarted. Until the Ice Age and the Bronze Age and World War I had all passed and my grandmother was young again.

Until she was 19 and married, until she had her first miscarriage, then another. Until my mother was born, dark-haired like her father, and my uncle five years later, unexpectedly, after more un-baby disappointments. Until sibling jealousies morphed under uneven pressure into sorrow and hardened into anger and my mother and her mother sharpened their words. Until my grandfather died of cancer just weeks after my mother’s wedding, and I was born and my brother was born and still my mother and my grandmother sharpened their words. Until the anger became silence, and my grandmother stopped speaking to my mother for seven years, and in between was only the wind and me. Until my grandmother moved into a home and they started speaking again and my grandmother woke up in the middle of the night to stand in front of the elevator.

Until the caregiver had to call my mother in the early morning to yell and scream at my grandmother to please please go to bed, they will take you to the mental wing, they will kick you out, please go to bed.

—Do you like Seth’s new wife?

It is almost time to hang up—I need to go to class—and there is no answer for her but the truth.

—Yes. I like her. And she cares about you very much.

—Oh well, that’s nice. That’s something.

 
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hafizah geter

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on kindness 

BY ARACELIS GIRMAY

At the Detroit Metro Airport
with the turtle-hours to spare
between now & my flight, there is
such a thing as the kindness
of the conveyor belt
who lends me
its slow, strange mollusk foot
as I stand quiet, exhausted, having been
alone in my bed for days now, sleeping
in hotels, having spent months, now,
without seeing the faces of my family, somehow
its slow & quiet carrying of the load
reminds me of the kindness of donkeys,
& this kindness returns me to myself.
It reminds me of the kindness of other things I love
like the kindness of sisters who send mail,
wherever you are, &, speaking of mail, there is
the special kindness of the mail lady
who says, “Hi, baby”
to everyone, at first
I thought it was just to me, but now I know
she says “Hi, baby” to everyone. That is kindness.
Too, there is the kindness of windows, & of dogs.
& then there was that extraordinary Sunday
back at the house, I heard a woman screaming
about how she was lonely & so lonely
she didn’t know what she’d do, maybe kill
herself, she said, over & over like a parrot
in a cage, a parrot whose human parent
only taught it that one sentence. I looked out
the window & saw her from behind, the way she flung
her arms like she was desperate & being killed
or eaten by an invisible predator, like a tiger or a lion, in the chest. & her voice seemed fogged out with methadone, I don’t know, something, & I walked away from the window
& sat, angry with her for screaming, & sad,
& not long after, I heard her saying,
What’d you say? What’d you say to me?
& a man’s voice, low, I could not tell if it was kind.
& she said, I’ll kill myself, I’m so lonely.
& did I tell you, yet, that it was Mother’s Day?
Flowers & mothers, flowers & mothers all day long.
& the woman saying, I’m so lonely. I could kill myself.

& then quiet. & the man’s voice saying, it’s okay. It’s okay. I love you, it’s okay.

& this made me get up, put my face, again, to the window
to see my landlord’s nephew outside, just hugging her so, as if it were his mother, I mean, as if he belonged to her,
& then, again, quiet, I left the window but sat
in the silence of the house, hidden by shutters, & was amazed. When the front door of the brownstone opened up
& let the tall nephew in with his sad & cougar eyes,
handsome & tall in his Carolina-Brooklyn swagger, I heard
him start to climb the stairs above me, & my own hand
opened up my own front door,
& though it was none of my business
I asked him, Do you know that woman out there?
& do you know what happened next?
He said, No. The nephew said no, he didn’t know
the woman out there. & he told me Happy Mother’s Day
as he climbed the rest of the stairs. & I can’t stop seeing them hugging on the street, under trees, it was spring, but cold,
& sometimes in the memory his head is touching hers
& sometimes in the memory his eyes are closed,
& sometimes she is holding him
& singing to him I love you. It’s okay.
I mean to tell you that everywhere I go
I hear us singing to each other. This way. I mean to tell you that I have witnessed such great kindnesses as this,
in this, my true life, you must believe me
.
I mean, on a Sunday, when nobody was supposed to be watching. Nobody at all. I saw this happen, the two
of them hugging, when nobody was supposed to be
watching, but not a secret either, public
as the street, not for glory & not for a joke,
the landlord’s nephew ready to stand there for the woman
like a brother or a sister or a husband or son,
or none of those at all, but a stranger,
a stranger who, like her, is an earthling.
Perhaps this thing I am calling kindness
is more simple than kindness
, rather, recognition
of the neighbor & the blue, shared earth
& the common circumstance of being here:
what remains living of the last
two million, impossible years… 

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abigail bereola

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snapshot—january 2018

You always dwell on the moment after the moment. Maybe that's because it's sweet with possibilities that only you can see. Even when it's raining, you can only think of the ground swelling with delicious water
—AstroPoets
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Life will always come at us... Healing, evolving, and becoming more conscious doesn't stop the pain from piercing our protective outer layers... Self-reflection and therapeutic processes can teach us how to find our way through life with a solid stride, stumbles and all. 
Chani Nicholas
 

emily jensen

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they told me he had no tongue.

 

he sat on his cement slab of porch

on a folding chair

that looked like it was straight out of

a church basement.

 

every morning when i

peeked my head out

into the thick louisiana air

there he was.

 

i’d smile and say

“mornin”

and he’d just nod

keeping his mouth shut tight

as he watched me walk down st. claude

in a white dress

stained with miller high life and

cigarette ash.

 

we didn’t have much in common,

an old southern man

and a young northern girl

but we had our morning greeting

like a tiny bridge between far-apart worlds.

 

i never once heard him make a sound

until the day i left.

 

as i heaved my bags into the car

i heard a sort of yelp-howl

and when i turned around

there he was in his chair

with his arms crossed over his heart

in a gesture that looked like love

and his mouth open wide in a grin

that showed he really did have no tongue

 

but when he pointed at me

and clasped his arms across his chest again

i knew we’d understood each other anyway.

 

tenderness in the 9th ward.

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coleman stevenson

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  1. I would call my childhood idyllic in that it was out of the influence of most humans

  2. But the current drifted down the driveway & my leaf boat sailed away

  3. A single escape into multiple traps in the world of folly and whims

  4. A reckoning (My otherness)

  5. A reckoning (My sameness)

  6. A maze of rivers & renditions, A maze of systems & searches

  7. Too few results, a too-tall Tower, too much rain to plant seeds

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chet'la sebree

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Tender-ness

The cube steak of my childhood,

which I’m told was tough. My

memory of it is a soft massaged

muscle, the wet in the corner of my

mouth.


 

The pressed fresh of skin freed

from a nail cut too deep.


 

The ache of devotion. Knees bone

sore from double genuflection at

faithless men’s doors.


 

Forgiving you for forgiving me for all

that I can(not) be.

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taylor cass talbott

...real postcard sent to me in 1988, which my mom recently recovered from an old box of keepsakes.  I was Brodie's best "fried gril" until last year, when I became his wife.  Even in dark moments, this postcard helps keep me tender.  
 postcard from my future husband

postcard from my future husband

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Empathy: the ability to put yourself in the place of another. Being able to really identify with another person and see things from their standpoint. Have that depth of understanding. Take yourself out of yourself and seeing yourself from another’s point of view. Which means investing yourself in another person so as to know how they think and feel, and feel that for yourself.
— David Hurd
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brian mcqueen

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remove choice from a person and you strip them from what makes them a human being / the blueprint of a life // there is in fact no act of love that includes violence // emotional / physical / psychological // no act of love that uses fear as a motor // the two cannot abide in the same space simultaneously // tenderness / his hand on the small of my back / his shoulder / an open ear / empathy even without understanding // letting him come first and him also // tenderness is a fermata / tenderness is love's wings giving flight to that which is the only real thing i know / a trans-ing / a light

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amna ahmed

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forgotten anthem

Your bones are shackles that will continue bonding to foreign frames

These marches hold the rhythm of a revolution but the harmony of a sinking conviction

Spectrums range from what you once knew to what you will never, and all else is lost in translation

Between the lips of lady liberty slip the secrets you sold to chance

The smell of freedom is church bells and fresh cut grass in July

Let the stars and stripes reach the lining of your stomach and confess what your blood cannot absolve

Shatter into fifty and shower in a smattered constellation of intoxicating indifference

Humble before the beat and pull; conjure what brought you worlds away, ways away

It is nothing more than loose footing on packed soil that trembles where your lungs can’t go

There is no lightning; witness the thunder

ARTWORK: John Hayden. Joker. 2015. Polyester. L’Orangerie, Louisville.

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i mean there are things, things like setting up house for a family of syrian refugees and sitting in countless doctor’s offices with them translating with our phones... like them having us over to celebrate iftar. small things, like helping some elderly saints down the steps from the chancel after an evening of choir practice for the community, interfaith, inter-race MLK service. things like apologizing to a friend of a different political party for not defending her enough when an internet troll from my political party was rude. these are moments of tenderness, but how do we write about those and they not come off smaller? better writers than i probably can. or, there’s my mother’s daily spread, when guests would come to see father, a doctor, always around lunch time, because they knew her table could feed them. but this was in another country.

jeremy paden

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try pounding

& when pounding fails

cut against the grain 

 

some will tell you

the secret is the marinade

not just any 

 

but their acid bath 

perfected 

by trial & error 

 

to eat away the connective 

tissue before 

the softening work of fire

 

some will tell you

slaughter the young

while still suckling 

 

that meat is like grass

tender & sweet

when just a bud

 

but here we are, old

& the fires of the world 

have cooked us hard

 

we are tired & our 

hearts have grown 

large & tough

 

climb the steps 

take the flint 

crack the chest

 

pound the heart

pound & mince

& grind it down

 

there will be no tenderness

until bruised & battered

the heart like a seed

 

like a cedar shoot

is taken to the mountain

high & planted 

 

we have too long

been in a land of traffick 

in a city of merchants

 

for too long our hearts

have been bought & sold

to the lowest bidder

 

I am old & spent

& heart in hand, bleeding

I give it to you

 

I ask nothing

nothing of you in return

I've worked it over

 

it will still be tough

in parts, beat my heart 

till soft & once 

 

your mallet 

has done what it could 

once you’ve slow 

 

braised it

set your knife against 

its grain & slice

 

 

Let us lift up tenderness. Of the fierce kind and the vulnerable kind. Of the kind that picks up wounded animals and wraps them in the feathers that brooding hens have plucked from their chest to warm their clutch.

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ainsley wagoner

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make me your country. be tender to me.

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ross gay

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3 tender-nesses

 

56. The Hand-written Letter

 

I am one of those lucky souls who regularly receives handwritten letters.  Lucky sort of implies unbidden or unreciprocated handwritten letters, which is not the case.  I write a lot of letters.  Not a lot in the old-timey way.  A lot for today.  Which I guess isn’t saying much.  But every time I receive a handwritten letter I feel like someone who ought to call himself one of those lucky souls, because I am

 

The handwritten letter next to the bed where I’m writing this is written in a lovely, almost old-timey cursive with a bonnet and a cast iron woodstove to it.  There is also a beautiful drawing of two people embracing which, she told me, was a sketch for a graphic novel she’s working on.  This epistolary sketch reminds me the dire inadequacy of the emoji, though I am glad for the brown thumbs up.  Believe me.  It also reminds me, for some reason, the sorrow I feel at the genuine corruption, or perversion, of the exclamation point by very famous and erratic twitterers.  I wrote it like that to let you know that no, I don’t do it.  Which is not a judgment, just a fact.

 

Once I was extolling the virtues of the handwritten letter to a group of students at Rutgers, telling them that, first of all, it’s a mode of writing, of practice, of communicating ideas to someone with whom, presumably, you want to communicate.  Which hopefully is the very same thing we are doing when we write our poems or essays or whatever.  (This doesn’t, to me, negate or trouble the fact that poems and essays are also, as I see them, written very much to oneself—they are letters to ourselves, which imagines a kind of mutuality or sameness between the writer and receiver.)  But, too, I said to the student, whose handwriting was terrible, he told us, the magic of the handwritten letter is that it communicates our bodies across this space.  The actual oils of our bodies.  Our breath glazing the pages.  If we sneezed and such.  (I might have lost them on that one.)  His terrible handwriting his beautiful and disappearing and only body stuffed into an envelope to be shared with, to say hello to, his friend. 

 

A computer cannot.  Email, etc.  Even typewriters, which I sometimes write letters on and love for the ways different technologies make our bodies think differently, and for my substitution of the phrase “expl. pt.” for the exclamation point, which mine does not have.  Lovely, but it’s not a handwritten note, the scrawl of which, when I receive one, and if I am not in a hurry, I will sometimes find myself almost caressing with the tips of my fingers.

 

February 16, 2017

 

62. Hand to Mouth

 

There are few things as wonderful for its profound tenderness as watching a person’s mouth move as they write by hand.  I noticed it today as the hotel clerk scribbled the internet password on the back of a card, her mouth moving just so.

 

Sometimes you might discern a slow-motion mouthing of the words the scribe scribes.  Sometimes it is a simple twitching, the lips pursing just so, teeny kisses floating into the air.  Or the tongue probing the corner of the mouth, or dragging along the teeth.  Sometimes the jaw gets involved, the muscle pulsing flashing a shadow near the ear.  Or a neck tendon flickers taut like a kite string catching a gust. 

 

The tenderness I feel toward the little mouthings of writers is cousin to the tenderness I feel when I see people mouth the words they are reading, neither of which I can quite explain, except to say the tenderness is deep, and I am inclined in equal measure to look and look away.  To boot, I noticed today that when in the presence of such literary oralists I also start kissing the air. 

 

March 4, 2017

 

 

96. Raucous Greetings

 

Among the delights—among the things that delight me for its being an expression, one of the bodily expressions of delight—is the raucous greeting, which comes in many forms.  Today I saw it on 14th street when two young men hugged each other so enthusiastically, so convincingly, that one of their hats flew off his head, neither of the huggers making the least gesture toward retrieving it, so enthralled with, so entrenched in, the hugging, the greeting they were.  So concerned with eliminating the distance between their bodies, and hearts, were they.

 

May 7, 2017

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john akira harrold

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the project of survival in america is one that has much to do with... how we externalize that history into our present context.
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Here's a visual titled "same page" as part of a series called "yonsei" that I'm hoping to make into a small book. It represents a relationship between the issei (1st gen. japanese immigrants to america) and yonsei (4th generation japanese). As a yonsei my ability to survive in america is indebted to family who endured tougher times and invested in my ability to be and thrive in america. Being yonsei can feel like "cashing in" on the work of previous generations. We carry trauma from internment and what that has done to our families and relationship dynamics but many of us are mixed and relatively privileged. My hope is that as a group we can work through this trauma in ways that previous generations weren't able to - specifically by being in solidarity with groups that haven't been allowed the same opportunities as us. So for me, the project of survival in america is one that has much to do with the issei long-game, and how we externalize that history into our present context.

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