Kathryn Cowles, “Keeping Track”

A thought, thrown away: “no six, I missed one / it was there anyway.” I can recall when I spoke—even counted—like that. Especially tedious tasks at retail and stocking jobs. Worrying at moments which skirted the edge of disaster. Numbness after a break-up, a sense of loss that won’t go away, a sense of being lost no matter what I do.

The recognition there was a missed sixth follows a moment of more careful observation. “five birds on the wooden beam / black and shaking their luck.” There’s a story here. Maybe the birds escaped a rainstorm, found a beam beneath a ledge or cropping which could shelter them. It sounds like they’re shaking out the water they’ve been hit with. This is “Keeping Track.” The birds are counted; where they are, how they’ve behaving, what color they possess accounted.

Keeping Track (from Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World)
Kathryn Cowles
five birds on the wooden beam
black and shaking their luck
no six I missed one
it was there anyway

It’s strange to think how reliant we are on numbers. “10,000 steps a day to better health.” “I know I’m improving–I got a 90 last time and a 93 this time.” “He wasn’t that hot, maybe only a 6.”

It’s strange to think how we use numbers to tell us what life is. As if there were a number that could get us into heaven, one built from faith or works.

But numbers aren’t the same as counting, as attentiveness. If you’re trying to count the birds on the beam, you’re trying to take in that scene. Some part of you relates.

Some part that’s in distress, perhaps having just escaped disaster. Some part that feels it’s in a makeshift shelter.


It’s funny how realization is surrounded by a host of denials. How the opportunity to see the obvious could be grasped so much sooner.

I remember not even knowing I was numb. I was acting like it was no big deal, trying to be nonchalant. I actually thought I felt good. Pushing myself to actively listen, ask questions, take a real interest in everything around me.

And then came a simple task. I just had to describe what I saw. And I might as well have focused on five birds so intently that I missed the sixth. I would have definitely missed myself in that picture. How do you count yourself? An apt answer: “it was there anyway.”


Tom Snarsky shared this “moment” (his word) from Kimberly Gray’s work on Twitter, and I thought it complemented this discussion well:

from Systems for the Future of Feeling
Kimberly Gray

If we are failing.
If failing is gathered in the mind.
If we mind failing.
If we leap from place to place and never arrive.

The two middle lines are key: “If failing is gathered in the mind. / If we mind failing.” At stake is self-erasure. Of course one will “leap from place to place and never arrive” if all the mind does is gather failure and focus on it.

It’s easier said than done to remedy this. Rejection hurts because it is personal. It takes a long time to realize it may not have been you. That there were different priorities, different standards, a whole way of conceiving things you couldn’t have seen. I guess, though, having said that, I can see better that self-erasure is purposeful. Five birds and a list of failures do a good job of distracting from a self we’d rather not confront.

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