Sei Shonagon’s Categories (I think):
THINGS THAT MAKE ONE’S HEART BEAT FASTER:
Magnolia trees, their blossoms like exhausted ballerinas. Stars carved into the backs of delicate comfortable chairs. All the air bubbling, the will-the-wisp nonsense of a blue veiled dance, a fetching look. Vibrations of molecules along wires, into the ether. Pigeons huddled on the warm side of a tower. A row of white porcelain teapots. Tiny stones in the deep blue pond of the air.
A blue stucco house with no curtains and a front yard of dirt and stones. The stoicism of Northern people living through March again. Flowing water, blood, milk. Years of bending and filling.
Gray-haired women knitting yellow hats for premature babies. A country with many saviors and sacrificers working to make the world a better place. Heroes and heroic tales. Anguished young martyrs baring their bosoms to the sword.
The smell of snow. A village celebrity who thinks he is entitled to a special seat in the café. A narrow path opening to river shallows. An old man with a Tootsie Pop. A strip of pebbles by the river where someone small might bend to drink. A clear flute in the dark. Walking toward one’s shadow. A stack of blue saucers. Old ladies in corsages. A stack of white porcelain cups.
THINGS THAT CANNOT BE COMPARED:
The way dark hair curls down the neck of a handsome clerk and children wearing pointed hats sitting on tall stools in corners. Flocks of birds and people clapping. The end of hurry and a red leather shoulder bag with compartments for everything one needs, including a paper knife and earplugs. The solemn descent of oak leaves and a chickadee with cold toes clinging to one’s finger.
THINGS THAT AROUSE A FOND MEMORY OF THE PAST:
Young men in baggy flannel trousers printed like pajamas. The moon through lace curtains. Cows scratching on a rock at dawn. Clean water. Narrow benches with odd legs. A group of young women talking with a baby in a maroon snowsuit. Crows chasing hawks. Sitting in a folding chair. A brown paper bag filled with false mustaches.
Broken houses dark in the noise of war. A blank page. The compulsion some people have to go downhill fast. Strawberry shortcake made with donuts. A willing ballerina with a broken shoe.
The end of tribalism. A round white stone. A clear space. A walnut-shell bed with a rose petal coverlet. Engraved notepapers. A yellow dog eating cherries from a tree. The smell of snow. A thin green fish, transparent but for its dull black eyes, who swims its life away between the tentacles of a giant squid.
THINGS THAT GIVE A PATHETIC IMPRESSION:
Anyone who thinks his place is more important than anyone else’s, who stares and clears his throat until you get out of his way. A breathless anticipation of Whales. A small boy struggling through thick snowflakes. A veil of cloud draping a mountain after rain. A gravedigger waiting in a red truck, playing the radio, drinking coffee from a paper cup.
The hiss of an espresso machine. Garden spiders guarding the beans. Leaving parties. A coffee grinder like a dentist’s tool. The secret knowledge that one is a better poet than any of them. A dead sister in a bridesmaid’s dress.
The chipped and scratched jelly cupboard built and painted white by one’s grandmother, full of English teacups and blown-glass vases. A fat gray cat sitting on a seed catalogue. Beaded ballgowns, silks, handmade suits.
SURPRISING AND DISTRESSING THINGS:
A dresser full of perfume bottles, tin boxes, bolts of cloth. Many photographs of people you don’t know standing in front of Japanese temples or tall white houses in Greece. A monkey searching for the brightest berries. A small black cat looking for an open door.
THINGS THAT GIVE A HOT FEELING:
A closet full of fur coats that one is ashamed to own. Waiting for a friend who is always late. Fountain pens nibbed with gold. An upright bass with bright blue strings. Air tasting of diesel fuel and pine sap. A woman frowning at bananas, wondering if they will ripen too soon.
THINGS THAT GIVE A CLEAN FEELING:
The underside of a nuthatch, white and patterned with brown. Yewbush needles defined with dew. Black limestone wet with rain. A small girl in tiny eyeglasses who has never seen a burdock root. Awakening in the morning to find the garden full of dew. The line of the east gable of one’s house seen by moonlight. A catbird, who, having no song of his own, makes one from clippings.
A red squirrel’s tiny delicate feet. Old people excited by the smell of frying donuts. A wagonload of small children on an outing with plump and cheerful teachers who stop often to point to butterflies or orange tulips. A black puppy with sleepy eyes waiting in the backseat of an old green car.
A ruined bedroom where one was ill. The back of a kitchen drawer. A mouse’s abandoned nest. A cheap orange sweater with a hole in one sleeve. The sound of dry leaves blowing across the cement floor of a hospital parking garage. A plastic bag entangled in a broken barbed wire fence.
Yellow curtains. An oriole singing in the top of a wild apple tree. A lawn with maple color covering. Spotlessly clean eyeglasses. A chubby man carrying a zucchini into a doctor’s office. God’s peculiar kind of household growing like a mustard seed, or like a banquet of cripples and fools. Children crying at the funerals of old ladies. The sound of an approaching parade. A field of pumpkins.
Magazines in dentists’ offices. Football games in the cold. Sleepless nights in generic hotels. Descriptions of movies one has no desire to see. Piped in music in funeral homes. A cold kitchen that smells of turnips.
A baritone singing lieder with piano accompaniment. A waning moon like an sore red eye. A “feminine need” away from home. Spaghetti stains on a white shirt. A stink bug laying eggs on a sheet hanging on the clothesline. Easter communion bread stuck in one’s throat.
Weeding the thready roots of coreopsis from hard white violet knots and the long white ropes of mint. Picking ugly apples in the rain. An irritable ventriloquist’s dummy. Washing piles and piles of old towels. Scouring cat litter boxes and bird feeders.
The cries of a lone gosling watching its parents fly away. A woman in shorts and high-heeled slings, displaying to advantage her rippled midlife thighs. An old man with tattoed ankles sitting in a wheel chair. A broken robin’s egg with a tiny, rubbery embryo inside.
AWAKENING THINGS: The mint overgrowing one’s dead sister’s herb garden. A texting driver swerving to avoid hitting a rabbit. A white-crowned sparrow preening in a broken pine tree, stopping now and then to throw back his little head and sing. An 83-year old grandmother trapped in a mangled car, sucking moisture from her socks. A new pink tulip in a blue vase.