Kjære Di,

You mentioned the church bells in Genova and the calls to prayer in Istanbul. When I think about these kinds of things in my own life – the church bells in Stavanger, the live singing coming from the minarets in Skopje when I was there for a conference – I think about the necessary silence that surrounds them. Lying on the floor of a rented room in Skopje, I heard the singing long before dawn: the song was strange and comforting simultaneously. In Stavanger, those 12 years in the house near the church, the bells were like a grown-up call to recess: Sunday.

sheepOut here in Jæren, I don’t hear the church bells. But it is quiet, and the sparrows’ chatter outside the window punctuates the silence in the same way. With the same reverence. And on weekend hikes, there is the ubiquitous clanging of sheep bells. A somewhat strange, irregular music, but comforting, too. Like a lifeline into the wild. Did I tell you that every hike we have been on this fall has had us stumbling upon sheep skeletons?

Perhaps we are both drawn to seek the foreign as a way to recapture wonder and awe?

You wrote, “Mostly it’s not human nature to leap when you are safe.  Mostly.”  Maybe there is something wrong with us? The restlessness.  I guess in my case it has to do with a mistrust of the sense of safety.

And then there is the fact that I love nesting, but hate being nested. Being busy, being occupied with the ordering of things gives me an illusion of control. Once that flurry of activity is over, the illusion is broken. I feel vulnerable.

I think that is why, content as a I am in so many ways, I have flashes of envy when you share your experiences of arranging your new life. I want to move house again. Which is absurd. Instead: yesterday I decided on a new bookshelf for the living room. So you see, I need a healthy adventure soon.

E. and I were in the east part of Stavanger Friday night to see a production at the arts center. They are renovating the whole section of town. I guess the proper way to describe it is to say there is a gentrification of the old working class neighborhood. Posh little cafés, and gyms with big windows so everyone can watch the people on the treadmills – or the people on the treadmills can be watched. I’m not sure what the thought was behind that design, to be honest.

The old arts center has had a facelift, though its still appropriately whatever-the-current-hipster-term-for-“shabby chic” is, if shabby chic is already passé – I don’t even care to keep up these days. Hipster is probably passé by now. At any rate, sleek apartment buildings have sprung up all along the water. Grassy parks that look in reality just as they did in the drawings in advertisements before they were built.

What is taking me by surprise is that I have absolutely no interest in any of it. I would rather explore the rocky beaches out by the lighthouse south of here. I’d rather roam the lived-in spaces in East London on a weekend. Feed the pelicans. I would rather spend time where things aren’t carefully designed not to match in just the right way – maybe go seek out on of your beloved bazaars in Istanbul. Things that are not preplanned. Places that grow organically, as chaotic as humans are. What is the point of moving into or even through something that is already in perfect order? How gawd-awful boring.

And distancing: the place would never be mine. And I would never fit in well.

I guess that brings us back to belonging and not really belonging. The safety of the familiar, on the periphery? I don’t know, that seems paradoxical. It’s the wildebeest on the periphery who get eaten, isn’t it?

So tell me more about these doubting Genovese.  They aren’t eating you alive, are they?

Much love,

XO Ren

Di’s Reply

This is one of a series of public letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

If the topic of This Choice interests you, I would welcome your contribution (*provided it meets the following guidelines).

To avoid misunderstandings, please read the manifesto on the website before submitting.

A little reminder about the concept for the podcast project: I‘m curious as to how the process of writing poetry affects poets’ daily lives. How it affects the choices we make, that – in turn -shape our lives. I live far away from other English-writing poets, and I began this project as a way for me to sit down over a glass of wine, or cup of coffee, and chat with poets I admire – and to learn from them.

Even if Skype is the only way to do it.

This is about conversation, not promotion.

The form for Xtra Voices is a 15-minute podcast that includes three poets independently telling a story about how poetry has affected their lives. On the website, I will include photos, bios, links and a very brief 3-question, written Q. & A. based on each poet’s story. (If a poet wishes to write long responses, I will gladly link to their own platform.)

A submission must meet these criteria:

  • MAX. 5-minute audio file (3-4 minutes is ideal)
  • Introduce yourself by name, and tell a story that illustrates how poetry made adifference in your life.
  • No more than 1 minute of the story may be a quote from one of your own poems.
  • End the audio with your name and your website address (if applicable). At the end of each podcast, I will remind listeners to go to ThisChoicePodcast.com to find links to the poets’ work and websites: Do not provide a summary of your bio on the audio tape.

    Please respect the purpose of this project and do not consider this primarily a place to promote your own work. And please note the difference between a story (i.e. anecdote), an ars poetica, or a monologue about “What Poetry Means to Me.” I will not publish audio files that stray from the spirit of This Choice.

Please send submissions to renkat (at) mac (dot) com. Subject line: This Choice.
I look forward to hearing form you.



I was doing writing exercises this morning. Starting with one of Marty McConnell’s wonderful prompts. Seems a lot of writing prompts ask you to begin with some aspect of childhood.  Like your “childhood home”.

A while back I tried to count all the childhood homes  I’d had, and I wound up with something like 30 places we’d lived or stayed for a while between “permanent addresses”. What does come to mind is a collage of textures: metal jungle gym bars, porous decorative cinder blocks, loose dirt. My favorite line of poetry has always been from “the sound, the smell of swing set hands” (REM’s  “The Wrong Child“).

I remember lying on the hot floor of the Toyota, my back awkwardly stretched over the divider, pillow under my head, staring at the stars through the car’s back window. Nothing blacker than the velvet sky of the desert between LA and Vegas. This is my image of home, really. Continually moving through the dark.

But I did have my own room at my grandparent’s house. A guest room, but we called it mine – for my sake. I had a drawer with a nightgown that I only wore when I lived with them. It was baby doll nightgown that my grandmother must have worn. On six-year-old-me,  it reached mid-calf, and I felt like a ballerina in it. I would twirl in front of the mirror. Only now, as I’m writing this, do I think about the little appliqué anchor, and realize that she must have bought it with my grandfather in mind: a Navy man.

An odd thought, really. She would have been horrified that I might someday write about it. Allude to her sex life. But I want to write about it.

She’s been dead for several years now, and I’ve taken the liberty of imagining her puritan sense of decorum having softened in death. Instead of her icy anger, I imagine her shrugging and saying, “What does it matter now?”  But the truth is, I just don’t think that hard about it. I don’t think I could really convince myself she’d be okay with it.

It’s a bit like when I took driving lessons and had to drive in reverse for the first time. I looked back over my shoulder, shut my eyes, and stepped on the gas. I sometimes write with my eyes shut.

Right after the birth of my second child, I broke ties with everyone else in my family. I started to write small memoirs. At the time I had a correspondence with a wonderful man who lived in San Francisco. My first book of poems had just been published, and he was a sucessful playwright with a passion for poetry. He had more life experience than I did. He was in his mid-sixties and the only gay Republican I’ve ever met. We had interesting and frank discussions, and he was an excellent mentor for me, in part because of our differences.

picture-of-whyI sent him a little memoir about an incident in one of my aunt’s lives. He wrote back, “Why did you write this? Do you just want me to know you are better than them?”

I stopped writing memoirs.

When I tell people about this, they usually say he was awful to say such a thing. But he wasn’t. It’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received, and it came in the form of a genuine question.

Twenty years later, I think I’ve worked through a lot of my insecurities. I no longer write to have people reassure me that I am a good person. But now there are other considerations. Other barriers.

There are my sons. No longer children-but when your mother is a writer you can’t just leave the room when she talks about something you find uncomfortable. Her books are in the high school libraries, essays can be googled by acquaintances.

There are the ex-husbands. Yes. Plural. Both wonderful people I would never want to hurt.

There’s the man with whom I’ll share the rest of my life.

(Please don’t judge: Margaret Mead said we get three. Someone else said that we are extremely lucky if they happen to be the same person. I have been very lucky with the people in my adult life; I have just not had the skills I needed to transition each relationship through life’s stages.)

Last-and least-there are my students. I’m not concerned about their privacy, but I wonder how much can they know about my personal life and still respect me in the classroom on a daily basis? Forty years ago students would have had to put a lot of effort into dragging their butts to the library to dig up dirt on a teacher. Now they can guzzle Red Bull with one hand, google with the other, and link my name to an article on vaginal prolapse.


I know each essay, each poem has to be considered independently, and there isn’t a handbook with all the answers, but I’m wondering… Anyone out there use a checklist of some kind?

I know you won’t have my answers, but it is nice to have a starting place to draft my own.







Good morning, Richard.

Always wanted to be a gardner. But what I try to grow dies, what I leave alone, on the other hand…

Reading your poem “Fairytales“, I was thinking that we are in such similar places right now. This midlife honesty. What looks to younger people like giving up on one’s dreams, is actually giving up on other people’s dreams and discovering (and accepting) our own day-to-day joys.

I think it takes courage to swim against the tide as we begin to do about now. When our own mortality comes slowly seeping into our consciousness as a fact of life, as our bones move with less ease and our skin relaxes, and we can admit to ourselves that we really aren’t the person we tried to be, the person we really don’t want to inhabit day to day.

And I honestly believe that at our age that it becomes clear for the first time: who is actually swimming, and who has been passively going with/according to the flow all along.

I get this image – I have no idea from where – but the father calmly holding out an arm, palm pressed against his son’s forehead as a consequence of the will of his angry six-year old, who is swinging wildly, insistently: breathless.

Isn’t that how we spend the first half of our lives? As the six-year old? Trying to enforce our  indistinct will on the rest of the world? “Sound and fury” as they say in that Scottish play. No wonder it seems as though the first half of our lives is so significant. It’s loud and frenetic. Draws attention to itself. We appear to be doing something. Appears being the operative word there. I think this is the great illusion. Isn’t that what the Buddhists are talking about anyway? The futility of will and desire?

The father that I imagine? He is laughing – not mocking, but in recognition and compassion.

Isn’t it kind of odd how we spend so many years trying to pound other people into our boxes, and to simultaneously squeeze and contort ourselves so as to fit into theirs?

These days I’m actually lamenting over so much wasted time and energy. I’ve said before that I write as a way to reach out – over oceans, as we have done – and beyond my inevitable death. But lately I’ve been laughing at myself. I have students who don’t have a clue who Andy Warhol is was.  Much less Gertrude Stein, or even Mary Shelley. When I was in London last, I saw Jonson’s The Alchemist, and again marveled over the fact that the “upstart crow” Shakespeare eclipsed the more popular Jonson after their deaths. It is all so arbitrary. I wonder how many generations will remember Marilyn Monroe.

And don’t let get me started on the distortions and unforgivable omissions of fact in the forming of icons like Monroe, or (ahem) Gandhi.

You’d think, with us all striving to become myths, we were all setting ourselves up to sell toothpaste  or cola or nationalism from the Great Beyond. Talk about “selling out”.

Am I stretching the metaphor, or isn’t it a wee bit like spending all one’s money on lottery tickets for posthumous fame, while starving to death in an empty room?  I am done with that.

Or trying to be done with that.  (Funny how it take such conscious effort to stop unconscious drives.) I’m trying to spend more time following curiosity rather than ambition.

“If everyone looked up to me rather than just at me.” The speaker of your poem is someone to love, Richard. The relinquishing of ambition, is what makes him admirable in my eyes.

Back to the Buddhist-ish paradox, right? The Taoist Wu Wei? This is wisdom, right? Not giving a f#%$ about “relevance”: Authenticity.

Although I get the impression lately that the word authenticity has come to mean “unique brand”.

At any rate, I think it works out nicely – this being honest without ourselves and giving up our pre-packaged ambitions. Our ideas of cat and dog people. This way, you can keep the cats, and I can keep the dogs.And everyone is happy. (Except E., who was dishonest with me on our first date, when he told me he was a dog person.)

Miss you. Give my love to M.

XO Ren

Richard’s reply

This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.


Kjære Di,

Last night I was up half the night. After meditation, I’d rolled over only to return to the storm that’s been in my head for weeks now. I scribbled page after page of notes. Looking at them this morning, they are mostly incomprehensible. Last night I’d solved all the world’s problems in the outline of an amazing novel.

But this morning my head is quiet again. And I have no desire to write a novel of any sort.

I’ve been staring at the computer screen wondering if this is the end of it, or just the eye of the storm. To be honest, I am not  sure which I am hoping is the case.

I’m eating chicken soup for breakfast. E made it for dinner last week, his own recipe with garam masala and apples. I froze the leftovers. I have mixed feelings about him becoming such a good cook.

Breaking my own rules, I’m eating in the bibliotek-ette. I’m wrapped in the blanket that you gave me when you came up to visit me two years ago. Winter is coming. (Boy, that phrase is ruined, and I don’t even watch Game of Thrones).

Yesterday I went to a friend’s theater production downtown. It was an evening of storytelling by seven women, from seven countries. So, I thought of about you.

Some of these women were war refugees, some economic migrants, and some came for love. Some had been here a couple of years, some nearly twenty, one woman – as she put it – arrived at her birth.

It made me realize that I’m not an ex.pat. I don’t know when I transitioned to immigrant. It was a gradual process, and when I changed my citizenship three years ago, only a conscious acknowledgment of the fact. I have set down roots here. Not my children; they both call foreign countries “home” these days. So maybe the image I am looking for isn’t setting down roots, but becoming entangled. With the landscape. I am more at home now walking these moorlands, than I am walking on sidewalks anywhere. More at peace, that is – if that is what “home” is: peace.

One of “my” beaches. From Saturday’s run.

I was listening to a guided meditation last night and there were the sounds of waves in the background. And songbirds. I’m not an ornithologist, or even a halfway decent bird-watcher, but I know the call of a thrush from that of a gull, or a tern. It took me a minute or two to figure out what was causing the dissonance I felt: there are no songbirds on the beaches where I run. This wasn’t the sound of my beaches.

I suppose I have always been quick to fall in love with people. But not places. This relationship grew over time. And took me by surprise.

I feel like Golde in Fiddler on the roof. I suppose I love this place.

When I got my divorce a few years ago, I hadn’t considered that I would stay in Norway. Now, I don’t consider leaving. This is where I found my strength.

I was thinking that this is so different from your whirlwind romance with Genoa. Your immediate recognition that it was “home” – for no apparent reason. So far from your New Zealand landscape. What has drawn you there? What is it that continues to seduce you?

And what has given you the courage to strike out and follow your heart – not after a lover  (although we’ve both done that in the past)- but after a “home”?

XO Ren

Di’s reply

This is the first in what I hope will be many public letters to friends – friends I hope will write back to me on their own blogs. Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.