We open the vents in the bedroom walls, in the evenings before bedtime. We tug them by their coarse string leads, and they snap plastic tabs into place. We tug the same string in the mornings, and they close by the same action. Tug to open, tug to close. Snap. In the bedroom walls. Plastic tabs like child-proof latches. You can’t just pull; it requires the specific intention in the movement of a wrist. A now-familiar snap in the cartilage, like a plastic tab jolted into place.
I can’t sleep without the fresh air anymore. Maybe all those years sleeping in the unfinished loft made it so. I cocoon myself in the duvet. I sink into the soft mattress, until it feels like being cradled in the sag of an army cot.
We move, and we rearrange: novelty, and the familiar.
we remake things much
as they were without a thought
closets basements lofts
I’m sitting down to write a bit late this morning. The old lady is here, and that means I used extra time to walk her this morning. It rained last night, and the road was a sheet of ice. We walked slowly. The world was still inky, and the sparkling asphalt was disorienting. I lose depth perception looking at the “stars”. Maybe this is nature’s compensation since the sky is overcast?
Seems every year this sneaks up on me: Advent. But, reading your letter, I had wondered that the farm animals were still out where you are. I haven’t seen a cow in weeks here. Yesterday we got into the car after the run and our breath fogged the windshield, then froze. We scraped it and made it snow inside the car.
It takes extra effort to keep running in this kind of weather. The bedroom is cold in the mornings, and it’s difficult to pull myself out of it. Also, my stupidity in wearing the wrong winter shoes the past two weeks has wreaked havoc on my knee. I’m off running for a few days, to do the balancing exercises each morning. I have lazy gluts. Literally: a lazy ass.
You asked about synchronicity. Yes. And I’m actually guilty of magic thinking now and then, too. Last weekend I interviewed a woman for the podcast (one that will air next month), and she was talking about how the poetry community was small and everyone knows one another other. She didn’t know me. Nor I her. After the interview we chatted briefly about why we write, why we seek to publish when we aren’t going to be rich or famous. I said that I do it because, on a rare occasion, I get a letter out of the blue from someone who was touched by my writing. Someone that I connected with through my writing.
Later that night, feeling disconnected and discouraged because the “poetry community” is small and “every one knows one other”, and I wondered if I was lying to myself about why I write.
The next morning I woke to a unexpected message from a tenuous connection on Facebook: someone who’d read one of my books and reached out to tell me what it meant to them.
I wasn’t lying to myself. But I had to put the question into the universe – and got an answer: a verification. Synchronicity. Magic Thinking. Who knows: it does matter, though. Doesn’t it? We find meaning where we find it. I’m grateful for that.
I love what you said about the farm animals and their collective wisdom: how you didn’t need to turn it into a lesson for humanity. I was thinking about when I took my MA and Ted Deppe told me to just let the fox be the fox, (I think he was paraphrasing W.S. Merwin?). I was working too hard at interpreting everything for everyone, instead of just holding up a frame for readers to isolate and find meaning themselves. I can be a pedant.
I’m thinking now that maybe this kind of “letting it be” is the key to not writing sentimental poetry? Or kitsch. To let the reader’s appreciation, the poet’s attention speak for itself? Maybe no metaphor needs to be intellectualized to be understood? It makes me think about food photos, and selfies and the real value – maybe even the impulse – for our cultural compulsion to Istagram the details of our lives?
I think, as a poet, sometimes it’s difficult for me to stop myself from wandering towards that second tear. Does that mean kitsch is a product of the ego? Or just insecurity? Is it a sign of faithlessness in regard to the world itself being enough?
What I’m getting at, is the haibun-writing is making me conscious of my own intrusion into the poem. The over-wrought lines I keep writing and deleting. There is a necessary wu wei in nature writing, isn’t there?
I hope that, by the time you read this, you will have let your body lead you out of this post-election hurt. You wrote: “I’m extremely uncomfortable in it, but when I put it in motion (through sex, running, hiking, etc.), it takes vulnerability in stride far easier than my mind does.”
Activism. Isn’t the actor then so entangled with the cause that self-care is really not an option, but a requisite? You said it: the body overcomes vulnerability before the mind does.
Have you begun writing again?
Last week, I learned that some of my students consider themselves “Trump supporters”. It surprised me, because most Norwegians are quiet about their right-leaning attitudes.
It freaked me out, actually.
And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.
It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of langauge”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowell, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.
And counter-wise (which should be a word), we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body. Our stories infect us as self-fulfilling prophecies. Last week I found a piece of paper on which a student had been practicing drawing swastikas. Right alongside bunny rabbits.
We’re obligated to be activists.
I get an image of Anne Sullivan tracing and retracing the letters into Hellen Keller’s hand. Suddenly all those photos with teenagers making hearts with their hands don’t seem silly at all.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
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.
I’m glad you’re beginning to recover from the nasty cold. I think our bodies often take the lead to slow us down when we need to recalibrate. I’ve been sleeping 9 and 10 hours a day the past week. Funny that the body needs to recover with sleep after a depression. I still half-expect, when the fog lifts, to have the energy of a calf let out of the barn in spring. But no.
I dragged myself out of bed this morning and ran 6K on a sore ankle. The marathon is in 11 weeks. At this point, I really need my mind and body to make friends. Although right now, in the bibliotekette, with the space heater blowing on my ankle, the rosemary oil burning, and the red curtains pulled, I am peaceful. Optimistic, even. The sun will be up soon, and the skies are clear. There is a sparrow calling outside the window now, actually. Which reminds me that I need to check the feeder on the porch. The magpies eat from it. Greedy bullies.
I can’t say I enjoy running in the cold, but I have to admit that the range of temperatures on these mornings brings me into my body. After running, I peel off the fleece tights and do the 15 minute yoga routine; my thighs are splotched with swashes of bright red goose bumps.
Then a hot shower, and stepping out into the cold again to towel off and dress. When we moved into this house, E. bought me slippers. I haven’t had a pair of slippers since I lived with my grandparents. Slippers were necessary then. One of the rules. I find them comforting now, slipping into them every morning before I head into the kitchen to make coffee. Flop, flop, flop.
And there is something about a space heater. It brings with it all the ambivalence of nostalgia. One particular, tiny, cold two-room house in the desert, and the tiny, bright-red filaments of the metal box that kept us warmish. I slept on an army cot in the bedroom. (I remember that once I was sitting on the edge of the sink to brush my teeth, and the whole thing ripped out of the wall and water flooded the bedroom, cot and all. I got in trouble. But that’s a digression, so before that…)
The little space heater: warming one side of the body at a time, while I ate TV dinners in front of a portable television (rabbit ears decked with aluminum foil). Star Trek. Gilligan’s Island. As the Norwegian’s say, I was a “sofa pig”. But on a kind of rotisserie. My left side would get red and overheated. Then cold, when I turned to warm the right side.
This tiny bibliotekette is like that: Like soup from a microwave; spots of cold, spots of hot. Like the currents of a natural spring in the desert. The heater blowing hot air on my right ankle, while the left leg is chilled. I cross my legs. Then back again. I think it keeps me aware. Not that I think comfort is overrated, but there is a kind of emotional comfort in being aware.
At any rate, I am glad you found a source of accountability for finishing the book. A regular jolt of awareness to keep you moving. When the book is finally complete, it will be rich with all the life you’ve lived meanwhile. The lulls will demonstrate their purpose in resonance then, I’m sure.
It is so interesting to read what you write about photography “deepening the experience”. My first thought was – well, that is why I am not a photographer. But then, I have discovered that taking photos does make me stop and appreciate the moments. I remember you telling me once how photographing people, for you, was a matter of looking for the beauty. I’m going to start doing that. I mean: I do look for the beauty in people I love and trust, in my students (something teaching has taught me), but generally not with strangers. I think I am too defensive. I need to learn from you. Camera in hand, or not.
Okay – back to accountability. I think external accountability can be a good tool for avoiding perfectionism. I know I function so much better with an external framework. I’m far too skilled at getting in my own way. I take on related projects – related, but still: diversions. For example, right now I have a translation project, waiting on my computer in the other room. Midwife to someone else’s creativity again. I’ve written before about that, though, haven’t I? Since I’ve always thought of myself as a selfish person, this must be a form of self-sabotage. I procrastinate with work guaranteed to get in the way of my own work. I can almost convince myself that there is a good reason I’m not making as much progress as I’d planned.
Yeah, so. This is the kind of morning I’m having. Mindless chatter with a friend, whom I miss.
Your friends seem to be living the dream. It’s really inspiring. But it brings me back to what I was writing about the other day – my tendency to begin with the desire to simplify, then working around full circle back to consumerism and a concern with image-projection. There are berries here in the forests if I head out on the weekends. Did I tell you we are setting up a greenhouse this spring? That will have to do. I don’t get a cottage by a stream, but I have a tent. Best of both worlds, if I make it so, right? I had a good day at work today. At least some of it. One of those days when I know I’m doing something useful. These tendrils reaching into the periphery of my students’ rich lives. The good, the difficult, the things that make them grow. I learn, too. Am better prepared for the next bit of drama. All this is to say, I looked at your friend’s photos and kept my envy in check.
You’re right. We are blessed, Di. It just doesn’t always feel like it. And like you said, it seems to be about balance. What pays the bills vs. what makes your heart flow. What we do for others vs. what we do for ourselves. Maybe most importantly: What we desire vs. gratitude for what we have?
Not sure if your question about the throat chakra was rhetorical. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re beginning to break through the block. Are you living somewhere where you can sing? (The only thing I miss about driving a car is driving alone and belting out show tunes.) I think belting out a tune is good for your soul because it’s almost the same mechanism as screaming: lifting the hard palate, really using the lungs, focusing outward. It’s cathartic. So is vomiting, I guess.
But singing is more pleasant. At least for the person doing it.
First get better. Then sing.
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.
All these strange connections when one lets the subconscious bubble them up. I’m very certain that, were I not a poet, I would be one of those conspiracy theorists connecting Atlantis to the Bermuda Triangle, and to the disappeared women of Juarez. I’ve read that this is actually what creative people have in common with the mentally disordered: loose associations. Why there is likely much overlapping between the two groups.
First, what is a little coincidence, a digression, and a bit of proof that you and E have so much in common: last Saturday E picked out The Cursed Child as a Father’s Day gift. He hasn’t started it yet. (He just finished Unbroken, which he says was a much better book than film). You’ll have to let me know what you think. I probably won’t read it. K. told me that all the rules regarding magic that were established in the Harry Potter books, are broken. I hate to start a book with a bad attitude.
So. Yes. The “repeating myself” thing. I do that. I absolutely do that. And when I read that, I remembered a poem in mixed states called “On Not Repeating Myself”, which is about just that.
And the thing is, when I looked the poem up, I find it’s riddled with connections to our correspondence. In fact, the last stanza is:
I gave her the key
to the box
with all your letters.
(Your letter arrived yesterday and when I am finished here, it will go in the light blue box on the shelf in the library – with the others.)
The poem begins with the old lady, but she’s still a puppy. And then there is the “hip” Anti-Christ as an infant (yeah, I am reaching here but these days it feels relevant…). And then there is a mention of one of my recurring “ghosts”, this one perched at the foot of my bed (she is the one who has the key, by the way).
I think I’ve done nothing but repeat myself in some kind of Hegelian spiral my entire life. Or at least I hope it is more a spiral, than it is a puppy chasing her own tail.
I saw the shrink yesterday. It’s a relief to know I’m not mad. And I feel a bit like Sheldon saying, “My mom had me tested”.
And I think I’ve reabsorbed all my ghosts again – for now. Even the one “in cartoon prison garb” that I mention in that poem. She told me to keep writing.
The shrink also told me that, and then the rest of the day, I couldn’t write a thing. Like you, I find this whole political climate alienating. I thought that we would see an apocalypse. A sudden clash of extremes, and instead we have these horrors coming in “on little cat feet” like Sandburg’s fog. Part of me is relieved. And I’m deeply ashamed of that.
Already here in Norway the extreme right has been emboldened. Well. Perhaps. It could also be that the media now has sought them out, and is giving them attention. There is a fine, and messy line between uncovering the hate, and “ufarligjøring” it. I still can’t find a good English word for that. Everyone is saying “normalising”. I guess that is technically correct, but it doesn’t sound as dangerous in English, does it? We shine a light on what we find repulsive until we can actually tolerate it. Until we do tolerate it. Until we shrug, and seek out the ever-more outrageous news stories that will trigger a inexplicably pleasurable surge of hormones. It is supply and demand. I read that the President electoral -Elect pointed out to CNN how much money he made them this last year. We are a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-loathing and schadenfreude. And greed.
Last week I posted something to my students – I wanted them to see a possible indication of a parallel between Stalin’s suppression (and execution) of Meyerhold, and Trump’s tweet which attempted to define the role of the artist in his America. Some of them expressed concern, and I then tried to comfort them. I meant well, but wondered if I was just fanning the flames.
You know, I don’t take periodic breaks from Facebook because what is there upsets me, as much as because what is there affects me: I find myself on witch hunts of sorts, filled with anger and looking for opportunities to justify it. It is a kind of mob mentality, isn’t it? And yet…
Struggling to find my role here, as a white, cis-gendered ex-patriot (sic.) – I don’t have “boots on the ground” and I need to find a way to be supportive without appropriating, and to do my best to stop the spread of this… well: evil. I know you are doing your part.
All this seems to bring me back to Harry Potter. There is a podcast called Imaginary Worlds. The last episode I listened to talked about JK Rolling’s work with Amnesty and the empathy-effect of literature, especially the theme of racism in the Potter series. They talked about the werewolf Greyback as an analogy for homosexuality, but I had been thinking all along it was an analogy for bipolar disorder.
At any rate, I was thinking how one could view the whole series as another dystopic story. Albeit one with a bizarrely happy ending. I think it would be kind of funny if The Cursed Child made Harry out to be a kind of Walter Mitty. Full circle dystopia to status quo. What if it were all a daydream?
I think this is just me trying to comfort myself.
It sort of drifts back toward what we were talking about: giving in to what is difficult: the cold, the harshness. And your warning of how that kind of giving in can lead to giving up, accepting, euphoria and death. I guess I could avoid calling it “a test of manhood” – but the fact is, most women give birth and that is a test of womanhood in these old stories and traditions. Seems men in these stories battle nature from without their bodies, women from within.
Though I suppose in the end we all figure out that our own bodies are nature. When we no longer recognise ourselves in the mirror, and our limbs no longer do the things we will them to as quickly, as smoothly.
A lot of people say that old people turn to religion because they fear death and long for a distinction between body and soul -to comfort themselves. But what if it is just a recognition that becomes impossible not to see as one ages?
Nah. I guess I don’t really believe that. It’s probably just a lack of attention. We should do more like your acupuncturist suggests: eat and do nothing else, pay attention to the food, to our teeth, to our swallowing. We would probably know ourselves better and recognise our nature.
Maybe if we did, we would recognise and do something about the baser sides of ourselves? The self-loathing, and the schadenfreude? The greed.
I opened the last remaining bottle of red from my birthday stash tonight. A wonderful Barolo. I don’t know who gave it to me, but I’m grateful. It takes the edge off. It puts me in a forgiving state of mind.
Let’s hope it doesn’t kill me.
It helps to know you aren’t shrugging and giving up.
Surely we are all little more than a tangle of contradictions. I wonder what you would say now about the theory that we have no fixed personality? That we are malleable entirely, according to the choices we make in any given milieu. Actually, I wonder if we haven’t begun to circle around to something akin to the Quaker’s Moral Treatment you espoused, a hundred and thirty years ago. The structure, discipline, and the traveling that stretched and untangled your mind – at least much of the time.
Reading your letters, I often wondered if your travels marked the end of a “no thing” season, or if the traveling itself ended it. The getting up, the physical leaving. The moment you stood outside the door with what you could carry, and the confidence of knowing you had all that you needed.
I have always felt strongest when I had few possessions. Leaving my homeland (that sounds ridiculously quaint) with a bag of books, some clothes, a blanket, and a doll. And then, in all the turmoil of beginning again after the divorce: choosing not to fight over a rolling pin; I took my books, clothes, the blanket and the doll, and photos that function like old library index cards to help hunt down complete memories. In my tiny apartment that overlooked the harbor, everything had earned its place. And the high ceiling provided empty space for both grief and joy to pass through, or hover.
Maybe there is something to the cycle of accumulation and purging that is very like the sorting they say we do as we sleep: distinguishing what is necessary to keep in detail, and what is necessary to keep only in spirit. A way of shedding the things that helped us to get this far, and then making room to move on. To grow. Like lobsters.
Friday I saw an Instagram photo that made me envious. It reminded me of how disconnected I’ve become again – disconnected from what adds value to my hverdag. Simple, every day pleasures. Like slowing to a walk where the trail ends at the wooden bridge, and catching the flash of a small speck of ice in a crack. Noticing winter. Noticing the man who sleeps by my side, breathing easily, and who wakes to tell me I’m beautiful.
Even simpler things, like sitting down with a clementine; peeling it slowly.
They say now (again) that citrus fruits help elevate one’s mood. But then, you knew that. And you didn’t take them for granted: all the fruit you were given while you were recuperating in England that half year.
Maybe that is all the difference between us: not the fruit, but the attention and gratitude?
The problem is, I’m thinking I need to purge again -to get control over all the “stuff” and clutter that is a disturbing white noise – I want to move on, stretch, grow, change, but I quickly fall into a consumerist mindset. I imagine getting rid of all my kitchen equipment, and finding earthenware bowls that (I believe) will fulfill a sensual longing. I envy a particular state of mind (or an imagined state of mind) that is calm and receptive. And I keep thinking that things will lead me to it. The perfect spiritual knickknack, the peculiar talisman.
I imagine selling the house and moving into to a simple cottage, with a garden and a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from a sunny porch. I’ll get rid of all my costume jewelry and buy leather bracelets. Ditch the tailored clothes for paisley caftans.
I imagine a whole list of things I could acquire to successfully simplify my life. I could get up and leave.
But on Sunday I took a deep breath, organised my bookshelves, threw away the wilted flowers, and paid my bills.
And this morning – after the run and meditation – I sliced an apple, boiled an egg, and wrote a poem. I kissed my husband when he left for work.
Maybe beginning a new season really does work like any charm does. Or prayer. It’s all a matter of attention, and of making enough space for the grief and the joy to pass through, or hover.
Though I would still really like my own special hot chocolate pot. And a gas stove. And a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from the balcony of a cottage in the woods.
Don’t lie to me. I know you were never really satisfied either. We all want what we want and we reach for it. Things, or accolades, or whatever it is we believe will make us feel… untangled.
Even over here, the election results color everything. I started reading Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety last night. It traces the evolution of the perceived connection between personal value & wealth, and morality & wealth. It’s difficult to avoid seeing how our current society that perceives personal value= wealth and morality=wealth; combined with the rise of meritocracy on an unfair playing field got us where we are today. I’m only on page 87, so I’m not sure if he will talk about “influence” as wealth. It was published in 2004, so perhaps not: that was before the average person thought about things like klout (I was actually hoping the app was defunct), or twitter followers.
I hope this is the tipping point of all this chest-beating. Someone told me the other day that human beings are the only animals to act spitefully. I don’t know if that’s true, but how sad it would be if that were the defining feature of our species: the little factions pulling each other down from the rung just above, while a tweeting demagogue climbs high enough to topple the whole rickety thing.
That sounds much more pessimistic than I feel. I scour the net for good news. There is some. There’s always some.
And, hey, they found an ocean on Pluto. That’s worth a poem.
This morning I’ve been listening to Poem Talk. This episode is about C.D. Wright’s One Big Self. It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve always been a sucker for verbatim theater in all forms.
And yesterday I sent an application for kind of verbatim project in England. It’s the first time in a long time I didn’t talk myself out of putting myself “out there”. It’s a collaborative performance poetry project that I would love to be involved with. I’m probably not at all what they have in mind, but just sitting down with the application process sparked a lot of ideas. I don’t need to wait to be invited to work. That kind of brings up another one of those clichés: the audacity of youth.
Yeah. So, okay. There actually is one thing from my twenties that I do want back.
I go back to work on Monday, and it’s been nice to have this week to organise and set new goals. You asked what I’m up to: I have an old performance project that I’m dusting off. I’m going to see if I can reignite the passion I had for it. For him, actually. I have to remember wanting to get under his skin.
Several years ago I had a little project writing “running metaphors” on my blog. I’d compose tiny poems in my head while running in the mornings. I have several hundred of them printed out in a folder somewhere. They aren’t very good. Not that it’s an excuse, but I’m too long-winded for tweets. (I bow to the beauty and elegance of Dave Bonta’s The Morning Porch.) I may dig them up, and mine them for metaphors or prompts.
Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a friend I met while taking a therapeutic writing course last spring, I’ve starting writing haibun based on the morning 6K: And I’m posting them on the blog. I’m looking forward to binding them by hand next year.
I’ve entitled the category on the blog Eros of Language. It’s a phrase lifted from Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival. He talks about the sensual aspect of poetry. The way poems be tools that use the body/the physical world to connect. Wikipedia says that the term erotic has been used to mean “life energy” – there’s no citation, but I’m going with it anyway. Eros as life force makes sense to me, the way I’m writing now. The way I am trying to connect – not just with other people – but with nature. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this past year (since I am rather new to camping) is to stop resisting discomfort. I mean:
I’ve been running again for years now, so I’ve learned to accept my own body -the cramps; the neglected achilles; the little, painful seeds of shin splints. But I’m learning now to give up the resistance to the outside world. Learning to accept the hardness of stones, the sharpness of frozen rain hitting the bridge of my nose, and the slickness of the lichen that sprawls over the mountain’s granite (though it all too often lands me on my very unappreciative ass). Learning to accept the cold feet & the hot belly, or the cold belly & the hot feet, when I’m in the sleeping bag with a rubber flask that’s filled with water we boiled on the Primus – knowing halfway through the night, it’ll be cold “as a witch’s teat” and I’ll have to toss it out.
I guess the root of all acceptance is appreciation. I am learning to appreciate nature (and being out in it) on it’s own erotic terms.
So while I am staring at the lichen, are you looking at the stars these days?
The lamps are out along the second kilometre’s stretch of trail, and the moon intermittent between trees. I have to remember to lift my feet to avoid the dark rivulets that are indistinguishable from roots. The world flips inside out, and back again; and light rises from the greenhouses along the shore to the west.
an edge of orange
spill from the coast paints the moon
brown as the dirt we sow