This Choice is Who You Are has been my mantra these past years: a mantra for becoming the person I want to be. I believe that choosing to live with the attention that poetry demands is a good start.
In the podcasts, I look to other artists to learn from their experiences.
I ask poets how their work with poetry influences the choices they make in their daily lives, and how these, in turn, affect their sense of self and their relationships.
How are they using the experience of art to shape The Good Life for themselves?
Nicole Rollender’s first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions), was published in late 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press), and Bone of My Bone, a winning manuscript in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest.
Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Memorious, Radar Poetry, PANK, Salt Hill Journal, Thrush Poetry Journal, Word Riot and West Branch, among others. She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Princemere Journal and Ruminate Magazine. She earned her MFA in poetry at the Pennsylvania State University. She’s the editor of Wearables and executive director of professional development at the Advertising Specialty Institute. This year, she was named one of FOLIO’s Top Women in Media. Visit her online at www.nicolerollender.com.
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So far-into December now that it is nearly over. This is how the winters go by, with me lagging behind every year. And every year, I tell myself I will begin early: make an arsty little Christmas calendar, write cards, and take time to enjoy music and cooking. Around the 20th, I realize it’s December.
We put the tree up last night. That is, E. got it up and strung the lights, and I hung the bulbs and decorations while he was at his weekly hockey game. We have no rituals. Not yet.
I will play Pete Seeger’s Christmas album on Spotify on my phone, on the train to work this morning. That will help with my mood. I’m ready now.
Already I’m thinking: next year, I will do it right – the whole holiday thing.
I shouldn’t lie to myself.
Christmas was always my ex’s domain. He would head out early to get birch branches to flavor the steamed lamb. He would cook all day, preparing the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. We would sing, and walk around the Christmas tree. His country, his holiday, his rituals. Of course, our children, but I always felt like a guest this time of year. The Norwegian hymns and carols are still awkward in my mouth.
Every Christmas morning was (is) a dull ache, waking at six with anticipation (is there a word for a feeling of nostalgia for something that never was?) – but my children had already celebrated their Christmas the evening before, too tired and sated to care about the toothbrushes and Pokémon-shaped erasers left in Christmas stockings.
Since the divorce, there has never been a question in anyone’s mind: Christmas, they’d spend with their father. To be honest, it eases my feelings of guilt a bit.
That is terrible to admit, isn’t it? Seems I’m courting martyrdom to ease my conscience. Though sometimes I convince myself it’s just an emotional compromise.
You asked what winter is like here. I’m on the south-west edge of the bowl of Norway’s spoon. The gulf stream flows up here and keeps the coastline at a moderate temperature. Most years I see more snow in June, hiking in the mountains, than I do all winter here on Jæren. This is the farming heartland of Norway, the fertile pastures, and the moors. In late October, the hills turn purple and orange: heather and grass tussocks. In the low light, the sky is often a slate color, which makes the autumn-thinned forests where I run appear all the more vibrant. The mosses are brighter, nearly iridescent, against the rich browns of the pine trunks. The fallen leaves from the birches stay bright orange and red on the ground, partially covered with patches of hail or snow. And it is quiet.
I first notice winter when I notice that the pastures are empty. The few songbirds that winter here sing solos in the dark. It’s like the parts of the world are outlined with solitude. Only in the summers, are Norwegians friendly. But in the winters, if you’re invited in, you’ll find an entirely different kind of intimacy.
I’m surprised to discover that I feel at home during the dark winters here: most at home between the brief spells of snow that light up even the pre-dawn runs. The sun turns much sooner than the season, and January often stretches out black and inky, quiet and cold. There is a thickness to the dark. Sometimes the lake will freeze over and in the early morning I can hear the ice churn, as though some invisible hand has thumbed the string of a huge instrument. Cold can catch the wind itself along the shore. There’s no way to take a good photo of the ice-encased shining in the dark, but it’s a haunting image.
There is also something oddly reassuring about it. Here the temperature fluctuates around 0 Celsius all winter, so the earth freezes, thaws, freezes. All that death, and yet the flowers come every spring: not as delicate little fronds, but as the thick, knife-like leaves of the daffodils, jutting out of the ground.
Still, every morning at 5, when I pull on my gloves and hat, I nearly forget how I love this time of year. Now that I have no course but to forgive myself for what I didn’t get done, to surrender any kind of expectation. It takes effort to love sometimes.
Why do we stop doing things we love? Why don’t we notice at first?
Isn’t it true? All things. Poetry. Walking in nature. Writing letters. And drawing, and dancing, and singing, and loving itself.
We stop. And we wake up one day, and we miss ourselves.
Last year a former student wrote me and told me, “I miss myself”. The phrase has stuck with me. What a lucky young man, to learn so early what it is to grow up (grow old) consciously. That is, to be open to change, but also to observing what we can lose if we aren’t careful. What needs to be tended, or what needs to be brought back to life when necessary.
Interesting, as we approach the winter solstice, right? Straddling our despair about darkness. Are we mired in it or coming out of it? Do we have one foot frozen in it and one foot stepping toward what comes after it? Or can we say this is the episode in which neither is true? In which there is a place/moment in between where there is nothing?
I do feel these months as liminal. In the quiet, I notice time passing, and have have to push away the anxiety surrounding the fear that I’m not doing enough. Not accomplishing enough. And then I stop. And breathe. Breath’s visibility might be the best thing about winter.
Soon enough the sun will return – from 4 am to 2 am – and with it, a season of manic-like activity. When one has to remember to breathe.
I’m thinking seasons are like the episodes you describe. And I’m thinking about an interview I listened to with a 90 year-old woman who said that when she was sixty, she could see for the first time how the little chapters of her life came together to make her, her.
I am nowhere near the place of seeing anything “come together”. Nowhere near your ability to be curious and beautiful – and know it.
I’m okay with that – with working toward that. I’m even okay right now, with this feeling of being riddled with fears. It’s not the election, it is the ugliness that’s been uncovered. The venomous discourse in the public arena. It makes me long for a hard winter. A freeze. Nothing heals in a freeze, but it can be a time to gather strength. I need a stretch of silence.
I heard this morning that our brains shrink at night while we sleep, because it’s easier for the brain then to flush out its toxins. I am in need of “a long winter’s nap”.
I hope you are able to make time for yourself now. And discover there’s no need to want what others (think) they want? What do you really want? I hope your Christmas is glitter-free and wonderful. That you write something that will help teach the rest of us to find our beauty: to own up to it.
Your write about not being able to sleep – and of course, wouldn’t it be that now I’m sleeping far too much. 10 hours most nights. I’m trying to give up looking for reasons or explanations. Unsure whether to give in entirely, or fight it: force myself out of bed on time to write and run before work. I’m not feeling myself.
So much darkness. In the mornings, I walk to the train in the pre-dawn half-dark, and after work I walk home again in the dark. Today I had E.’s car and drove home in the sunset. A layer of landscape, a layer of blue, jet streams low near the horizon, under pink stratus clouds. Above those, white cirrus clouds – like scattered feathers left by some mythical beast that must have been galavanting across the sky while I was inside the black box all afternoon.
Black box, as in black box theatre. I teach movement twice a week. I think you knew that. It’s a nice break from theatre history and production. It keeps me humble – and paranoid enough to force myself out of bed for a run – on most mornings.
There are days I envy you getting to work from home. Except I think I’m too introverted for that to work out well. I tried briefly when the boys were small and I got to the point where I wouldn’t go outside to check the mailbox. I feared I would stop changing clothes eventually. I believe my nature is too much like the inanimate objects of the universe: at rest unless acted upon, in motion until stopped. This time of year I need a good, solid shove.
I had to give up on the script I was planning to write. I contacted the author of the work I was going to base it on, and she has already sold the rights to a “major motion picture company”. I’m comforting myself with the reassurance that I can spot a good story.
Did I ever tell you about my novel? Everyone drinks coffee. That is, in nearly every scene people are drinking coffee. Or wine. It is really kind of awful. There is a drunken sex scene. Fade to the morning after. He is drinking coffee alone. The children don’t drink coffee, though. They do stuff. Maybe I should write a novel about children. Except I’m not terribly fond of children.
Seriously, I learned a lot from writing the novel that’s stashed in my drawer. But I’m still not sure why I wanted to tell the story. That story. Do you think about things like that? I even killed off the character most like me in the prologue to be sure I wouldn’t be telling the wrong story. Is thinking like that going to save me from unwittingly exposing a horrible truth about myself? Or is it simply self-sabatoge parading in pschyobabble?
It is odd that I thought you would have a reference for The Little Engine that Could. I don’t think of you as an American. Or even as an Englishman much. It is odd, isn’t it? How we are both tethered to, and out-of-touch with culture(s). I have been feeling that a lot lately. Not only the America/Norway thing, but which America?
By the way – The Little Engine That Could is probably one of the most evil children’s books ever written in that it convinces children that if they just try hard enough they can accomplish whatever they put their minds to. It’s the book Willy Loman (theater reference, sorry) read as a kid, I’m sure. It’s why the old, unemployed salesman winds up a suicidal wreck – but for all his self-confidence and positive thinking. I think Americans are brought up to be self-flaggelators at the alter of that particular secular superstition.
I wrote last time about banging pots and pans and getting ready for Christmas. I haven’t done that. I guess by now, from the tone of this letter, that is pretty obvious. I did pull out the Pete Seeger Christmas CD set. And as I typed that sentence, as though he’d read my mind, E. lit the candles here on the table. Now he is eating a cookie. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. He is definitely not reading my mind now. Marriage. It is all about balance, isn’t it?
A famous novelist (I will tell you who later) – a feminist of sorts from a country with few of them – had two pieces of advice for me. 1. Find a partner who loves you more than you love them. 2. Get a wife.
So, ignoring the first bit of advice, which I just find very, very sad: yes. I wish I could hire a “wife”. There is a pile of laundry downstairs. And last week we had a couple over for dinner. It did not go well. The chicken wasn’t cooked properly, and when I stuck all the food on the table “family style”, they looked at it, and then at me like I was asking them to eat with plastic sporks. E. didn’t pour the wine in the glasses, just handed the bottle around.
I figure: we had a lovely evening, all four of us – and if I judge right: they won the competition for best host and hostess. That makes them feel good, right? That is a good deed.
And besides, if I could carve a chicken and delicately place it on a plate without it landing in someone’s lap, I would have made better tips as a waitress, probably not held out algebra to graduate college, never moved to Norway… it is all part of the big plan that requires no positive thinking: merely creative rationalization. Life is good.
And although neither E nor I have a “wife”, the tree will be put up… eventually. The halls will be decked. Tomorrow evening we are going to a friend’s annual Christmas sildefest, which is always so much fun. We’ll walk downtown and see the Christmas lights around the harbour first. H’s wife is a singer and choir director, so there is always music. Six different kinds of herring, and laughter.
It will be the shove I need.
Much love to you and M. and the family.
May you get a good night’s sleep soon. (And I have an eye out for the music).
This week has been difficult. I believe I’m having a little emotional relapse. I’m having a difficult time accepting the world we live in. But I am going to leave that there for now. Instead I’ll write about one of those moments you try to catch. Mental snapshots. Has poetry, and the drive to write poetry, always been just Instagram with words?
Only far less popular? (That is as profound as I am going to get this morning.)
The old lady is here again this week. Last night I took her for a walk around the block. My rain clothes are black, and there are sections of the neighborhood with very poor lighting. Strange how the rain allows asphalt to swallow all the light. I wear an LED headlamp on nights like this. And every time I exhale, I watch a cloud form in front of me. There are glimmers of blue and red in the light of the headlamp. It becomes very meditative: watching the cloud form again and again. Only, instead of thinking about peace and the effortlessness of a Buddhist life, I think about the Little Engine that Could and how it seems every moment is a struggle against stillness. Life itself a disruption, the workhorse of a universe that would much rather remain at rest.
No wonder I feel tired this morning.
Your friend is probably right. Maybe it is this time of year that we should be pulling out the pots and pans, and banging them with wooden spoons like angry nisse? Lighting candles. It has been a rough week. I think I said that. But it has also been a week that demands that I put things in context. In a larger context. And be grateful.
A few years ago a colleague and I traveled abroad with the students. When we returned we talked about how difficult they had been. How they had complained the entire week, had been negative and demanding. Slowly, while we talked over a glass of wine, we came to the realization that it had been a single student – one of thirty – who had actually been difficult. We had just given him so much space in our awareness. We had allowed him to color the trip for us. And, as a consequence, and in turn, we had probably colored the trip for the other students.
I have been having to pull up that lesson this week. It’s like when I was 8 and ate a strawberry with a worm in it. It was years before I ate another strawberry. I used to love strawberries. I still approach them with caution. I have you ever eaten raw a worm? It tastes nothing like a strawberry. Should be easy really not to associate the two in my mind by now. To untangle it.
I suppose expectations matter, too, don’t they? When we expect people to be completely honest and we encounter lies of omission it’s all the more painful. I think those are the worst kinds of lies because the person on the receiving end is complicit. Who are we to assume the world is as we wish it to be? Especially when it comes to other people. At least at my age, I cannot say anyone has shaken my faith in human beings, or influenced the way I choose to interact with them. It’s more like one of those slow-motion scenes where you step where you knew you shouldn’t have, your foot goes through the ice and you realize, while it is plunging ankle-deep into the water, that you knew better and hadn’t been paying attention. You limp home, pushing down the bile of self-reproach. (Oh my, that was purple).
So it’s a purple morning.
Funny this about lies of omission relates loosely to Bee Bones (which I finished last night). I won’t say more. I read an aquaintence’s novel (NYT Bestseller) and had wanted to write on facebook about how it is a contemporary version of Anna Karenina. That would have ruined it for many. I won’t ruin Bee Bones for anyone. I enjoyed it. Again. I suppose I could say it puts a real twist in the “road trip” genre.
The old lady is lying here in the bibliotekette. Snoring softly. She hasn’t licked her paw this morning and I wonder if it will be already to let her be without the cone while I’m at work today. Last night she walked through the kitchen and knocked over several potted plants. Poor thing. I guess it isn’t really connected to her being so old. Puppies have a difficult time with plastic headgear, too, but I get the feeling that she is ashamed because she expects better of herself.
Rereading, I do believe all of that in the last paragraph was more an exercise in projection than an actual digression. Apropos self-analysis through an examination of one’s own writing (ie the subconscious at work) that we were talking about.
Switching gears: and back to your letter. Birthdays. I have this fear that I will forget my kids’ birthdays. In May, for example, I will get panicky that I have let something slip by (both were born in the fall). I actually get a jolt of electricity running through my arms at the thought. I have no idea if there is some psychological explanation for what is going on, but I harbor this fear as deeply as I do the fear of car accidents, or late night phone calls. And, now, what if I forget my wedding anniversary? E. Is such a romantic. He’d be hurt. Even with google calendar, I “misremembered” my doctor’s appointment this week. I scheduled simultaneous activities. I had to reschedule a chiropractor appointment three times this week because I forgot about work obligations.
I would worry, but this isn’t new.
You know when you have those perfect moments you wish could last forever? This has been such a weekend.
I think we should both write a short story about being caught in the perfect moment forever. I have a feeling it would be hell for me. Like being stuck in Sarte’s hotel room with no eyelids, no blinking, no respite. Wouldn’t it be like eating cake for breakfast, cake for luch and cake for dinner? We need our conflicts. Or I do.
I bet bacon is a good remedy for marispan overload.
Now sure what exactly is a remedy for purple prose, though.
I should get to work. Should write a poem or two.
Much love to you! (Thank you for Bee Bones.)
P.S. Have been having trouble sleeping the past weeks, so I thought I would sleep better if I skip the wine on weeknights. It seems to help. Damn it.
Couldn’t sleep again last night: my shame paraded in the room, like a Brechtian cabaret. Joel Grey in white pancake, winking at me. Come wallow a while, you know you want to. I won’t tell, but I will insinuate. There are no secrets here.
I no longer dream that I’m an adolescent: there is no longer anyone else to blame.
It is funny how memories are connected to places. Though sometimes inaccurately. They are free-floating, but put down roots. Like weeds, they will find a way. They will break through the concrete, they will travel over oceans. They tether themselves to whatever they can grab hold of. And will not be excised.
The face of my son, the face of my brother morph into each other in dreams. In a slip of the tongue, a slip of thought. Narratives are a construction of details, knotted rationalisations. Plots are the thin ribbons of what has been forced through a sieve of (self-) consciousness. What is true is what has been honestly left unsaid.
For the sake of honesty.
I miss the ghosts I took with me from house to trailer to dorm to apartment. I left them in Texas. I didn’t mean to. The defeated soldier. The sorrowful girl. A truth can be conjured with the right descriptors. I am still searching.
I left them all, but the old woman. She is often a basket of clothing near the window at 4 am. Still silent. I have been waiting for her to tell me something. All these years.
She is you, isn’t she?
So, you tell me this: Would it be a sin to buy a Ouija board?
I’m standing over the changing table at three in the morning. As of now, the nursery is still in pristine shape; the walls have a fresh coat of blue paint. The crib sheets are ironed, and the new Ikea couch still has that new Ikea couch smell. One of my twin girls, Briar Dillon, is looking up at me, smiling. From what most people have told me, a newborn’s smile means one of three things: gas, poop, or pee, which is to say people don’t think newborns are actually smiling. I disagree. I think my daughter’s smile says “I could projectile onto the walls if I wanted to, Dad. If it pleased me, I could shoot a stream and ruin the couch’s upholstery forever.”
But at three AM, it’s hard to tell if something is a thematic connection or just your brain trying its best to stay awake. So when I open the diaper and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” enters my mind, I have to question that association. Rich wrote, “I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” Now that feels right. Considering the number of baby wipes I’ve already used, that feels really right.
She goes on to say “This is the place. / And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body. / We circle silently about the wreck / we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he” Now these lines, these are the lines I don’t want to mean anything when I dress my daughter in a fresh onesie and tuck her into the crib, because these lines mean that Rich’s fight is, in some small way, becoming my own, becoming the fight of every daughter’s father. These lines mean that, yes, my twin daughters were born one week before America’s most recent election. These lines mean that I will be writing for them for the rest of my life. These lines mean that my poetry, which usual deals with things like Stockholm syndrome and the misrepresentation of technology, now have a new dimension that I still don’t really understand.
When I put my pinky against her palm, tiny fingers tighten around me. In the last stanza, Rich declares “We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage / the one who find our way back to this scene”. It’s three AM, and I’m exhausted, and I want every word I will write in a poem to implicitly mean “You can grow up and be anything.” I want ever line break to say “there’s no such thing as a ceiling, and you don’t need to smile more than you want.” I want to write the poem that says “I was terrified, but I raised you. I was terrified, but look at you now!” I want to write that poem, but it will have to wait, because my daughter’s smiling, and her stomach is gurgling, and I can tell that we are due for a new diaper.