The skies are clear and the air is cold, and at some point I will get up from this desk, get dressed and go to the beach. It is one of those days that – in recollection tomorrow – will be smudged across my mind: leaving just a fraction of an hour of something meaningful -something like
squinting against sharp reflections of the late-afternoon light while watching a tern searching the foam for something to eat.
And this will be better than most days.
Later tonight E. will take a Covid test before heading offshore for another fortnight. I expect autumn will take hold in his absence. And the space between the points of the timeline of my days will stretch wide: Work. Home. Work. Home. I’ll walk the dog. Keep up the routine. And darkness will creep over the edges of the days until there is precious little light left.
Sometimes precious little is more than all the rest.
I like the smell of there having been candles – I like it sometimes best.
Because the earth is round and its path is round, we will pass by this way again, one way or another.
The darkness retreats, too . And we always miss it as well.
I’ve struggled with what to call myself since I’ve committed myself to a very spiritual practice of “secular” Buddhism. (It isn’t easy to give up the feeling of belonging that labels can provide.) I don’t believe in a Buddha deity. But I’m following the eight-fold path, and I definitely believe in a spirituality of our existence as a part of all things.
I cherry-pick from my personal experience with religions. The childhood faith, which I mourn but cannot accept as a whole cloth faith. And I consistently question my cherry-picking with concern for well-intentioned, but ignorant appropriation.
As part of my morning meditation, I hear the words of a camp song: “Beloved, let us love one another” [1 st John 4:7-8 ] Please don’t look it up. I promise you, what you will find is not what I hear anyway. Words. Rhythms. They burn into our minds. As they are intended to.
But they are also uniquely embedded within each of us – within the contexts of our individual experiences – even if it is nothing more than an intonation of a single word: misheard, misunderstood, misremembered, and repeated enough to become real.
I tweak the words to another verse: I rewrite “His” as “It’s” to be more in accord with my recognition of the spiritual righteousness of Nature/God (thus circumventing the bearded old man concept of God the Father of my childhood).
I remember reading once that secular originally just meant temporal or “of this century”, and not necessarily at odds with religion and/or spirituality. With this definition it would seem all religions should encompass a set of secular guidelines for ethical behavior.
I didn’t intend to write about this when I sat down this morning. But aren’t we all digging continually in the wreckage of our own lives and purposing what we find?
Shouldn’t we be doing this always?
I’m taking part in a zoom reunion today with cast members of a production of Steel Magnolias – oh, so many years ago. It’s brought up things I haven’t thought about it years. I find myself ashamed of who I was then (-in a world of pain-).
I was surprised that they reached out to include me, and I feel a bit like I want to make reparations à la some kind of 12-step program. But I’m going to let it go. Let it be. And focus on the moment.
Or what I find in the forest; I’ve been trying to speak for myself only.
The pine smelled so sweet and sharp this morning. Somewhere near my solar plexus I felt a heaviness like guilt. I know it must smell this pronounced because the trees have been freshly cut. It’s not the smell of death – but of wounds. I’ve had wounds myself before that have wept, clear and sticky. I should have enough compassion for the trees not to be drawn to this smell. But I inhaled so deeply I had to stop running.
– I exhale melancholy.
Someone had raked together all the long, dead branches and placed them around the bases of individual trees. E. told me that it’s a kind of slow fertilizing process. But I think the trees look as vulnerable as martyrs waiting for the flames.
– I exhale anxiety.
My mind wanders on these forest runs and it isn’t always easy to sort what to take, and what to leave in the forest. Today I took home four fallen leaves home to make paste paper for chapbook covers. I took home a photo of an abandoned boot someone placed on a tree stump. I took home the reminder that this body is aging and mortal, that each day is made more precious with that knowledge.
I wonder what I leave after these runs? Footprints, certainly. Carbon dioxide.
I wonder if we shed dark matter in our wake, just as we shed bits of DNA.
I wonder if the blackbirds that overwinter here are disturbed by my having been present with them.
We talk about breath being life: inhaling, exhaling. But the pauses between – the effortless moments of waiting – without a glottal stop – are as integral to the flow of life, as death. Or is death, rather, is the hum of existence beyond this constellation of atoms.
These breathless, lifeless pauses are where we touch the dark matter of the universe – these are what is expressed in the leaps in our poetry.
I feel ridiculously self-conscious talking about writer’s block. I am one of those people who believes that all present tense descriptors only relate to the moment as it passes: not the future. And that the past is “history” and not something one can cling to in the present. Though I know we all do that for comfort sometimes.
And sometimes I think “writer’s block” sounds like a humble-brag.
I took enough Spanish in college to remember that there are two verbs used when describing people. You can say: soy feliz or you can say estoy feliz, “I am a happy person” or “I am a happy person in this moment – as the words escaped my mouth”.
The correct way to say, “I am a writer” is soy escritora. But I can’t bring myself to say that if I’m not writing. In these pauses between books, between journal-keeping, between poems; what am I?
I try to tell myself I am not “a what”… Still: what am I dong with my life?
A few years ago I named the problem: the oxpecker who sits on my shoulder and pecks at my brain. My writing practice has always come in seasons, and always with varying production. But the drive to write never left me entirely until three years ago. It’s bound up somehow emotionally with the day E. and I were running on the beach and I just couldn’t seem to find the energy. I wasn’t “tired” or “fatigued”, it was a feeling I’d never experienced before. It was as though I just couldn’t get the engine to turn over, to catch hold and run.
I kept telling E. that something was wrong, but it was nothing I could point to. Until my leg turned purple the next day, and I was hospitalized with deep vein thrombosis.
My body is healed, but the shock having walked around for 51 years, ignorant that I’ve had a weird congenital defect seems to have broken my confidence in so many other ways. And when I sit down in my little library to write, I feel that same sense that something is wrong. That tiny fear of not being good enough – of needing reassurance – has grown and animated itself as this bird that pecks at the wound in my mind. I would say that it feels like my life in on pause, but I see myself growing older. Time is passing.
Yesterday a good friend asked me to join her at a “share your practice” session at one of the local arts centers. A young dancer was going to hold a workshop. It was so much fun. She lead us through a kind of guided meditation dance, and through a series of exercises with gesture work, and partner work with abstracting gestures. I am not a dancer. In fact, I don’t think that I can ever be a performer again really, but her instructions kept me focused and in the moment so the oxpecker was also distracted from her own goal: to protect my ego at all costs.
When the workshop was finished the dancers decided to do a half-hour jam. No rules. No distractions. The oxpecker returned to pick at my wounds. We have a phrase in drama pedagogy: rules as tools. Now I am thinking: rules as distraction.
Now how can I apply that kind distraction to my writing practice?
I have an ambivalent relationship to aphorisms. Whether a quote is merely a platitude, or a significant expression of a deeply contemplated experience, all depends on the reader and their current frame of mind.
I have noticed that when I’m scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, and register “platitude after platitude” it’s time for me to take a break from everything electronic – and breathe.
Of course there are plenty of people out there posting motivational quotes because they have something to sell, but it is too easy to dismiss the quotes that are being shared by individuals with nothing to sell, but who have been touched and want to share the thought. The problem is – without the context of that person’s experience, it’s easy for me to skim the surface: “platitude”. In my hurry, I’m inconsiderate, and refuse every earnest attempt at connection. And worse is that I find myself judging those people as shallow.
One part of my daily morning meditation involves water: calming the waves until the surface is reflective… and having the courage to recognize that what I see is a reflection of myself –
here in the shallows.
Slap a famous writer’s name on the end of a quote and you have a context. But often that sense of belonging “in the club” is the only context: I recognize my education. Ego. Smugness. After all, who has time to consider all the potentially earnest missives send via a quote?
I am guessing now that this is where discernment comes in. Another part of my morning meditation. Maybe there is a point in making my world smaller so that there is more time for consideration.
Every fragment of the universe – when contemplated – is a koan.
I think I knew that still at five. Before I thought I had to appear to know everything. (And too often it is possible to fake it until you believe it yourself.)
Maybe there is a point in returning to daily journaling, and giving up the need to be anything but earnest – to be five again in that regard.
I’d quite like that.
We have a responsibility to hold to the power of love that we know to be true, and to not allow the world around us to deaden that in ourselves.