Taking Off The Bear Suit

Dear Carolee,

I have been wondering if the “remains of winter” have left you. Has the poet-warrior returned? I am so sorry for my long absence. I’ve had to pull back for a time. For so many reasons. America being one of them. The whole concept of “it” on a social level, on a personal level. On the level of what am I now appropriating, no longer being an American, always being an American. How much does being identified as American by others make me American forever more. Whenever I speak: I speak “American”, even if I no longer speak for, or as a part of America. It is not the pain you are experiencing. It has been my own grinding pocket of noise. A pocket of past tense, of loss.

I pulled back. Listened more. Tried to discern the panic-inducing headlines (all for the sake of ad revenue), from the facts of damage. Tried to put it in the kind of perspective the priviledge of being on the outside affords. This is a different kind of self-imposed exile. One I didn’t expect, but should have. On 9/11 I felt it. And I was still actually a citizen. Even pulling back, though, Carolee. I feel like I’m doing wrong. Not appropriating what doesn’t belong to me, but then abandoning and looking at it from a position of detatched priviledge. I have no correct way to position myself in the public discourse on this. Except. The truth is there is no position of detachment. The world is too small now. Hate spreads like a virus – faster than a virus. So does fear.

What I’ve learned is that I lived in a bubble over there. As much as they talk about what social networks and the internet have done to insularize us with our opinions, I lived in complete ignorance of the real racial horrors. I was not taught in school that there was a time when you could purchase postcards at the 5 and dime to send home from your vacation, featuring lynchings. I had no idea Black men and women had to school their children in the safe way to answer a policeman if he asked a question. That lives depended on it. At least, that was the parents’ hope.

I’ve been listening and realising that while I did know the taste of government cheese, the smell of a condemned building, what it is to be a woman who jogs  alone in the late afternoon, with pepperspray in her fist – I never knew the true breadth of the ills of my own homeland. Maybe it is good Disneyland is falling apart at the fiberglass seams? A deep cleansing of the wounds, and another chance to heal?

But I know. I can say that from here. Where I am safely tucked into a healthcare system that functions. Where I haven’t felt the need for pepperspray in 23 years.

I didn’t want to write about this. My perspective is not important. But maybe what I learned from my perspective is relevant? I don’t know. I’ve tried to focus on writing.

And I know you’ve been writing. And publishing. And that makes me smile. And I know you are getting out in the green world. So have you “laced up your sneakers”? “Reclaimed the brain space?”

How are you coming with the forgivness you wrote about?

yogi bearOver the past two months, I wrote a play. Finished it. And it was like coming home. It was a great big “fuck you” to every fear I’ve had, to every question of “what’s the point”? Almost every morning, after an hour of writing, I felt like singing. Or rather, like I had just sung…or screamed.

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to take off the bear suit. Not that one.

But this one:

bear suit

I have been walking so softly – for almost half my life now – that I am a brittle presence in the world. So obsessed with belonging, with not belonging, that I’ve sprouted protection.

“Don’t touch me.”

All the while sending little coded messages into the world, in the form of poems. In books that no one can find.  I have competing desires. (If fear isn’t a form of desire, self-protection is.)

I’ve exhausted myself holding both these things in my hands, watching them fight it out. I feel like my body has mimicked every posture, in every wrong instance; my brain (and mouth) have run at the wrong tempo, and missed a crucial sign too often to deserve absolution from anyone. I’m grateful that there is something in me that resists the temptation to fill my noisy pockets with stones. But I do give up. Or give in.

I no longer care. In the quasi-Buddhist sense (because surely someone will correct me), “I” no longer care to figure myself into the equation. This little death happens daily.

And then around bedtime, not every night now, but on some nights: I have this urgent need to have my name in bold letters on the god-damned book cover, poster, neon sign.

Oh, it is so difficult to sleep in the bear suit!

How are you sleeping, luv?

XO Ren

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.

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

Dear Carolee,

“There she is,” you wrote in your last letter to me. An image of you in running tights and a tank with a bandana on your head: the poet-warrior.

I love that image. It seems so long since I “talked” to you. But that image has been in my mind often.

Only this week am I also recognising myself again. I’m kind of meeting myself in the doorway – and like you – I’m not entirely sure where I’ve been.

Earlier this month I hit a rather humiliating and painful roadblock at work. It shook my confidence. But this week I’ve recognised it as a blessing in disguise. I also learned to cultivate a personal distinction between humiliating and humbling.

My best friend told me that actually seeing and admitting one’s shortcomings in a particular area, painful as that is, is a sign of maturing. And, at my age, I think that is wonderful – maturing may not be “growth” in the traditional sense of new, green shoots; but it is (r)evolution, change that bends towards a spiritual maturing. And when we reach the end of our natural life cycle, the wisdom we’ve accumulated will be somehow dispersed into the universe via the bacteria and fungi that eat us.

Not that I believe that for a second, looking at the state of human culture today in light of the millennia of potential fungi-released wisdom. I was listening to a 100-year-old woman on an episode of On Being this morning. There was a lot of talk of what we “as humans, have forgotten”. I keep thinking, really? When was this time when the majority of humanity was peaceful and satisfied with their place in the world? Ancient Greece with their misogyny and pederasty? Further back? When Noah danced naked and drunk, and his children were punished for witnessing it? When was this amazing period of human history everyone keeps talking about?

I do, however, believe letting go of false assumptions about history, about human beings in general, and about myself frees me to let go of striving. And I can enjoy this life while I have it.

The list of things I am not good at just keeps getting longer. Potentials ticked off a list I’ve carried in my head. I will never be a Broadway singer, not because I never had the chance, never applied myself. I am not good at it.

I’m simultaneously mortified by my own unconscious arrogance, and grateful for it. I believe it gave me the confidence that I needed so often in the past, for the bold forays into other territories that taught me so much.

Curiosity is the best thing about me. Following curiosity’s lead requires a measure of confidence. And failure is a lesson in appreciation. Humbling, right? The good kind.

Now I can move on, and focus on what I am able to do well in the world.

Once the kids leave home, all the mandatory hoops to jump through are  behind you. All the boxes on the “good girl” checklist we’ve been handed are ticked, and now what? It’s frightening to get here and realise you have been so busy making sure you succeed, that when you meet yourself in the door you see a cardboard figure.

Where ogres and shadows linger all day for the vanquishing.

I switched to second person in that previous paragraph. Probably, in part, because that last paragraph doesn’t really feel  honest. I did not check off all those “good girl” boxes. The person I meet in the doorway, does have a hint of dimensionality and breathes. But I’m fooling myself if I think I can “focus” on what I do well. I’m still too curious for that. I like that about myself, actually. (Might be one of the few things I really do like about myself lately.)

I need to learn to really embrace failure, and not “take it personally”.

This is why I need running, too. The warrior-poet me moves (and does not think). Like  you, she gets out of her head, presses against the earth – gives and takes in a space of quiet. It is time-out from self-analysis, conversation, and the mental struggling I do too often with other people. A rock is a rock, and it has no intention that I feel necessary to root out and interpret. The patch of snow, slick instead of crusty, had no intention to make me fall on my ass. I should probably learn to treat people as I do nature.

That brings me back to poetry, doesn’t it. And Merwin’s vixen. And your farmhouse as you describe it so beautifully. Maybe reading and writing nature poetry can play a role in teaching me how to deal with people, too?

I do not run fast. I have accepted that. It’s my nature. But I run. And I have stopped thinking I have to improve. My running is good enough. If only I could transfer that to other areas of my life. “Good enough”.

I never harbored any secret desire to be a professional athlete. How did I get to a place where I believed I had to be a “professional” anything to have a justification for doing the thing? Like singing when no one else has to listen. (We are obliquely taught that it’s not good to “like the sound of your own voice”, aren’t we?)

I think maybe I’m still looking for some cultural boxes to check, as a measure of success. Those gatekeepers with their stamps of approval that allow you to confidently say at parties, “I am a (fill in the blank)”. I wonder if there ever was a time in human history when we didn’t present ourselves to each other under the label of what we do to earn money.

I am Ren, granddaughter of Florence, slayer of imaginary ogres and very real shadows.

I love the tone of your voice in the last letter, and in your posts since Christmas. I love the fact that you have had a year of “poetry adventures“, and your description of focusing on the path, not the destination (coddiwomple was almost my word for the year). I feel I am on your heels looking at the path in your headlamp.

Just until I find my bearings for the year.

Thank you for that.

(And thank you, too, for your activism. I’ll be thinking of you on Saturday. Take care!
And take a selfie.)


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.

Post Script

(And my apology to email subscribers for the premature publishing of a draft yesterday.)

I hope to get my phone back from repairs soon. This old iphone takes awful photos.



Last night I read the day’s poem from A Year With Rilke before bed. Since your letter last week, I’ve been reading them aloud. This poem was actually a letter:

[..N]ow at last I can breathe. Now everything is doable. […] I did not dream that such a storm of heart and spirit could come over me. That I survived it! That I survived it. – Ranier Maria Rilke

So, this is my fortune cookie.

I was up this morning, and walked the old lady around the block. Then ran 16k before breakfast and dawn.

Everything is doable. Just one thing at a time.

You’ve made me remember to appreciate the beauty of every effort. Every moment. Every thing. To never stop doing the things that we love, no matter how difficult they might be.

Happy Christmas.



Owning Up to Beauty

Good morning, Carolee.

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.

img_0038-1You 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.

You write:

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.

You write:

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.



Carolee’s Reply


The Stars Hovering Around Our Ankles

Good morning, Carolee!

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?

When it doesn’t slide into kitsch, that is.

I read a great definition of kitsch as being the product of two tears: one for the experience, one for the self-congratulatory awareness for having the experience. (Denis Dutton expounding upon Milan Kundera’s definition).

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.”

My second year students, sending love because I asked them to.

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!
XO Ren

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.