We weren’t supposed to hug the students last night, but hand them each a rose: this class that laughed when they noticed that last night’s graduation was the first time they were all standing on the stage where the students normally perform a couple of times a year; these drama students graduating without having performed for an audience anywhere in the last two years. I keep telling myself they are stronger for it in many ways. Maybe their laughter last night was proof of that.

I always cry a little on these evenings knowing I will miss them next year. And they head off to parties and to universities and gap year excursions and real jobs. And I relish the thought of a few weeks of self-indulgence before I circle back again.

It has taken me years to shake the end-of-year feeling that everyone else is moving forward while I circle back every August, in a kind of stasis. When former students write and ask me “Are you still at Vågen” I used to have to push down the defensive emotions that rose up: the “Yes, But”s.

But my life is not stagnated.

I’m embracing the dialectic aspect of being a grown-up. The circling back. My students are my teachers in so many ways. Instead of a deeper education, I am getting a broader education in all that it is to be human. I have let go of the stupid notion that I’ve “seen it all” (at any age) and realize that if I believe that – that I have seen it before – I’m not looking closely enough at the details. What knowledge I have from before might offer itself as a key to unlocking something, but it isn’t the solution itself. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Until this year I struggled with the division of my efforts: nurturing other people’s talents, and making room for my own creative work/practices. I thought that the former sucked energy from the latter. But I am beginning to see how it doesn’t work like that. There is no either-or. That’s an excuse.

The occupation of teaching is the continuing education that is necessary for my vocation as an artist. For my growth. It connects me to a world beyond my own narrow perspective, and it keeps me soft and strong and capable of kneading the big emotions.

When I was 25 I worked the graveyard shift in a bakery. Throwing huge balls of bread dough onto the table. Flipping and curling the triangles of butter-laden pastry dough into crab-shaped croissants. It was surprisingly hard work. And there were nights when it felt simultaneously meaningless, and essential.

We never know how the little snapshots of our memories can rise up and lock into place and make sense without a rational connection.

Maybe this is because the deepest truths aren’t products of our rational minds at all. Because the deepest truths will always be poetry.


(photo: the students’ term papers and the roses they gave me earlier this year turned into pulp and new bookmarks)

I sat down in front of the wrong computer this morning. Starting the day off the tracks makes it nearly impossible to get things running smoothly. And this Tuesday feels like a Monday, what with everything going just slightly wrong. I ordered the wrong paper weight, the vellum buckled like crazy even when I put the wet glued pages under three coffee-table books, and now it feels like there is a tightening vice pressing my temples.

And Leonard is begging for peanut butter, nudging my arm so that typing is impossible.

I think my lithium levels might be slightly off. So I keep eating on an upset stomach, as though weighing the nausea down will help. I’m eating Leonard’s peanut butter.

And I’m not supposed to eat peanut butter.

So: how do you take yourself by the ears and whip yourself crisp like a sheet coming off the clothesline? How do you unwind when you’ve turned yourself in circles like a bit of twine that’s begun doubling down, vertical knotting into horizontal, tight wriggling.

Becoming Cordage would be a nice title for a memoir if anyone knew what that meant.

Last night we walked on the beach. I wondered what got into the world since the usually vacant beach was bustling at six in the evening on a windy Monday. The fresh air was relaxing. But I wonder if the wind and the wild surf roused something in me. Or roused an awareness.

I can’t shake a sense of urgency. The word impending keeps coming to my mind. And so I put off all the things I’m supposed to be doing. Staving off… who knows what? I’ve a to-do list of tasks, projects. I have a stack of books on the floor that need to be shelved. The living room needs vacuuming. Leonard’s claws need clipping. But I can’t move.

I play with Gimp. With PhotoScape X. I write a twitter poem.

Failure.

That’s what’s impending.

Why is it that every time I circle back to the same damn fears, they are unrecognizable?

ocher paint on cream
paper – a stippling of blue
because wrong turns happen
like a maple’s samara
falling into the birdbath

stillborn

This morning feels familiar. A dog on the little rug near my feet. The coffee machine grinding in the other room. The delicious click-click of this cheap keyboard that is beginning to look like a mysterious, archaic tool.

This isolation.

The light is streaming in through the window already, but next week we move the clock backs and I will be writing in the dark again. I rather like that phrase: writing in the dark.

Yesterday I was thinking again about a drawing exercise I did so very long ago, but that has stuck with me. Mr. Shannon told me to draw my hand in detail. Every detail. But I had a kind of table over my paper that prevented me from seeing it. I wish I had that paper still. I remember being fascinated by the quality of the lines. The fragmentary nature of our sight. Of ourselves. I’ve been working on this again these days. Playing with pencils and lines. Simultaneously going at it “blindly” and yet seeing more than one normally does.

There was a time when I kicked myself for not being able to pull it all together – all the pieces – all the sensitive lines – to make a whole that was representational, recognizable. But I’m fine with it now. The sensitive lines convey just as much truth as the representational image. Something is always lost when you zoom out.

Everything is a metaphor.

I gravitated toward what I was told I was good at. Always relying on what I was told I was good at. I think it’s funny that my poetry has always been as fragmented as my drawings. These days I think it is all one. I’m reconsidering what poetry is. Reconsidering what kind of verification I need and don’t need from others.

To be honest: what kind of verification I don’t want to need from others.

My son tells me I have beautiful handwriting. He can’t read it though and calls it a secret language. This is the same kid who has zero interest in poetry. I have no idea if those things are related.

I have students who refuse to write anything by hand. None of them have ever learned cursive writing. I know there are a lot of theories about learning and handwriting, but I am just thinking: what a flat world without it.

Do children still finger paint in kindergarten?

Now I want to finger paint.

Maybe the drive to be more childlike as we age is less about reverting to innocence, than a call to engage again with the physical world while we can?

a rock fits nicely
in your palm – and you scratch
a white scar into
the wall of the bluff shelter
your will will shape the world after

Sunday morning. And sunshine. And resistance.

There are so many things I should be doing and choose not to. It starts (or rather doesn’t start) with making my bed. Changing the sheets, walking the dog, vacuuming the entrance hall. All the things I will do today. Grudgingly.

Unless I manage to adjust my attitude and find a way to let go of the resistance.

This has been a week of settling into myself. Not that it has been easy. Friday, walking home from the doctor’s office, I saw two sparrows in the bushes. Ragged-looking, bed-head feathers sticking in every direction, looking hung-over and crotchety.

I’m projecting.

I think settling-in requires a good shaking-up first. Taking a good look around at what you dropped without realizing it. What you didn’t even know you lost but explains the peculiar hollow feeling in your solar plexus.

These things that slipped out of your hands in a moment of weakness — of self-doubt.

When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror I see a woman disheveled and swollen. Who hasn’t stood up straight and smoothed her clothes, sliding her hands down along her sides — who hasn’t lifted her chin, in months.

Isolation is a complex experience.

I’m filling out a nightly questionnaire regarding how the coronavirus restrictions are affecting mental health. One of the questions asks if you felt lonely today. Another asks if you felt close to another human being. I answer: no, and yes respectively. Near the end of the nightly list of questions, though, is how many minutes you spent socializing in person. 0. It’s been 0 for a very long time. So this questionnaire makes me wonder if I even know what “loneliness” is. If I even recognize it when I feel it.

“Did you avoid social situations today to avoid stress?” Well, now. That’s a stupid question. When have I not done that?

I kind of doubt this little research project by the University of Oslo intended to make people anxious, but I am not convinced it isn’t making matters worse for me. I am not sure I am benefiting from a meta-awareness of my own isolation.

On the other hand. I haven’t been this creative in years. With no one looking over my shoulder (except the ever-supportive E., who serves as a touchstone of reality), I’ve rediscovered a sense of play so far gone, I thought I misremembered ever having had it.

Losing a sense of community can mean losing the fear of judgment, too. Maybe that is why so many poets are loners?

Several places in the New Testament state that no one is a prophet in their own land. And the explanation for the verses is about the people in the community taking the prophet for granted. But I believe that self-censorship plays a role. Why risk a tenuous belonging?

It’s a gamble to stick your head above your prescribed station. It can lead to exile or execution. Just look for yesterday’s tallest poppy. Either way – censored by them or us – we can so easily lose ourselves.

But I think by circling this space, again and again, I am picking up what I lost. Colors, textures, dreams. In this isolation I can forget to look over my shoulder to see who’s looking over mine.

It’s a long, slow route, but I think I’m getting there – wherever “there” is.

tiny, twig-like claws
scratching the palm of my hand
a quiver of down
a ticking-tiny lifespan:
catch it now — quill on vellum

A waning gibbous moon at 9 o’clock this morning as I walk Leonard to the park and back. Crows pass overhead in noisy, staggered murders. A year ago, they would have used paused here in the neighbor’s tree – and I miss them. I miss the crows and the tree.

And since the new family moved in next door this fall it has been all too quiet. The blackbirds no longer gather in the driveway at 5 a.m. I have to admit, sometimes I felt a bit like a mash-up of Snow White and the Queen of England having them sing outside the window in the mornings to wake me.

Letting go of these fun little daydreams involves a kind of grief.

When I was six or seven, I would lie alone in the grass in my grandparent’s tiny garden with the one braced sapling, and I’d imagine I was Alice in Wonderland. Those kinds of flights of fancy, as secretive as they are, you’d think you could hang on to them as an adult. But I have those kinds of playful moments rarely now. I miss them.

To be clear – I would not be a kid again for anything. The “go outside and play” refrain from adults still rings in my ears when I find myself in awkward social situations. It felt like a declaration of exile every time they said it.

Go find something to do. You don’t belong here.

And oh my goodness, the boredom. But then… then the flights of imagination.

I don’t think it is my age that is the problem. I don’t think there is anything wrong with my imagination. I think it’s the clutter of adulthood. There is no space in which to be bored enough to let my mind go wandering. There is always something to do. Some should do. Even if that is the novel I should be reading. I can easily avoid boredom while believing I’m behaving virtuously by doing so.

I line all the shoulds in my life up like ducks along a rope across a lake and I focus on all the ducks: Meditation, running, writing, reading. Work. I can’t see the lake for the ducks.

I find order comforting. I find creating order comforting. After the chaos of the DVT it took me four months to find my way back to the familiar rituals. At night the fear of death is still very much alive in my subconscious, but during my waking hours, order keeps me calm. Rituals are like handles on the baggage I carry around.

But carrying baggage around is an unnecessary habit.

When we hike, E. often takes a much bigger pack than is necessary. When people comment (and they have) he shrugs his pack and says people go to the gym to lift weights they technically don’t need to lift. He says it’s the same thing, and then he’ll pull out a huge thermos of coffee that I’m grateful for.

But I don’t believe hanging onto this baggage, no matter how kettle-bell-like, will make me stronger. I think it will wear me down. I also think tending to it is an excuse, a constant and convenient distraction from boredom.

I suppose boredom is like so much else in life – it is painful to begin – we’ll do almost anything to have to face it – (including poking at familiar wounds in a perverted act of self-comforting). But we can fall into a spacious momentum, and in the end, we rarely regret beginning.

Beginning a new year – I will try to welcome the unpleasantness of boredom more often. I will try to put the loose shoulds of my life in boxes – in dedicated rooms for dedicated attention. I won’t answer emails from students ticking into my phone at 11 pm. I will be sleeping.

And I won’t answer on weekends because I will be lost in some magic forest where tiny faeries live under the shelter of mushroom caps and sing dirges for the trees that were. They will be cruel and kind and tell me stories more true than any I’ve ever heard.

Last year I ate twelve grapes and wished for twelve things for the new year. This year, I am eating twelve grapes and making room for twelve muses.