imageI’ve always struggled with my own heaviness during seated meditation. I relax quickly – disconnecting from the body is easy – but I sink, untethered in this way. It’s like being dropped in dark water, and feeling icy, unpredictable currents flowing around my thighs, over the sensitive skin of my upper, inner arms. I can abandon my body, but not the metaphors of pain.

Not having much affinity for Freudian therapy, I don’t believe understanding where it comes from will ever help the feeling go away.

Running is different. I can focus on my breath, and on my body as the point of entry with this world and the source of all my experience. I disconnect by observing connection. Circles of awareness that must include the root-tangled earth, and often include birdsong.

After watching the film To Spring from the Hand, a documentary about the former dancer and potter Paulus Berensohn, I decided to try seated meditation while working with clay.

Pay attention to the breath, he says.

And I do. The breath, and the slowness that comes. The balance of wills: my will and that of the clay. Give and take. Inhale and exhale. My mind through my body, connected to the earth.

 

I was listening to an On Being interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer on my way to work Wednesday. She says:

Children recognize 100 corporate logos and fewer than 10 plants. That means they aren’t paying attention.

But, (as she points out earlier in the discussion) children always pay attention, and I think they pay close enough attention to intuit the difference between what we say is important and what is truly important to us. The problem is not with the children.

I’ve been thinking about my role as a teacher. My role as a student. And that something, in between the two: a facilitator.

Since I see poetry as a form of facilitation, I’ve been thinking about why I write. For whom, and then again, why? To communicate, to preach, or to gain approval?

In an interview with Maria Shriver, Mary Oliver talks about not getting the mother-love she needed; the resulting “neediness” she had in terms of her relationship with her life partner. She doesn’t say whether this neediness influenced her poetry. She does say she tries to focus on the positive while writing. She explains that poetry is, for her, not therapy.

But this could also be question of the definition of “therapy”. Oliver’s focus on the positive is a deliberate choice. And, arguably, a choice that has had benefits in terms of her work, and her personal life. Her life’s story has not been swallowed by the difficulties of her childhood. Or her more recent bout with cancer. She gestures towards them in her poems, and we see the wisdom of her moving on, in the larger narrative.

At least that is how I read her work, and admire it.

But am I still writing letters to my own mother? Is my neediness what has me in a bind regarding submissions and publishing? My need for approval? For mother-love?

After not having thought about poetry-as-business, the poetry “community”, about submissions or publishing for over 5 years, returning is odd. After having published (soon) 6 collections and earning a doctorate, the idea of paying a reading fee is something I can’t really get my head around. Having had my poems published in journals before, I can’t see that it led to sales in my books. This means I am considering, after having paid for my education, my computer, I can now pay to have the opportunity for people to consider whether they will present my work to an audience who might read it.

This is why I need to answer the question of why I write, and for whom. I already paid a shrink – for years – to give me the mother-love I’ve lacked.

I do know I’m still looking for a replacement for the childhood God I lost when I discovered He was too into irony to worship. In my less self-conscious moments of writing, that is where the poetry takes me. This search.

I’ve been thinking about what Kelli Russell Agodon said about the way she weaves the details of our daily lives into poems about our common concerns.

Spanx and angst, I guess.

The first time I wrote about this, I misspelled Spanx. I am actually more than okay with that. My daily life is more often filled with words like togforsinkelser and boblejakke. But that is another challenge all together.

Angst. Yes. The question is where to focus. Angst or answers. And yet, if I am looking for answers, will I need to articulate questions? Or isn’t that exactly what poetry is? Unarticulated questions.

snowbellI may not learn to identify all of the plants along my running route by name, but I can begin with the goal of knowing more than ten. I can begin to be honest with myself about what I am making important in my life.

The snowdrops are resurrecting now. I can begin here. And I will write for anyone with same, unarticulated questions that I have.

I would love to hear your thoughts on who you write for, what your approach to publishing is…

 

The word poetry can mean many different things. I reach back to the origins of the word, the Greek poeisis: “to make”; and to the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis (the representation of nature).

At an artisan level, poetry is a tool. The lyric poet uses words to  represent and communicate the experience he or she has of being in the world. But the poet also aims towards creating sublime Poetry (poetry with a capital P): The poet aims towards Art. All imaginative writers do.

Aristotle’s concept of Poetry in the form of drama, can be applied to verse, novels, and even flash fiction. Poetry is a “made thing”. But it’s not just a pleasant rhyme, not a pretty little story with tidy conflicts and a reassuring resolution. Poetry demands a representation that somehow conveys living consciousness. It’s transcendent of its own artificialness. Even dance (poetry-in-motion) has to rise above the mundane fact of a body’s movement in space: Movement becomes metaphor. And it is necessarily awesome, in the sense that it is also tinged with fear; if something conveys a true sense of life, it must also convey a sense of mortality. Poetry, as an art form, is not escapism. It is a confrontation with our truths.

Art as Experience

meandoscar
Kissing Wilde’s Grave, 2012

Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create “a mood”. And if by “mood” Wilde means an experience, I agree with him.

I believe Art is an experience. It is the recognition of one human has when viewing/hearing an artifact created by another human. Simply put: the experience of, “I recognise that aspect of being human, too; I see you, the maker; I feel what you felt when you made this.”

Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God, or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.

However, Wilde also said that art is useless:

“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”

One can read Oscar Wilde’s little note on the uselessness of Art and the metaphor of a flower as his attempt to justify earning money as an artist. With all due respect, I dare say that Mr. Wilde had a limited understanding of a flower’s practical role within its ecosystem.

And although “made things” are not flowers, their potential for Art does not exclude their potential for usefulness. All art forms are tools for communication and discovery, whether or not individual works succeed as Art with a capital A.

Art as a Tool for the Good Life

Before Wilde, Immanual Kant also pointed out the useless of art. Kant said that an artwork is “intrinsically final“, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.

The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools, first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also helps us fulfil our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tool – when we work with devotion – writing may help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognise themselves through our Poetry. Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality.

Poetry, in verse or in prose – spoken or written- takes us out of our selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, be definition, exalts our experience.

Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention

Truth be told, “exalt” is one of those words that tends to put me off.  I’m more comfortable with words like “improves”, “challenges”, even “refines”. We can use the art of writing to refine ourselves, and to redefine ourselves. The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing.  We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity.

Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.” Regardless of his claims of uselessness, Wilde seems to be suggesting here that art can be a tool for reinvention.

Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful”. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be:

We can live deliberately.

We can cultivate attention and gratitude; we can create stronger connections with the earth, and with each other. If we aim towards Art, and if we are very fortunate, we can transcend ourselves.

Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.

– Oscar Wilde

This choice is who we are. Which story are you choosing?


More information about my exprience with Perspective Writing.


 

A few years ago I noticed a couple of themes in my photography.

One was laundry lines. In Genova, Jerusalem, Dakar, Bishkek, Kyoto, Grand Canaria…

clothesline

At first I thought it a bit odd that I was traveling to all these wonderful places, and coming  home with photos of people’s laundry hanging out to dry. But then I realised why it speaks to me: this simple fact of life. Universal.

And something my grandmother, in her 1950s mindset, thought was uncivilised. She had an electric clothes dryer, so there was no need for the neighbours to see her cotton underpants.

But what could be a more concrete evidence of civilisation than laundry lines?

For the record, I don’t think Adam and Eve donned clothing out of shame, but because they ate from the tree of knowledge and longed for beauty.

My grandmother never wanted to travel.

That was a shame.

 

 

IMG_20151201_161947I’ve been reading Lonely by Emily White this week. Taking stock and remembering the Christmas I spent alone in my mid-20s, when the phone didn’t even ring. Remembering deciding not to kill myself because no one would know for weeks – and then, there would have been no one to call.

It wasn’t that I had anything to prove to anyone, but rather, I was in the position I was in because I knew I had more to give, and was worth more than I had gotten in the past. I was in a cocoon and had to have faith I’d break out when I was ready.

Two years ago I had to go in for an ultrasound. The blood tests indicated pancreatic cancer, and every google search found the same story: the no-symptoms-but-three-months-to-live story.

I’d left my husband (a lovely man) the previous year. My best friend lives in the US, and my (now) fiancé and I had just begun dating.

I finally told my oldest son about the test. He happened to be visiting from London that month, and he asked if he could go with me for the scan. My first response was no. But then, I realised that it was his place, his *right* to be there for me. We made a 48 hour plan in case the scan showed a tumor. He’d come back to my apartment to be there for me. We’d call his boyfriend to come be there for him. We’d take it from there. I spent the weeks in the meantime accessing whether I should live differently in the time I might have left, whether I had huge regrets. What would I miss? What would I be spared?

After the scan, the three of us went out for a celebratory dinner. The scare made me realise that I am on the right track, if not there yet. Made me realise my oldest son had grown into a wonderful young man with more resources than I had given him credit for.

The thing is, since I was a kid, I’ve thought we are probably here for someone else’s sake. And we don’t know whose. Could be the man on the subway the morning you said hello and smiled in passing.

I have no idea who would miss me. I wrote a chapter in a book some years back, and I have had two letters from people thanking me. Just two. But that is one more than reason enough to have written it.

What I have to keep in mind is that I may not have yet written the chapter that the person I am here for needs to read. Might be my boys. Might be a student. Might be a stranger. But it is arrogant to censor myself out of feelings of inadequacy. (Still not sure I’ve completely convinced myself of this one.)

I don’t have a huge network of connections. I haven’t had a tribe since Jr. High School. But I have made a positive difference in individual people’s lives. Most of them have moved on, so they won’t miss me. But they would have, had I not been there when. I’ll just keep showing up, and hold onto my childhood faith.

I spent a half hour texting with my youngest son last night. He is in Denmark with his girlfriend and they had just finished watching Inside Out, as had I and my fiancé here. Coincidence. Connectedness. My macho-military dude texted that he almost cried when he realised how important sadness was. Today I am thinking loneliness is pretty important, too.