Dear R.

I’ve been doing fine with these physically-distanced months. In part because I’ve been ridiculously busy and focused on everyone else’s needs. That’s good for me: focusing on everyone else’s needs.  Now the year is winding down. I have less to do, and to notice the pile of books on my desk that I meant to read, the list of letters I meant to write – that play still unfinished.

I scroll through the apps on my phone, and take in all the anger and the fear there.

Then I worry about everyone else again with a new kind of suspicion – I worry about what they think of me, or want from me in a way that is not good for me. I want to fix things that are not mine to fix. And then feel ashamed for having the arrogance to think I could, or should. When I scroll through social media I feel helplessly disconnected: Socially distanced.

I’m not missing being in the office, but I am missing seeing my friends face to face – more than I usually miss them. You are all so far away. And some of you (not naming names) are fully engaged in very real political battles on your home turf.

I have to remind myself I’ve never really lived in a world where I can call up someone on the weekend, settle into a deep, leather chair with a glass of wine, and have a good laugh. Do those little pockets exist for more than a moment or two, every few years? Where the company of friends really makes you forget the world’s bickering and reaffirms what you thought about people being clever/kind and genuinely wanting one another to thrive?

I watch too much television. Have picked up and moved on too often. Or maybe I’m too stiff from scarring. We all are.  No: some of us are. Some of us need a patient easing into social interaction. A deep, leather chair. Wine.

I should buy a deep, leather chair.

It is starting to dawn on me that I cannot travel this year. It wasn’t even a year ago I visited B. in Colorado. It seems like so many years ago. I was planning on to see you and M. this summer when I headed to London to be with the kid for a while. It makes me sad to think about it.

This summer we’ll go hiking. Not terribly far, but with a sincere intention of fremmedgjøring – out of the range of mobile phone coverage.

I have a strange desire to lug something heavy on my back so that I can put it down at the end of the day. I want to see something besides the yard and the same 4 kilometre stretch of trail along the lake.

Until then – until the grades have been logged and the students sent off –  I’m starting a garden. When I say “I”, I mean E. is sawing down the overgrown thuja to make room for the tiny greenhouses.  I’ll try to grow chilies and tomatoes.

Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro.

There is a space he is clearing along the southern side of the house where I’m going to plant raspberry bushes and apple trees.

It upsets me a little to consider that the trees might not take root.

I have a desire to do something that matters. Like growing things. I have a fear that even on this tiny scale, I won’t be able to do it right.

So I am procrastinating and blaming the weather. I’m blaming the weather for the melancholy, too.

For some reason I keep thinking about the Italians – months ago now – who spontaneously sang together from their balconies. Not for each other, but with each other.

Is there a really good word for this feeling it brings up in me? I know other people felt it. Because they tried so hard to repeat it.

This is a kind of grasping, isn’t it?

You know, way back in 2001 people were celebrating Earth Day. Everyone in the world was supposed to turn off the electricity and light a candle. A few days later someone got the idea that we all had to do it again so we could take a picture from space. I remember this because I wrote about it in a poem about 9/11. The aspect of the (meta-) performativity of our “Humanity”.

I’m not alone in struggling to just let it be. And let it come.

img_20200526_182658_7655223821023366188865.jpgDo you know what I mean when I say now that I think of Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to be part of any club that would have me?

These days I’m struggling to be human. I would much rather be Leonard Edgar. He doesn’t care what anyone expects of him.

He doesn’t have a facebook account.

I’ve been missing you. Hoping you are ready for a good summer. Wondering how you are really…

-ren

 

 

 

 

 

Moving closer to the Finisterre-


Afterthoughts on a month of focused meditations. Our guide asks us to consider what lies under our actions.

Underthoughts – it should be a word. Norwegians have the world baktanker – literally back-thoughts. I like the image of thoughts that push us through the world. But google translates the word as ulterior motives, which is the what it really means, of course. Still, I like having this literal understanding of the language as a kind of tool for thinking.

One of the delightful things about having learned a second language as an adult is how an ignorance of connotation invites me to took more closely into how language is inseparable from context. And how context so often is a matter of attributing intention on other people’s actions. So not knowing connotation gives me an almost scientific tool for my ruminations. But translating the ideas into a functioning language can be difficult.

Speaking of rumination, the cows are still in the barns. It seems odd to run along the lake in the early morning –  the sun already up – and find the fields so empty. The cattle have to eat all the harvested feed from last autumn before they’re let out to graze. These days away from routine – sporadic runs at odd times – have pulled me out of the flow of the seasons. The route is a shocking green.

Today we didn’t get to the lake until the crows had left. I’ve never considered their cawing ominous, but I have to admit the songbirds provide a might lighter soundtrack for the morning.

I decided to join this virtual Camino for two reasons. I’ve wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago for years now. In part to say I’ve done it: like running a marathon, or climbing a mountain. And in part for the contemplation it affords – demands. I don’t have photos or calluses or bragging rights here at the end. No stamped passport. But I put in the spiritual work.

When I began I had considered myself as being in a liminal state. But what I’ve come to realize is that there is no other state of being. There is no good reason to think of life as a series of stasis points with periods of growth – or with periods of decay – between them.

“The only constant in life is change”-Heraclitus.

I see it as a kind of responsibility. And I guess I have the existentialists to thank for that. Coasting between periods of effort is a nice little illusion. But maybe it’s been a linguistic problem for me – this word: growth.

I’ve heard far too often people saying things like “I am too old to … “, “Set in my ways…”, as though once the body stops growing we just “are”. Are – or am – is a decision, an attempt at stasis.

The word growing implies a destination – we grow into something. Intentionally or haphazardly. When we talk of spiritual growth we seem to be conversing within a context of hierarchy. We are rising, attaining, and improving. This way of thinking has an inherent judgement. Better than.

I like to think that I am better than I was at 18. At 30. Even better than I was two months ago. But I’ve probably lost good aspects of myself, too. Is there really a point in summing up and measuring my life against some kind of rubric?

What if I just stay in it. And trust that I am growing into death, into mushrooms, into trees.

Bragging requires someone else to listen; I doubt the trees give a damn.

So – circling back to the beginning – what is underneath what moves me through life? It seems awfully dark to say the inevitability of death and the paradoxical desperation for meaning, and for acceptance.

But that’s all I’ve got for now.

Looking forward to the cows to be let out of the barns – for whatever reason.

The 25th leg of the Camino.


Every day I get to sit in this little library, between the walls I’ve painted a deep green. I’ve hung dark mustard paisley curtains in front of the French doors. There are shelves of books, a great oak desk, a purple velvet wing-back chair, a standing Tiffany lamp, and a sleeping dog  – who takes up this tiny room otherwise.

This room is my pride. My bower nest.

Sometimes my love sits in the chair and reads, or works puzzles while I write.

I have always been comfortable in snug spaces. Always taken a pleasure and sense of calm in the arranging and rearranging of objects in space. Even when that was a mattress, milk crates and two-by-fours. And books.

But this space is different. The room is still small, but sitting here – my back to the window – the blackbirds’ singing sounds through the glass. Unfailingly, they sing.

In all the moving I’ve done in my life, this is the first time I’ve not felt that my personal physical space was a kind of panic room; a secret sound-proof sanctuary, the tighter the better.

I think it’s the singing that makes this home different.

Sometimes I wonder if the blackbirds that sing in our driveway are the same blackbirds that hop along the trail in the dark winter mornings – darting into the underbrush when we run by. Maybe they follow us home.

This winter I neglected them – and into this spring. I’ve neglected to notice them. Of course it matters nothing to them, it is all my loss. I fell out of habit and haven’t run regularly in this new year. This wearying year that has been off-groove for so many ways for so many people. And when things are off-groove, I retreat.

I want to write: “It’s only natural.” But it’s unnatural.

Today I forced myself to push the hamstring for a run along the lake. And something like not having seen a small child in too long, I realize that I’ve somehow missed the world going by. The lily pads speckle the southern edges of the lake already with their big, flat leaves. In the pale reeds, the cottontails are thick and dark brown. The ducks are paired off, and I am overdressed in a fleece and a jacket.

I’ve missed the smells of the woods, and the active focus of scanning for tree roots at a steady pace. I’ve missed stopping and listening to the trees in the wind, the rare woodpecker drilling – I’ve even missed the little electric jolt at the site of an iridescent beetle crawling over my fingers while I try to balance in an awkward crow pose in the middle of the grove.

I’ve missed opening myself to nature, which is necessarily opening one’s self to death. Even the mushrooms in the shade of Njåskogen look like ivory-silken funeral lilies.

All this while, away from the woods, I’ve been planning a garden. Planning. While sitting in this little room. It makes sense really. What is a garden but an attempt to tame nature? To stave off death – or at least create an illusion of control over it.

From this room I make plans for a garden in the yard that will be a kind of bridge to the lake and the woods down the road.

It’s time now.

Dear Richard,

I don’t even want to think about how long it has been since I’ve written. Even longer than it’s been since we managed to get together for dinner in London. I am grateful you found the time and that our schedules lined up to allow it.

Since then we’ve been through an entire season. I suppose it’s fitting though. It feels like a season has come to close.

I thought about you all day yesterday. Wondering if the election results would ease your headaches. Would let you release a tiny bit from all the urgency?

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Looking for balance.

Here, I’ve kept my head down. Tried to detach as best I can from the flood of panic-inducing headlines that the media uses to keep us clicking, and sustaining the evil circle of fear and toothpaste ads. I do believe money makes the world go around like never before.

The thing is, I thrived in the quiet. I wrote a play. I finished a play. But even though I’ve already sent it off, and a literary manager has responded that he will argue to include it in a specific theater’s 18/19 season, I’m afraid to let myself experience any kind of satisfaction. Still wondering where that damn line is between smugness and insecurity. If I dare to sit up straight and say, “Look what I did!”, someone will knock me good in the chest. Simply because they’ll feel to obligated to remind me that there is no guarantee it will ever really get off the ground.

Why do we do that sort of thing to each other? Deny one another a few minutes of thrills and the high of having created something and having heard someone else say, “I see you, I hear you!” We all know it wears off – that feeling of joy – quickly enough. (“Marvellous”. He wrote that it was “marvellous”, and I love that because the word sounds like something you can eat with your fingers—in a very classy way.) Here, it may be very wise to actually focus on the moment? Put down the little callipers that will measure whether the ego is dangerously inflated?

For some reason I just now had that thought again about my mother telling me she used to rehearse for her mother’s death. That’s a pretty messed-up way to go through life, isn’t it?

I inherited that practice. I rehearse for the worse. I don’t trust my resilience. Although in this case, it means that I’ve started a new one: a new play. I’m afraid that if I think too hard, or spend one more minute reading theatres’ submission guidelines, I will collapse in dry pile of dust. “Run Forest, Run”. Fear-driven momentum.

The strange thing is all the world’s stories seem the same to me now. Or just as the one I have just finished. The subject matter radically different, the story the same. The poetry the same. Is this a cliché? A manifestation of the fear of not having anything more to say? New to say? Oh, my God: What to say?! I have even written to you about my mother’s dress rehearsals before.

I’m okay. I have a little whiskey here on the desk now. Talk about cliché.

How is the novel coming? Do you find politics creeping into your work, or is it a refuge from at least that particular ache?

This is brief. But I am back. And I hope you will forgive my absence. I’ve been growing.

Much love to you and M.
I’ve missed this.

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.

Dear D.L.D.,

I have been wondering what would happen if I showed up on your doorstep. Bleeding, and wearing clothes that were too small. How I would want you to take me in and guide me. Accept me, despite our disagreements. You could have mothered me, as you were never mothered, as I was never.

I was watching the sun rise over the lake this morning, running past the swans – butt-up along the shore – wondering if you would have turned me away. How it would have been to vie for attention among all of the unbalanced people walking in and out of the basements and the sheds in your part of the world.

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I wondered if you would bring me a bowl of fruit. Sit me in front of the computer and tell me to write.
Or forbid me to write.

I am, you know: writing again. Working backwards and picking up breadcrumbs from the decades I have moved through. Remembering what it was to write before the fear of expectations. Before I felt I had to explain.

Sometimes – just sometimes – I envy young people their hubris. The more we know, the more we know we do not know. How to marry that knowledge with daring? Socrates did it, right?

They say he was a jerk.

And you – and me – we are too open with ourselves, and our opinions. I was wondering if you knew the last time you stepped off the stagecoach, it was the last time? If when you took to the room in the hospital you founded, you knew you would become a foundling again?

The blind leading the blind somewhere in the labyrinth.

Respectfully,
Ren

 

Dearest Richard.

January has been a wild animal. Like you, I think it is an absurd time to mark the beginning of a New Year. I think an elder should begin walking the neighborhood every day beginning mid-February. When the first tiny tip of a green blade of crocus pokes through, she lets us know. Singing would be nice. Then we begin again.

It is odd that you should be writing now about selfies and beauty and art. Perhaps not odd at all. Serendipity and all that. It is all a matter of perception, isn’t it? How we choose to (subconsciously) draw lines to connect things. I have been reading a poem each night from the A Year with Rilke. Last night I discovered that somehow I have missed a night. I was on the wrong page. So I wound up reading “Not by Grasping” from Sonnets to Orpheus 1, which hit me in the chest with relevance.

“Song, as you teach us, is not a grasping,
not a seeking for some final consummation.
To sing is to be. Easy for a god.
But when do we simply be? […]

And now you write:

I studied a text by Heinrich von Kleist (one of my favourite irrationalists) called Über das Marionettentheater (On the Puppet Theatre), the essence of which is that humans are basically incapable of gracefulness because they are always thinking, whereas puppets will always be graceful because they have no thought.

This is really interesting. I have never heard of von Kleist. But I disagree. I do believe humans are capable of grace. Much more so than marionettes, with their stuttering movements that so perceptibly demonstrate the “push and pull” of external motivations. On the other hand, like you, I would agree that we lose our grace when we become self-conscious. Like you described:

Thus, if we catch a glimpse of ourselves (in a mirror, for example) and like what we see, if we try to consciously repeat that pose, we will never be able to recreate it because we’re consciously thinking about it.

tip2And I think there might be even more to it than that. When we glimpse ourselves in that way, we are unaware that we are seeing ourselves. We are looking objectively at the world (in the best sense), and seeing with the compassionate – or even admiring – eye that we look at others with. When we recognize ourselves, we turn on ourselves. With the conscious “posing” comes the conscious judgement. Or vice versa. We wilt under judgement.

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Early morning therapy session with the smartphone.

Funny you should bring up selfies. I have been thinking about them a lot lately. Carolee and I have been discussing them. I have been talking to B. about my issues with them. But I’m beginning to agree with them: that selfies can be tools for self-compassion. This has been on my mind because, for the last six months, I’ve been disappointed and shamed by images of myself. I wasn’t even this insecure about myself when I was 13.

I have ever been a “lenselus“, but seeing photos of myself is painful lately. I think often of my grandmother who told me that every time she glimpsed herself in a mirror she was taken aback. She would see an old woman, and only slowly realise that she was “the old woman”. Her mind was utterly disconnected from the image of her body. And it happened almost daily.

I am wondering if it was a disconnect from her body, or just its image. Do you think blind people deal with their ageing bodies differently than sighted people?

I’ve been forcing myself to look at pictures of myself. To take selfies. (Not that I do anything with them.) It’s not an artistic practice, but a form of therapy, I guess. A meditation in acceptance and forgiveness. I am still self-conscious about it, but remind myself that the judgement we often make of people who take selfies is maybe unfair. I would feel much more uncomfortable and narcissistic asking E. to take a photo of me for my website or Instagram feed, for example.

I also think selfies are a feminist issue. And by that, I don’t mean a women’s issue. Feminists are aware of the complex issues of objectification: male and female. And our deeply ambivalent relationship with it. I suspect you have this ambivalence, too? They talk all the time about how our culture presents men as the adventurers and women as the prize. But I have known and do know many men who would like to be the prize: the object that represents value and beauty. It’s funny how our culture won’t really acknowledge that, and how it punishes men by labelling that desire as “effeminate”. The patriarchy smacking everyone down with whatever form of shame will keep us in line in the tacit framework of the established hierarchy and prescribed forms of personal value. (You’ll have to forgive me for the pompousness of that sentence).

(I just looked up the definition of effeminate and is says: “[…] having characteristics as typical of a woman; unmanly: he lisps and his handshake is effeminate.” Lisps? WTF?!)

At any rate. I do not have an Arctic to sit with in meditative moments. I envy you that. But I do have the path along the lake and this morning (for the first time this year) I was able do my morning run. My knee has healed. And the gathering of crows in the grove this morning was like a stadium of cheering supporters.

Not that they knew it.

I’m working my way back. Perhaps now back to working, too. There is a play knocking around my head, with trumpets and drums. I’m going to try to attend it before it moves on.

Much love to you. I hope this weekend is – Wait. What happens on March 21st?

XO
Ren

P.S. Regarding you comment about comments. I don’t actually have a lot of traffic to my blog. I am okay with that: terrified of trolls. Even when people leave really beautiful comments, my first thought is that they are being ironic. So, as they say, it’s all good.


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.

 

 

 

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.”

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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.