When I was a teenager I saw myself in New York City. That was it. After a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in the OC (yeah, no one called it that), in the searing heat of Vegas, in the middle-of-nowhere Bakersfield, in the cold isolation of Kentucky… New York City was a metaphor for having it together. I’d wear fitted, linen dresses with suit jackets and dangerously high heels. I’d stride down the streets.


I made it to New York City in my early twenties. I put on a pair of dangerously high heels and I strode down the street. A homeless guy whistled and told me I had nice legs. I turned to smile and he said, “Too bad your face is so ugly.”


When I was about 8 or so, I had a babysitter for a brief time who had a house that I thought was a mansion. She had sliding glass doors, and flowing drapery – and a player piano. She played show tunes for me every afternoon after school. She knew all the words to all the songs. Her family had season tickets to the theater. It was all a metaphor for having it together.

“Putting it together, bit – by – bit”.


My grandmother took me years later to see my first actual stage production at a local university theater. Major Barbara of all things. By then I had been saying I wanted to be an actress for a couple of years. This was largely due to Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson having it all together on the big screen when I was a kid – all those films where everything went right .

I’d become thoroughly convinced that I was meant to be an actress as a tween, when I’d read Helen Hayes’ memoir/anthology Gift of Joy. I’d felt an uncanny kinship with her based on her fascination with the spoken language. (It never occurred to me that she was an extrovert and I am most definitely not.)

I only understood two-thirds of Major Barbara, but I was fascinated. My grandmother asked me if I could imagine myself on that stage. I said, yes. But I know now that I wasn’t imagining being on the stage – I wanted to be part of it all. Somehow. This make-believe space where we could create, recreate and watch the world from a safe distance, – and watch it all work out.

I still think there’s something magical when everyone already knows the words, but the performance makes every word immediate and raw nonetheless: when a room is filled with the breath of a hundred strangers, and the energy of every body preternaturally focuses on a single point of experience. Shared experience.

We are all children clapping for Tinkerbell.


How did I wind up here?

So very far from New York city. I haven’t put on a high heel in years. Instead, I have three pairs trail shoes, and two pairs of mud-encrusted hiking boots in the small “dog closet” in the entrance hall. I have four Stanley thermoses, and at least 5 foam squares called “sitteunderlag” to keep me from getting a bladder infection when we pause for coffee at any of the nearby mountaintops looking over the Jæren landscape to the North Sea. A far cry from glamorous. Who even knew about the cold stone/bladder infection connection?

Who even knew about the magic of reaching a cairn?

My instragram account is filled with trees. And more trees. On a bad day I go to the woods to listen.

This life is unexpected. I accepted long ago that I’ll never be able to dance like Lesley Ann Warren. But I also remembered that I can run.

I didn’t do a very good job of designing my life. I’ve become something of a beachcomber who collects what washes up with the tide and arranges it on the windowsill.

Where I live.



Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every little detail plays a part
Having just a vision’s no solution
Everything depends on execution
Putting it together, that’s what counts
…”

-Sondheim, of course.

Yeah. I know all the words. Maybe I do have it all together, after all.

I’m still waiting for the results of the second MRI. The doctor says it can verify a slipped disk, or cancer. But if it’s stress-induced, well – I function too well to qualify for a counselling referral. Despite my previous diagnoses. We go through the side effects for the various pain killer options.

I opt for wine.

Though it’s not on his list.

The chiropractor tells me I have an “irritation” of some kind in the C5, C6, and C7 vertebra on the left side. He says to carefully push my range of motion with the exercises the physical therapist gave me. Continue with yoga.

The woman whom I’ve been getting Thai massages from for the last two years tells me it’s a matter of crossed nerves. She says look up and down – not sideways – 50 times a day. Up. And. Down. She demonstrates, fingers laced behind her head, elbows tight to her ears.

I miss my daily asana practice. I sporadically work with flows. Warrior two – chiropractic approved, Reverse Warrior, compatible with the Thai-therapist’s advice. Sirsasana? Not happening.

All I know is that my neck hurts in a way that makes my heart ache. And that doesn’t make any sense. I’m feeling claustrophobic. Two months now.

We’ve been hiking on the few sunny days we’ve had. Or actually, the days that have started out sunny and ended with white-weighted skies and large, singular drops of rain.

I move slowly, sinking the pole into the dark wet to test the depth before each step. Or balancing tuft to tuft on the balded heads of sunken monks. Everything dead is alive on the long walks over the moor.

I try not to stumble, afraid of an inevitable stabbing pain in my neck.

There are tiny frogs on the trail. We counted five alive. I count each of them as a sign of promise. Blue dragonflies hover over the puddles like neon warnings. Their Norwegian name is “eye-sticker”, and it still freaks me out when E. says he sees one.

Bog cotton waves tiny flags of surrender: walk around this spot, or change your socks afterward.

Sheep’s bells. Always the sheep’s bells to let us know we’re not alone up there where we see clear to the North Sea.

Home, I prop my aching neck on a pillow and binge watch an old television series. I read a book and wonder why I’m not writing more. I nap.

And I wake to the sound of sand – or the roll of a maraca – my neck aching. I can’t even turn my head to kiss my husband.

I’ve a limited range of motion, and a fear of losing perspective.

(“ALT BLiR BRA!” = Everything’s going to be fine!)

The 31st leg of the virtual Camino.


Today our guide gives us insight into the pilgrim experience in the 12th century. The threats from the elements, from other humans – from viruses and other plagues. There is a lot we take for granted. And a lot we mistake as necessities.

Like a morning cup of coffee, talisman against a grumpy mood.

While drinking my coffee, I was listening to a podcast about “ganning“. The Saami version of a hex, or the evil eye, or whatever name the practice falls under anywhere in the world: the scapegoating for misfortune. We’ve a secular version of the practice, too. Someone we’ve bumped into has cursed our day, is responsible for our mood – which caused our stubbed toe or our burned palate. It is always someone else’s fault – someone is out to get us.

I read an associated article on the website. It was written by a sociologist who said something things about the ancient Saami culture need to be abandoned. I’m not one for promoting witch hunts, but I’m thinking there might be something important to be learned from a formal system for the attribution of blame. Such a thing can be mediated. Arbitrated. Maybe even judged. At least with a formal attribution the absurdity of the accusation can be faced squarely, and dealt with.

Instead I go on grumbling about my students, or my step-kids, or the neighbor’s rooster as the cause of all my woes. Maybe the first step to taking responsibility is actually externalizing the problem: why am I using this person (or rooster) to punish myself?

Today I’m appreciating the synchronicity. “My students are driving me crazy,” I think. Like they have the time to bother with that. The energy to spare.

On Fridays, after the workday I usually listen to a recorded meditation by Jen Louden. Today she talks about making a truce with your God, or gods or the universe.

Synchronicity.

I don’t know what I believe in exactly, but I believe in metaphors as tools for dealing with the truly ineffable.

I believe in the power of formal systems to identify what moves us – in productive and destructive directions – in prayer, in hope, in forgiveness and in absolution. I may have fancy collapsible hiking poles, Gore tex shoes and Merino wool underwear, but at least I have those other things in common with the pilgrims of the 12th Century.

20170114_141858It’s kind of like a second date. We took the same route as last weekend. And this time the veil of fog was gone.

A steady, small gale blew over the stretches of open landscape. Catching us from side, front or pushing us as we made the circle of the trail.

The sun had half-set: slipped under the hills, but had not yet touched the North sea. And the  eastern slope we climbed – with its cover of delicate, wind-carved snow – blushed like a summer peach.

That promise kept me warm – enough.

No sign of the flu that has been creeping through my joints this week.  And two-and-a-half, painless hours of slick-rock terrain proved my runner’s knee has healed.

I can finally begin the new year. 

 

And this year has not been off to the best start. A lag, and a rush, and dealing with new realities.

I read today about  – was it Seneca? – who admonished people for waiting until 50 or 60 to begin living life intentionally. And there was something about focusing on being present, not on accomplishments. Of course, the people telling us this have all accomplished enough to say such a thing.

With a straight face.

I arrived in London on the 23rd of December,  and ran down the escalators at every tube station. We ran 17K on Christmas Eve, and I woke up with runner’s knee on Christmas morning – only to bicycle across London to see the boys anyway. Now, two weeks and one painful New Year’s run later, it’s clear there will be no marathon for me in February. It’s a blow to my confidence.

And not the only blow to my confidence this month. There are work issues, other health issues. There is aging, which is probably somehow related to both.

There was a storm. And I find that I’ve let myself slip into an unproductive/objective (not present) perspective.

I’m behind in my correspondence.

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On the way to Synesvarden. Before the fog rolled in.

Today I prodded E. to head out for a hike. (Another thing on my holiday to-do list was to get a new winter hiking jacket. Not done. After 20 minutes, my coat was soaked through. Thank goodness for wool.)

We headed out to Synesvarden, which seemed like an ironic name for the spot today. White: a 360 degree view of white. We take what life brings us. Today, it came a few meters at a time. The cold-stiff orange and yellow tussocks, the granite rocks that might be coated with ice. Shadows that grow into figures that mumble or holler, “good day” as they pass.

There was a dog barking somewhere in the forest, and we circled back to find her. But she went silent.

Isn’t there a culture that conceptualizes the future as something that comes at us from behind to overtake us? Maybe they are the only ones to have it right. All this planning, all the mirages we see ahead of us. The clump of earth that should be frozen, but that rushes suddenly from behind to slip into the present, under your foot, in the form of soft and giving mud. And there you have it: the irretraceable moment that is a wet sock.

There have been bright moments. Moments that shine a bit, like glassy eyes after half-a-bottle of wine. And I keep telling myself this will pass. This grief.  Because that is what this is. It seems by body understood it long before my mind caught up to see what the problem was.

There is more to this new challenge: the surrender of ambition, the letting go of childhood dreams that were based on values that I may have never fully accepted, and don’t accept now. Fears can stand in the way, no doubt, but fear can also deflect the original aim of an ambition.

“Because we didn’t get enough love of children.” That is probably more of a paraphrase than a quote, from a fiction character in a musical.

There is that moment. When you get to the brink of where you deliberately headed, and you realise: this isn’t at all what I really want.

Coddiwomple: to wander purposefully towards a vague destination.

It’s time to admit it: to live intentionally doesn’t have to involve ambition. There is purpose in being in the moment, in being in the white with wet socks, and mist in your eyelashes.

 

 

Dear Carolee

Even over here, the election results color everything. I started reading Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety last night. It traces the evolution of the perceived connection between personal value & wealth, and morality & wealth. It’s difficult to avoid seeing how our current society that perceives personal value= wealth and morality=wealth; combined with the rise of meritocracy on an unfair playing field got us where we are today.  I’m only on page 87, so I’m not sure if he will talk about “influence” as wealth. It was published in 2004, so perhaps not: that was before the average person thought about things like klout (I was actually hoping the app was defunct), or twitter followers.

I hope this is the tipping point of all this chest-beating. Someone told me the other day that human beings are the only animals to act spitefully. I don’t know if that’s true, but how sad it would be if that were the defining feature of our species: the little factions pulling each other down from the rung just above, while a tweeting demagogue climbs high enough to topple the whole rickety thing.

That sounds much more pessimistic than I feel. I scour the net for good news. There is some. There’s always some.

And, hey, they found an ocean on Pluto. That’s worth a poem.

This morning I’ve been listening to Poem Talk. This episode is about C.D. Wright’s One Big Self. It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve always been a sucker for verbatim theater in all forms.

And yesterday I sent an application for kind of verbatim project in England. It’s the first time in a long time I didn’t talk myself out of putting myself “out there”. It’s a collaborative performance poetry project that I would love to be involved with. I’m probably not at all what they have in mind, but just sitting down with the application process sparked a lot of ideas. I don’t need to wait to be invited to work. That kind of brings up another one of those clichés: the audacity of youth.

Yeah. So, okay. There actually is one thing from my twenties that I do want back.

I go back to work on Monday, and it’s been nice to have this week to organise and set new goals. You asked what I’m up to: I have an old performance project that I’m dusting off. I’m going to see if I can reignite the passion I had for it. For him, actually. I have to remember wanting to get under his skin.

horace-wells
…and that’s all I’m going to say right now.

Several years ago I had a little project writing “running metaphors” on my blog. I’d compose tiny poems in my head while running in the mornings. I have several hundred of them printed out in a folder somewhere. They aren’t very good. Not that it’s an excuse, but I’m too long-winded for tweets. (I bow to the beauty and elegance of Dave Bonta’s The Morning Porch.) I may dig them up, and mine them for metaphors or prompts.

Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a friend I met while taking a therapeutic writing course last spring, I’ve starting writing haibun based on the morning 6K: And I’m posting them on the blog. I’m looking forward to binding them by hand next year.

I’ve entitled the category on the blog Eros of Language. It’s a phrase lifted from Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival. He talks about the sensual aspect of poetry. The way poems be tools that use the body/the physical world to connect. Wikipedia says that the term erotic has been used to mean “life energy” – there’s no citation, but I’m going with it anyway. Eros as life force makes sense to me, the way I’m writing now. The way I am trying to connect – not just with other people – but with nature. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this past year (since I am rather new to camping) is to stop resisting discomfort. I mean:

img_0287

 

I’ve been running again for years now, so I’ve learned to accept my own body -the cramps; the neglected achilles; the little, painful seeds of shin splints. But I’m learning now to give up the resistance to the outside world. Learning to accept the hardness of stones, the sharpness of frozen rain hitting the bridge of my nose, and the slickness of the lichen that sprawls over the mountain’s granite (though it all too often lands me on my very unappreciative ass). Learning to accept the cold feet & the hot belly, or the cold belly & the hot feet, when I’m in the sleeping bag with a rubber flask that’s filled with water we boiled on the Primus – knowing halfway through the night, it’ll be cold “as a witch’s teat” and I’ll have to toss it out.

I guess the root of all acceptance is appreciation. I am learning to appreciate nature (and being out in it) on it’s own erotic terms.

So while I am staring at the lichen, are you looking at the stars these days?

XO Ren

Carolee’s reply


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 Carolee

So many things to address in your letter. But I am going to start with fear. You wrote:

What if nothing comes of the writing. What if *I* don’t amount to anything”

Yes. I recognize that panicked, whispering voice.

20160529_123440_9a273165
Doesn’t everyone want to leave evidence that they have been here?

When my first book was published, a well-established poet that I’d worked closely with (translating a volume of his selected poems a couple of years prior) told me to go out and buy myself flowers, because it wouldn’t mean very much to anyone else. I did.

And actually, my colleagues – because I have amazing colleagues – also bought me flowers.

But none of them read the book.

In fact, I’m not sure that anyone I actually know read that book. Or the next. Or the next…

I had good reviews, though. Print newspapers. Odd that “print” is more ephemeral now in some  ways, isn’t it?

My first two books have already been remaindered.

So sometimes, that voice isn’t a whisper. It’s a scream.

All my fantasies about what could have been, in terms of community, are like little dreamy assurances that it’s only a matter of my physical displacement. Otherwise, my work would be out there: actually being read, discussed, making a difference in someone’s day. Connecting my experience to another human experience. I could read at poetry gatherings. Have those “fans” some poets talk about.

It would be a lot less lonely.

But I know that’s bullsh*t. 

When you say, ” I really want my manuscript to be published. And I want it to happen by going through one of those gatekeepers you mention.” Do you know which gatekeepers you are appealing to?

I’m asking because I recently quoted something from an interview with Mary Oliver, and saw how she came under attack from several (academic) poets who called her work banal. Some got downright ugly about it and attacked her. I’m not sure but I’m guessing these are the same poets who criticize Billy Collins for being populist or, worse, pedestrian.

The Nobel Prize committee’s choice just spawned the headline: Musician Wins Nobel Prize in Literature, and people are suddenly spouting off about Sappho fragments, and speculating wildly about her validity as a folk musician. There seems to be a thin road between elitist and pedestrian – and it seems to shift. I’m mentioning this because I think it is related to publishing today. Who are the gatekeepers?

I guess I shouldn’t say “today”. There has always been such a thing as elite fashion vs popular taste.

How does a publishing house that requires a minimum number of pre-ordered books to go to print differ from a Kickstarter project? Are they the taste-makers? The editors who take no chances? Who gives them that mandate? I don’t understand “publishing” anymore. I read recently about a woman whose memoir was turned down – even though the publishers said the writing was wonderful – because she didn’t have a big enough twitter following.

Is a list of journal publications a demonstration of quality, a proof of “dues paid”, or an indication of name-recognition that is undeniably important? What the hell is the value of a twitter following in terms of literature? Did you see the Black Mirror episode about the class system based on popularity ratings?

We like you. I have a little earworm now: “Stop Trying“.

When I was working with PEN, I was invited to several international poetry festivals and was surprised by the power of political poetry. Keywords would incite howls of appreciation, and flowers from the audience. It was a fascinating thing to watch. It was also something that I had no business taking part in.

And yet – I’m not willing to accept that my voice is of any less value because I don’t speak to a particular political movement.

So since then, I’ve been a little lost. Technically, I’m no longer an American poet. In practice, this means that there are several wonderful publishers that I cannot even submit work to. In Norway, I am – and will always be – an American poet.

Yeah. That’s not a good thing, if you are wondering.

What is my voice worth? How is it relevant? As you said before , “wtf do i want to say?” and the nagging voice that says “nobody cares what I have to say, even me.”

We care, though.

Is that enough?

This year the kulturråd that purchases literary work for libraries has yet to purchase a single poetry collection. My publisher is taking a huge risk with my book this year. And if this turns out to be a permanent trend, it may mean the end to my path for publication here in Norway.

Like you, I just want to want to shrug and say, “I don’t care. Whatever.” I’m working towards that. But I’m not there yet.

imag0185
Maybe I will go back to making  handmade books this year.

Last week, with my GP, I explained that I was still slightly hypomanic, but writing a lot. She interrupted me: “Where are you putting this stuff you’re writing?” I explained that I had sent something things out under a pseudonym, some to my best friend for comment (because she’s a professional editor), and some on my blog.

She pronounced blog like it was something more disgusting than abscess (which really doesn’t sound all that gross, does it?  – makes me think of recess): BELAWGH. She caught herself mid eye-roll and told me I probably shouldn’t write these days, because if I were blogging I was probably not being critical enough of what I put out there.

It took me several hours to convince myself that she had never read anything I had written, had absolutely no basis for an opinion on the matter. (To be honest, I reread everything on my blog in a panic, and wrote to friends for assurances. And I’m still rereading in a panic every time I hit publish, with the fear that I’ve not be critical enough).

I’m sure you noticed that, in the Facebook group, when I tried to ask about poetry blogs -and even gave examples – someone suggested a blog with poetry prompts for elementary school children? How do I respond to that without sounding arrogant?

So there’s my greatest fear: It’s not the gatekeeper as a community elder (which would be weird to think anyway, since most journals are edited by undergrads); it’s the gatekeeper as an institutional  rubber stamp of quality. A second opinion. A safe little consolation in the face of criticism. “Well, they liked it.”

Legitimacy. I am ashamed that I still even think it’s a thing.

I also have a fear of being too personal. It’s like showing up in a dress that’s just a smidgen too short, and crosses some line no one explicitly told you about. Everyone lifts an eyebrow, and then looks away.

Be honest, but don’t be too honest. Earnestness makes everyone feel awkward.

I’m reading Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival  (I’m only on Chapter 2). He talks about the terrifying vulnerability of the self, and he describes the personal lyric as the self encountering its existential crises.

You know, I’m just going to give into this. To the fear. To the existential crises. To the who-gives-a-damn about propriety and position.  To the friggin´earnestness.

img_8174I’m also going to let go of expectations. I’m going to pause and listen, like you say:

“…In pausing you create an absence (emptiness, openness). Stillness, it turns out, is a physical sensation and can be heard just like a flame in the bone-dry woods.”

I learned this summer not to look ahead up the mountain, but take one step at a time and enjoy each one. To remind myself the trip isn’t about the destination – I mean, yes, what a cliché: it’s funny how often we laboriously arrive at a cliché, but at least we really understand it for the first time.

6 year-olds and 80 year-olds alike passed me by on the trails this summer. But my route so was very different from theirs.

“So let’s just decide that it doesn’t matter how we got here or why we came. Let’s decide to cast away any notions that blogging is a terrible idea because we can’t attach specific value to it. People climb mountains just because they’re there or backpack for days (as you and I have both done recently) in part to see what they can endure and how far they can go. We can explore here just for the hell of it, too.”

I’m in.

And now I think I might go take a selfie. Selfies make me feel very awkward. Seems like it might be a good starting place to beat down my barriers.

XO Ren

Carolee’s reply.

 


This is one of a series of public 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.