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.

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.

Dear Di,


I’m glad you’re beginning to recover from the nasty cold. I think our bodies often take the lead to slow us down when we need to recalibrate. I’ve been sleeping 9 and 10 hours a day the past week. Funny that the body needs to recover with sleep after a depression. I still half-expect, when the fog lifts, to have the energy of a calf let out of the barn in spring. But no.

I dragged myself out of bed this morning and ran 6K on a sore ankle. The marathon is in 11 weeks. At this point, I really need my mind and body to make friends. Although right now, in the bibliotekette, with the space heater blowing on my ankle, the rosemary oil burning, and the red curtains pulled, I am peaceful. Optimistic, even. The sun will be up soon, and the skies are clear. There is a sparrow calling outside the window now, actually. Which reminds me that I need to check the feeder on the porch. The magpies eat from it. Greedy bullies.

I can’t say I enjoy running in the cold, but I have to admit that the range of temperatures on these mornings brings me into my body. After running, I peel off the fleece tights and do the 15 minute yoga routine; my thighs are splotched with swashes of bright red goose bumps.

Then a hot shower, and stepping out into the cold again to towel off and dress. When we moved into this house, E. bought me slippers. I haven’t had a pair of slippers since I lived with my grandparents. Slippers were necessary then. One of the rules. I find them comforting now, slipping into them every morning before I head into the kitchen to make coffee. Flop, flop, flop.

And there is something about a space heater. It brings with it all the ambivalence of nostalgia. One particular, tiny, cold two-room house in the desert, and the tiny, bright-red filaments of the metal box that kept us warmish. I slept on an army cot in the bedroom. (I remember that once I was sitting on the edge of the sink to brush my teeth, and the whole thing ripped out of the wall and water flooded the bedroom, cot and all. I got in trouble. But that’s a digression, so before that…) 

The little space heater: warming one side of the body at a time, while I ate TV dinners in front of a portable television (rabbit ears decked with aluminum foil). Star Trek. Gilligan’s Island. As the Norwegian’s say, I was a “sofa pig”. But on a kind of rotisserie. My left side would get red and overheated. Then cold, when I turned to warm the right side.

This tiny bibliotekette is like that: Like soup from a microwave; spots of cold, spots of hot. Like the currents of a natural spring in the desert. The heater blowing hot air on my right ankle, while the left leg is chilled. I cross my legs. Then back again. I think it keeps me aware. Not that I think comfort is overrated, but there is a kind of emotional comfort in being aware.

At any rate, I am glad you found a source of accountability for finishing the book. A regular jolt of awareness to keep you moving. When the book is finally complete, it will be rich with all the life you’ve lived meanwhile. The lulls will demonstrate their purpose in resonance then, I’m sure.

On my way to the day job: Pretty morning. I noticed.

It is so interesting to read what you write about photography “deepening the experience”. My first thought was – well, that is why I am not a photographer. But then, I have discovered that taking photos does make me stop and appreciate the moments. I remember you telling me once how photographing people, for you, was a matter of looking for the beauty. I’m going to start doing that. I mean: I do look for the beauty in people I love and trust, in my students (something teaching has taught me), but generally not with strangers. I think I am too defensive. I need to learn from you. Camera in hand, or not. 

Okay – back to accountability. I think external accountability can be a good tool for avoiding perfectionism. I know I function so much better with an external framework. I’m far too skilled at getting in my own way. I take on related projects – related, but still: diversions. For example, right now I have a translation project, waiting on my computer in the other room. Midwife to someone else’s creativity again. I’ve written before about that, though, haven’t I? Since I’ve always thought of myself as a selfish person, this must be a form of self-sabotage. I procrastinate with work guaranteed to get in the way of my own work. I can almost convince myself that there is a good reason I’m not making as much progress as I’d planned.


Yeah, so. This is the kind of morning I’m having. Mindless chatter with a friend, whom I miss.

Your friends seem to be living the dream. It’s really inspiring. But it brings me back to what I was writing about the other day – my tendency to begin with the desire to simplify, then working around full circle back to consumerism and a concern with image-projection. There are berries here in the forests if I head out on the weekends. Did I tell you we are setting up a greenhouse this spring? That will have to do. I don’t get a cottage by a stream, but I have a tent. Best of both worlds, if I make it so, right? I had a good day at work today. At least some of it. One of those days when I know I’m doing something useful. These tendrils reaching into the periphery of my students’ rich lives. The good, the difficult, the things that make them grow. I learn, too. Am better prepared for the next bit of drama. All this is to say, I looked at your friend’s photos and kept my envy in check.


You’re right. We are blessed, Di. It just doesn’t always feel like it. And like you said, it seems to be about balance. What pays the bills vs. what makes your heart flow. What we do for others vs. what we do for ourselves. Maybe most importantly: What we desire vs. gratitude for what we have?

Not sure if your question about the throat chakra was rhetorical. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re beginning to break through the block. Are you living somewhere where you can sing? (The only thing I miss about driving a car is driving alone and belting out show tunes.) I think belting out a tune is good for your soul because it’s almost the same mechanism as screaming: lifting the hard palate, really using the lungs, focusing outward. It’s cathartic. So is vomiting, I guess.

But singing is more pleasant. At least for the person doing it.

First get better. Then sing.

Much love,

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.,

Surely we are all little more than a tangle of contradictions. I wonder what you would say now about the theory that we have no fixed personality? That we are malleable entirely, according to the choices we make in any given milieu. Actually, I wonder if we haven’t begun to circle around to something akin to the Quaker’s Moral Treatment you espoused, a hundred and thirty years ago. The structure, discipline, and the traveling that stretched and untangled your mind – at least much of the time.

Reading your letters, I often wondered if your travels marked the end of a “no thing” season, or if the traveling itself ended it. The getting up, the physical leaving. The moment you stood outside the door with what you could carry, and the confidence of knowing you had all that you needed.

I have always felt strongest when I had few possessions. Leaving my homeland (that sounds ridiculously quaint) with a bag of books, some clothes, a blanket, and a doll. And then, in all the turmoil of beginning again after the divorce: choosing not to fight over a rolling pin; I took my books, clothes, the blanket and the doll, and photos that function like old library index cards to help hunt down complete memories. In my tiny apartment that overlooked the harbor, everything had earned its place. And the high ceiling provided empty space for both grief and joy to pass through, or hover.

Maybe there is something to the cycle of accumulation and purging that is very like the sorting they say we do as we sleep: distinguishing what is necessary to keep in detail, and what is necessary to keep only in spirit. A way of shedding the things that helped us to get this far, and then making room to move on. To grow. Like lobsters.

Friday I saw an Instagram photo that made me envious. It reminded me of how disconnected I’ve become again – disconnected from what adds value to my hverdag. Simple, every day pleasures. Like slowing to a walk where the trail ends at the wooden bridge, and catching the flash of a small speck of ice in a crack. Noticing winter. Noticing the man who sleeps by my side, breathing easily, and who wakes to tell me I’m beautiful.

Even simpler things, like sitting down with a clementine; peeling it slowly.

Like a Celeste Barber instagram shot.

They say now (again) that citrus fruits help elevate one’s mood. But then, you knew that. And you didn’t take them for granted: all the fruit you were given while you were recuperating in England that half year.

Maybe that is all the difference between us: not the fruit, but the attention and gratitude?

The problem is, I’m thinking I need to purge again -to get control over all the “stuff” and clutter that is a disturbing white noise – I want to move on, stretch, grow, change, but I quickly fall into a consumerist mindset. I imagine getting rid of all my kitchen equipment, and finding earthenware bowls that (I believe) will fulfill a sensual longing. I envy a particular state of mind (or an imagined state of mind) that is calm and receptive. And I keep thinking that things will lead me to it. The perfect spiritual knickknack, the peculiar talisman.

I imagine selling the house and moving into to a simple cottage, with a garden and a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from a sunny porch. I’ll get rid of all my costume jewelry and buy leather bracelets. Ditch the tailored clothes for paisley caftans.

I imagine a whole list of things I could acquire to successfully simplify my life. I could get up and leave.

But on Sunday I took a deep breath, organised my bookshelves, threw away the wilted flowers, and paid my bills.

And this morning – after the run and meditation – I sliced an apple, boiled an egg, and wrote a poem. I kissed my husband when he left for work.

Maybe beginning a new season really does work like any charm does. Or prayer. It’s all a matter of attention, and of making enough space for the grief and the joy to pass through, or hover.

Though I would still really like my own special hot chocolate pot. And a gas stove. And a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from the balcony of a cottage in the woods.

Don’t lie to me. I know you were never really satisfied either. We all want what we want and we reach for it. Things, or accolades, or whatever it is we believe will make us feel… untangled.



Dear Richard,

My ex came by last night to drop off the old lady. She made her perfunctory tour of the house, while I went back to the couch with a glass of wine, to finish up Gregory Orr’s book Poetry as Survival. But then she jumped up with surprising energy, and leaned into me, her forehead on my neck. Puppy hug. So I put the book down to give her attention. Both hands on her body. She’s remarkably thin now. When I run my hands along her ribs and can feel the odd pillows of fluid. Some sort of tumors. The knot in the teat is the cancer.

Her paws are still ticklish.

I hit a good spot on her back and her hind leg starts running in place. I stop and she nudges me to begin again. And I do. I spoil her rotten these days. Liverpostei and soup bones. I wonder what joys she has now. I don’t think her sense of smell is what it used to be. Her hearing is nearly gone. Last week two dogs tied up in their yard were barking at her. They weren’t two meters behind her, but she lifted her head, gazed into the distance as though she heard something faint, like a train coming. Then she went on her way. Clueless. She seems happy still, though.

Petting her last night, I was thinking how unique a relationship with a dog is. How she arrives as a puppy, then gets ahead of me somehow: my baby, my elder. I won’t have her much longer. Yesterday in the morning, while I was writing and she was still in Stavanger, I thought I heard her breathing in the next room. She’s haunting me already.

I’m not really sure why I’m writing to you about this. I suppose because we talk about ageing. About coming to terms with our own mortality. Maybe this is why we need animals in our lives: to teach us?

I laughed out loud when you wrote that you’d miss your daughter, and she would “dreadfully miss the cat”. Sometimes I think we focus on what we are emotionally prepared to handle, I guess. Maybe the cat is teaching her, preparing her to miss you properly.  When I read that bit of your letter, I also  thought about when I was a teenager, my mother told me that she “practiced” for own mother’s death. I’m going to stop short of a psychoanalysis of my mother and her ability to disconnect, or what I inadvertently learned from her – but there you have it, I guess, the connection of your letter to my old lady’s cancerous teats.

You shouldn’t miss your daughter at the moment, she came home to gather strength. Nothing to miss, really. Not yet. (Well, sorry, that was cheery). Sometimes I miss the boys dreadfully. They both gather strength elsewhere now. I know that is the way of things, that is the healthy way of things. But it’s difficult.

You wrote: “I’m glad that our children are strong enough to make their own ways in this difficult world.”

Yes. But it makes me want to get another puppy. One who will grow, and age, and still come to me – leaning her forehead into my neck for comfort – no matter how old she is. Selfish of me.

I know it’s best to give in to the reality, and find joy in that.

This morning I was listening to a podcast while walking the old lady around the block. Oddly enough (or not) Roger Housden was talking about Ben Saunders, the Arctic/Antarctic explorer. Apparently Saunders had described a moment on one of his journeys when he stopped fighting the wind and the cold; when he gave in to the reality of it and felt (not warm, but) a sudden rush of joy.

While I have not crossed the Antarctic – or even braved a bit of  it the way you have – I have stood on the top of a mountain above 14,000 feet in biting wind, and experienced that kind of acceptance. And the joy. People say, “suck it up,  and get on with it”. But that’s not it. “Bit i det” they say in Norwegian, but that’s not it either. Both of those images involve a kind of bracing, not a relaxing.

The prayer goes: Accept the things we cannot change. I’ve always though of acceptance as a synonym for resignation. Now I think it’s something else entirely: something related to appreciation.

img_20161115_153234No decent segue here, but on the practical matter of publications you asked about.

There seems to be something in the air. The Nobel Prize going to Dylan, the general rise of populism. The kulturråd hasn’t purchased poetry this year. Which I find stunning. At any rate, my publisher may lose money on me for the first time (not that he has ever made money on me). He is taking a huge risk. So is my translator.

“My translator”. That sounds ridiculously proprietary.

The fact is, Lodén is finishing up his own collection this year – to be published in 2017. I’m happy for him. It’s been a long time since he published his own original work, and I’m looking forward to reading it. The thing is, he should continue now to focus on his own work (which is high brow , and therefore also likely reliant on kultrurråd). One book a year. That is generally the risk a publisher can take on a writer. My books have been purchased because the translations are new “Norwegian” works of literary merit. The Council defines “Norwegian” in terms of language, not citizenship. I owe Lodén everything.

I think his essay about my “late style” is the harbinger of the end of an era. It has me a little freaked out.

I was listening to On Being the other day. A very inspiring interview with Michael Longley. At the end of the recording, Tippet thanks the publishers for permission to read his poems on air. The absurdity struck me: that we as writers strive to give up our rights to our own work. I mean, that is the goal, isn’t it? To effectively sell our work to someone who will distribute it and make more money than we will. And we say, yes, but it isn’t about the money. No. It’s not. So, it’s about the distribution? Not these days. It’s about the prestige.

I really want not to care.

Whitman self-published. Dickison gave poems away with gingerbread. To worry about publication is putting the cart in front of the horse, anyway. I think I need to stop worrying about being a writer, and just keep writing.

Come to think of it, maybe I didn’t need a segue. Maybe it all circles back to acceptance.

I have several projects that I have been working on. It’s been difficult to focus this year, and I find if I talk about projects, I seem to lose momentum.

But I do miss bookbinding – so there’s that.

Crap. I shouldn’t have talked about that.

Meanwhile. I have some translations to do for Nils Christian –  poems for another festival he is attending. Yep. Handmaiden to other people’s genius. Keeps me humble.

I hope your writing day is good! That the Ice Child is coming along. You know, I’ve been wondering if your head is in a very different place when you write different genres. If it is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing – or if it all comes down to editing.

And I was also thinking that my favourite novelist is Jim Crace. No two books alike. Although I am not sure he ever wrote erotica.

Looking forward to another letter.

Much love to you and M.!

XO Ren

Richard’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.