Dear Di,

Funny how I can write to Richard and say I crave attention and not feel like a total jerk, or worry about coming off as a narcissist. He and I always seem to be writing in context of our position as writers, as writers negotiating our personal lives. You quoted me:

“I crave attention. I want to observe.” 

And you said: “Perhaps I am slightly different, in that I want to connect.”

And now I feel compelled to be more precise here about the context I was talking about in my last letter. I crave attention and want to observe when I am in groups, among people. In social situations. My social role.

Like you, like everyone, I’m sure; I long to connect. But I connect one on one. (I feel like I am channeling a defensive Trump now: “I have very good connections. I have the best connections.” – oh my, that makes me want to go shower again, and meditate for an hour).

My social self and my writing self are not the same.

You wrote: “You have a way of gifting me these unfamiliar views of myself. Perhaps as I did with you when I photographed you, from all angles, on your wedding day … I remember how that affected you.”

I remember writing to you about not recognising myself in the photographs you took, since they were taken from angles I never see in the mirror. I saw my Grandmother in many of them. I saw a stranger, often. It’s both disconcerting and comforting, I suppose. Not really recognising oneself means there is still growing to do. Potential.

My favourite photo from the wedding is one that doesn’t include me. Or E. or the boys, actually. It’s the one that shows several of the people in my life meeting across social groups, so to speak. Colleagues, and friends and relatives – some who’d never met before – in a moment of joy. I feel privileged that those are the people I know and love, the people who love me (and E., of course). You captured something wonderful.  It’s the photo I’m most grateful for.


It’s the one I put in the frame B. gave me for my 50th. Oddly, B’s not in it, but she orchestrated the evening. So she is present in the moment. As is A., and you and everyone there that evening.

I count my blessings. I rather like being on the edge of that kind of joy, appreciating it – as I have been lucky enough to stay on the edge of overwhelming grief, so far in my life. I was thinking about that today for some reason.  – Oh, yes. I was listening to The Moth. A story from an ER doctor who was saying that the story she was telling was not her story of grief. One day it would be, but not that tragedy, that day.

That is not to say, I have not experienced moments of intense joy. I have. They were just not in groups where I felt a rush of adrenaline that is cold, and quick – and feels like fear.

Seems almost like a curse in a story from Greek mythology: Juno cursed me to be too sensitive to joy. I wonder what my transgression was. No doubt I cornered her in the personnel room and distracted her with an intense conversation that she regretted.

If I were a photographer, the camera would be my tool for self-protection: a way in, and a way out. Remember, I cry at football games, and parades. I cry at elementary school pageants – and everyone who knows me, knows I’m not a fan of elementary school pageants. I suppose it’s possible that writing poetry is my camera.

I’ve been experimenting with haibun these days, and yesterday I read an article by Aimee Nezhukumatahil. She likens the prose of haibun to a chicken bouillon cube: intense. It seems counter-intuitive, since we (or at least, I) tend to think of poetry as condensed expression of experience. But it also rings true: I need poetry to dilute my intense experience of life; through a poem, a single truth becomes bigger than my own observation of it.

I find it difficult to write today. I feel inelegant and obstructive, as though I’m generating noise, when there are important conversations that need to be conducted. Knowing when to step down and when to speak up, is difficult. – I handed my Facebook password over to E. to change again. The anger, the fear is too contagious.

I’m sorry you are ill. But not surprised. I think the body responds to its transplantation, in part in protest, in part in self-defence. When I’d been here two years, when K. was still toddling, I got the flu. The flu like the one that killed my great-grandfather. My eyes were swollen shut, I couldn’t stand up. My ex was offshore. I literally crawled to the phone to call someone I’d happened to meet the day before, to beg them to come take care of my child.  And I understood for the first time that I could die. That my body was organic and vulnerable.

When K. moved to England, he also experienced illness for the first time in his own memory. (Though, I remember his own childhood bout with the flu, and the hospital stay). He collapsed on the stairs of his apartment. He was alone then, too.

I understand the real fear of wondering if your body will be found. And of putting your trust in strangers when you are effectively illiterate. Although, at some point, in the face of illness we are all illiterate, aren’t we?

I’m certain you will come through this stronger. New threats for you body to learn to fend off, I suppose? Building new defences takes time. I’m glad there are people there to care for you. It is a comfort to know that strangers often step-up.

And we have to trust them, don’t we?

I remember when ET got so ill in Cairo. There were bombs going off along the Red Sea, and our hotel was guarded by men with machine guns. The hotel doctor had prescribed the wrong mediation. The concierge had discussed it with the pharmacist, he’d happened to mention to the pharmacist that ET was about 6 years-old, not 26. The concierge explained it to me: “Give him this. The pharmacist said this is the right medicine.”

Today, again, I am concerned of being too afraid of the world. And too afraid of the people in it.

Carolee, in her letter to me, linked to a poem by Maggie Smith. A gorgeous poem, but it is wrong:

“[…] For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you, […]

Maggie Smith is wrong. Those are not the odds. 

So. Di. I need you to get well. I need you to make the connections, to take the photos of the moments that prove to us all that those are not the odds.

XO Ren

Di’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.





Last week, Ruth-Anne West commented on one of my posts:

The desire to share a good word and make a difference from our place of insignificance…now that’s a worthy challenge. Oh let’s try!

This week I have been wondering where exactly tolerance becomes complicity for me personally.

I have been wondering where solidarity slides into appropriation, as well.

Street art, and a stain: a woman turning her back on the broken heart. Sola Beach 2016

Reading the New Yorker’s essays this morning, Tony Morrison’s words ripped me apart, and left me feeling hopeless for hours.

There are no simple answers. But I think – at this moment – as Ruth-Anne suggests – there is a lot to be done from a place of insignificance.

A smile. Eye contact.

And when necessary, a carefully worded letter.

Early last week I was listening to a podcast – one of my favourite podcasts – while walking the dog. And I literally stopped in my tracks. One of the hosts repeatedly ridiculed a woman for her spelling and grammar skills.

Ridiculing a woman who has been dead for over two hundred years.

It became one of those jokes that becomes a joke because you just keep returning to it.

Pointlessly, yet with such great effect.

This weekend, I realised that, in light of the social climate in the United States, and as a woman who will always be the “trailer park girl” (despite a solid education and liberal political view), I thought it was necessary to speak up:

To remind these historians of the fact that education is a privilege – and was even more so 200 years ago when less than 50% of women in New England were could read. That spelling is not an indication of intelligence, and that the assumption that it is looks like class discrimination, and feels like contempt.

(Not to mention the fact that if the woman did have limited intelligence, ridiculing her for falling for – and daring to write gushing love-letters to – a charismatic and opportunistic politician, is just… well… mean.)

This particular episode was a “live” episode, with an audience of what I kind of think of as my own tribe. But their collective, giggling ridicule made me realise that this is not my tribe and never will be. A slip of the tongue (“ketch” for “catch”), a misspelling or malapropism will give me away every time. But in this case – it would have been the visible flinch from a jibe that reached my core.

I didn’t write a public letter. And I don’t want them to read my email on air. I just want them to not do such a thing again.

It’s not a big thing. But it is a tendril of the root of the problem. And one I can attempt to grab hold of and stop.

Of course, it’s possible they’re laughing over a typo as they hit delete.

But that will be on them.

I will keep trying in very small, quiet ways – from this place of insignificance.




Or two steps forward, one step back.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking of the arctic ground squirrel today.
Did you know bears don’t truly hibernate? They experience a “winter sleep”. Their metabolisms slow, and their body temperatures drop slightly.

But they are easily awakened.

(This might be something from John Mitchinson’s Book of General Ignorance. But I heard it on Stuff You Should Know.)
20160919_193151The arctic ground squirrel, on the other hand, does hibernate. Her body temperature drops to as low as -2.9 Celsius. Her heart beats less than once a minute.

She loses bone density. Her teeth fall out, and parts of her brain die.

Then she wakes, slowly.

She builds new bone cells, new teeth, and new neural connections.

She is reborn in the spring.


The quote trending on Facebook today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

An arc.

When seen from afar. Up close, it’s a series of sharp peaks and clefts. Soaring gains, and painful losses.

About a month ago I was listening to Jonathan Haidt and Melvin Konner discuss the “long arc of history bending toward justice” with Krista Tippet. One man believes it does so automatically. The other, because people push it toward justice.

Both agreed that a culture has to go through a period of (successful) capitalism to discover its own concern for human rights.

So where does that leave us? Trusting?


Paying attention to need?


I was pleased to learn this evening that, despite climate change and shrinking habitats, the arctic ground squirrels are not on the endangered list. They are still living and dying in turns.




Dear Di,

You write about language as music:

“I fell asleep one night, in Istanbul, listening to the retired officers wives playing cards in the next room. Playing cards, gossiping, laughing … and I realised that the sound of them soothed me, like the sound of the sea, or a river would. I love language, like others like music perhaps […]”

Yes, the music of overheard, muffled conversations. Funny that I was just thinking about this the other day – in a different context. There is the freedom of eavesdropping without having to participate. It’s like being a child again and listening to the muffled voices of grown-ups in the next room after bedtime, isn’t it?

Maybe there is a special freedom and relief of knowing that no one gives a damn about you. The privilege of sometimes covertly and uncomprehendingly enjoying the world’s activity.

Again: opening to wonder. Like listening to the birds in the park without trying to identify the calls of the individual species. There’s something rather meditative about that, about not putting things in boxes, not categorising, not judging. Just sitting in a teeming civilisation of birds – or humanity – and listening to the music. And then dancing on your own.

I fear that psychiatrists might call that parallel play and diagnose me with some kind of anti-social disorder. But then, authenticity is about rejecting arbitrary boxes, isn’t it? Like I tell my students every year: “Pity the Platypus”, who doesn’t fit the man-made categories. But we should all be the platypus. Be the Platypus, I tell them.  Someday I will get around to writing the book with that title.

And that leads me to: I could kick you for giving me yet another book to buy. I’m assuming that Rod Judkins has already said all of this in the book you quoted.

I cannot tell you how tired I am of all of these online tests to categorise ourselves as this or that. The Whitman quote is ubiquitous, but there is a reason it is. We have no choice but to reach for it!

I crave attention.

I want to observe.

Interactive theater always makes me uncomfortable. By pulling me into the experience, it pulls me out of it. Did I ever tell you about my little epiphany in Oslo a few years ago? I was at a conference for teaching artists and we all took part in a “happening” in the park. Some of us were paired up, with our opposite on the other side of a huge circle of 40+ people. We  held strings that stretched across, criss-crossing over a great expanse of withering grass. There were two dancers in the centre, and a director who told the dancers where to move, and how to negotiate all of the strings.

I really wanted to give my end of the string to a passer-by, and head up to the top of the hill so I could watch – so I could write about the associations the event was giving me. I think I’m an interpreter at heart. Not an actor, not a director. I see metaphors where no one else does.

A fish, half-out of water. Japan: when I was “forest bathing” without knowing it.

But when I think about it, maybe it isn’t that surprising. A shaman, a oracle. A poet. All of those are just people who deal in metaphors, aren’t they? People who just can’t distill experience into straight talk. (I am settling for poet, by the way, that takes hubris enough).

The reason this was an epiphany is that, all these years, I thought I wanted to be the director.

But I’ve wandered – back to your letter: You aren’t in the pub just to watch football. You are there to soak it all up, aren’t you? With your book as a barrier during half-time. (I bet you hate that you can’t whip out your camera at the pub, and have no one notice.)

I think it’s like Japanese forest bathing, only among humans. It sounds healthy to me. At least for people like us.

But you are more flexible than I am. More skilled, at any rate: your ease with putting people at ease. I have been in awe of that since I met you. I think of how you soothed the angry woman I photographed (incidentally) in downtown Stavanger. You immediately made her feel “seen” instead of observed – with just a sentence or two. You would be a good diplomat. But then, that would probably be a bastardising of your talent.

That is a gift beyond that of the shaman, the oracle, the poet. I don’t know what that is. You may say you had no mentors. But you have become one.

From what you write, maybe it did spring from something that you don’t see as a strength, this “sacrificing for each other”? Because I think it is a strength, or has become one, at any rate. Sometimes I think sacrificing can mean giving up one’s own sense of knowing and stepping into another person’s point of view. Not all of us do that as easily. Few as quickly and intuitively as you do.

Maybe that is why you can deal with the mocking in a way I think I would struggle with. You understand it comes from a place of recognition – that is is a way to break down any attempt at pretence and posturing? As I think about it, I realise that it would probably do me good to learn to see it as you do. To “stand it”, as you describe it. And to focus on the curiosity and joy.

You describe me as “settled”. But that’s not how it feels. Yes. I’m happy in the partnership I’ve so fortunately stumbled upon. E. doesn’t anchor me, though; he knows I’m in motion, and he moves with me, or is comfortable trusting I’ll not choose to untether entirely.

And I feel at home in this landscape. I have this nest – thought it feels as temporary as any, no matter how long it will last. Like you, my children are elsewhere. And I know all of this is healthy, because of who we are.

But God forbid I should ever be settled and satisfied with what I’ve seen and sucked from life thus far. Imagine. Were that true, I wouldn’t be reaching still towards you and your stories.

I remember your blog when we met: “People become stories, and stories become understanding.”

I am still waiting for the book with that title.

I wanted to end there, but there is this thing about learning the language. I have tried. I have hired private tutors at 1000 crowns an hour. I honestly believe it all comes down to the fact that I don’t like myself in Norwegian. I don’t like the lack of music, the lack of humor: I can learn the rules, but I can never really sing.

So, yeah. 23 years here, and my Norwegian still stinks. There’ll be no judgement from this corner.

Much love, Di!

XO Ren

Di’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.









Dear Carolee

I was reading the newest posts on your blog, beginning with the one about begining again, about missing the “old days” of blogging.  And about being post divorce, post MFA and waiting in a middle space to listen to the universe and see what’s next.

In the comments you tell Dave Bonta that now that you are back at it, you struggle with what to say.  I find myself nodding in recognition. Here I am in another liminal space: unexpectedly remarried, post doctorate, empty nest. Also drawn back to blogging.

Except I was never completely comfortable with it the first time around. I kept losing track of my own voice. Common writing advice is to “know your audience”, right?  I think that was the problem. I’ve never been able imagine “my audience” for a blog. I think the hyperawareness of statistics and “followers” sucked the joy out of it for me. I’m a competitive person by nature. It was depressing. I would compare comments people left on other blogs.  It turned me into a weird, skittish person I didn’t recognise. I teach for a living, so it would be a lie to say that I am uncomfortable or dislike taking centre stage, or expressing my opinions. (I actually like being bossy.) But I see my students, look them in the eyes. It at least feels like communication. (Unless they’re sleeping – which they sometimes do despite their best efforts. They are eighteen and up late. I get it. I don’t take it personally. At least, I try not to.)

But who am I talking to on a blog? What do I want them to see? Am I the teacher/mentor? A social commentator? A mid-life paleo-runner, hiker, fitness  wannabe-guru poet? God forbid that I would be a “thought leader” (how I hate that term). Maybe I’m a wildly messed up poet with bipolar disorder, and hellofalotof baggage. In which case, I will need a new profile picture, and way to steel myself again the onslaught of advice.

Like Whitman, I contain multitudes. I was am too unsure of who I wanted to project. Toying with the idea of returning to blogging last year, I fell into this trap of an entrepreneurship group. Blogging seems to be something different now. Branding and monetising. Is the whole world like this now?

I was listening to a podcast I rather like, but the guest kept talking about “conversation” in a way that I have never imagined it. It was something about seven questions to ask the other person. Only the questions weren’t designed to facilitate conversation, so much as to ask the right questions to “help” the other person improve themselves. Since when did a good conversation begin with thinking you would help a stranger improve herself?

I joined a blogger group on Facebook. It seems almost all of the bloggers there are curating independent zines with posts like “10 ways to turn your life around”, with ads for that thing you can buy to do the turning. (I am glad I stumbled back on the poetry bloggers.)

What I truly miss is letter writing. And I miss the long email exchanges of the mid-90s, when my children were small and napping nearby – I could dig deep, take my time to think things through, but still be in conversation with a real person. Both my boys have left home. They are napping in foreign countries these days. So I’m asking myself, why is it I feel rushed now?

No rush in the mountains. But you know that.

The blogosphere, and later writing on Facebook (and God-knows, especially Twitter) sometimes felt/feels like grunting half-thoughts into a void for attention. (My Instagram feed is just pretty pictures: a respite.) And everything has to be timely. I felt an odd pull this summer to post my photos from the plateau camping trip while I was on the plateau camping trip.

Something has to give in my life. I’m not my Instagram feed, that has me almost fooled into emotionally equating little heart tallies with a sense of community.

Who am I when I blog? It is odd really, I have never had this problem writing poetry. I think, after all these years, I’m still writing to Edna St. Vincent Millay. But I doubt she would like blogs.

And then there is the fear. You didn’t say much about that, but you mentioned it. What are your fears?

And what about posting poetry? You mention another poet’s project to post on his blog rather than wait for journals to present his work online. Are we still in need of the gatekeepers?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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.