Kjære Di,

You mentioned the church bells in Genova and the calls to prayer in Istanbul. When I think about these kinds of things in my own life – the church bells in Stavanger, the live singing coming from the minarets in Skopje when I was there for a conference – I think about the necessary silence that surrounds them. Lying on the floor of a rented room in Skopje, I heard the singing long before dawn: the song was strange and comforting simultaneously. In Stavanger, those 12 years in the house near the church, the bells were like a grown-up call to recess: Sunday.

sheepOut here in Jæren, I don’t hear the church bells. But it is quiet, and the sparrows’ chatter outside the window punctuates the silence in the same way. With the same reverence. And on weekend hikes, there is the ubiquitous clanging of sheep bells. A somewhat strange, irregular music, but comforting, too. Like a lifeline into the wild. Did I tell you that every hike we have been on this fall has had us stumbling upon sheep skeletons?

Perhaps we are both drawn to seek the foreign as a way to recapture wonder and awe?

You wrote, “Mostly it’s not human nature to leap when you are safe.  Mostly.”  Maybe there is something wrong with us? The restlessness.  I guess in my case it has to do with a mistrust of the sense of safety.

And then there is the fact that I love nesting, but hate being nested. Being busy, being occupied with the ordering of things gives me an illusion of control. Once that flurry of activity is over, the illusion is broken. I feel vulnerable.

I think that is why, content as a I am in so many ways, I have flashes of envy when you share your experiences of arranging your new life. I want to move house again. Which is absurd. Instead: yesterday I decided on a new bookshelf for the living room. So you see, I need a healthy adventure soon.

E. and I were in the east part of Stavanger Friday night to see a production at the arts center. They are renovating the whole section of town. I guess the proper way to describe it is to say there is a gentrification of the old working class neighborhood. Posh little cafés, and gyms with big windows so everyone can watch the people on the treadmills – or the people on the treadmills can be watched. I’m not sure what the thought was behind that design, to be honest.

The old arts center has had a facelift, though its still appropriately whatever-the-current-hipster-term-for-“shabby chic” is, if shabby chic is already passé – I don’t even care to keep up these days. Hipster is probably passé by now. At any rate, sleek apartment buildings have sprung up all along the water. Grassy parks that look in reality just as they did in the drawings in advertisements before they were built.

What is taking me by surprise is that I have absolutely no interest in any of it. I would rather explore the rocky beaches out by the lighthouse south of here. I’d rather roam the lived-in spaces in East London on a weekend. Feed the pelicans. I would rather spend time where things aren’t carefully designed not to match in just the right way – maybe go seek out on of your beloved bazaars in Istanbul. Things that are not preplanned. Places that grow organically, as chaotic as humans are. What is the point of moving into or even through something that is already in perfect order? How gawd-awful boring.

And distancing: the place would never be mine. And I would never fit in well.

I guess that brings us back to belonging and not really belonging. The safety of the familiar, on the periphery? I don’t know, that seems paradoxical. It’s the wildebeest on the periphery who get eaten, isn’t it?

So tell me more about these doubting Genovese.  They aren’t eating you alive, are they?

Much love,

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.

Kjære Di,

Last night I was up half the night. After meditation, I’d rolled over only to return to the storm that’s been in my head for weeks now. I scribbled page after page of notes. Looking at them this morning, they are mostly incomprehensible. Last night I’d solved all the world’s problems in the outline of an amazing novel.

But this morning my head is quiet again. And I have no desire to write a novel of any sort.

I’ve been staring at the computer screen wondering if this is the end of it, or just the eye of the storm. To be honest, I am not  sure which I am hoping is the case.

I’m eating chicken soup for breakfast. E made it for dinner last week, his own recipe with garam masala and apples. I froze the leftovers. I have mixed feelings about him becoming such a good cook.

Breaking my own rules, I’m eating in the bibliotek-ette. I’m wrapped in the blanket that you gave me when you came up to visit me two years ago. Winter is coming. (Boy, that phrase is ruined, and I don’t even watch Game of Thrones).

Yesterday I went to a friend’s theater production downtown. It was an evening of storytelling by seven women, from seven countries. So, I thought of about you.

Some of these women were war refugees, some economic migrants, and some came for love. Some had been here a couple of years, some nearly twenty, one woman – as she put it – arrived at her birth.

It made me realize that I’m not an ex.pat. I don’t know when I transitioned to immigrant. It was a gradual process, and when I changed my citizenship three years ago, only a conscious acknowledgment of the fact. I have set down roots here. Not my children; they both call foreign countries “home” these days. So maybe the image I am looking for isn’t setting down roots, but becoming entangled. With the landscape. I am more at home now walking these moorlands, than I am walking on sidewalks anywhere. More at peace, that is – if that is what “home” is: peace.

IMG_20161022_170158.jpg
One of “my” beaches. From Saturday’s run.

I was listening to a guided meditation last night and there were the sounds of waves in the background. And songbirds. I’m not an ornithologist, or even a halfway decent bird-watcher, but I know the call of a thrush from that of a gull, or a tern. It took me a minute or two to figure out what was causing the dissonance I felt: there are no songbirds on the beaches where I run. This wasn’t the sound of my beaches.

I suppose I have always been quick to fall in love with people. But not places. This relationship grew over time. And took me by surprise.

I feel like Golde in Fiddler on the roof. I suppose I love this place.

When I got my divorce a few years ago, I hadn’t considered that I would stay in Norway. Now, I don’t consider leaving. This is where I found my strength.

I was thinking that this is so different from your whirlwind romance with Genoa. Your immediate recognition that it was “home” – for no apparent reason. So far from your New Zealand landscape. What has drawn you there? What is it that continues to seduce you?

And what has given you the courage to strike out and follow your heart – not after a lover  (although we’ve both done that in the past)- but after a “home”?

XO Ren

Di’s reply



This is the first in what I hope will be many public letters to friends – friends I hope will write back to me on their own blogs. Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

I have to be careful to not say that I have a poor memory. I have memories like a collage that is reordered with every consideration. What falls into place behind me are like discrete lead fragments drawn to a magnet.

Though it isn’t often I look back. Dredging.

It’s odd though, how sometimes no matter where you turn—what (or whom) you were trying to avoid will find you: in a film that you slip into the DVD, hoping for a bit of an escape; in the book you take off the shelf, looking for distraction or comfort.

I sat down here to write about a book. I suppose that is why all these thoughts, all these memories are forming. Books have a way of collecting our webs of experience between two pieces of cardboard.

*

I believe I was 10. I remember the house well, because I lived there twice. They say you have to build memories, like maps, recollecting/re-collecting and tracing patterns of neurons in the brain. I can walk the layout of the house in my mind still today, running my fingers over the sticky, humid walls on Orange Drive.

Unlike the women in a lot of stories like mine, my mother didn’t have a revolving door when it came to men. But that one man she should have left for good, she returned to.

And when she did return—when we returned—there was another man living in our garage. He had a key to the front door so he could use our bathroom when he needed. He paid me to tidy his room once a week. To collect the beer cans, and neatly stack the Playboys. That was all. A harmless man. The men who seem to have all their ducks in a row: they’re generally the ones to worry about.

But I’m veering off, as memories lead us to do on occasion.

*

The book.

I bought it at a yard sale with my own money — ah, I see now why the digression: I owe my most prized possession to Budweiser and Playboy.

A Gift of Joy. The first owner stamped his name on the end page and the title page. David W. Jones. But it’s Helen Hayes’ autobiography. It is as much anthology as autobiography. It’s full of monologues and poems she loved to perform. She includes Hecuba’s speech from The Trojan Women, and describes performing it in a whisper for friends on the ruins of the stage at Epidaurus, Greece. Those pages are marked with the marginalia of my 16-year old self, who performed it in a classroom in a backwater high school in Kentucky.

I’m not sure if I’d known who Helen Hayes was when I bought the book. It’s possible. I had a sitter when I was six or so. She had season tickets to the local theater in L.A. And she had a player piano. I listened to roll after roll of show tunes, and I sang along until her own kids got home from school every day. In those days, I was sleeping on an army cot in a walk-in closet with love beads hanging in the doorway. We had black lights in the living room so the pot plants would thrive. But the sitter’s house had a manicured lawn beyond the big, sliding-glass doors. It had hard wood floors, and everything smelled crisp. I might have learned about Helen Hayes in the sitter’s living room. I might have held on to Ms. Hayes as a symbol of middle-class genteelness.

Then again, I might not have known anything about her. I might have picked up the book, read the first lines, and simply understood:

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.

*

There is no one left to ask who it was that read to me. But someone did. Someone must have held me close, and helped me make all those neural connections between books and comfort.

Books are the one, safe place to confront your fears. A book is a therapist office. A confessional. And the stories sprawled over the pages offer absolution for being human.

img_20161007_095640The Gift of Joy, with its warped and tattered cover, feels different from all the new and used books I have since sought out online, and had shipped overseas to read to my own children: books by Dr. Seuss, Judith Voigt. Although, I admit that I cried so much reading Charlotte’s Web to my first son, I couldn’t bring myself to choke through it with my second. (But that was E.B.White’s doing, not nostalgia.) Only a few years ago, I found on E-Bay the brown-marble covered Children’s Bible with the illustrations that had given me so many nightmares. The horned Satan hovering over the cliff.

The Gift of Joy is the only sacred relic in my library. It’s one of only two objects I have from my childhood: the machine-sewn quilt my grandmother made for me before her back gave out and she gave up sewing, and this book. Everything else is a cheap replica.

*

“And the Word was God.” And Helen Hayes explains how she misunderstood the lines from St. John. But I am not sure it is a misunderstanding. The Word is mysterious web: the dark forms and the shadows. It is Connection in Absence.

And what better definition is there for a truly unconditional love?

 


(This began as an attempt to write a prose piece for Silver Birch. But it got out of hand.)

As a puppy, no matter how hard I tried to coax her, Kiri would never lay at my feet under my desk while I was writing.

It was part of the image I had in my mind: The writer and her dog. The productive and warm, fuzzy mornings with a mug of coffee and a buzzing computer. The quiet afternoons of revision, before the kids tumbled in the front door finished with school. I would bake, and make nourishing dinners.

I tried that for a couple of years. It didn’t work out.

img_20151001_083944Now Kiri is well over 15, and lying beside me, on the small oriental rug here in my tiny library. But this is not what I imagined.

My children are grown, and have moved out.

And I’ve moved out. Started over again, first on my own, then with a new partner. I would say that nothing has gone according to plan, but the truth is there was never a plan, only an image.

The question I had put to myself all those years is what do you want to be? Rather than what are you going to do?

In some ways, I am grateful for that. For what spontaneity has added to my life. The unexpected is always an adventure. I think it has made me braver than I might otherwise have been. I learned lessons, some very hard (some very hard on the people in my life).

But regrets are a waste of time. Even in hindsight, one can never really know what the results would have been from having made a different choice, at any juncture.

Many years ago, my best friend bought me a print by the artist Brian Andreas:

“If you hold on to the handle, she said, it is easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.” – Brian Andreas

It is a philosophy I have only half-embraced. I’ve usually used it to comfort myself when I’m faced with my own failure to achieve that “image”–however fuzzy–I’ve had in the back of my mind.

It seems odds with the now-ubiquitous line from Mary Oliver’s poem  “The Sumer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

But these are only the final lines. There is more to the poem:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

(from “The Summer Day”. Mary Oliver)

I never planned to pay attention. But, suddenly, this seems like a very good idea. Instead of dwelling on the past, looking to define lessons-learned and outline regrets, it might be smart to catch up with myself: to pay attention to the present.

Instead of stumbling backwards into the unexpected, to walk face-first with an open mind into the days.

I recently finished Diana Nyad‘s memoir Find a Way. She writes that with age and wisdom comes balance. I would guess this also means the balance between planning and achieving. Following the failure of her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she celebrates:

The journey has been inordinately worthwhile, the destination be dammed (for one night anyway). – Diana Nyad

Pick up. Learn from mistakes. Plan: then pay attention to every stroke, every moment.

There are so many things in life that are obviously not under our control. But where we put our attention is not one of them.

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

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

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

Art as Experience

meandoscar
Kissing Wilde’s Grave, 2012

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

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

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

However, Wilde also said that art is useless:

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

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

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

Art as a Tool for the Good Life

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

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

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

Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention

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

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

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

We can live deliberately.

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

Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.

– Oscar Wilde

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


More information about my exprience with Perspective Writing.