I have to admit to myself that very little of my life has gone according to plan. It would be comforting to claim that this has been for the best. But it has been, such that this is now.
I find myself circling back to old desires that were somehow discarded along the way – like a dream where you are traveling with a baby and then suddenly you’re not. There’s no panic, no regret, just wonder: I wonder how that slipped away so quietly.
Things never look entirely the same when one returns to a place stamped in memory. Buildings are smaller, people are less attractive – or more so. A novel we remember as almost finished is a half-page of notes.
“I want to be a fireman” is an hour’s deep impression, not a long path through childhood. I’m not expressing an original thought when I say that significance warps our perception of time.
The common advice for rekindling a sense of desire is to try to remember what you enjoyed doing when you were younger. What you were doing when time seemed to fly by. But I think the problem is that our memories are biased. We remember what is reinforced. What is stamped in our memories under personal or cultural pressure.
In the past months, I’ve been sorting through notebooks and computer files. So many times I’ve stumbled over declarations and confessions that I don’t remember writing. Poems and outlines for projects that are so like soft-boned babies that somehow slipped away in a dream. These are flashes of desire. The signposts of paths not taken.
Where I come from, the words most highly valued are those spoken from the heart, unpremeditated and unrehearsed.
LESLIE MARMON SILKO
Maybe the greatest privilege of this time of my life is the time to circle back. There is a roundness that comes with age, a natural and new returning like a second orbit with a slightly different perspective. And a slightly different perspective can change everything.
A decade ago I left a thousand and one eggs on a blog with the same name. I’d forgotten about them. These things – now uglier and more beautiful than I’d understood. These flashes of desire that I recognize as genuine.
I have a plan to circle back.
These days I’m under far less pressure and I’m excited by the rough roundness of eggs, the ugliness of hatchlings – the fearlessness of flight.
The skies are clear and the air is cold, and at some point I will get up from this desk, get dressed and go to the beach. It is one of those days that – in recollection tomorrow – will be smudged across my mind: leaving just a fraction of an hour of something meaningful -something like
squinting against sharp reflections of the late-afternoon light while watching a tern searching the foam for something to eat.
And this will be better than most days.
Later tonight E. will take a Covid test before heading offshore for another fortnight. I expect autumn will take hold in his absence. And the space between the points of the timeline of my days will stretch wide: Work. Home. Work. Home. I’ll walk the dog. Keep up the routine. And darkness will creep over the edges of the days until there is precious little light left.
Sometimes precious little is more than all the rest.
I like the smell of there having been candles – I like it sometimes best.
Because the earth is round and its path is round, we will pass by this way again, one way or another.
The darkness retreats, too . And we always miss it as well.
Finally having returned to morning practice, I’ve moved back into my body – with the nudging aches and unexpected pains. With the roundness and the wrinkles. I’m making the required effort of moving with ease now.
I’ve settled into my fears and found them – tolerable. I mean: what’s the alternative? The world keeps turning, as they say.
The cows have moved into the nearest pasture now. I wonder if I will ever pay enough attention to recognize them. The calves are easy to spot, but I have no idea how many of last year’s cows have returned. How many are missing.
I’ve noticed that the squirrels no longer seem to care much when we run by. They often run just to the base of the nearest tree, and wait there for us to pass.
Maybe they’ve just gotten lazy, but I would like to think that after 5 years of daily runs they know us.
I know that’s just a Snow White fantasy:
When people are difficult, I still imagine the animals sensing my fundamental goodness and accepting me. I imagine the deer will come out of the groves to nuzzle my hands. The hedgehogs would putt putt and butt my feet playfully. I’ll befriend the crows, and they’ll bring me gifts.
When I lived at the edge of a farm in Kentucky our dogs brought us a whole leg of a cow and left it on the porch. I have no idea how that was sorted out – or by whom.
Once they brought us a mole, with a button nose, looking decidedly unreal. Have you ever seen a mole? It was dead, but perfect.
In the spring the dogs would walk around the yard with screaming mice babies in their mouths. They’d eat them…eventually. I was fine with the fact that they weren’t interested in sharing. No doubt that Snow White is a vegetarian, so there was no reason for me to take that personally.
Sometimes on spring nights the cat would jump up and scramble down from my bed over and over, and I’d lie there until she stopped. Then I’d get up to fetch an empty tin can from the trash and look for the dead mouse whose heart had finally given way. She wasn’t sharing either. She was just bored: she was a cat.
Cat’s don’t recognize the fundamental goodness in anything.
On this morning’s run, dodging the slugs on trail, I saw a shiny black ball lying in the middle of the path. It looked like a sea anemone that had blown all the way inland from the beach. As I passed, I glimpsed back to see the splash of orange and red, and I realized a cat – or a mink – had left the blackbird’s head there like a warning.
Or a gift?
Who knows. Nature is weird.
The world is round, but far from smooth. Gaia is craggy and temperamental. She is the quiet morning punctured with the screeching of crows.
And maybe fundamental goodness isn’t real at all. Or maybe the cats are right and know that we don’t have the perspective required to discern goodness…or beauty.
It is a frightening thought. And worth settling into.
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.
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.
As you know, I sat down to write to you yesterday, but didn’t get far. But this morning E. gently asked me if I wasn’t up for the morning run.
I have a simple checklist to gauge my mental heath:
Did I get out of bed before noon?
Did I make the bed?
Did I get out of my PJs?
Did I shower?
Did I leave the house?
Did I run, yoga and meditate?
Did I write?
(There are all kinds of sub goals, for example: putting on pants that don’t have an elastic waist, or combing my hair.) I hit 1 out of 7 yesterday.
And honestly, I think that was just because I had to pee.
But this morning I managed 6 before 6.30 a.m. And I’m now in the bibliotekette with coffee and grapes, and with your letter at hand. Literally.
The handwritten version of your previous letter arrived yesterday, and put a smile on my face. I was grateful for the real-world object-ness of our connection on a day that seemed so unreal. It reminded me that we are doing something important in the world. Intentionally having (attempting to have) a meaningful conversation. Not in terms of big issues, or politics, but on a personal level. I think real consideration on that level has extended circles of influence in our own lives – to the big issues, and the politics. And that it matters indirectly, but concretely – in the world.
I like digesting your letters for a few days before responding. Letting ideas take root instead of volleying a tweet or sitting on messenger with a sense of urgency because we both have work to do. Not that one form of communication replaces the other.
I was going to write about freedom. About how you are right: because my kids are grown and call other places home now, I’ve sort of passed that last big pre-set on the list: Rearing Children. (I think probably caring for one’s aging parents is another one, but I don’t have that on mine – for all the freedom and the loss that fact entails).
Parenting gets so damn complicated from here. I tend to tick off both kids with my “meddling” – when I see it as careful suggestions, coupled with reasoning for those suggestions, since I want to make it clear that I respect them and don’t assume I know the answers. They interpret it as me pounding with them instructions and arguments. I still haven’t figured out the transition here, probably because I don’t know what this is supposed to be transitioning into. I respect both of them as adults. I believe that we have (independently, and respectively) friendships. But what is that “always a parent” part? How does that manifest?
Sometimes I wonder how much of my parenting insecurities come down to cultural divisions. Both my kids are Norwegian, and though Norway is home for me, my communication style is still – will always be – very American. Norwegians find it strident. I try not to be ashamed of that. I would quote my grandpa here, something about calling something for what it is, but I heard that phrase probably has a racist origin. But, you get the idea: jeg snakker rett fra leveren.
I worry that my children are still ashamed or embarrassed by me. I still talk too loudly – an American voice is placed in the mask – it carries (in more ways than one). It’s a matter of physics. What am I going to do? Adopt an accent?
It strikes me as funny that this of all things probably allows me to claim status as a “first-generation immigrant” (as opposed to expat): Worrying that my cultural traits will embarrass my children.
Or it would, if first-generation immigrant wasn’t code for something else.
Do you still miss living here? Miss being an immigrant? Are you happy with the unexpected repatriation in terms of your identity? Sometimes I forget which one of you is actually Norwegian: you or M.
Back to parenting and freedom: I sort of crossed into this place at once, though, with both feet – my kids being so close in age. I guess you are dealing with this transition with two, while still negotiating the teen years with two?
But it seems that once that’s checked off the standard list: “Sent the Offspring out into the World”, the rest is up to us. The Big Existential Crisis should be of no surprise. And those who don’t have it, or them, probably stop growing unless some big external event forces them onward? That sounds kind of judgmental, doesn’t it? But my point is that no one should be making fun of or shaming someone for a midlife crisis. It is something to celebrate, really. I mean, unless they think they can buy their way out of it: it’s a new round of “what the hell am I going to do with my life” – with no templates to choose from.
But we both have that covered already right? Isn’t that part of what this correspondence is about – reminding each other of that fact? That we are writers, yes, but more: that we are searching.
This summer I finally read Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m so ignorant that I had to google Frankl’s biography to make sure I wasn’t conflating his story with Primo Levi’s. With all respect due to Levi (whom I sincerely hope did not commit suicide after all), considering the mood I was in, I didn’t want to read a book about searching for meaning by a writer who might have killed himself in the end. I trust you don’t think I’m horrible for saying that out loud.
I’m actually pretty proud that I’ve reached a point where I see living as learning for the sake of learning – no reward, no grading, no big answer-key in St. Peter’s hands at the end of the line. It’s sort of like being let loose on the playground. If it weren’t for this nagging yearning to be “useful”. At first I was excited to see that Frankl tries to release people from that idea:
“[…] this usefulness is usually defined in terms of functioning for the benefit of society. But today’s society is characterised by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.” – Viktor Frankl
But, yeah. No. I got no shot at being dignified. You saw I mentioned pee earlier? Usefulness is my only chance.
When it came to parenting, I figure even where I screwed-up, at least my example was still useful in terms of bad examples for my kids to take into account. I have the same attitude toward teaching, actually. And when I translate, I feel a bit like a midwife for other people’s gifts. That is all useful. But I’m trying hard to summon the confidence that my own gifts are worthy as gifts.
Just realised how handy that word is: gifts. The fact that we use it to describe a talent, and we use it to describe a generous contribution for other people’s benefit. Of course it’s the same word. A built-in reminder that we should be focusing outward in terms of our creative “making”?
At any rate. Confidence. I used to think that men had an easier time feeling confident in their own work. But now I believe that it is more that men have an external (gendered) pressure to have behave as though they have more confidence. It is part of being “a man”, isn’t it? Is that what taught you to not care what other people think?
I’m curious: you write, “I must admit I’ve given up caring about what people say about my writing, but frustrated when no-one is saying anything. Maybe I do have the constant need to be the centre of attention […]” But when you are frustrated that no one is saying anything, do you secretly fear that that is because they are being too polite to say it sucks? Not because I think anyone would think that, but because that is what I assume when my writing meets with silence.
When something is met with silence, I immediately begin looking it over, a bit panicked: “Did I just make an ass of myself?” Yeah. It’s like I leave no room for a continuum. Applause or Ridicule. I need to get out of other people’s heads.
I haven’t asked what you are working on now. Are you using November’s NANO as an external deadline? October 1st, I committed myself I would submit something – anything – once a week. I did it for two weeks. Both pieces were accepted, but maybe that’s why I’ve been slacking now? Knowing rejection is due? Trying so hard to avoid it. Imagining how hard a series of ten rejects would be on my ego now. Ego? Confidence. That sounds better.
Most of the prestigious journals charge for submissions. I’m having trouble getting my head around that. I know I’m paying them for a chance to use them as a conduit to reach readers. Readers who are primarily other writers. Other writers who need their work in that journal because they need a solid CV to get or keep their jobs in academia, or to convince a book publisher that they are worthytheir work is worthy of publication in book form. We make the gatekeepers and we serve them. We pay dues. Monetary dues.
I know it is arrogant to think I am “beyond that”, but at the same time it seems really stupid. I don’t even keep track of my journal publications, mainly because I don’t need a CV to keep a job. And I haven’t (thus far) needed one for book publications.
But my situation is changing regarding the kulturråd her. I’m not sure what to do.
Is it the same game with you? Do agents charge you to read your work, charge to consider representing you? I really like the indie idea(s). I’ve been listening to a few episodes of Rocking Self-Publishing. But they are talking about algorithms and things that sound like they involve steep learning curves, and a lot of marketing savvy. Have you dived into all that serious research and “writing to target”? Did you consider pen names for different genres? I dare say that Dead MenandThe Failed Assassin are quite different from each other.
There was a poet a few years ago who established what she called nano-publishing (but it wasn’t what they call nano-publishing now). It was very like a tiny publishing coop. Are there many of those around? It seems so do-able. I think Alice James, in the States, started out that way. Their writers have to live in the States. I’m assuming because they can do book tours and sell books.
Seriously thinking I will just go back to handmade books. I could set up a card table in Paris, like the guy in the photo I sent you with the last letter. That might buy me a hunk of cheese once a year. But it won’t pay for the plane ticket.
But neither will a whole CV full of publications in prestigious journals.
I think I’m going to write some poems today. I love you for giving me this space to explore, Richard. And before I sign off, I have to tell you that I got all warm and fuzzy inside when I realised that your letter came on two different sized sheets of paper. My grandmother used to type her letters to me. For some reason, her standard letter was one and a half sheets. She would cut the sheet in half, and save the other half for the next letter.
After a day of being painfully touched in such a deep place by the news, it was beautiful to have a warm light shine on that same deep place. We find meaning where we look for it.
Sitting down this morning with coffee and a clementine. I can’t believe it’s that time of year already. I light the candle under the bowl the rosemary oil, and between that and clementine, it’s difficult not to think of Christmas. This morning, the bridge at the trail head was covered with ice. I guess that means the sparrows I was listening to yesterday will be staying through the winter. I’ll need to remember to fill the feeder on the porch regularly.
The old lady is settled on the rug next to me, and it’s quiet – except for the grinding of the coffee machine and the small sounds E. is making in the kitchen. I need the quiet. The silent run in the morning, the yoga routine with the silent chanting of old hymns in my head. Then this: the humming of the space heater in the tiny library. Now my head is quiet enough to write.
I can not comprehend how you can write with music playing! Music whips up so much noise in my head, it would be like trying to collect fallen leaves in a whirlwind. It would be interesting to be in your head for a while. Is it chaotic in there? Or compartmentalized, like a smoothly running production line in a factory?
In regard to dealing with aging, you wrote, “Sometimes, often, I think you have a more definite sense of self than I do. And because I lived a very sheltered childhood, I find I’m still kicking against things that maybe I shouldn’t be kicking against. I don’t think I’ve ever known who I really am.”
I’ve never really thought I had a strong sense of self, but perhaps because of my own childhood, I was so disassociated with my body that these physical changes aren’t (perhaps) as startling. I was 45 before I began to live in my body with any kind of appreciation or awareness. Any kind of gratitude. Maybe it is a sex issue, too? My body changed so much with childbirth that midlife brings with it gentler changes?
When I look down at my hands now I see my grandmother’s hands when I held them during church services. It’s a strange kind of self-comfort, having her incorporated in my life in such an intimate and physical way.
Although a friend was visiting a few months ago; she saw a photo from the wedding and said, “Oh, your hands don’t look that old in reality.” To be honest, what I was uncomfortable with was how thin my hair looked in the photo – but now I have yet another thing to be self-conscious about.
And at the doctor’s office last week I skimmed through an article in a women’s magazine I used to read in my 30s, the headline was something like: What You Can Look Forward to as You Age. It went on to describe, in language I can only categorise as contemptuous, how even your vagina will look old. I cannot for the life of me figure out why that made me feel so deeply ashamed. And had I taken my plump, youthful labia for granted somehow? What’d I miss?
So, no. I’m not unaffected by the ageism and age-shaming that is so integral to our culture. Do you think those places where people revere the elderly are just a myth?
Have you ever read Being Dead, by Jim Crace? I might actually reread it, now that I’m thinking about it. He has descriptions of a couple’s decomposing bodies, interspersed with flashbacks of their lives. I remember it all being extraordinarily beautiful. Even the decomposing.
Like you said, this is midlife, Richard. I don’t think we should feel obligated to spend the second half hiding so as not to remind people under 40 that they will eventually die. Every time I read the words, “the aging population” as a euphemism for “old people”, I laugh. We are all aging. I’d say from birth, but really, from conception. It’s a done deal from the get-go.
And there is still plenty of time to set new goals and achieve them. It’s just that the goals are no longer laid out for us. There is a terrific freedom in that. Maybe this is where we actually are able to be individuals?
A writer in Paris. Not exactly the romantic image I had in mind, but maybe the reality of having to do self-promotion these days?
Anyway, back to the sense of self. I think you have a better grasp of who you are “metaphysically”, as you described it. You write birthday poems for your children. I believe that the last birthday poem I wrote was for my grandfather when I was six or so.
[Quite] A few years ago – just after my first book was published – a friend got married, and I sent a poem to him and his wife as a wedding gift. I framed it like a broadside. Almost immediately, I regretted it.If I know who and what I am, I am not very impressed with her. Seriously: 18 years and five books later, I’m still embarrassed by my little wave of confidence that day, or week, or however long it lasted.
I think this is why I’m still not posting poetry on my blog. I’m still craving outside approval. Kind of like writing a story I am proud of, but waiting to get the little smiley stamp and an A from the teacher before I show it to my mother.
That is pathetic, isn’t it?
Fame? I just read the translator’s afterword for the new book. It’s an essay about my writing over the years, and he makes flattering comparisons to canon writers. He describes this book as representing a “late style”. Most writers have to be dead or at least moderately famous to get such close attention to their forfatterskap. I’m thrilled. And I’m terrified. People will say (as they have before) that my work doesn’t warrant such attention. I’m preparing myself for that now, even before it goes to print.
So: Respect, renown? Yes, please.
Fame? People are just plain mean sometimes.
By the way, loved hearing you on the radio this weekend! Your name is incorporated into a radio jingle. That’s a kind of famous, isn’t it?
Give my love to M., and I hope you guys make plans to visit soon so we can meet your kids. We have this ludicrously large house and plenty of space.
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.
Out 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?