img_20161103_210645This evening I find a note in my laptop. After a long day, a Romance Post-it that ends on a rising note.

The house is quiet: the old lady at her other home, and E. in Spain for a few days.

I lie in bed and type because the library is cold, and it’s too late to begin heating the room.  I’m winding down for the night – blue filter on the computer screen.

Voices carry through the vent in the corner of the bedroom. A man and a woman must be just across the street in the parking lot of the nursing home. It’s an easy melody. He’s leaving now, because there is a rise in pitch and in volume: a crescendo. A rising note that ends the conversation with an ellipsis. A car door closes.

I think of  voices drifting from the living room, when I was small. Soft, smoky grown-up sounds like muffled coughs. And then someone would leave, a rise in pitch and in volume. A closing door. Then a rustling of papers and fabric. Sighs.

Bedtime in a half-light of a paisley scarf thrown over a lamp on the floor. I lay in the annex of the grown-ups’ space: curious, though mostly content in a pocket of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

I remember calling out, listening to voices stir like water about to boil. Then quiet again. How many times will I call out. How many times will they deliberate, and decide I should be sleeping.

Light spreads on the floor in an amber triangle.”What,” on an exhale.

If I recall correctly, it wasn’t a battle of wills so much as an experiment. Like prodding a kindly dragon.

“Goodnight.” on a falling note. “Good night” as an iamb.

Again. As a spondee.





Good morning, Richard.

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.

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.



“I cannot write – and I ought not.”
– Dorothea Lynde Dix, in a letter to her friend George Barrell Emerson

Dear D.L.D.,

I’ve been thinking of you, and your “no-thing disease”. I’ve been thinking about your conscious decision to avoid writing poetry during your no-thing seasons, while I find myself writing through mine.

I can only guess, but I’m assuming those were the times when the world was too thin, and you knew a single word could pierce deep enough to empty you. But you did write. Letters, at least.

In Norwegian, there’s a descriptor: kontaktsøkende. Literally translated, it means “contact-seeking”. In use, it means needy – with all the negative connotations. I hear teachers describe students as kontaktsøkende, with an air of judgement and (ironically) dismissal. I’ve heard them use the word in reference to colleagues, too. And I’ve wondered if they’ve used it to describe me when I’ve been frank and intense in conversations. (I get called “intense” a lot.)

The term disturbs me, in the best sense of the word. I’ve been in need of contact often in my life for a myriad of reasons, and I’ve always felt ashamed. You were described in this way, though obviously not with the Norwegian word. But as needy. And people advised you to be “less candid” in your correspondence with them. Is it horrible for me to say I was relieved when I read that? It eased my feelings shame just a bit.

11161336_843427735712924_913401089575855313_nRecently it came to light in a discussion, that someone I care about thought being “depressed” was wallowing in self-pity. They didn’t understand that it’s easier to tell a friend that you feel unlovable than to admit that you are afraid you may not be capable of loving. That you are useless.

I know that was your greatest fear, to be useless in regard to your talents. You were afraid to let God down. I’ve often wondered if you felt that God had let you down?

Need is misunderstood, and pity is a miserly response that leads to resentment. Or else it is understood, along with the realization that there’s nothing that anyone can do to relieve another person’s need. That also leads to resentment.

Another Norwegian phrase: “folk har nok med sitt“: people have enough on their plates. I think most often it’s used to illustrate that people are selfish. But people are also kind and generous, and overwhelmed. No doubt, if you might have tolerated me at all, we would have quickly grown weary of each other in a no-thing season.

I believe there’s a primal, unconscious fear of people whose emotional needs are obvious. There’s the mistrust: if no one else has been there for that person, there must be something wrong with them. And there’s the gut knowledge that loneliness is contagious, I guess. Monkeys shy away from the shunned and the injured, and so do most of us.

I think it’s a matter of  learning how to attend to our needs obliquely.

I wonder if you realize how well you did that? I mean, once you found  your voice in speaking on the behalf of others. All the good you did in the world, the difference you made in people’s lives was born of your need to “express yourself” (a phrase that I think is a poor replacement for a more accurate “make yourself visible”). Although your work was born of that need, but it wasn’t an expression of the need itself. Your needy poetry informed those masterful orations in a way nothing else could have.

“The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is meaningless.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

During times like this, I look to you. I don’t stop myself from writing, but I’m conscious of the need. I find the writing therapeutic. Didn’t you? Maybe you weren’t entirely truthful? (You weren’t always.)  Maybe you were writing poetry, but knew better than to share it with anyone. Maybe you’d learned not to place demands on the people you wrote to. After all: letters, poems, and stories should be gifts, not the assignment of obligations.

I have a small notebook of poems I wrote in high school: angry, hurt, resentful voices. Only one was written from a place of defiance and strength. I believe I needed to write through all the others to get to that poem; to be able to acknowledge myself, be visible to myself, before I could move on and communicate with the world. But our lives aren’t linear are they?

Sometimes I think of it as simple stitching. Running over and under the “right side” of the garment. But it all holds together in the end, doesn’t it?

We accept our seasons. Or try to.

I’m struggling with writer’s block. It isn’t that I can’t write. I’m writing a lot. But I have nothing to give at the moment, from this no-thing place. I’m not sure whether I would even be having these thoughts on the subject if it weren’t for having read yours. As uncomfortable as these thoughts are, I guess I should thank you.


If the topic of This Choice interests you, I would welcome your contribution (*provided it meets the following guidelines).

To avoid misunderstandings, please read the manifesto on the website before submitting.

A little reminder about the concept for the podcast project: I‘m curious as to how the process of writing poetry affects poets’ daily lives. How it affects the choices we make, that – in turn -shape our lives. I live far away from other English-writing poets, and I began this project as a way for me to sit down over a glass of wine, or cup of coffee, and chat with poets I admire – and to learn from them.

Even if Skype is the only way to do it.

This is about conversation, not promotion.

The form for Xtra Voices is a 15-minute podcast that includes three poets independently telling a story about how poetry has affected their lives. On the website, I will include photos, bios, links and a very brief 3-question, written Q. & A. based on each poet’s story. (If a poet wishes to write long responses, I will gladly link to their own platform.)

A submission must meet these criteria:

  • MAX. 5-minute audio file (3-4 minutes is ideal)
  • Introduce yourself by name, and tell a story that illustrates how poetry made adifference in your life.
  • No more than 1 minute of the story may be a quote from one of your own poems.
  • End the audio with your name and your website address (if applicable). At the end of each podcast, I will remind listeners to go to to find links to the poets’ work and websites: Do not provide a summary of your bio on the audio tape.

    Please respect the purpose of this project and do not consider this primarily a place to promote your own work. And please note the difference between a story (i.e. anecdote), an ars poetica, or a monologue about “What Poetry Means to Me.” I will not publish audio files that stray from the spirit of This Choice.

Please send submissions to renkat (at) mac (dot) com. Subject line: This Choice.
I look forward to hearing form you.



Good morning, Richard.

Always wanted to be a gardner. But what I try to grow dies, what I leave alone, on the other hand…

Reading your poem “Fairytales“, I was thinking that we are in such similar places right now. This midlife honesty. What looks to younger people like giving up on one’s dreams, is actually giving up on other people’s dreams and discovering (and accepting) our own day-to-day joys.

I think it takes courage to swim against the tide as we begin to do about now. When our own mortality comes slowly seeping into our consciousness as a fact of life, as our bones move with less ease and our skin relaxes, and we can admit to ourselves that we really aren’t the person we tried to be, the person we really don’t want to inhabit day to day.

And I honestly believe that at our age that it becomes clear for the first time: who is actually swimming, and who has been passively going with/according to the flow all along.

I get this image – I have no idea from where – but the father calmly holding out an arm, palm pressed against his son’s forehead as a consequence of the will of his angry six-year old, who is swinging wildly, insistently: breathless.

Isn’t that how we spend the first half of our lives? As the six-year old? Trying to enforce our  indistinct will on the rest of the world? “Sound and fury” as they say in that Scottish play. No wonder it seems as though the first half of our lives is so significant. It’s loud and frenetic. Draws attention to itself. We appear to be doing something. Appears being the operative word there. I think this is the great illusion. Isn’t that what the Buddhists are talking about anyway? The futility of will and desire?

The father that I imagine? He is laughing – not mocking, but in recognition and compassion.

Isn’t it kind of odd how we spend so many years trying to pound other people into our boxes, and to simultaneously squeeze and contort ourselves so as to fit into theirs?

These days I’m actually lamenting over so much wasted time and energy. I’ve said before that I write as a way to reach out – over oceans, as we have done – and beyond my inevitable death. But lately I’ve been laughing at myself. I have students who don’t have a clue who Andy Warhol is was.  Much less Gertrude Stein, or even Mary Shelley. When I was in London last, I saw Jonson’s The Alchemist, and again marveled over the fact that the “upstart crow” Shakespeare eclipsed the more popular Jonson after their deaths. It is all so arbitrary. I wonder how many generations will remember Marilyn Monroe.

And don’t let get me started on the distortions and unforgivable omissions of fact in the forming of icons like Monroe, or (ahem) Gandhi.

You’d think, with us all striving to become myths, we were all setting ourselves up to sell toothpaste  or cola or nationalism from the Great Beyond. Talk about “selling out”.

Am I stretching the metaphor, or isn’t it a wee bit like spending all one’s money on lottery tickets for posthumous fame, while starving to death in an empty room?  I am done with that.

Or trying to be done with that.  (Funny how it take such conscious effort to stop unconscious drives.) I’m trying to spend more time following curiosity rather than ambition.

“If everyone looked up to me rather than just at me.” The speaker of your poem is someone to love, Richard. The relinquishing of ambition, is what makes him admirable in my eyes.

Back to the Buddhist-ish paradox, right? The Taoist Wu Wei? This is wisdom, right? Not giving a f#%$ about “relevance”: Authenticity.

Although I get the impression lately that the word authenticity has come to mean “unique brand”.

At any rate, I think it works out nicely – this being honest without ourselves and giving up our pre-packaged ambitions. Our ideas of cat and dog people. This way, you can keep the cats, and I can keep the dogs.And everyone is happy. (Except E., who was dishonest with me on our first date, when he told me he was a dog person.)

Miss you. Give my love to 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.