When you can’t go far, you go deep. – BR. DAVID STEINDL-RAST
Oh, Di, you wrote: “…you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies!”
Isn’t that true?
Writing today, when across the ocean from me there are events taking place that I don’t know how to think about – much less talk about. I don’t have a perspective from which to add anything meaningful to what needs to be said – I don’t even know what needs to be said – or done – or witnessed. From the one view, I was and still am entangled in the privilege that has blinded me to other people’s realities. I was a complicit participant in the culture – but haven’t been for 27 years now.
To be clear: I haven’t been a participant of the culture – it does not, however, mean that I am no longer complicit in the problems of that culture. I know that.
So, as I write this, I hope you will keep in mind that I am fully conscious of the narrowness – the “whiteness” – of what I am going to write about. I’m in no way trying to be reductive about the pain in the United States. Or anywhere else. I’m not claiming to have any perspective on a bigger picture. I think that our stories are woven into something so large we can’t conceive of the whole.
I’m often at a loss of how to handle the truth of individual insignificance, and still be reverent of the individual.
And that was a weird little disclaimer to give myself permission to brood today, wasn’t it?
I was struck by your words: “you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies.” I have been thinking about the fact that maybe this is the greatest gift we can give anyone. Strangers, yes: to learn to live comfortably with (or simply live with the discomfort) of the mystery of “the other”. To let it be. That is quite literally poetry, isn’t it? At least according to Keats. The negative capability necessary in human relationships is the opposite of prejudice.
And I suppose requires us to catch ourselves as we form our thoughts, as we interpret what we hear and see. It makes me laugh to think that my goal should not be to become a “good judge of character”. But rather, to allow myself – not to be child-like at all – but to suspend judgement: to stop, hold, wait. No wonder so many religious paths have a practice of abstaining from one thing or another. I guess, for me, the question is where the strength/faith to withhold judgement will come from.
I think about how it is actually easier to practice this kind of negative capability with strangers than it is with the people we love. We want to pin them down. Even when that means pinning them down as “good”. We feel safer “knowing” them. Secure in knowing who they are – and we are silly enough to think of their unexpected behavior as betrayals.
Isn’t it ridiculous actually that we have this tendency to be surprised by other people? We either say they have changed, or fault ourselves for misjudging them. The former is inevitable, and the latter an absurd mental calculation, in and of itself. Maybe we are at our most judgemental with our children. Boxing them in probably gives us a sense of control over the way their story will play out. Even when the story we write for them is dark, we can at least feel prepared.
I don’t know – am I the only person who goes through life trying to set up narrative safeguards?
I have always thought your returning to New Zealand was courageous. I get this image of room behind a closed door. The door has a long slit of a window. Probably an image of a scene in a move – an asylum cell. The window is so narrow that the people viewing it from the hallway never see the whole person in the room. They see just a strip of hair, shoulder, hip, shoe. And they make their notes for the day.
Did I tell you that once I got ahold of my psychiatrist’s notes and he from an hour session he had written: “Hasn’t brushed her hair today. Had a fight with her boyfriend.”
It would make for a good story if I said that he upped my meds that day, wouldn’t it?
Are the people who thought they knew you “back when”, allowing themselves to meet the person you are? You having come home the same stranger to them, but now trailing long, beautiful stories that smell of simit and tea, basel and salt water – and of things for which I have no names or associations.
I wish I could draw. I would sketch you. Just sketch, though.
My aesthetic preference has always been biased toward the quality of the lines, not the photorealism. Not even the symbolism.
I cannot go home. But before my grandmother died I remember the moments she would occasionally say something over the phone – something simple – she would tell me that she did not really know me. Which made me feel more seen than I had ever felt.
Are you experiencing that? Maybe that is too intimate a question.
Your talks with Jimmy do sound like holy moments unto themselves. I wonder – this awe we have when we are confronted with the familiar/mysterious expanse of sky or the songs that come from the total darkness and the thrill of knowing/not knowing their source. Am I right in thinking you are one of the people who finds this same awe when you sit with other people and open yourself for their stories?
I suppose there is a value in knowing the “right” perspective when taking a portrait. But there is so much more beauty in the candid shots that reveal as much of the photographer’s openness as they do the subject’s.
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.
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.
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.
“A diary…” N.B.: Whining Post – like something J.K. Rowling forgot to mention in Harry Potter.
Mary Oliver’s new book of essays sits on my desk. It arrived last week. Today, Sigrun quotes from it on sub rosa:
“I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. … If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day — which is what I did.”
Also this morning, I read the final consultant report on my new book, the report that also addresses the translator’s afterword, which is an overview of the arc of my writing career -so to speak. I’m thrilled to have someone take my writing so seriously. Most people have to be dead, or at least famous. However…
It’s difficult to translate the consultant’s words directly, but he refers to the fact that I’ve only four previous poetry books published in Norway: 17 years, 4 books. Not very impressive in terms of volume. (Thankfully, he’s on board in terms of quality).
Most Norwegian poets give out a book a year, since the Kulturråd will purchase up to one literary work from each author, each year. (The published book is sent to the jury of the DNF for consideration to reimburse the publisher and pay a minimum royalty to the author. Full disclosure: my books are considered on the merit of the translations.)
Most Norwegian poets lecture on literary subjects, write non-fiction, tour high schools, and supplement their tiny publishing income with other promotional gigs that deflect the image of a “day job”.
I did that for a year, and was thrilled to call myself a poet and feel confident about it. But I hated the day-to-day of it. And I didn’t find myself writing more.
When I was in the U.S., the path for me was pretty clear: I would be a professional poet when I was a professor at a university. I would have a list of publications in reputable journals, a few books, and I’d be invited to teach at retreats in the south of France.
I had a plan. I got my PhD. But I fell in love with Norway.
My image of being a particular kind of Poet is still so clear and difficult to relinquish, that I have considered applying to teach the one-year intro writing courses at colleges in Norway (Creative Writing is not taught in the universities here). But even if I got a job, I would have to take a 20% pay cut, which would necessarily mean giving up my mortgage, moving across the country and living in a 30 square-meter apartment: just so that I could say I was a poet without feeling like a fraud. (My writing wouldn’t improve. I know that.)
Talk about not having a solid sense of self at midlife: I find myself fantasising about this all too often – still!
When I worked for an international organisation for persecuted writers, I often travelled with the writers to present them at events. Some of them, however, had not published new work in over a decade. How much, how often, is publishing required to earn one the status of “legit”?
You see, I have thought of quitting my day job, finding an “uninteresting job”, as Mary Oliver says she did. But I’m not Mary Oliver.
I’ve had musician colleagues at the high school who have quit to work in offices or detailing cars, because they said that teaching was sapping their creative energy. But I don’t believe (in my case) creativity can be sapped by other kinds of creative work – it all primes the pump. What I do believe is that being the handmaiden for other people’s creativity can be a source of envy – and that needs to be dealt with. Again: in my case.
And, even though I do get up at 5 and write before “work”, I would be upset if I thought my students believed that I gave them my second-best effort. I would be ashamed if I did that.
What I need to do, is learn not to give a damn about being a Poet.