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.

Gestures.

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.

I am so happy not to know you, Di!

Dear Di,

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

“I crave attention. I want to observe.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we have to trust them, don’t we?

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

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

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

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

Maggie Smith is wrong. Those are not the odds. 

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

XO Ren

Di’s reply


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

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