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.

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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.

One of the most generous openings in conversation is, “Where are you from?” It follows all the rules of good decorum*. It invites the person to talk about herself.

“Where are you from?” is a question I get invariably about two minutes after I have said something in the presence of people who don’t know me. It’s the accent, of course. I moved to Norway at the age of 26, too late (according to experts) to hear the new sounds well enough to mimic them. There is also the fact that, even after private (expensive) tutelage and serious attempts to master it, I still suck at the Norwegian grammar. But the fact is that I have lived here nearly half my life here—more than half my conscious life. I gave birth to two boys here, reared them here, and have worked in the public school system for more than 15 years. My books are in the public libraries. In the school libraries. I was a Norwegian national representative for a human rights organization for several years. There are days when I feel that I kind of belong here–if I belong anywhere.

If I try to brush off the question, and answer that I’m from the US, they say, “I know, but where?”

“I moved around a lot.”

Usually, this is followed by the person telling me where in the US they have ties: aunts here, nephews there. More often than not, they have a much closer connection to a particular part of the country, to particular people over there than I do.

I wonder if my lack of connection leads others to the unconscious understanding that I must be some kind of pariah.

I have been trying to remember which philosopher talked about loneliness as a contagion. It’s human instinct to feel unease around the edges of the community. There is a danger in the association with outsiders. We rush back to the center when we have the opportunity.

Loneliness is a familiar feeling. There is a cold comfort in that, at least. The role of the outsider is at least definable. And now, as a Norwegian citizen, inevitable.

For years I tried to explain to my (ex-) husband about this sense of loneliness. He listened. He said that he could imagine the kind of homesickness I must feel. But it has never been homesickness. At least not in the sense that it is most often used.

Standing on the edge of any conversation and then trying to casually take part—a sudden, disconcerting, change of topic: I experience the question “Where are you from?” as roadblock. A reminder. An unintended declaration of, “We know you don’t belong here.”

More than that, the question makes me feel diminished: whittled to myself at 26. A fraction of my life, and the least interesting part at that. (Or if not the least interesting, the part that is best left presented on a therapist’s couch, not at a buffet table.)

This is my problem.

I know full-well that no one is trying to make me feel small, or excluded. Quite the contrary. But answering the question of where I came from, tells you either far too much for polite conversation… or nothing at all.

I need a good, prepared answer.

I’m thinking Narnia might do?

Or wherever it was that Edna St. Vincent Millay saw her drenched and dripping apple trees.

Those are true answers, if not befuddling.

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I will forever be the awkward one at parties.

But I can aspire to be like the Ada in The Piano,

“I am quite the town freak, which satisfies!”

 

I could be the Horse on the motorway.

Anything but the stereotype of where I come from.


*At least most of the time. But since I am easily identified as American-born, the question is sometimes nothing more than a guise and a segway for the person to wax unpoetically on their views of American politics, or the American character – usually gleaned from their exposure to television shows like Dr. Phil. But that is a digression… and a pet peeve.

 

 

“Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”

                     – Edward Albee

Or out of her way.

When I was 26, the theater department head told me he was a friend of Susan Sontag, and he was going to send her my scripts. He invited me to stay in town the year after I graduated – he called it a New Play Festival – and I could stage my experimental plays at the university: access to actors and technicians, and a black box.

I did get to stage my work (despite a “supportive” professor who went to the dean and tried to get the whole thing shut down in order to protect me from myself). I got good reviews from the local paper, worked with talented people, and learned a lot.

Of course, my scripts never got to Sontag. And I know now how absurd the thought was, and wonder if the man had been drunk at lunch on a Wednesday when he told me he was so impressed.

I was set to apply to graduate school. But couldn’t afford the application fees.

The story I’ve been telling is that when I moved to Norway later that year (unexpectedly, because that is how love is), I contacted the theater and asked if I could do volunteer work. But the American dramaturge I spoke with told me that they didn’t use volunteers in Norwegian theater; unions were strict. But a few days later he sent me a poetry manuscript for translation – one he didn’t have time to do himself. When I balked, he explained that knowing your own language well was more important than knowing the original language well. In some ways, 20-something years (and nearly as many books of translations) later, I agree with him. And not. But that is a digression.

I worked very closely with the author of that first book. Then a second book, another author. It began a informal apprenticeship in poetry, with many excellent Norwegian writers. This lead to my own books, and my own work being translated.

I told myself I was going back to my roots. After all, I had written poetry as a child and teen (who hasn’t?), and had even taken graduate courses form a celebrated poet who humiliated me, but gave me an A;a man whose work I still admire greatly—though perhaps not so much his teaching techniques.

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Students working with my poems in movement class, 2011. I haven’t dared to repeat it for fear of being seen as exploiting my position as a teacher.

But this week, attending a theater festival, all these forgotten details rushed over me. I hadn’t given up that easily. I wrote four plays the first year I was in Norway. I remembered handing one full-length script to a director who weighed it in his hand, smiled and said, “You must have put a lot of work into this.”

Clearly, he had no intention of reading it.

I was never under the delusion that I was the Next Big Thing on the Great White Way, but I had enjoyed the privilege of being taken seriously.

Several times over the next twenty years, I started and stopped. There were the small excursions into performance work. The libretto that I got a grant to finish, then a grant to produce. But the composer flaked, and the producer dropped the ball. And I shelved it.

I guess it has been easier to forget those failures.

No, not the failures, but the giving-up. Because that is worse.

My sixth poetry collection is coming out just before Christmas. (I am hoping it will appeal to the middle-age market, since it is all about mid-life reckoning, and carpe diem: clearly, this is not a coincidence).

I have a first draft of a bad novel. An outline for a playtext. And I have discovered several old documents on this laptop. One-acts. Fragments.

I have a sputtering start to what is probably my fifth blog, which seems not to have a focus this time around.

I have no idea where to go from here.

This week Collin Kelly, at the Modern Confessional (a long-running blog with a clear focus) asks, “How many publications are enough?”

A part of me says it’s time to chuck genre and forms. To chuck reliance upon approval.

To write. To focus on that, and trust that I don’t need to please the gatekeepers to the Susan Sontags of this world. Not now. Have I earned that? Does one need to earn that?

Maybe it is time to see if this very long distance has just been a great big circle.