towards the west coast of England. We’re running castle to castle again come February.
But still a long way to go before that.
The dog is staring at me. We’ve both grown soft on this side of summer and I believe he feels a similar ambivalence facing the prospect of leaving this warm little library and hitting the trail. In the dark. In the cold. It takes a special kind of faith to push against the nature of things.
But I’ll lace up my ugly red shoes, pull on some cheap gloves, and grab his lead.
That you should quote Dylan Thomas! Last night I watched Set Fire to the Stars. In it, Thomas says something about liking humanity more when it sleeps. I don’t know if he really said that, but I’ve been thinking about it since then: before bed last night, on this morning’s run.
It’s too late now to recall anything I might have thought while sleeping.
“The world is too round now, too constant.” (a line from my own unpublished poem). It seems now humanity never sleeps. And seeming is everything, isn’t it? We are aware of every individual atrocity over the globe. We wake to bring into our awareness a bombing that happened somewhere turned toward the sun, while we were turned toward the darkness. Isn’t it odd that the closer we get to omniscience, the more occupied we are with our own significance?
I don’t think we were meant to know it all. What is it they say? We can handle five close friends, 150 acquaintances? How many instances of man’s inhumanity toward man can we take in? What if we all took care of our small circle of physical presence? Did what we could to make it right. Not a new thought, I know.
I have been reading about immersive theatre. There is a theoretician who describes the form as one of “aestheticised experience” rather than an aesthetic experience. That is: we are not viewing a painting (or a play presented under the premium arch) and having an aesthetic experience, we are having an experience within the environment the theatre-maker creates and we objectify our experience: our experience itself becomes the aesthetic object.
My problem with this is that it is not possible to share this with other people. You and I cannot have the same aestheticised experience. While we may not respond similarly to a painting, we are at least viewing the same aesthetic object. We will respond at individuals to a shared experience. But this is far more isolating.
When I think about this, I get cold. I’ve been trying to put on a finger on it, but I think it actually frightens me. How is this “art”? It feels like anti-communication.
At the same time, I am completely seduced by the sensual immersion that this theatre turns attention toward. It is almost as though the theater form is bring us what we miss the most in our lives- no not bringing it, but just an elaborate illusion.
That last bit was a slight digression. Where I was going with this was the idea that we are presented with information continually. We receive and mentally complete narratives (often conflicting) about things that are occurring across oceans. It seems to me this is a form of object-making. This is where fiction and fact do blur. With no real-world basis for information, we create our individual story of the present from our imagination. We pick and choose from a table overflowing with options. Yeah, I know what they say about “echo chambers”, but there is a huge variety of materials out there to construct our personal experiences. We are so damned creative. When we do this, aren’t we objectifying life instead of experiencing it authentically? Our lives as immersive theatre? Immersed by completely alone in the experience?
There is this guy named Diderot from the 1800th century who said that, while the actor is faking the emotions, the audience is not. But those emotions that the audience is experiencing are aesthetic in nature. Watching a film where a character you love dies, is not the same living through the death of loved one. “Real emotions, and real emotions, Fru Bloom,” as the Norwegians say.
Recently a friend on Facebook passed away. Someone whose story I had followed the past several years. I never met her. I never met her husband. I have no idea what there lives were really about. What is missing in his life now? I don’t know what their living room smelled like. What their laughter sounded like. Isn’t my sadness over her death an aestheticised experience?
I worry that I am becoming truly narcissistic. Or pyschotic. What is real? Is the popularity of Immersive theatre an indication of our desire to get back to a “real” world with sensual boundaries?
Of course the cliché is that life imitates art. And I know I sound like a pedant, but I earnestly believe that we become the stories we tell. We are fascinated with dystopia. I believe we have conjured Brexit, Trump – all this discord. I am honestly having difficult grasping what is real and what it entertainment. And this includes my own emotional and psychological responses. Am I just practicing for an apocalypse? My mother told me once that she used to “practice” for her own mother’s death.
I remember my Grandfather talking about how the internet was nothing but porn. How we wouldn’t buy a computer, because (apparently, to him) if you went on line to search for a fishing lure you would find nothing but porn images. But he was so wrong. It isn’t porn, it is meanness. Most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are literary presses and poets. And yet, it seems every third posting is sarcasm (literally: a verbal attack) or ridicule. Occasionally, an unimaginative “fuck you”. I am not off the grid, but discovered this week that more quiet time is healing.
On the other hand, maybe it is all porn: a graphic diversion in place what we really want? Connection.
Time is passing, I want to chose the environment in which I want to experience it. Running, oh, yes. As an experience, not a means to an end, though. Like sex at this age, perhaps? Nothing showy about it. Just being in the moment, not objectifying it – nothing to Instagram.
I liked your recollection of the 60-year-old lover. Shouldn’t we all bring all of ourselves to bed, each and every time?
Yes, but that is my point. 60 years-worth of self is much more interesting than 20. Which kind of brings me (oddly enough) to your frustrations with the school system. I get it. I do. But speaking as a teacher in that system, I have come to believe that upper secondary school is little more than hoops and perspective. And I believe a huge part of my job is to help kids see that.
My movement students as human cogs. (I have their permission to use the image.) Here is the video, if you want to see them in action go here.
I would actually love to prose a upper secondary school called “Hoops and Perspective”. I’d throw out everything except the subjects Bureaucracy and History. I wouldn’t seek to explain how the former works, but how to bite your tongue and push through it. Because that is all that is waiting for us once we have our little diploma. Proof we can do what is necessary to function in the culture: to keep a job when it demands absurdities of you. Few of us will leave in a world where we only have ourselves to answer to. Or only have to answer to the things that make sense. Is there any reason to make kids wait until their 20s to put that particular myth on the shelf alongside Santa?
(I read a great book a couple of years ago that talks about the purpose of religion. The author suggests Mormons are the perfect example of the social purpose. When a person will devote two years of their lives traveling around the world talking about a god who hands out planets to the good people once they kick off this Earth, you know they will make a good partner: stick by you out of loyalty – no matter how odd things get. I think of bureaucracy as a substitute for this kind of religious affiliation. A hoop that we jump through to prove we are trustworthy in terms of working with and for a community. Even when it is a stupid hoop.)
I think the take-away of the practice bureaucracy is for our youth to keep their creativity flowing, to value it, to value their subjective views/beliefs/experiences while acknowledging their experiences are subjective, and that no one needs to applaud them or provide external validation. It is my job as an adult to help them create a basis of self-esteem – not encourage their dependence on my (or anyone’s) approval. To teach them to see a grade in context, and not measure themselves by it.
I encourage creativity, but don’t believe it is my job to grade it. I grade why I can teach, what they learn, not who they are. Schools aren’t designed to be arenas for children to perform their talents and for us to applaud. And I think we have an obligation to teach children that they can learn things that they can continue to disagree with. It is also wrong for me to express and opinion or grade their quality of original thought. Lord, how they covet their “originality”.
There seems to be a fear that if one carefully and thoroughly reads a treatise one disagrees with, one might become contaminated or diminished. It is a fear that stops learning in its tracks. Worse: it snuffs out curiosity. It’s akin to superstition.
I would teach History because it is everything, and we are insignificant as individuals. What lasts are stories that rarely have anything to do with the individuals and truths. Certainly not any one person’s truth. Humility. That is the antidote to the trump-ing culture. We fight fire with fire instead of cutting off the source of the fuel. Even satire is a form of praise in that, by definition, it legitimises/acknowledges power.
Isn’t that what school is for? To prepare you for the real world? To make you realise that you are not the centre of the world? That it all kind of sucks. Then we can help young people find a way to live a meaningful life anyway?
I guess my school wouldn’t fly, would it? It’d be like opening a restaurant called Dead Animals and Stuff We Dug Out of the Mud.
I keep thinking: what was Thomas’s point to “set fire to the stars”. Kind of pointless, isn’t it? You know, stars already being on fire and all?
I am curious what he was thinking.
I should stop pontificating and be more curious.
If this were paper, I would consider tearing this up and starting again. Such depressing navel-gazing. I apologise for this.
I will question more. Tell me what you are questioning now. What you think while you are running…
January has been a wild animal. Like you, I think it is an absurd time to mark the beginning of a New Year. I think an elder should begin walking the neighborhood every day beginning mid-February. When the first tiny tip of a green blade of crocus pokes through, she lets us know. Singing would be nice. Then we begin again.
It is odd that you should be writing now about selfies and beauty and art. Perhaps not odd at all. Serendipity and all that. It is all a matter of perception, isn’t it? How we choose to (subconsciously) draw lines to connect things. I have been reading a poem each night from the A Year with Rilke. Last night I discovered that somehow I have missed a night. I was on the wrong page. So I wound up reading “Not by Grasping” from Sonnets to Orpheus 1, which hit me in the chest with relevance.
“Song, as you teach us, is not a grasping,
not a seeking for some final consummation.
To sing is to be. Easy for a god.
But when do we simply be? […]
And now you write:
I studied a text by Heinrich von Kleist (one of my favourite irrationalists) called Über das Marionettentheater (On the Puppet Theatre), the essence of which is that humans are basically incapable of gracefulness because they are always thinking, whereas puppets will always be graceful because they have no thought.
This is really interesting. I have never heard of von Kleist. But I disagree. I do believe humans are capable of grace. Much more so than marionettes, with their stuttering movements that so perceptibly demonstrate the “push and pull” of external motivations. On the other hand, like you, I would agree that we lose our grace when we become self-conscious. Like you described:
Thus, if we catch a glimpse of ourselves (in a mirror, for example) and like what we see, if we try to consciously repeat that pose, we will never be able to recreate it because we’re consciously thinking about it.
And I think there might be even more to it than that. When we glimpse ourselves in that way, we are unaware that we are seeing ourselves. We are looking objectively at the world (in the best sense), and seeing with the compassionate – or even admiring – eye that we look at others with. When we recognize ourselves, we turn on ourselves. With the conscious “posing” comes the conscious judgement. Or vice versa. We wilt under judgement.
Funny you should bring up selfies. I have been thinking about them a lot lately. Carolee and I have been discussing them. I have been talking to B. about my issues with them. But I’m beginning to agree with them: that selfies can be tools for self-compassion. This has been on my mind because, for the last six months, I’ve been disappointed and shamed by images of myself. I wasn’t even this insecure about myself when I was 13.
I have ever been a “lenselus“, but seeing photos of myself is painful lately. I think often of my grandmother who told me that every time she glimpsed herself in a mirror she was taken aback. She would see an old woman, and only slowly realise that she was “the old woman”. Her mind was utterly disconnected from the image of her body. And it happened almost daily.
I am wondering if it was a disconnect from her body, or just its image. Do you think blind people deal with their ageing bodies differently than sighted people?
I’ve been forcing myself to look at pictures of myself. To take selfies. (Not that I do anything with them.) It’s not an artistic practice, but a form of therapy, I guess. A meditation in acceptance and forgiveness. I am still self-conscious about it, but remind myself that the judgement we often make of people who take selfies is maybe unfair. I would feel much more uncomfortable and narcissistic asking E. to take a photo of me for my website or Instagram feed, for example.
I also think selfies are a feminist issue. And by that, I don’t mean a women’s issue. Feminists are aware of the complex issues of objectification: male and female. And our deeply ambivalent relationship with it. I suspect you have this ambivalence, too? They talk all the time about how our culture presents men as the adventurers and women as the prize. But I have known and do know many men who would like to be the prize: the object that represents value and beauty. It’s funny how our culture won’t really acknowledge that, and how it punishes men by labelling that desire as “effeminate”. The patriarchy smacking everyone down with whatever form of shame will keep us in line in the tacit framework of the established hierarchy and prescribed forms of personal value. (You’ll have to forgive me for the pompousness of that sentence).
(I just looked up the definition of effeminate and is says: “[…] having characteristics as typical of a woman; unmanly: he lisps and his handshake is effeminate.” Lisps? WTF?!)
At any rate. I do not have an Arctic to sit with in meditative moments. I envy you that. But I do have the path along the lake and this morning (for the first time this year) I was able do my morning run. My knee has healed. And the gathering of crows in the grove this morning was like a stadium of cheering supporters.
Not that they knew it.
I’m working my way back. Perhaps now back to working, too. There is a play knocking around my head, with trumpets and drums. I’m going to try to attend it before it moves on.
Much love to you. I hope this weekend is – Wait. What happens on March 21st?
P.S. Regarding you comment about comments. I don’t actually have a lot of traffic to my blog. I am okay with that: terrified of trolls. Even when people leave really beautiful comments, my first thought is that they are being ironic. So, as they say, it’s all good.
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.
“There she is,” you wrote in your last letter to me. An image of you in running tights and a tank with a bandana on your head: the poet-warrior.
I love that image. It seems so long since I “talked” to you. But that image has been in my mind often.
Only this week am I also recognising myself again. I’m kind of meeting myself in the doorway – and like you – I’m not entirely sure where I’ve been.
Earlier this month I hit a rather humiliating and painful roadblock at work. It shook my confidence. But this week I’ve recognised it as a blessing in disguise. I also learned to cultivate a personal distinction between humiliating and humbling.
My best friend told me that actually seeing and admitting one’s shortcomings in a particular area, painful as that is, is a sign of maturing. And, at my age, I think that is wonderful – maturing may not be “growth” in the traditional sense of new, green shoots; but it is (r)evolution, change that bends towards a spiritual maturing. And when we reach the end of our natural life cycle, the wisdom we’ve accumulated will be somehow dispersed into the universe via the bacteria and fungi that eat us.
Not that I believe that for a second, looking at the state of human culture today in light of the millennia of potential fungi-released wisdom. I was listening to a 100-year-old woman on an episode of On Being this morning. There was a lot of talk of what we “as humans, have forgotten”. I keep thinking, really? When was this time when the majority of humanity was peaceful and satisfied with their place in the world? Ancient Greece with their misogyny and pederasty? Further back? When Noah danced naked and drunk, and his children were punished for witnessing it? When was this amazing period of human history everyone keeps talking about?
I do, however, believe letting go of false assumptions about history, about human beings in general, and about myself frees me to let go of striving. And I can enjoy this life while I have it.
The list of things I am not good at just keeps getting longer. Potentials ticked off a list I’ve carried in my head. I will never be a Broadway singer, not because I never had the chance, never applied myself. I am not good at it.
I’m simultaneously mortified by my own unconscious arrogance, and grateful for it. I believe it gave me the confidence that I needed so often in the past, for the bold forays into other territories that taught me so much.
Curiosity is the best thing about me. Following curiosity’s lead requires a measure of confidence. And failure is a lesson in appreciation. Humbling, right? The good kind.
Now I can move on, and focus on what I am able to do well in the world.
Once the kids leave home, all the mandatory hoops to jump through are behind you. All the boxes on the “good girl” checklist we’ve been handed are ticked, and now what? It’s frightening to get here and realise you have been so busy making sure you succeed, that when you meet yourself in the door you see a cardboard figure.
I switched to second person in that previous paragraph. Probably, in part, because that last paragraph doesn’t really feel honest. I did not check off all those “good girl” boxes. The person I meet in the doorway, does have a hint of dimensionality and breathes. But I’m fooling myself if I think I can “focus” on what I do well. I’m still too curious for that. I like that about myself, actually. (Might be one of the few things I really do like about myself lately.)
I need to learn to really embrace failure, and not “take it personally”.
This is why I need running, too. The warrior-poet me moves (and does not think). Like you, she gets out of her head, presses against the earth – gives and takes in a space of quiet. It is time-out from self-analysis, conversation, and the mental struggling I do too often with other people. A rock is a rock, and it has no intention that I feel necessary to root out and interpret. The patch of snow, slick instead of crusty, had no intention to make me fall on my ass. I should probably learn to treat people as I do nature.
That brings me back to poetry, doesn’t it. And Merwin’s vixen. And your farmhouse as you describe it so beautifully. Maybe reading and writing nature poetry can play a role in teaching me how to deal with people, too?
I do not run fast. I have accepted that. It’s my nature. But I run. And I have stopped thinking I have to improve. My running is good enough. If only I could transfer that to other areas of my life. “Good enough”.
I never harbored any secret desire to be a professional athlete. How did I get to a place where I believed I had to be a “professional” anything to have a justification for doing the thing? Like singing when no one else has to listen. (We are obliquely taught that it’s not good to “like the sound of your own voice”, aren’t we?)
I think maybe I’m still looking for some cultural boxes to check, as a measure of success. Those gatekeepers with their stamps of approval that allow you to confidently say at parties, “I am a (fill in the blank)”. I wonder if there ever was a time in human history when we didn’t present ourselves to each other under the label of what we do to earn money.
I am Ren, granddaughter of Florence, slayer of imaginary ogres and very real shadows.
I love the tone of your voice in the last letter, and in your posts since Christmas. I love the fact that you have had a year of “poetry adventures“, and your description of focusing on the path, not the destination (coddiwomple was almost my word for the year). I feel I am on your heels looking at the path in your headlamp.
Just until I find my bearings for the year.
Thank you for that.
(And thank you, too, for your activism. I’ll be thinking of you on Saturday. Take care!
And take a selfie.)
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.
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.