Dear D.L.D.,

I did manage to tick everything off my mental list last night before bed. No new resolutions, really. Perhaps resolution is the key word for the new year, though. To follow through. Less haphazardly.

Haphazard is a funny word. And not what I mean at all.

I took the week off. That is, I did what I wanted to. Mostly. I slept, and I read. And I was unduly annoyed when pressed, or disturbed. I’m thinking again of seasons. How the earth has tilted, and has begun to wind up again towards the long summer days, nights: all the light. Yet it feels darker than ever. Perhaps because the Christmas lights come down, along with the unfulfilled expectations. Too many this year.

Now, do we simply wait for the sun?

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New Year’s Run. The wind wipes it all away eventually, bit by bit. One way or another.

January, with its blank slate, is discomforting. Like being flung into the unknown.

This is a season of quiet. I want to retreat to a cabin in the valley for a few weeks. I want to pull away, and observe. Morning runs through the rustling, frozen underbrush.

Not to be talked to. Talked at. Fixed.

I want to reemerge into a world of details that have worked out their individual spats, sighed with relief, and gotten on with it all.
Without my well-intentioned interference.

I know these feelings are familiar to you. But that is no comfort to me this morning. I fear that when the sun comes I will whir and whir, and never leave the ground. I have a too diffuse list of intentions.

When did you feel you made a difference? Not as in crossed a threshold, but the moments?

From the pop culture gurus, you’d get the impression that no one was concerned about purpose until now. Or you’d think they are resurrecting an ancient truth, forgotten for generations. But it’s true that we all play out the ancient truths, isn’t it? We are all Icarus. Every generation, with something to prove to their fathers. Their mothers. It’s up to us to reinvent the world. It never seems to work out as planned. We try too hard. We forget to listen. We start fresh.

Every once in a while, I have a moment of clarity where I see how odd I am – that I am the unreliable narrator in a kind of pastiche post-modern short story.  It’s a curious moment of disconnection, and not at all what the Buddhists have in mind, I’m sure.

I believe you wrote that self-loathing was a form of self-indulgence. It is not a useful activity. Is it useful to be a white noise hum in the noisy world right now?

I have letters to write in these dark, early morning hours. This will do for now.

Respectfully,
Ren

 

 

 

 

(And my apology to email subscribers for the premature publishing of a draft yesterday.)

I hope to get my phone back from repairs soon. This old iphone takes awful photos.

 

Carolee,

Last night I read the day’s poem from A Year With Rilke before bed. Since your letter last week, I’ve been reading them aloud. This poem was actually a letter:

[..N]ow at last I can breathe. Now everything is doable. […] I did not dream that such a storm of heart and spirit could come over me. That I survived it! That I survived it. – Ranier Maria Rilke

So, this is my fortune cookie.

I was up this morning, and walked the old lady around the block. Then ran 16k before breakfast and dawn.

Everything is doable. Just one thing at a time.

You’ve made me remember to appreciate the beauty of every effort. Every moment. Every thing. To never stop doing the things that we love, no matter how difficult they might be.

Happy Christmas.

XO

Ren

Good morning, Carolee!

I’m sitting down to write a bit late this morning. The old lady is here, and that means I used extra time to walk her this morning. It rained last night, and the road was a sheet of ice. We walked slowly. The world was still inky, and the sparkling asphalt was disorienting.  I lose depth perception looking at the “stars”. Maybe this is nature’s  compensation since the sky is overcast?

Seems every year this sneaks up on me: Advent. But, reading your letter, I had wondered that the farm animals were still out where you are. I haven’t seen a cow in weeks here. Yesterday we got into the car after the run and our breath fogged the windshield, then froze. We scraped it and made it snow inside the car.

It takes extra effort to keep running in this kind of weather. The bedroom is cold in the mornings, and it’s difficult to pull myself out of it. Also, my stupidity in wearing the wrong winter shoes the past two weeks has wreaked havoc on my knee. I’m off running for a few days, to do the balancing exercises each morning. I have lazy gluts. Literally: a lazy ass.

You asked about synchronicity. Yes. And I’m actually guilty of magic thinking now and then, too. Last weekend I interviewed a woman for the podcast (one that will air next month), and she was talking about how the poetry community was small and everyone knows one another other. She didn’t know me. Nor I her. After the interview we chatted briefly about why we write, why we seek to publish when we aren’t going to be rich or famous. I said that I do it because, on a rare occasion, I get a letter out of the blue from someone who was touched by my writing. Someone that I connected with through my writing.

Later that night, feeling disconnected and discouraged because the “poetry community” is small and “every one knows one other”, and  I wondered if I was lying to myself about why I write.

The next morning I woke to a unexpected message from a tenuous connection on Facebook: someone who’d read one of my books and reached out to tell me what it meant to them.

I wasn’t lying to myself. But I had to put the question into the universe – and got an answer: a verification. Synchronicity. Magic Thinking. Who knows: it does matter, though. Doesn’t it?  We find meaning where we find it. I’m grateful for that.

I love what you said about the farm animals and their collective wisdom: how you didn’t need to turn it into a lesson for humanity. I was thinking about when I took my MA and Ted Deppe told me to just let the fox be the fox, (I think he was paraphrasing W.S. Merwin?). I was working too hard at interpreting everything for everyone, instead of just holding up a frame for readers to isolate and find meaning themselves. I can be a pedant.

I’m thinking now that maybe this kind of “letting it be” is the key to not writing sentimental poetry? Or kitsch. To let the reader’s appreciation, the poet’s attention speak for itself? Maybe no metaphor needs to be intellectualized to be understood? It makes me think about food photos, and selfies and the real value – maybe even the impulse – for our cultural compulsion to Istagram the details of our lives?

When it doesn’t slide into kitsch, that is.

I read a great definition of kitsch as being the product of two tears: one for the experience, one for the self-congratulatory awareness for having the experience. (Denis Dutton expounding upon Milan Kundera’s definition).

I think, as a poet, sometimes it’s difficult for me to stop myself from wandering towards that second tear. Does that mean kitsch is a product of the ego? Or just insecurity? Is it a sign of faithlessness in regard to the world itself being enough?

What I’m getting at, is the haibun-writing is making me conscious of my own intrusion into the poem. The over-wrought lines I keep writing and deleting. There is a necessary wu wei in nature writing, isn’t there?

I hope that, by the time you read this, you will have let your body lead you out of this post-election hurt. You wrote: “I’m extremely uncomfortable in it, but when I put it in motion (through sex, running, hiking, etc.), it takes vulnerability in stride far easier than my mind does.”

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My second year students, sending love because I asked them to.

Activism. Isn’t the actor then so entangled with the cause that self-care is really not an option, but a requisite? You said it: the body overcomes vulnerability before the mind does.

Have you begun writing again?

Last week, I learned that some of my students consider themselves “Trump supporters”. It surprised me, because most Norwegians are quiet about their right-leaning attitudes.

It freaked me out, actually.

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of langauge”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowell, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body. Our stories infect us as self-fulfilling prophecies. Last week I found a piece of paper on which a student had been practicing drawing swastikas. Right alongside bunny rabbits.

We’re obligated to be activists.

I get an image of Anne Sullivan tracing and retracing the letters into Hellen Keller’s hand. Suddenly all those photos with teenagers making hearts with their hands don’t seem silly at all.

Looking forward to hearing from you!
XO Ren


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.

 

 

 

Dear Di,

 

I’m glad you’re beginning to recover from the nasty cold. I think our bodies often take the lead to slow us down when we need to recalibrate. I’ve been sleeping 9 and 10 hours a day the past week. Funny that the body needs to recover with sleep after a depression. I still half-expect, when the fog lifts, to have the energy of a calf let out of the barn in spring. But no.

I dragged myself out of bed this morning and ran 6K on a sore ankle. The marathon is in 11 weeks. At this point, I really need my mind and body to make friends. Although right now, in the bibliotekette, with the space heater blowing on my ankle, the rosemary oil burning, and the red curtains pulled, I am peaceful. Optimistic, even. The sun will be up soon, and the skies are clear. There is a sparrow calling outside the window now, actually. Which reminds me that I need to check the feeder on the porch. The magpies eat from it. Greedy bullies.

I can’t say I enjoy running in the cold, but I have to admit that the range of temperatures on these mornings brings me into my body. After running, I peel off the fleece tights and do the 15 minute yoga routine; my thighs are splotched with swashes of bright red goose bumps.

Then a hot shower, and stepping out into the cold again to towel off and dress. When we moved into this house, E. bought me slippers. I haven’t had a pair of slippers since I lived with my grandparents. Slippers were necessary then. One of the rules. I find them comforting now, slipping into them every morning before I head into the kitchen to make coffee. Flop, flop, flop.

And there is something about a space heater. It brings with it all the ambivalence of nostalgia. One particular, tiny, cold two-room house in the desert, and the tiny, bright-red filaments of the metal box that kept us warmish. I slept on an army cot in the bedroom. (I remember that once I was sitting on the edge of the sink to brush my teeth, and the whole thing ripped out of the wall and water flooded the bedroom, cot and all. I got in trouble. But that’s a digression, so before that…) 

The little space heater: warming one side of the body at a time, while I ate TV dinners in front of a portable television (rabbit ears decked with aluminum foil). Star Trek. Gilligan’s Island. As the Norwegian’s say, I was a “sofa pig”. But on a kind of rotisserie. My left side would get red and overheated. Then cold, when I turned to warm the right side.

This tiny bibliotekette is like that: Like soup from a microwave; spots of cold, spots of hot. Like the currents of a natural spring in the desert. The heater blowing hot air on my right ankle, while the left leg is chilled. I cross my legs. Then back again. I think it keeps me aware. Not that I think comfort is overrated, but there is a kind of emotional comfort in being aware.

At any rate, I am glad you found a source of accountability for finishing the book. A regular jolt of awareness to keep you moving. When the book is finally complete, it will be rich with all the life you’ve lived meanwhile. The lulls will demonstrate their purpose in resonance then, I’m sure.

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On my way to the day job: Pretty morning. I noticed.

It is so interesting to read what you write about photography “deepening the experience”. My first thought was – well, that is why I am not a photographer. But then, I have discovered that taking photos does make me stop and appreciate the moments. I remember you telling me once how photographing people, for you, was a matter of looking for the beauty. I’m going to start doing that. I mean: I do look for the beauty in people I love and trust, in my students (something teaching has taught me), but generally not with strangers. I think I am too defensive. I need to learn from you. Camera in hand, or not. 

Okay – back to accountability. I think external accountability can be a good tool for avoiding perfectionism. I know I function so much better with an external framework. I’m far too skilled at getting in my own way. I take on related projects – related, but still: diversions. For example, right now I have a translation project, waiting on my computer in the other room. Midwife to someone else’s creativity again. I’ve written before about that, though, haven’t I? Since I’ve always thought of myself as a selfish person, this must be a form of self-sabotage. I procrastinate with work guaranteed to get in the way of my own work. I can almost convince myself that there is a good reason I’m not making as much progress as I’d planned.

Almost.

Yeah, so. This is the kind of morning I’m having. Mindless chatter with a friend, whom I miss.

Your friends seem to be living the dream. It’s really inspiring. But it brings me back to what I was writing about the other day – my tendency to begin with the desire to simplify, then working around full circle back to consumerism and a concern with image-projection. There are berries here in the forests if I head out on the weekends. Did I tell you we are setting up a greenhouse this spring? That will have to do. I don’t get a cottage by a stream, but I have a tent. Best of both worlds, if I make it so, right? I had a good day at work today. At least some of it. One of those days when I know I’m doing something useful. These tendrils reaching into the periphery of my students’ rich lives. The good, the difficult, the things that make them grow. I learn, too. Am better prepared for the next bit of drama. All this is to say, I looked at your friend’s photos and kept my envy in check.

Mostly.

You’re right. We are blessed, Di. It just doesn’t always feel like it. And like you said, it seems to be about balance. What pays the bills vs. what makes your heart flow. What we do for others vs. what we do for ourselves. Maybe most importantly: What we desire vs. gratitude for what we have?

Not sure if your question about the throat chakra was rhetorical. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re beginning to break through the block. Are you living somewhere where you can sing? (The only thing I miss about driving a car is driving alone and belting out show tunes.) I think belting out a tune is good for your soul because it’s almost the same mechanism as screaming: lifting the hard palate, really using the lungs, focusing outward. It’s cathartic. So is vomiting, I guess.

But singing is more pleasant. At least for the person doing it.

First get better. Then sing.

Much love,

XO Ren


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.

Dear D.L.D.,

Surely we are all little more than a tangle of contradictions. I wonder what you would say now about the theory that we have no fixed personality? That we are malleable entirely, according to the choices we make in any given milieu. Actually, I wonder if we haven’t begun to circle around to something akin to the Quaker’s Moral Treatment you espoused, a hundred and thirty years ago. The structure, discipline, and the traveling that stretched and untangled your mind – at least much of the time.

Reading your letters, I often wondered if your travels marked the end of a “no thing” season, or if the traveling itself ended it. The getting up, the physical leaving. The moment you stood outside the door with what you could carry, and the confidence of knowing you had all that you needed.

I have always felt strongest when I had few possessions. Leaving my homeland (that sounds ridiculously quaint) with a bag of books, some clothes, a blanket, and a doll. And then, in all the turmoil of beginning again after the divorce: choosing not to fight over a rolling pin; I took my books, clothes, the blanket and the doll, and photos that function like old library index cards to help hunt down complete memories. In my tiny apartment that overlooked the harbor, everything had earned its place. And the high ceiling provided empty space for both grief and joy to pass through, or hover.

Maybe there is something to the cycle of accumulation and purging that is very like the sorting they say we do as we sleep: distinguishing what is necessary to keep in detail, and what is necessary to keep only in spirit. A way of shedding the things that helped us to get this far, and then making room to move on. To grow. Like lobsters.

Friday I saw an Instagram photo that made me envious. It reminded me of how disconnected I’ve become again – disconnected from what adds value to my hverdag. Simple, every day pleasures. Like slowing to a walk where the trail ends at the wooden bridge, and catching the flash of a small speck of ice in a crack. Noticing winter. Noticing the man who sleeps by my side, breathing easily, and who wakes to tell me I’m beautiful.

Even simpler things, like sitting down with a clementine; peeling it slowly.

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Like a Celeste Barber instagram shot.

They say now (again) that citrus fruits help elevate one’s mood. But then, you knew that. And you didn’t take them for granted: all the fruit you were given while you were recuperating in England that half year.

Maybe that is all the difference between us: not the fruit, but the attention and gratitude?

The problem is, I’m thinking I need to purge again -to get control over all the “stuff” and clutter that is a disturbing white noise – I want to move on, stretch, grow, change, but I quickly fall into a consumerist mindset. I imagine getting rid of all my kitchen equipment, and finding earthenware bowls that (I believe) will fulfill a sensual longing. I envy a particular state of mind (or an imagined state of mind) that is calm and receptive. And I keep thinking that things will lead me to it. The perfect spiritual knickknack, the peculiar talisman.

I imagine selling the house and moving into to a simple cottage, with a garden and a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from a sunny porch. I’ll get rid of all my costume jewelry and buy leather bracelets. Ditch the tailored clothes for paisley caftans.

I imagine a whole list of things I could acquire to successfully simplify my life. I could get up and leave.

But on Sunday I took a deep breath, organised my bookshelves, threw away the wilted flowers, and paid my bills.

And this morning – after the run and meditation – I sliced an apple, boiled an egg, and wrote a poem. I kissed my husband when he left for work.

Maybe beginning a new season really does work like any charm does. Or prayer. It’s all a matter of attention, and of making enough space for the grief and the joy to pass through, or hover.

Though I would still really like my own special hot chocolate pot. And a gas stove. And a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from the balcony of a cottage in the woods.

Don’t lie to me. I know you were never really satisfied either. We all want what we want and we reach for it. Things, or accolades, or whatever it is we believe will make us feel… untangled.

Respectfully,

Ren