The lamps are out along the second kilometre’s stretch of trail, and the moon intermittent between trees. I have to remember to lift my feet to avoid the dark rivulets that are indistinguishable from roots. The world flips inside out, and back again; and light rises from the greenhouses along the shore to the west.

an edge of orange
spill from the coast paints the moon
brown as the dirt we sow


please do not copy these drafts in their entirety – links are appreciated, however
all rights reserved, if there is still such a thing: © Ren Powell

This is one of a series of haibun based on morning runs along the same 6k route.

You joke about waking up 2 kilometres into the morning run. The lights from the lamps stretch and collapse us as in a time-elapsed film; and you will have slept a dozen years before we reach the bend where the trees fall back and the wind, sailing over the lake, hits us squarely.

It jars from me a memory of a home.

pre-dawn mist becomes rain
the shadow crosses the trial
then the lone starling

Dear Richard,

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:

  1. Did I get out of bed before noon?
  2. Did I make the bed?
  3. Did I get out of my PJs?
  4. Did I shower?
  5. Did I leave the house?
  6. Did I run, yoga and meditate?
  7. 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.

20161110_082436
The novel is Everything Good Will Come. I haven’t read it yet, but like seeing it on my desk.

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 worthy  their 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 Men and  The 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.

Much love, (and I hope your back is well)

XO Ren

 

Richard’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.

Is it always “or”
Is it never “and”

– The Baker’s Wife, Sondheim.

I’ve forced myself to run. Forced myself to move through the morning asanas. I’ve had a good breakfast for the first time in weeks: real eggs and homemade salsa, instead of a plastic cup of protein powder and tap water. And still I have to force myself to sit up straight at the desk. And force myself to write.

These days staying healthy is taking all the discipline I have. And then some.

Take a deep breath. Shoulders down. Let the back expand.

I am ten again and swimming in a spring somewhere in Nevada. And  matter how bright the sun is shining on the surface, cold currents bite at my ankles, like tiny monsters.

These are deep days. I believe most writers will admit to being seduced by their own darkness: when everything appears flat, the tug of anxiety and the welling of tears from somewhere unknown can actually be a comfort: there is still a bit of dimension, a form of sorts.

And tiny monsters can be muses. Unreliable, but they tap you on the shoulder just before you wake, and they whisper things to make your heart beat hard enough to force you to take notice: Your heart is beating.

20161008_142349_dde2f9aaI’m never more in touch with everyone I’ve ever been, than when I’m on the edge of drowning. All memories are comforting memories, seen from at least one perspective. So knowing this too will pass is a comfort–and not.

In the photos I take on hikes, the light and the shadow interplay, but is it difficult these days to experience both at once.

To engage with one, without losing sight of the other.

I finished the counselling courses in June, and was looking around for the next thing. But we made a pact this year that I won’t go back to school this year: It’s E.’s turn. (I’m not really envious, actually, he’s doing math-stuff).

But I need goals. It is how I operate. External deadlines.

This time, I bought myself some new trainers, and have booked tickets to Newcastle for the weekend of the 25th of February. I am going to run the Northumberland Trail Marathon.

This will be my second marathon. My first trail race.

For the record: I have no idea what my marathon time was 5 years ago. I made it in before the cut off. That was my only goal. I have never been a fast runner. 5 years ago, I was less than a year from haven taken up running again – after a 17-year hiatus. Back of the pack all the way. Shamelessly so.

315648_221033724618998_2113874673_n
They don’t call it Dorking for nothing. 2011.

The Bacchus marathon in Dorking, England goes through vineyards and up a hill that wants to be a mountain. I loved the trail section up the hill. The mud, the view. I was slow enough through the fields to see the slow-worm, like the Norwegian stålorm, that I had no idea existed anywhere else.

The run was perfect. My friends were waiting for me at the finish line. (Though practically everyone else had gone.)

It was the experience I was after, not the competition. I have no interest in running through city streets.

Now I’m mid-pack on short runs around the lake. But I’m still aiming only to finish the course in February. Injury free.

I’ve been out of sorts since the biphasic sleeping experiment. I learned, too late perhaps, that bipolar people should probably not mess with sleep. My immune system crashed, and I have been fighting off infections since.

But tomorrow is a new day. Mid-week, nothing significant about the date: always a good jumping off point for a new adventure. 18 weeks, a 2 week warm-up, then the 16 week program I found here.

E. is training with me, and running with me. Well, probably not with me, though I suspect we’ll start at the same time — and meet at the castle.

This should get me through most of the darkness.

This is the edge of the light that comes just before spring.

(It is only 53% booked as of today, if you are interested in meeting up with us at the castle!)