Dear R.

I’ve been doing fine with these physically-distanced months. In part because I’ve been ridiculously busy and focused on everyone else’s needs. That’s good for me: focusing on everyone else’s needs.  Now the year is winding down. I have less to do, and to notice the pile of books on my desk that I meant to read, the list of letters I meant to write – that play still unfinished.

I scroll through the apps on my phone, and take in all the anger and the fear there.

Then I worry about everyone else again with a new kind of suspicion – I worry about what they think of me, or want from me in a way that is not good for me. I want to fix things that are not mine to fix. And then feel ashamed for having the arrogance to think I could, or should. When I scroll through social media I feel helplessly disconnected: Socially distanced.

I’m not missing being in the office, but I am missing seeing my friends face to face – more than I usually miss them. You are all so far away. And some of you (not naming names) are fully engaged in very real political battles on your home turf.

I have to remind myself I’ve never really lived in a world where I can call up someone on the weekend, settle into a deep, leather chair with a glass of wine, and have a good laugh. Do those little pockets exist for more than a moment or two, every few years? Where the company of friends really makes you forget the world’s bickering and reaffirms what you thought about people being clever/kind and genuinely wanting one another to thrive?

I watch too much television. Have picked up and moved on too often. Or maybe I’m too stiff from scarring. We all are.  No: some of us are. Some of us need a patient easing into social interaction. A deep, leather chair. Wine.

I should buy a deep, leather chair.

It is starting to dawn on me that I cannot travel this year. It wasn’t even a year ago I visited B. in Colorado. It seems like so many years ago. I was planning on to see you and M. this summer when I headed to London to be with the kid for a while. It makes me sad to think about it.

This summer we’ll go hiking. Not terribly far, but with a sincere intention of fremmedgjøring – out of the range of mobile phone coverage.

I have a strange desire to lug something heavy on my back so that I can put it down at the end of the day. I want to see something besides the yard and the same 4 kilometre stretch of trail along the lake.

Until then – until the grades have been logged and the students sent off –  I’m starting a garden. When I say “I”, I mean E. is sawing down the overgrown thuja to make room for the tiny greenhouses.  I’ll try to grow chilies and tomatoes.

Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro.

There is a space he is clearing along the southern side of the house where I’m going to plant raspberry bushes and apple trees.

It upsets me a little to consider that the trees might not take root.

I have a desire to do something that matters. Like growing things. I have a fear that even on this tiny scale, I won’t be able to do it right.

So I am procrastinating and blaming the weather. I’m blaming the weather for the melancholy, too.

For some reason I keep thinking about the Italians – months ago now – who spontaneously sang together from their balconies. Not for each other, but with each other.

Is there a really good word for this feeling it brings up in me? I know other people felt it. Because they tried so hard to repeat it.

This is a kind of grasping, isn’t it?

You know, way back in 2001 people were celebrating Earth Day. Everyone in the world was supposed to turn off the electricity and light a candle. A few days later someone got the idea that we all had to do it again so we could take a picture from space. I remember this because I wrote about it in a poem about 9/11. The aspect of the (meta-) performativity of our “Humanity”.

I’m not alone in struggling to just let it be. And let it come.

img_20200526_182658_7655223821023366188865.jpgDo you know what I mean when I say now that I think of Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to be part of any club that would have me?

These days I’m struggling to be human. I would much rather be Leonard Edgar. He doesn’t care what anyone expects of him.

He doesn’t have a facebook account.

I’ve been missing you. Hoping you are ready for a good summer. Wondering how you are really…

-ren

 

 

 

 

 

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.

img_0009
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 Di,

You write about language as music:

“I fell asleep one night, in Istanbul, listening to the retired officers wives playing cards in the next room. Playing cards, gossiping, laughing … and I realised that the sound of them soothed me, like the sound of the sea, or a river would. I love language, like others like music perhaps […]”

Yes, the music of overheard, muffled conversations. Funny that I was just thinking about this the other day – in a different context. There is the freedom of eavesdropping without having to participate. It’s like being a child again and listening to the muffled voices of grown-ups in the next room after bedtime, isn’t it?

Maybe there is a special freedom and relief of knowing that no one gives a damn about you. The privilege of sometimes covertly and uncomprehendingly enjoying the world’s activity.

Again: opening to wonder. Like listening to the birds in the park without trying to identify the calls of the individual species. There’s something rather meditative about that, about not putting things in boxes, not categorising, not judging. Just sitting in a teeming civilisation of birds – or humanity – and listening to the music. And then dancing on your own.

I fear that psychiatrists might call that parallel play and diagnose me with some kind of anti-social disorder. But then, authenticity is about rejecting arbitrary boxes, isn’t it? Like I tell my students every year: “Pity the Platypus”, who doesn’t fit the man-made categories. But we should all be the platypus. Be the Platypus, I tell them.  Someday I will get around to writing the book with that title.

And that leads me to: I could kick you for giving me yet another book to buy. I’m assuming that Rod Judkins has already said all of this in the book you quoted.

I cannot tell you how tired I am of all of these online tests to categorise ourselves as this or that. The Whitman quote is ubiquitous, but there is a reason it is. We have no choice but to reach for it!

I crave attention.

I want to observe.

Interactive theater always makes me uncomfortable. By pulling me into the experience, it pulls me out of it. Did I ever tell you about my little epiphany in Oslo a few years ago? I was at a conference for teaching artists and we all took part in a “happening” in the park. Some of us were paired up, with our opposite on the other side of a huge circle of 40+ people. We  held strings that stretched across, criss-crossing over a great expanse of withering grass. There were two dancers in the centre, and a director who told the dancers where to move, and how to negotiate all of the strings.

I really wanted to give my end of the string to a passer-by, and head up to the top of the hill so I could watch – so I could write about the associations the event was giving me. I think I’m an interpreter at heart. Not an actor, not a director. I see metaphors where no one else does.

dsc_0181-3
A fish, half-out of water. Japan: when I was “forest bathing” without knowing it.

But when I think about it, maybe it isn’t that surprising. A shaman, a oracle. A poet. All of those are just people who deal in metaphors, aren’t they? People who just can’t distill experience into straight talk. (I am settling for poet, by the way, that takes hubris enough).

The reason this was an epiphany is that, all these years, I thought I wanted to be the director.

But I’ve wandered – back to your letter: You aren’t in the pub just to watch football. You are there to soak it all up, aren’t you? With your book as a barrier during half-time. (I bet you hate that you can’t whip out your camera at the pub, and have no one notice.)

I think it’s like Japanese forest bathing, only among humans. It sounds healthy to me. At least for people like us.

But you are more flexible than I am. More skilled, at any rate: your ease with putting people at ease. I have been in awe of that since I met you. I think of how you soothed the angry woman I photographed (incidentally) in downtown Stavanger. You immediately made her feel “seen” instead of observed – with just a sentence or two. You would be a good diplomat. But then, that would probably be a bastardising of your talent.

That is a gift beyond that of the shaman, the oracle, the poet. I don’t know what that is. You may say you had no mentors. But you have become one.

From what you write, maybe it did spring from something that you don’t see as a strength, this “sacrificing for each other”? Because I think it is a strength, or has become one, at any rate. Sometimes I think sacrificing can mean giving up one’s own sense of knowing and stepping into another person’s point of view. Not all of us do that as easily. Few as quickly and intuitively as you do.

Maybe that is why you can deal with the mocking in a way I think I would struggle with. You understand it comes from a place of recognition – that is is a way to break down any attempt at pretence and posturing? As I think about it, I realise that it would probably do me good to learn to see it as you do. To “stand it”, as you describe it. And to focus on the curiosity and joy.

You describe me as “settled”. But that’s not how it feels. Yes. I’m happy in the partnership I’ve so fortunately stumbled upon. E. doesn’t anchor me, though; he knows I’m in motion, and he moves with me, or is comfortable trusting I’ll not choose to untether entirely.

And I feel at home in this landscape. I have this nest – thought it feels as temporary as any, no matter how long it will last. Like you, my children are elsewhere. And I know all of this is healthy, because of who we are.

But God forbid I should ever be settled and satisfied with what I’ve seen and sucked from life thus far. Imagine. Were that true, I wouldn’t be reaching still towards you and your stories.

I remember your blog when we met: “People become stories, and stories become understanding.”

I am still waiting for the book with that title.

I wanted to end there, but there is this thing about learning the language. I have tried. I have hired private tutors at 1000 crowns an hour. I honestly believe it all comes down to the fact that I don’t like myself in Norwegian. I don’t like the lack of music, the lack of humor: I can learn the rules, but I can never really sing.

So, yeah. 23 years here, and my Norwegian still stinks. There’ll be no judgement from this corner.

Much love, Di!

XO Ren

Di’s reply


This is one of a series of public 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kjære Di,

You mentioned the church bells in Genova and the calls to prayer in Istanbul. When I think about these kinds of things in my own life – the church bells in Stavanger, the live singing coming from the minarets in Skopje when I was there for a conference – I think about the necessary silence that surrounds them. Lying on the floor of a rented room in Skopje, I heard the singing long before dawn: the song was strange and comforting simultaneously. In Stavanger, those 12 years in the house near the church, the bells were like a grown-up call to recess: Sunday.

sheepOut here in Jæren, I don’t hear the church bells. But it is quiet, and the sparrows’ chatter outside the window punctuates the silence in the same way. With the same reverence. And on weekend hikes, there is the ubiquitous clanging of sheep bells. A somewhat strange, irregular music, but comforting, too. Like a lifeline into the wild. Did I tell you that every hike we have been on this fall has had us stumbling upon sheep skeletons?

Perhaps we are both drawn to seek the foreign as a way to recapture wonder and awe?

You wrote, “Mostly it’s not human nature to leap when you are safe.  Mostly.”  Maybe there is something wrong with us? The restlessness.  I guess in my case it has to do with a mistrust of the sense of safety.

And then there is the fact that I love nesting, but hate being nested. Being busy, being occupied with the ordering of things gives me an illusion of control. Once that flurry of activity is over, the illusion is broken. I feel vulnerable.

I think that is why, content as a I am in so many ways, I have flashes of envy when you share your experiences of arranging your new life. I want to move house again. Which is absurd. Instead: yesterday I decided on a new bookshelf for the living room. So you see, I need a healthy adventure soon.

E. and I were in the east part of Stavanger Friday night to see a production at the arts center. They are renovating the whole section of town. I guess the proper way to describe it is to say there is a gentrification of the old working class neighborhood. Posh little cafés, and gyms with big windows so everyone can watch the people on the treadmills – or the people on the treadmills can be watched. I’m not sure what the thought was behind that design, to be honest.

The old arts center has had a facelift, though its still appropriately whatever-the-current-hipster-term-for-“shabby chic” is, if shabby chic is already passé – I don’t even care to keep up these days. Hipster is probably passé by now. At any rate, sleek apartment buildings have sprung up all along the water. Grassy parks that look in reality just as they did in the drawings in advertisements before they were built.

What is taking me by surprise is that I have absolutely no interest in any of it. I would rather explore the rocky beaches out by the lighthouse south of here. I’d rather roam the lived-in spaces in East London on a weekend. Feed the pelicans. I would rather spend time where things aren’t carefully designed not to match in just the right way – maybe go seek out on of your beloved bazaars in Istanbul. Things that are not preplanned. Places that grow organically, as chaotic as humans are. What is the point of moving into or even through something that is already in perfect order? How gawd-awful boring.

And distancing: the place would never be mine. And I would never fit in well.

I guess that brings us back to belonging and not really belonging. The safety of the familiar, on the periphery? I don’t know, that seems paradoxical. It’s the wildebeest on the periphery who get eaten, isn’t it?

So tell me more about these doubting Genovese.  They aren’t eating you alive, are they?

Much love,

XO Ren

Di’s Reply


This is one of a series of public 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.

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.

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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!)

A few years ago I noticed a couple of themes in my photography.

One was laundry lines. In Genova, Jerusalem, Dakar, Bishkek, Kyoto, Grand Canaria…

clothesline

At first I thought it a bit odd that I was traveling to all these wonderful places, and coming  home with photos of people’s laundry hanging out to dry. But then I realised why it speaks to me: this simple fact of life. Universal.

And something my grandmother, in her 1950s mindset, thought was uncivilised. She had an electric clothes dryer, so there was no need for the neighbours to see her cotton underpants.

But what could be a more concrete evidence of civilisation than laundry lines?

For the record, I don’t think Adam and Eve donned clothing out of shame, but because they ate from the tree of knowledge and longed for beauty.

My grandmother never wanted to travel.

That was a shame.

 

 

20151230_122610-1I once went to London to attend a “master class”  by a famous writer. It was actually a lecture in a room with 200 or so folding chairs. When the writer was finished talking about her dog and her cottage in the woods, she opened the floor for questions. Someone asked, “What kind of pen do you use?”

The magic pen. The magic paper, computer program, time of day, mantra or tea. Yes, I grew up watching Bewitched, too. Longing for the short cut, the magic wiggle. Waiting for the fairy godmother, or the red shoes that will make me famous before they kill me.

I had an epiphany in that moment, as banal as an acknowledgement of the reality of one’s own mortality… or a slogan: just do it. But like anyone saved on Sunday, drunk on Tuesday, part of me continued to look for the portal to the muses – a one-night stand start to a long term relationship.

Good things take time.

Five years ago I sort of climbed out in front of my life and started to take charge. I realised that if you’re ticking that 46 and over box on the survey, your fairy godmother probably isn’t coming.

I started simplifying my life.  Making room. Choosing.

A few years ago, a good friend told me about her own quest to simplify: to own one beautiful hairbrush; one exquisite pen. She inspired me. I’ve been looking for the one pen. The magic pen.

I bought a gorgeous pen when I visited her this summer. Handmade. Looks like the sea. But the ink flows unevenly. I don’t use it when I write every morning. It just sits on the desk looking pretty.

I steal pens. I tend to borrow them and walk off with them. I have a callous on my left second finger from writing. My hand is formed to writing utensils. Yesterday, when I cleaned my nightstand, I found 9 pens in the drawer. Most of them completely unfamiliar. Things I “borrowed” from students or colleagues, surely. Pens migrate from school and back again, hitching between the pages of textbooks and notebooks.

But last week I realised the school is stocking the supply room with different pens. Thin, scrawny pens.

Budget cuts.

I had no idea I was so accustomed to the cheap blue pens I’ve been using for years. I didn’t realise I’d been using the same pen every morning the past year. Things happen when you don’t notice them. Habits form.

I had to borrow a car to drive out to the office supply store to buy my own box of pens. The cheap, plastic pens that the school no longer supplies.

My one pen.

This sucks. I really wanted my one pen to be exquisite.