“I cannot write – and I ought not.”
– Dorothea Lynde Dix, in a letter to her friend George Barrell Emerson

Dear D.L.D.,

I’ve been thinking of you, and your “no-thing disease”. I’ve been thinking about your conscious decision to avoid writing poetry during your no-thing seasons, while I find myself writing through mine.

I can only guess, but I’m assuming those were the times when the world was too thin, and you knew a single word could pierce deep enough to empty you. But you did write. Letters, at least.

In Norwegian, there’s a descriptor: kontaktsøkende. Literally translated, it means “contact-seeking”. In use, it means needy – with all the negative connotations. I hear teachers describe students as kontaktsøkende, with an air of judgement and (ironically) dismissal. I’ve heard them use the word in reference to colleagues, too. And I’ve wondered if they’ve used it to describe me when I’ve been frank and intense in conversations. (I get called “intense” a lot.)

The term disturbs me, in the best sense of the word. I’ve been in need of contact often in my life for a myriad of reasons, and I’ve always felt ashamed. You were described in this way, though obviously not with the Norwegian word. But as needy. And people advised you to be “less candid” in your correspondence with them. Is it horrible for me to say I was relieved when I read that? It eased my feelings shame just a bit.

11161336_843427735712924_913401089575855313_nRecently it came to light in a discussion, that someone I care about thought being “depressed” was wallowing in self-pity. They didn’t understand that it’s easier to tell a friend that you feel unlovable than to admit that you are afraid you may not be capable of loving. That you are useless.

I know that was your greatest fear, to be useless in regard to your talents. You were afraid to let God down. I’ve often wondered if you felt that God had let you down?

Need is misunderstood, and pity is a miserly response that leads to resentment. Or else it is understood, along with the realization that there’s nothing that anyone can do to relieve another person’s need. That also leads to resentment.

Another Norwegian phrase: “folk har nok med sitt“: people have enough on their plates. I think most often it’s used to illustrate that people are selfish. But people are also kind and generous, and overwhelmed. No doubt, if you might have tolerated me at all, we would have quickly grown weary of each other in a no-thing season.

I believe there’s a primal, unconscious fear of people whose emotional needs are obvious. There’s the mistrust: if no one else has been there for that person, there must be something wrong with them. And there’s the gut knowledge that loneliness is contagious, I guess. Monkeys shy away from the shunned and the injured, and so do most of us.

I think it’s a matter of  learning how to attend to our needs obliquely.

I wonder if you realize how well you did that? I mean, once you found  your voice in speaking on the behalf of others. All the good you did in the world, the difference you made in people’s lives was born of your need to “express yourself” (a phrase that I think is a poor replacement for a more accurate “make yourself visible”). Although your work was born of that need, but it wasn’t an expression of the need itself. Your needy poetry informed those masterful orations in a way nothing else could have.

“The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is meaningless.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

During times like this, I look to you. I don’t stop myself from writing, but I’m conscious of the need. I find the writing therapeutic. Didn’t you? Maybe you weren’t entirely truthful? (You weren’t always.)  Maybe you were writing poetry, but knew better than to share it with anyone. Maybe you’d learned not to place demands on the people you wrote to. After all: letters, poems, and stories should be gifts, not the assignment of obligations.

I have a small notebook of poems I wrote in high school: angry, hurt, resentful voices. Only one was written from a place of defiance and strength. I believe I needed to write through all the others to get to that poem; to be able to acknowledge myself, be visible to myself, before I could move on and communicate with the world. But our lives aren’t linear are they?

Sometimes I think of it as simple stitching. Running over and under the “right side” of the garment. But it all holds together in the end, doesn’t it?

We accept our seasons. Or try to.

I’m struggling with writer’s block. It isn’t that I can’t write. I’m writing a lot. But I have nothing to give at the moment, from this no-thing place. I’m not sure whether I would even be having these thoughts on the subject if it weren’t for having read yours. As uncomfortable as these thoughts are, I guess I should thank you.


I was doing writing exercises this morning. Starting with one of Marty McConnell’s wonderful prompts. Seems a lot of writing prompts ask you to begin with some aspect of childhood.  Like your “childhood home”.

A while back I tried to count all the childhood homes  I’d had, and I wound up with something like 30 places we’d lived or stayed for a while between “permanent addresses”. What does come to mind is a collage of textures: metal jungle gym bars, porous decorative cinder blocks, loose dirt. My favorite line of poetry has always been from “the sound, the smell of swing set hands” (REM’s  “The Wrong Child“).

I remember lying on the hot floor of the Toyota, my back awkwardly stretched over the divider, pillow under my head, staring at the stars through the car’s back window. Nothing blacker than the velvet sky of the desert between LA and Vegas. This is my image of home, really. Continually moving through the dark.

But I did have my own room at my grandparent’s house. A guest room, but we called it mine – for my sake. I had a drawer with a nightgown that I only wore when I lived with them. It was baby doll nightgown that my grandmother must have worn. On six-year-old-me,  it reached mid-calf, and I felt like a ballerina in it. I would twirl in front of the mirror. Only now, as I’m writing this, do I think about the little appliqué anchor, and realize that she must have bought it with my grandfather in mind: a Navy man.

An odd thought, really. She would have been horrified that I might someday write about it. Allude to her sex life. But I want to write about it.

She’s been dead for several years now, and I’ve taken the liberty of imagining her puritan sense of decorum having softened in death. Instead of her icy anger, I imagine her shrugging and saying, “What does it matter now?”  But the truth is, I just don’t think that hard about it. I don’t think I could really convince myself she’d be okay with it.

It’s a bit like when I took driving lessons and had to drive in reverse for the first time. I looked back over my shoulder, shut my eyes, and stepped on the gas. I sometimes write with my eyes shut.

Right after the birth of my second child, I broke ties with everyone else in my family. I started to write small memoirs. At the time I had a correspondence with a wonderful man who lived in San Francisco. My first book of poems had just been published, and he was a sucessful playwright with a passion for poetry. He had more life experience than I did. He was in his mid-sixties and the only gay Republican I’ve ever met. We had interesting and frank discussions, and he was an excellent mentor for me, in part because of our differences.

picture-of-whyI sent him a little memoir about an incident in one of my aunt’s lives. He wrote back, “Why did you write this? Do you just want me to know you are better than them?”

I stopped writing memoirs.

When I tell people about this, they usually say he was awful to say such a thing. But he wasn’t. It’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received, and it came in the form of a genuine question.

Twenty years later, I think I’ve worked through a lot of my insecurities. I no longer write to have people reassure me that I am a good person. But now there are other considerations. Other barriers.

There are my sons. No longer children-but when your mother is a writer you can’t just leave the room when she talks about something you find uncomfortable. Her books are in the high school libraries, essays can be googled by acquaintances.

There are the ex-husbands. Yes. Plural. Both wonderful people I would never want to hurt.

There’s the man with whom I’ll share the rest of my life.

(Please don’t judge: Margaret Mead said we get three. Someone else said that we are extremely lucky if they happen to be the same person. I have been very lucky with the people in my adult life; I have just not had the skills I needed to transition each relationship through life’s stages.)

Last-and least-there are my students. I’m not concerned about their privacy, but I wonder how much can they know about my personal life and still respect me in the classroom on a daily basis? Forty years ago students would have had to put a lot of effort into dragging their butts to the library to dig up dirt on a teacher. Now they can guzzle Red Bull with one hand, google with the other, and link my name to an article on vaginal prolapse.


I know each essay, each poem has to be considered independently, and there isn’t a handbook with all the answers, but I’m wondering… Anyone out there use a checklist of some kind?

I know you won’t have my answers, but it is nice to have a starting place to draft my own.







Good morning, Richard.

Always wanted to be a gardner. But what I try to grow dies, what I leave alone, on the other hand…

Reading your poem “Fairytales“, I was thinking that we are in such similar places right now. This midlife honesty. What looks to younger people like giving up on one’s dreams, is actually giving up on other people’s dreams and discovering (and accepting) our own day-to-day joys.

I think it takes courage to swim against the tide as we begin to do about now. When our own mortality comes slowly seeping into our consciousness as a fact of life, as our bones move with less ease and our skin relaxes, and we can admit to ourselves that we really aren’t the person we tried to be, the person we really don’t want to inhabit day to day.

And I honestly believe that at our age that it becomes clear for the first time: who is actually swimming, and who has been passively going with/according to the flow all along.

I get this image – I have no idea from where – but the father calmly holding out an arm, palm pressed against his son’s forehead as a consequence of the will of his angry six-year old, who is swinging wildly, insistently: breathless.

Isn’t that how we spend the first half of our lives? As the six-year old? Trying to enforce our  indistinct will on the rest of the world? “Sound and fury” as they say in that Scottish play. No wonder it seems as though the first half of our lives is so significant. It’s loud and frenetic. Draws attention to itself. We appear to be doing something. Appears being the operative word there. I think this is the great illusion. Isn’t that what the Buddhists are talking about anyway? The futility of will and desire?

The father that I imagine? He is laughing – not mocking, but in recognition and compassion.

Isn’t it kind of odd how we spend so many years trying to pound other people into our boxes, and to simultaneously squeeze and contort ourselves so as to fit into theirs?

These days I’m actually lamenting over so much wasted time and energy. I’ve said before that I write as a way to reach out – over oceans, as we have done – and beyond my inevitable death. But lately I’ve been laughing at myself. I have students who don’t have a clue who Andy Warhol is was.  Much less Gertrude Stein, or even Mary Shelley. When I was in London last, I saw Jonson’s The Alchemist, and again marveled over the fact that the “upstart crow” Shakespeare eclipsed the more popular Jonson after their deaths. It is all so arbitrary. I wonder how many generations will remember Marilyn Monroe.

And don’t let get me started on the distortions and unforgivable omissions of fact in the forming of icons like Monroe, or (ahem) Gandhi.

You’d think, with us all striving to become myths, we were all setting ourselves up to sell toothpaste  or cola or nationalism from the Great Beyond. Talk about “selling out”.

Am I stretching the metaphor, or isn’t it a wee bit like spending all one’s money on lottery tickets for posthumous fame, while starving to death in an empty room?  I am done with that.

Or trying to be done with that.  (Funny how it take such conscious effort to stop unconscious drives.) I’m trying to spend more time following curiosity rather than ambition.

“If everyone looked up to me rather than just at me.” The speaker of your poem is someone to love, Richard. The relinquishing of ambition, is what makes him admirable in my eyes.

Back to the Buddhist-ish paradox, right? The Taoist Wu Wei? This is wisdom, right? Not giving a f#%$ about “relevance”: Authenticity.

Although I get the impression lately that the word authenticity has come to mean “unique brand”.

At any rate, I think it works out nicely – this being honest without ourselves and giving up our pre-packaged ambitions. Our ideas of cat and dog people. This way, you can keep the cats, and I can keep the dogs.And everyone is happy. (Except E., who was dishonest with me on our first date, when he told me he was a dog person.)

Miss you. Give my love to M.

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.


img_20161015_143848It was one of those days that the Norwegian poet Tor Obrestad called white days. I’m sure he’s not the only one to have called them that. But translating his work, it was the first time I’d run across the phrase. I found “white days” much more beautiful than “overcast”. More sensual. And therefore more meaningful.

Usually, when my translation work comes up in conversation, Norwegians comment on how rich the English language is compared to Norwegian. Then I spend ten minutes trying to convince them otherwise.

Yes, the English dictionary is thicker, unwieldy at times for even a native speaker. And I suppose that is the point. More does not necessarily mean better–even when it comes to vocabulary. Throwing more words at an experience doesn’t guarantee better communication.

I find a lot of the English words to be analytical. A self-conscious step removed from sensual experience. And it is my impression that, when it comes to self-conscious descriptors, English can’t touch German.

Take the word angst, for example. One cure for which is Norwegian nature.

This weekend’s hike (2 hours) began as a walk along a tractor road. Then a steep hike, stepping stone to tuft to stone to avoid the gaps that can clamp down suddenly around your ankle to jerk you into stillness. Down again, and over the moorland (giving up being prissy about wet socks). As we climbed again, balancing on the sharp edges of quartz-lined rocks, we could hear an underground brook. The Norwegian word is pipler. Not babbling, not bubbling, not popping.

It’s times like this that I wonder over what I have gained and what I have lost settling here. How tied is the landscape to the language? What does it mean to be tied to the land and still not tied to the language? I suppose it leaves me still searching always to describe;  leaves me picking apart the experience, and comparing it to what went before–what might be transferable as a kind of metaphor, because I have never heard that sound anywhere but on the moorland here, or along the shore where the water and air tangle between the stones.

Then again, I can recall so easily the hot, gritty sidewalk-dust air of Bakersfield. I don’t know of a specific word for that either.

At the peak, the wind blew my phone from the selfie stick and it landed face-first on a rock that shattered the glass. So much for the Survivor case.

I knew there would be some kind of divine punishment for getting a selfie stick.

I have never been addicted to anything.

(Although there were years when I struggled with a compulsion to eat raw pasta, that is hardly the same thing as an addiction.)

This is actually a bit odd, because according to all the research, I am a prime candidate for gambling, alcoholism, or worse.  But now I have an addiction to social media. Facebook, to be precise.

It’s not surprising. On Facebook, sometimes I feel visible.

Most of the time, I don’t.

I suppose the vicious cycle of chasing the very occasional high is the same mechanism of all addictions, though.

Addicted to Likes. And hearts. And “wow” faces. And I’m addicted to the diversion.

I am so miserable/angry/offended/envious that I am blissfully unaware of  (thus, not responsible for) my own procrastination.

The scientific studies out there tell us how destructive social media addiction can be. The comparisons we make. And I see that. The dissatisfaction I experience because I am not the poet I know who paddle-boards with famous friends in the afternoons, who lives on the coast with a view of the ocean. I’m not as pretty, not as successful, not as admired–It is sometimes overwhelming: all of the things I’m not.

I often say that I’m not competitive, but that is not true. Aren’t we all? At least with ourselves? What would be good enough? The grass is always greener. And we are all on the Hedonic treadmill.

There are also those who say to follow your envy. Acknowledge it to yourself and you will know what you really want.


And no.

This used to make a lot of sense to me. But if what I want, what I am chasing is the image of having done something, of being something, rather than the experience of doing, then envy is not constructive.

dsc_0258-3Since this summer on the plateau, I have fantasized about the quiet.

I’ve wanted to move to a cabin out there and live an isolated life, to call on friends to appear when I am in the mood. (The social exception to the rule of my solitude.)

There would be images of me (taken by God-knows-who) alone on the porch, wrapped in a hand-made blanket, a mug of boiled coffee in hand: the poet looking wistfully over the landscape. There would also be images of candlelight dinners with glinting wine glasses, my lover and all my laughing friends: all on Instagram.

And I would be pretty. Elegant. I would have that x-factor of literary royalty.

I know that isn’t the real world. But it is a horrifying realization: that, at my age, on the level of idealisation of a perfect life, I am still operating with such a narcissistic conceptualization of the world.

In my real life I know better. I need to spend more time here. Because I seriously doubt I would like paddle-boarding , and this whole envy-thing is nothing more than another diversion.