As a puppy, no matter how hard I tried to coax her, Kiri would never lay at my feet under my desk while I was writing.

It was part of the image I had in my mind: The writer and her dog. The productive and warm, fuzzy mornings with a mug of coffee and a buzzing computer. The quiet afternoons of revision, before the kids tumbled in the front door finished with school. I would bake, and make nourishing dinners.

I tried that for a couple of years. It didn’t work out.

img_20151001_083944Now Kiri is well over 15, and lying beside me, on the small oriental rug here in my tiny library. But this is not what I imagined.

My children are grown, and have moved out.

And I’ve moved out. Started over again, first on my own, then with a new partner. I would say that nothing has gone according to plan, but the truth is there was never a plan, only an image.

The question I had put to myself all those years is what do you want to be? Rather than what are you going to do?

In some ways, I am grateful for that. For what spontaneity has added to my life. The unexpected is always an adventure. I think it has made me braver than I might otherwise have been. I learned lessons, some very hard (some very hard on the people in my life).

But regrets are a waste of time. Even in hindsight, one can never really know what the results would have been from having made a different choice, at any juncture.

Many years ago, my best friend bought me a print by the artist Brian Andreas:

“If you hold on to the handle, she said, it is easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.” – Brian Andreas

It is a philosophy I have only half-embraced. I’ve usually used it to comfort myself when I’m faced with my own failure to achieve that “image”–however fuzzy–I’ve had in the back of my mind.

It seems odds with the now-ubiquitous line from Mary Oliver’s poem  “The Sumer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

But these are only the final lines. There is more to the poem:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

(from “The Summer Day”. Mary Oliver)

I never planned to pay attention. But, suddenly, this seems like a very good idea. Instead of dwelling on the past, looking to define lessons-learned and outline regrets, it might be smart to catch up with myself: to pay attention to the present.

Instead of stumbling backwards into the unexpected, to walk face-first with an open mind into the days.

I recently finished Diana Nyad‘s memoir Find a Way. She writes that with age and wisdom comes balance. I would guess this also means the balance between planning and achieving. Following the failure of her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she celebrates:

The journey has been inordinately worthwhile, the destination be dammed (for one night anyway). – Diana Nyad

Pick up. Learn from mistakes. Plan: then pay attention to every stroke, every moment.

There are so many things in life that are obviously not under our control. But where we put our attention is not one of them.

It is true?

Is it kind?

It is necessary?

The New York Times’ columnist David Gelles suggests these questions as mindful guidelines for posting on Facebook.

At first glance, fair enough. But on second thought, at least in my case: stifling.

To tackle them one at a time, I will begin with is it true?

We live in a post-truth era, conscious of the fact that at any point the truth can be altered, in effect–or rather, with effect–so that consequences (sometimes global) derive directly from a perceived truth only.  We won’t give up even our simplest of stories: Van Gogh committed suicide, Gandhi is a positive role-model.

Though largely free from the constraints of an imposed dogma, we have truth as a populist construct(s). Our decisions are so often based on misinformation, that some facts are entirely, and literally, inconsequential in regard to the values we hold, the decisions we make.

I would argue that there is a difference between facts and truth. Some facts are omitted from the histories, and others are largely unknowable, glimpsed only on occasion, in hindsight and even then often obliquely from behind a veil (of the current) truth. The coastlines are flooding. The bees are dying. Not because of a lack of facts, but because of faith.

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Occupy Wall Street. 2011

We find our respective narratives. Stick with them.  Repeat them.

Buy the t-shirts.

Truth will always be a matter of faith.

The specific faith of those who write the history books.

Even on a personal scale: whose truth is the truth? Compare two people’s recollections of an event and there are two truths. Both would bet their lives on their version. Simple things, like who ate the last piece of cake all those years ago, that Saturday (or Friday) night when Aunt June came by drunk (or not), with the pink (or brown) bakery box.

And science? Which scientific truths would you bet your life on? In the 1800s “psychiatrists” could read the bumps on your head, and there would be real-world consequences. Bumps in the wrong places might land get you identified as a criminal and land you in an institution for “rehabilitation”.

There is the truth of blood-letting that falls in and out of fashion as a (carefully circumscribed) truth. Anti-depressants. Chemotherapy. Truth is dependent upon a timeline.

What is your measure of truth, should you choose to pronounce one on Facebook? Is it an obligation to correct misinformation? To challenge every person’s faith with facts? (While I doubt such a practice would be unkind, is would certainly be unpleasant).

What about opinions? Educated guesses? Ethical standpoints? Are these untenable as public posts? On Facebook, among “friends”? How do you learn if you limit yourself to making statements regarding what you already believe is true?

I am in no position to know all the truths. And uncertain where my threshold is for defending what I do have faith in.

I am obviously over-thinking this one. Maybe I am not ready for Facebook.

Is it kind? I will admit, I am not always kind. In fact, I am suspicious of people who are only kind, or silent. Silence can be manipulative. And cruel. “Cruel to be kind” is a cliché. And kind to be cruel is, in praxis, a common tactic.

Does this mean it’s not mindful practice to denounce that which one finds inhumane?  To denounce it in a way that doesn’t soft-pedal, or back-pedal, or tolerate what one believes should not be tolerated? Does “generous of spirit” have a limitation, an obligation to shut down in the face of… well… (perceived) evil? Or do you just throw your hands in the air in the face of multiple truths and say, “anything goes”?

Alain de Botton describes tolerance as leaving space for concepts we find incomprehensible. To coexist, parallel without the drive to convert or squash. This is generous. This is kind.

But incomprehensible is not the same as reprehensible.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”Edmund Burke 

There need not be a binary at work: not being kind is not necessarily being “unkind” (dictionary definition).

No, I don’t have a good grasp on the concept of being kind. Not yet. I don’t have faith in the absolute goodness of it.

Is it necessary?

I need a definition of necessary, as well. Because this seems like the easy one: the world will keep turning, and human beings will either continue on generation after generation, or destroy our own habitat and leave the earth to the beetles. In either case, I am not necessary.

I might be important to specific people, be able to make a slight difference here and their on a personal level, but still not necessary. At least, I am in no position to assume so.

Even if I subscribe to a faith that deems every person’s existence as integral and meaningful in a cosmic whole, it sort of follows that even worrying about the necessary-ness of things would be unnecessary.

Clearly, I need to find something better to do with my time.

I can’t function with Geller’s mindfulness guidelines. In my mind, to attempt to do so would be to accept a gross oversimplification of applied ethics. Perhaps Geller tried to boil things down to positive bullet points, which is helpful. But if I haven’t worked along through that process, the bullet points looks like platitudes to me.

So, grateful for Geller’s suggestion, I’m making up my own guidelines for mindful posting on Facebook: in positive and negative terms.

  1. Do I suspect this to be a lie, a distortion or oversimplification of what is likely true?
  2. Am I posting with a malicious or selfish motive?
  3. Is this noise, or do I believe it is useful contribution to a social discussion?

One of the things that keeps me on Facebook is the daily post from Frankie Zelnick. I believe that making people smile is probably one of the most useful things one can do in this world.

Me?

I’m still not sure I will ever post again.

 

 

 

 

Every time I read about the “creative class” I feel uncomfortable. I thought that we (speaking as a former American, and now as a Norwegian) have been deliberately seeking to dismantle the social classes of previous centuries.

Isn’t the “creative class” is just another division of privilege? These people who set themselves above working class (who get their hands dirty), and the blue-collar workers (who are, apparently, creativity-devoid drones); who position themselves as more sensitive, more attuned, and somehow entitled.

Only the privileged can leave the grid, trespass in the wild, and exploit what is left of the wild to find their individual authenticity. Not that it usually ends well for those who do manage it. Even if we all had good field guides to edible plants, it’s hardly a sustainable prospect for our species. Someone has to hold down the fort: work in the hiking boots factories, print and bind the field guides, while the chosen ones instagram the view for us.

I am torn about projects like kickstarter and patreon. One the one hand, it is an inspiring, class-defying solution for arts patronage. On the other hand, they seem contribute to the climate of reward-for-potential. A world of virtually realized ideas.

Obviously, I am not even on the forward edge of the wave of the desire for real craftsmanship. But are we so seduced by the desire for belonging and association that the actual quality of the product no longer matters? It is the experience of proximity to whatever is popular? Not coffee, but the experience. Not the experience, but the image of the experience?

It’s all about branding. Bluff, pose and con. It’s still the cult of personality. Our current obsession with  “living in the now” that also manages to keep us continually entertained: Nothing really needs to be taken seriously. We are all post-truth anyway.

How was the earnest Occupy Wall Street swept out of the way for the bread and circus of this election cycle?

The history of our cultural self-destruction might well be written in sarcasm font.

Not that it’s a new concept. History repeats itself. For example, the Catholic church sold indulgences, and today quasi-secular meditation gurus will sell you a mantra.

Surely even before Oscar Wilde, artists liked to be recognized for their personalities as much as (or more than) their physical labor. And with the rise of conceptual art, artists only had to point to a bit of clever interpretation of the obvious. It’s all in the packaging of the commentary, the marketing, and the branding of the mouthpiece. No investment necessary in anything other than one’s self.

I think it is a little ironic that in a culture that seems to be increasingly disinterested in history, people seem to be increasingly concerned about their “image”. Their place in the world, rather than their relationships with the world. Even “documentaries” have become little more than infomercials for people-as-brands. Singers. Murderers. Gurus.

Today I saw a video with celebrities encouraging people to vote.

So we can see a celebrity’s naked penis. Wink, wink.

Bread and Circus.

I’ve always had little crushes on the bad boy celebrities, so I’m not saying I am above it all. I’m not saying that I don’t secretly want to be in the club, want a spot of my own on Olympus with all the other flawed demigods who can rise above their little foibles (ranging from illegal drug use to the eternal torment of some inconsequential mortal). Of course I do. And the Internet (which now has an identity all its own: as in, “this latest leaked sex video broke the Internet”; and which also demands capitalization from my spellcheck) makes us think it’s possible. The demigods may just reach down, once your twitter followers hit so many K, and pull you up onto the mount. For a while.

Even the presocratic philosophers believed that good reputation was a factor in happiness: a kind of fame, I suppose.

But what matters? The fact that Gandhi is promoted as an icon for good, doesn’t change the fact that he was a sick son-of-a-bitch who slept naked with his grandniece. People forget that he was disavowed by many of his followers before his death.

Ben Jonson was a much beloved playwright who overshadowed the “upstart […]plagiarist” Shakespeare during their lifetimes.

Michelangelo relied on the church (so did Dali – much to his fellow Surrealists’ dismay) to fund his projects. He bowed, and bent, and served in order to paint.

Ah, the complex details of history; the complicated lives.

Not that I’m a historian.

Last year, when I was studying in Lillehammer, I kept passing a poster in the hallway at the university. There were three photos of the same young woman: one with her holding a baby, one in which she wears glasses and holds a book, and one with her holding a bottle of beer. The tagline was something like “What do you want to project to the world?”

Really?

While at the same time we are touting the importance of – and claiming our commitment to—authenticity?

That young woman should be allowed to be all three of those images. Whittling ourselves down for the sake of branding means loss, in terms of the complexity of our humanity for the sake of a image, an income, or (the hope of) a legacy.

Writers who have never published a best seller, sell courses on writing a best seller. (Writers whose specialty is writing about writing, or writing “content” are probably the only people who get paid to write.) Writing gurus crawl out of the nether by the hundreds of thousands, telling you how to make a fortune branding yourself. It is not an uncommon question: Do I write the book first, or develop my brand?

They tell us: Quit your job. Believe in yourself. Invest in yourself. Write your own narrative; create your own brand: now. Promote your “acclaimed” novel, your “Pulitzer-nominated” book (for the record, you can nominate your own book if you are an American citizen – some people have already noticed this little marketing gem).

Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy, and a master at branding herself. I will always admire her for both her writing and her audacity. But Wallace Stephens was an insurance lawyer until he died, and he is a good enough role model for me. I will leave the new creative class to their branding. I am too old for that club, anyway. I’ll continue to work a day job that puts me squarely (safely housed and fed) in the lower middle class, and I will write.

I’m no entrepreneur. I’m a poet.

823545_471015519620816_2013814071_oThe bulk of my books will continue to be remaindered after a few years in my publisher’s warehouse, but every now and then someone will write to let me know a poem meant something to them on a particular day. Then they will forget my name.

But at least, when it’s over, it will have been an authentic run, in real time.

They say look to the source of your envy to find out what you desire. Yeah, I’ve been doing that.

Now it’s time to figure out how to move on.

I am hereby giving up any and all self-conscious attempts to brand myself. To sell myself as an image. It has been like trying on clothes for paper dolls.

This is going to have to be good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”

                     – Edward Albee

Or out of her way.

When I was 26, the theater department head told me he was a friend of Susan Sontag, and he was going to send her my scripts. He invited me to stay in town the year after I graduated – he called it a New Play Festival – and I could stage my experimental plays at the university: access to actors and technicians, and a black box.

I did get to stage my work (despite a “supportive” professor who went to the dean and tried to get the whole thing shut down in order to protect me from myself). I got good reviews from the local paper, worked with talented people, and learned a lot.

Of course, my scripts never got to Sontag. And I know now how absurd the thought was, and wonder if the man had been drunk at lunch on a Wednesday when he told me he was so impressed.

I was set to apply to graduate school. But couldn’t afford the application fees.

The story I’ve been telling is that when I moved to Norway later that year (unexpectedly, because that is how love is), I contacted the theater and asked if I could do volunteer work. But the American dramaturge I spoke with told me that they didn’t use volunteers in Norwegian theater; unions were strict. But a few days later he sent me a poetry manuscript for translation – one he didn’t have time to do himself. When I balked, he explained that knowing your own language well was more important than knowing the original language well. In some ways, 20-something years (and nearly as many books of translations) later, I agree with him. And not. But that is a digression.

I worked very closely with the author of that first book. Then a second book, another author. It began a informal apprenticeship in poetry, with many excellent Norwegian writers. This lead to my own books, and my own work being translated.

I told myself I was going back to my roots. After all, I had written poetry as a child and teen (who hasn’t?), and had even taken graduate courses form a celebrated poet who humiliated me, but gave me an A;a man whose work I still admire greatly—though perhaps not so much his teaching techniques.

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Students working with my poems in movement class, 2011. I haven’t dared to repeat it for fear of being seen as exploiting my position as a teacher.

But this week, attending a theater festival, all these forgotten details rushed over me. I hadn’t given up that easily. I wrote four plays the first year I was in Norway. I remembered handing one full-length script to a director who weighed it in his hand, smiled and said, “You must have put a lot of work into this.”

Clearly, he had no intention of reading it.

I was never under the delusion that I was the Next Big Thing on the Great White Way, but I had enjoyed the privilege of being taken seriously.

Several times over the next twenty years, I started and stopped. There were the small excursions into performance work. The libretto that I got a grant to finish, then a grant to produce. But the composer flaked, and the producer dropped the ball. And I shelved it.

I guess it has been easier to forget those failures.

No, not the failures, but the giving-up. Because that is worse.

My sixth poetry collection is coming out just before Christmas. (I am hoping it will appeal to the middle-age market, since it is all about mid-life reckoning, and carpe diem: clearly, this is not a coincidence).

I have a first draft of a bad novel. An outline for a playtext. And I have discovered several old documents on this laptop. One-acts. Fragments.

I have a sputtering start to what is probably my fifth blog, which seems not to have a focus this time around.

I have no idea where to go from here.

This week Collin Kelly, at the Modern Confessional (a long-running blog with a clear focus) asks, “How many publications are enough?”

A part of me says it’s time to chuck genre and forms. To chuck reliance upon approval.

To write. To focus on that, and trust that I don’t need to please the gatekeepers to the Susan Sontags of this world. Not now. Have I earned that? Does one need to earn that?

Maybe it is time to see if this very long distance has just been a great big circle.

E. suggested calling these wakeful hours “the midnight hours”, but that only lead to a host of earworms over the course of the day.

At one point, considering something I wanted to write, I caught myself thinking, “I’m gonna wait ’til the midnight hour.”

This is the sixth night of waking at midnight, to write and read and take the old lady for walk if she’s in the mood. It’s very difficult to sort out which quirks of the day are related to the Biphasic Sleeping Project, and which are just life in general.

In reality, at the moment, I can’t imagine much else as boring as blogging about sleep. The strangest thing so far (regarding the project) is that it is Friday night and I am treating it like a weeknight – with plans to rise at 5:30 for a run. When I was sleeping 9.30-4.30, I never did that on weekends. I would stay up until 11 and roll out of bed at 8 or so.

Yeah, I know, I’m a wild one.

I am not sure how this is going to affect my writing. This week I finished the final edits on The Elephants Have Been Singing All Along, and went over Lodén’s (great) translation. I should be knee-deep into another project by now; up now, dancing with a muse.

Don’t they say that if you build a routine, create a ritual, the muse will just show up?

Well, right now, there’s no one else around.

Who knew there were so many songs about midnight?