My favourite photo from the wedding is one that doesn’t include me. Or E. or the boys, actually. It’s the one that shows several of the people in my life meeting across social groups, so to speak. Colleagues, and friends and relatives – some who’d never met before – in a moment of joy. I feel privileged that those are the people I know and love, the people who love me (and E., of course). You captured something wonderful. It’s the photo I’m most grateful for.
It became one of those jokes that becomes a joke because you just keep returning to it.
Pointlessly, yet with such great effect.
This weekend, I realised that, in light of the social climate in the United States, and as a woman who will always be the “trailer park girl” (despite a solid education and liberal political view), I thought it was necessary to speak up:
To remind these historians of the fact that education is a privilege – and was even more so 200 years ago when less than 50% of women in New England were could read. That spelling is not an indication of intelligence, and that the assumption that it is looks like class discrimination, and feels like contempt.
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 your 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.
I also have a fear of being too personal. It’s like showing up in a dress that is just a smidgen too short and crosses some line no one explicitly told you about. Everyone lifts an eyebrow, and then looks away. Be honest, but don’t be too honest. Earnestness makes everyone feel awkward.
I’m reading Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival. He talks about the terrifying vulnerability of the self, and he describes the personal lyric as the self encountering its existential crises.
You know, I’m just going to give into this. To the fear. To the existential crises. To the who-gives-a-damn about propriety and position. To the friggin´earnestness.
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.
I’ve had colleagues – musicians – who have quit teaching, to work in offices or detailing cars. They said that teaching was sapping their creative energy. I have thought about it, but come to the conclusion that my creativity can’t be sapped by other kinds of creative work – it all primes the pump.
What I do believe is that, speaking only for myself, being the handmaiden for other people’s creativity can be a source of envy – and that needs to be dealt with honestly.
And, even though I do get up at 5 and write before “work”, I’d be upset if I thought my students believed that I gave them my “second-best effort”.
I’d be ashamed if I did.
When I look down at my hands now I see my grandmother’s hands when I held them during church services. It’s a strange kind of self-comfort, having her incorporated in my life in such an intimate and physical way.
Although a friend was visiting a few months ago; she saw a photo from the wedding and said, “Oh, your hands don’t look that old in reality.” To be honest, what I was uncomfortable with was how thin my hair looked in the photo – but now I have yet another thing to be self-conscious about.
What I truly miss is letter writing. And I miss the long email exchanges of the mid-90s, when my children were small and napping nearby – I could dig deep, take my time to think things through, but still be in conversation with a real person. Both my boys have left home. They are napping in foreign countries these days. So I’m asking myself, why is it I feel rushed now?
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.
…and 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 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. Yay.
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.
It was one of those days that the Norwegian poet Tor Obrestad called white days. I am sure he is 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. Therefore more meaningful.
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.
… I know that isn’t the real world.
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.
I need a definition of necessary, as well. …
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.
The 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.
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.
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.