A Bear, Tomatoes, and an Exercise in Resisting in Metaphor

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A black bear is wandering our small city. Braving the busy main roads, trotting down quiet side streets and into little backyards, finding temporary refuge in the marshes and sparse woods. Two days ago, he was across from my mother’s house, moving so stealthily through the neighbor’s yard, he didn’t even disturb the laundry on the line. He took the beach route to our side of town, must’ve walked right past our house to get to the tennis courts by my dad’s where he was last photographed. He’s a young male black bear, alone, and most certainly lost. I wish he’d stop by our backyard and rest awhile in an Adirondack chair. I’d bring him a stack of toast with butter and jam and a drink of cool water, walk him over to a good fishing spot where the woods meet the marsh, and invite him back when the tomatoes are ripe.

Days of rain kept me from the garden. When the sun finally returned, I went out to weed and see if it was too late to plant cucumbers only to discover there wasn’t an inch of space. The garden is wild with tomato plants, volunteers from last summer. I have only a little tending to do: some transplanting to reduce crowding, a bit of weeding and watering. Sometimes the things we create take on a life of their own. Some growth comes not with labor but with ease.

Before I get metaphorical and compare gardening to writing, I want to pour my Marie Howe collection of observations on the table. If you decided to play along, I hope you’ll leave me a few (or a whole bunch) of yours.

A man, large and bald with thick glasses, sweeps the cafeteria floor near the table where I sit writing, looks at me and asks, “How do you like world war three?”

The boy with the missing front tooth and greasy hair always wears the same grey-brown clothes and sits alone, but at least he has a phone, and today talks briefly–so briefly–to a girl sitting nearby.

The copy machine in the teacher’s room whirs and chugs and spits so loudly, I can practice my poem in full voice without anyone hearing.

My daughter runs across the wet, green grass through the sprinkler and shouts, “Drink, mommy, drink!” I bend down and lower my face to the spray, catching the cold metallic-tasting water that feels somewhere between a tickle and a sting. I shriek with laughter.

Thin clouds gauze over the blue sky. We count two lobster boats, one barge, four sea gulls. Charles Island in the distance.

Tiny 3-year-old feet with chipped red nail polish run through the sand.

I press my nose to the back of my daughter’s head and breathe deep the scent of salt air, sunscreen, and a sweetness that belongs only to her.

The tides comes in and we watch the seaweed–green, brown, red–dance around our ankles.

Evening on the front porch. The swish-swash of the swamp maples waving in the wind. The tink-tonk of the bamboo chime.

The full moon casts a glow over the rippling water. I sit in the wet sand and watch.

 

 

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Clinkety Clank

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This funny thing keeps happening. I begin writing a post, and it veers into a new essay, or yesterday, a poem. I pluck it from the post and open a Word doc, and then never manage to return here. Most of my free time these last few weeks was consumed by planning a surprise birthday party for Chris, which entailed more than I’d anticipated, especially given my 3-year-old partner in crime who had no interest in running a million errands. But I pulled it off, surprised the heck out of him, and we all partied late into the night.

I’ve finally been released from the grip of seasonal depression. Though it still has me looking over my shoulder. We’re done here, right? Because it’s been awfully long and I’m ready to get back to the business of living and writing. I slogged through Spring trying to convince myself of potential. I know there are always new possibilities. But depression smothers the feeling, and if I can’t feel the possibilities, then I can’t access them. I tend toward what’s the point of all this? But I hang on. Wait it out. Keep going.

Chris and Isabella returned from a walk with a big bunch of white and pale pink and fuchsia peonies for me. I stripped some of the leaves and snipped the stems and put them in a tall vase next to the sink. So fragrant, such extravagant beauty keeping me company while I did the dishes. And in a flash, the phrase humming in the back of my brain, What is the point of beauty? inverts itself: Beauty is the point.

And then, like a gift from the universe, I stumbled onto The Power of Words to Save Us, an interview at On Being with the poet Marie Howe. It’s a powerful talk that includes meditations on presence, screen addiction, identity, family, everyday gestures as forms of prayer, and readings of “The Gate” and “Hurry.”

From her poem “The Meadow”

Bedeviled,

human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words

that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled

among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.

Howe talks about the assignment she gives her poetry students every year that’s both writing challenge and spiritual practice: write 10 observations of the actual world, no metaphors.

Thich Nhat Hanh says when you wash the dishes, wash it as if it were the baby Buddha or the baby Jesus. That’s what the church used to be. It used to be that we would attend these things every week that would remind us of the sacredness of the everyday. And it’s harder to find it now… It seems that everything in the Western world is trying to tell us this now, [to be present], even as we’re speeding up, and speeding up, and speeding up, and staring into our screens. It hurts to be present. I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them. Just tell me what you saw this morning in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. We want to say, “It was like this; it was like that.” We want to look away. Then they say, “Well, there’s nothing important enough.” And that’s the whole thing. It’s the point. Then they say, “Oh, I saw a lot of people who really want” — and, “No. No abstractions, no interpretations.” But then this amazing thing happens. The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff. And it’s so thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like, “Wow.” The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean, it almost comes clanking into the room. And it’s just amazing.”

I’m taking on this assignment for the next few weeks and invite you to try it too. Maybe you’ll meet me here in a couple days and dump your stuff on the table with me, clinkety clank.