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.

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19 thoughts on “Clinkety Clank

      • One thing that has stuck with me is her response to technology, how the machines are in control but it’s not how we imagined it would be. I found it so relateable when she said she knows she doesn’t want to be staring into her phone forever, but that she doesn’t know the answer. Oddly, it gave me hope, because it’s something I struggle with. And a kid just woke up crying…more later!

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        • It stuck with me too! Just last week I quoted her remarks about technology to a teacher at the high school–the machines have come for us, but it’s not as we’d imagined. And yes, the fact that she didn’t have an answer was somehow hopeful. Her ability to find the words for what IS, “the machines have come for us,”–I think that was the revelatory moment.

          One of the things that really astonished me when I began substitute teaching this year was the kids’ constant phone use. It goes beyond addiction; the phones are extensions of their bodies. It made me realize how much screen control I have now with a toddler and how little control I’ll have in the future… and how the best way to instill healthy habits is modeling them… which brings it back around to me and my own screen use… A puzzle I haven’t yet solved.

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  1. Oh, I love this. Do I have the energy to join you in clinking and clanking? Not sure but maybe I’ll try. Still, you have inspired me, and that makes me happy as I come out of my own depression. And my goodness, those peonies! Mine are going to bloom in a week or two, i think. I’ve got a tiny peony tree out back, where I can just see it if I sit in our sunroom in the the right way (a bird planted it, I think, explaining it’s pretty terrible location), and it bloomed today, looking as insanely gorgeous as your pic. Again, if I sit and look in JUST the right way…. Thanks for this post, Sarah, it’s exactly what I need today!

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    • I love that a bird planted your peonies! Mine were cut from my dad’s garden. Every year I vow to transplant a few to our yard…then autumn rolls around, and I forget. And yes, please join in the clinking and clanking! I’ll pour my stuff on the table in a new post today or tomorrow…

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  2. I really needed to read this today. I haven’t been finishing anything lately, but I have been waking up to the repeated moan of the train horn as it winds its way through town, low enough that I also hear the cardinal song. And at night, I remember going to sleep with that same horn, only louder, but still not loud enough to keep the frogs from singing in the pond that grew in the ditch with a week full of rain. And I also saw the mallards, the pair, her brown him green, paddling around in the ditch in the back, made more appealing because we haven’t been able to mow the grass there for weeks and it seems like a private place for them to nest until they smell the cat. Our cat, orange, who stretches the length of my husband’s legs on the bedcover, the white hand-stitched quilt with blue baskets made from old men’s pajamas. And I can’t figure out why I don’t finish anything. 🙂 Thank you.

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  3. Pingback: Frogs, Train Whistles and the Heart that Prays in sleep – Ugly Pies

  4. Just so many things to love about this. That you are free. The peonies. The way you pulled off Chris’ surprise party. The fact that you are teaching. I too open a post to start writing…then feel it belongs somewhere else. Or the opposite, instead of aiming for a structured piece, I lose myself in freewriting. I let the energy that should go to something a little bigger, a little more pressing (not even sure what I mean by that) sort of scatter out in a hodgepodge of thoughts, accounts of the days, reminders, ideas and beginnings.

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    • Lately, I’ve felt so challenged to harness my energy and direct it toward the “right” things. And I relate so much to your “hodgepodge of thoughts.” I feel myself relinquishing and redefining my concept of productivity…or else a feeling of failure takes over. That said, I’m still aiming for structure, for something I can point to with some sense of satisfaction and say, here is this finished thing. I am always amazed by your fast pace and the structures you create!

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  5. Pingback: A Bear, Tomatoes, and an Exercise in Resisting in Metaphor | One Blue Sail

  6. I love this so much and I hate that I have rolled this post over in my mind so many times without coming back to comment. Thank you for the Marie Howe- I am also now inspired and infatuated with her. And the no-metaphor writing exercise is sticking with me hard. I have been writing little bits here and there, and that idea- just say it- is stabbing me like a pin. I love it.

    OMG- I just used a simile to describe how I feel about writing without metaphor. This is going to be challenging.

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    • Ha! I love that a simile slipped in there. It was surprisingly hard for me not to write this is like that. I was in a study hall in the school cafeteria when I started this exercise, and the first thing I landed on was the vending machine with its rotating and flashing lights that lured like a slot machine. And I realized Howe was right–it’s challenging to just sit with an object without drawing comparison or layering meaning. And so I had to move on to something else because I couldn’t bring myself to write about the vending machine.

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