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.

Paint


I was going to tell you about the perfect summer evening. Of the cerulean sky. And how I feel dead honest when I write cerulean, entitled to that word because I was a painter, and if I had my tubes right here, cerulean would be the one I would choose. Maybe now you’ll think of Bob Ross and van dyke brown or titanium white, fan brushes, happy little trees.

The summer after college I worked a two-week stint for a small but renowned oil paint maker in upstate New York. Archival quality paint, the stuff they use for restoration work at the Met. The paint a young painter does not need but thinks she needs. I labeled tubes and they paid me in paint. It was boring and bucolic. Twenty years later, I still have some tubes with the life squeezed out of them, congealed linseed oil sealing the tops shut forever.

I was going to tell you about the perfect summer evening. Geese flying against the cerulean sky. My view from the library window. I was going to tell you how I should be walking the beach with my husband and daughter. Instead I’m here, pulling Adrienne Rich off the shelf, and then Kay Ryan, only because she’s right next to Adrienne Rich and the cover art of her book is Joshua trees in silhouette. A deadline looming, and I’m reading poetry.

I never meant to tell you about the paint. The way turpentine smells like drunk youth and dreams.

The way this writing project feels like an excavation of self. Like so many hours of nothing but dust, for the rare days I hit bone.

(Post 223 of 365)

Poetry. Hold it close.

Don’t miss these three new poems by Nick Flynn featured on Buzzfeed. What a world, right? A well-known poet and author releasing new work on Buzzfeed. I love everything about this.

When I studied with Gustaf Sobin, he said you should feel like you’re free-falling through the poem. That’s exactly how I feel when I read Nick Flynn.

Poetry. Hold it close. Hand copy it on lined notebook paper like it’s 1988. Read it out loud to yourself in the cool evening air.

Let it chisel a crack in the dam of your writer’s block.

(Post 189 of 365)

Life While You Wait

Me, every day.

LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT

by Wislowa Szymborska

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

(Post 180 of 365)

The Work of Happiness

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My inspiring writer friend Rachel turned my attention to May Sarton this morning and started this first day of summer on the perfect note.

A poem to keep like a prayer, rote, repeated, known.

The Work of Happiness
By May Sarton

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

(Post 154 of 365)

Believer: 87/365

I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Even my college was Catholic-affiliated.

Today I think of Catholicism as an old family tradition.

If asked whether I identify with a particular religion or philosophy, I would say I’m a secular humanist. A secular humanist who believes in miracles.

Or maybe I am closer to Lakota, believer in the Great Spirit that animates us all. Tree and wind, earth and sun, bird and buffalo.

When I was waiting for my daughter, I called on every one of them: ancestors, saints, trees, wind, water, animals, poetry, song.

Poetry: 81/365

At art school in France twenty years ago, I studied with the poet Gustaf Sobin. I still have the slim red composition book from that class. He was the first writing mentor who inspired me; the first writer I’d encountered who was so deft at teaching craft. One day he forgot an appointment to go over my work, and later left a note of apology in the most fantastic handwriting, signed, “with ashes on my head, Gustaf.”

Tonight I found this poem that held echoes of the day. We’d gone for a walk and found the eagle atop a telephone pole with his prey, a helpless duck. The eagle plucked and plucked with his sharp beak, feathers falling like big flakes of snow. The duck, black with blood, shuddered, then went limp. We were uncomfortably close. The eagle took off, dead duck in his talons. I kneeled on the pavement, collected black feathers streaked with iridescent blue.

 

Intrigue In The Trees
by JOHN BREHM

Often I wonder:
Is the earth trying to get
rid of us, shake us off,
drown us, scorch us
to nothingness?
To save itself and all other
creatures slated for extinction?
The trees around here
seem friendly enough —
stoic, philosophically inclined
toward nonjudgmental
awareness and giving
in their branchings
perfect examples
of one thing becoming two
and remaining one —
but who knows
what they really feel?
Just last night I was walking
to my favorite cafe,
the Laughing Goat,
when I saw a flock of crows
circling raincloudy sky,
arguing, speaking strangely,
suddenly alight on
a maple tree, dozens of them
closing down their wings
like arrogant, ill-tempered
magistrates. Some kind
of consultation
was happening there,
some plan unfolding
(animals think we’re crazy
for thinking they can’t think),
and everybody was looking up,
looking up and watching.

 

Wild Geese: 28/365

Tonight a poem, well known and beloved. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. I keep this one on the side of my fridge. I love poetry. I love to hand copy poems, slow it down, become intimate with each word. There’s something sacred about it.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the

desert, repenting.

My whole body exhales. Relief. Guilt runs deep and thick in my Irish Catholic family. I feel it in the marrow of my bones. Just recently I realized that part of what this project is is claiming myself. Maybe that’s what the whole thing is about. And as I claim myself, I release guilt.

You only have to let the soft animal of

your body

love what it loves.

Yes. Motherhood has taught me that.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will

tell you mine.

This is why we write. And why we read. And how we love.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear

pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the

clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Amen.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your

imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh

and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Doesn’t she just leave you breathless and peaceful?