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.

Recovering Hope

My dear writer-readers, I know so many of us have been struggling to write through the election fallout as we continue to witness the incomprehensible at our nation’s highest level. We’re coping with fears for the future. Real fears. The loss of civil liberties, healthcare, and medicare, a rise in hate crimes, the possible dismantling of public education, total disregard for the environment and the health of the planet, and on and on. How do we recover our voices? How do we continue to hold hope? Ultimately the answer is to show up to the page, that transformative, thoughtful place that allows us to access the deepest parts of ourselves. One of the most inspiring reads I’ve come across recently is NTOZAKE SHANGE: ON A BRILLIANT BALANCE OF ANGER AND POETRY, which also speaks to sharing, community, and collaboration.

Zaki always knew who she was talking to and who she was singing for: her peers, her sisters, her community. She always understood that creative writing is enmeshed in a community. Her mind was not focused on literary critics or the commercial publishing establishment. To say that she did not see writing as a professional career is not quite right; rather she always thought poetry was like making music, something you did with your friends to celebrate being alive.

So from the beginning Zaki’s efforts were almost always in collaboration—with other writers, with musicians, with artists, with dancers, with actors. Her body of work is more collaborative than any other writer I know. It’s the community again, a community of artists and friends that grounds and surrounds her work and locates it in its historical specificity. And that specificity in Zaki’s case meant being a woman and being Black in the America of the 1960s, a situation that demanded political involvement. The women’s movement had already taught us that the personal is political—and if you happened to be a woman, if you happened to be black in this society at this time, the personal was intensely political and politics, the politics of oppression and resistance was inescapable. And oppression generates anger, or more precisely outrage, which is anger at injustice, which can be a great danger to the poet or artist. For, while outrage can be an enormously powerful motivator of political action, it holds the danger of corroding the creative spirit.

But anger was required if you were a black woman poet who found herself in a deeply racist and misogynist society, and in the 1950s and 60s that was pretty much the case with America. And anger is hard for the poet who, as Auden says, sings songs of praise of what is. It’s hard to sing if you’re angry.

What always impressed me about Zaki’s work was that she was able to keep that just anger hot and alive, but she also knew how to keep it properly focused, to keep it in check and not to let it consume her entire being. “Combat breath” she calls it in one of her essays. Mastering the anger rather than being mastered by it, she could go on being essentially—even quintessentially—a poet, one who celebrates the impact of the live moment as it bursts into language and song.

(Post 317 of 365)

 

 

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)

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)

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?

The Truth: 27/365

Coffee. Below zero February morning. The truth.

The truth is my last few posts have been a struggle. You can hear it, right? No wind in my sails. The truth is we were sick and sleepless for two weeks with racking coughs. I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s dire, like broken bones or stitches. It’s all lemon water homeopathic cough syrup tumeric cinnamon bone broth humidifier wet sock treatment herbal tea around here. Between the sick and the snow, I’m feeling housebound and a little stir-crazy. We make our little outings… Yale Peabody Museum to see the dinos on Thursday afternoons when admission is free. The library. The grocery store, always multiple trips as I can only ever seem to buy two days worth of food. We made it to the playground those few warm days before the temperature plunged to subzero. But Lordy, being home in the winter with a little one requires creativity and imagination. Play dough and books and dress-up and hide-and-seek and dining room table forts. Little 25 month old nursling commands, “Sit on the couch, mama. I need milky!” I give in, and while she nurses, she flings her toddler feet into my face and says, “My socks are orange!” and I say, “Yes, your socks are orange.” And she says, “My socks are orange. It’s like red. But it’s not yellow.” And I think, she’s a color genius! I go on a brief hunt for my watercolor paper, which has to be somewhere in this house, because if I can’t get my writing done, then I ought to add some painting to the heap of unfinished projects. My sneakers look like a dog chewed the heels out. (We don’t have a dog.) I don’t buy anything for myself. Minimalism is good for you. Deciphering between necessity and luxury is good for you. Not buying into our culture’s compulsive over-consumption is good for you. Last week I binge-read The Chronology of Water and had a reading hangover. The writing entrances while the content guts you. And how did she write a book of short stories and a novel during her child’s first year of life? C’mon Lidia, please tell me you had a nanny. Things like that make me feel hopelessly inadequate. Like how am I not getting more done? (If you’ve read that book, you’re thinking, seriously, that’s your takeaway?) But even this paragraph, I’ve been writing it in five minute spurts for four hours, and I ask myself, is it even worth it? That’s how things happen with a toddler, in five minute spurts. Nine minutes if you’re lucky. Sometimes I think I would like another baby. I wonder if my sweet girl is missing a companion. And then I think everything is perfect just as it is. I think about my body going through pregnancy and postpartum again and my brain shouts, NO WAY! And then I remember it’s not up to me anyway. The universe waves its magic wand. Or it doesn’t. I want to write a novel. I want to write and illustrate a children’s book. I want to finish one damn essay. I think about homeschooling and veer off into Waldorf curriculums. I want to raise backyard chickens. What else having I been meaning to say? That Anne Lamott talk from a few posts back. She quantifies writing time and it makes perfect sense. She says if you’ve got three hours, that’s two hours and ten minutes of writing time. Ah, so true! Little light bulb moment. I would like to quantify writing time + toddler. After I painted that Phoebe Wahl valentine I listened to an interview with her on the podcast While She Naps, and while the conversation is mostly around running a small creative business, it drifts into feminism and motherhood and miscarriage and homemaking. It struck a chord deep in my heart, the love of homemaking and childrearing and creative project making and being there for ordinary moments. And I was surprised to hear Phoebe, this young RISD grad, declare, “To say that domesticity is synonymous with submission is to dishonor the thousands of years worth of strong and independent women who have acted as homemaker, and the men and women who continue to passionately fill this role of their own volition.”

Now, instead of getting self-conscious and editing the heck out of this post, I’m going to hit publish and go look for that watercolor paper again.