Guest Post, Eric Maroney: The Limited, Forever Living Thing

Man Reading Torah“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things”


We are always torn apart. Behind the face we present to the world, there is a fracture. Two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control, and the dread of disorder. These opposing states, so closely linked, cause us no small misery, but the dynamic is so much a part of our ingrained habit of thinking that we constantly try, though with little success, to smother it with all manner of distractions.

We frequently wake up early in the morning with a crashing, dawn-clarity in the form of the question: What can I do about some awful problem? What we are really asking above and behind this question, is “can this problem be contained or controlled?” And if not – if the problem can’t be mended – how do we live with our sense that by not resolving this difficulty, and by allowing it to stand shamelessly unresolved, life’s great promise of joy will unravel from its spool? Further refined, we can distill the question to its rock hard core: How do I live with pain, grief, anguish?

We have all encountered such moments. But nothing distresses the quest for control more than a crisis of health. The body lurks, waiting; it conceals sickness under skin, tissue and bone. Beneath the veil of our physical stability, a system bubbles toward disorder. My own crock boiled over when I was twenty-nine and diagnosed with cancer. At a time of life when people typically view mortality though a long lens, my death seemed more immediate. I had no resources to deal with the reality of death: therefore my responses were limited. My mind contracted under the idea of death. My notions were hedged by binary postures: fight, win, move on, or fight, lose, die.

Pressed in this vice, I ultimately found it most reassuring to learn to abandon the notion of continued life. This brought a measure of peace. Death is the ultimate negation – a blunt, inescapable fact. Somewhere on a cosmic script, the conclusion is written in indelible ink: you will die. So by embracing death, by laying down at its feet, I let go of the struggle against its oppressive strain. I was still bound to life, to be certain, but only by sheer threads.

In the first few years after surgeries and treatments, I devalued existence. This attitude worked under a certain set of narrow conditions. But as I expanded my horizons after the disease, this stance evolved into a crisis of conscience. How can we live without embracing life? Clinging to death is a poor long term-solution, for even after the cancer was in remission, there was still the fact that I might die at any moment. Death simmers inside of us. My unbending cheapening of life did not solve the problem of death – it merely postponed it. I had driven myself to the verge of an existential cliff. In order to continue to live, I had to change the mental formula that had been useful since I was diagnosed with cancer – because the thin gruel of indifference to life cannot sustain a flea.

If we face suffering, sickness, depression and death, we can turn to something well beyond us: religion. In the years following a great crisis, I turned to Judaism. But my reason for this move, I believe, veers very far from the common expectation. Religion did not provide me comfort. A Jewish life did not offer me hope of a healthy body as a reward for my virtuous actions, or the recompense of an enchanted afterlife beyond a bodily existence marked by pain and suffering; nor did I seek the protection of a powerful and providential deity who could answer my prayers.

On the contrary, Jewish practice catapulted me beyond the bounds of reward and punishment to a real “space” where my deeds are free from the expectation of reward. This is a crucial point: by practicing Judaism, I can relinquish control to the realm of pure Jewish action. In the language of Judaism I perform the mitzvoth, the Jewish religious requirements, not for any payoff, but, as is said in Hebrew lishma, for and in themselves. This perspective has steered my apathy and indifference into more disciplined channels.

I practice Judaism to practice it. This sounds like an echo, but the seeds of this practice produce sturdy foliage. With Jewish ritual practice detached from reward, I can pursue a goal without the restraints of expectation. My mind and heart practice Judaism’s ritual demands with detachment. Detachment, of course, has pejorative implications – a lack of caring, a stance of aloofness – but it can also emancipate; and in a paradoxical turn, the freedom of detachment can transform our indifference into a more vital, lasting form of care. And the practice of lishma, of doing a deed in and for itself, can be exercised everywhere. By living life lishma, the mind is freed from the stark habit of thinking that the two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control and the dread of disorder.

In lishma, we transcend the need to control the events of our lives. Order happens, disorder happens – they are states that come and go and we have no control over either. But no matter what happens, we perform our duty and live life. Our imperative to action is action itself. With patience and practice, even life’s gravest challenges and abrupt transformations become shaded in different hues. Events take on the color of the moment, rather than the stain of our anxiety for specious stability. When we are no longer distracted about the issue of control, we are able to free ourselves from the slavery of expectations. And by doing so, we are able to see ourselves in the light of the singular, precious instant.

Congratulations Nicole Rollender

Congratulations to SR Contributor Nicole Rollender on the release of her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications), available now from ELJ Publications.

More than anything else, Louder Than Everything You Love is about transformation. The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs (“this body-psalm of need the only holiness I know”) and saints’ incorruptible bodies.

These women also live inside themselves, contending with the wolves within, asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens form within its bone fences?” The dead, the living and the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, remembrance, for some kind of communion. The poems in Louder Than Everything You Love are about the struggle of living in a body, being a parent, trying to find the balance between what our lives on earth mean/what it means to come to terms with dying.

Louder Than Everything You Love is also available for direct purchase from Nicole for $18.99, who will sign it and send it from her house free of shipping with a copy of her poetry broadside “This Is How to Feed Your Young.”

Read more of Nicole’s poetry in Issue 15!

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Guest Blog Post, Jacob Oet: Cancer

Jacob OetMy grandmother died on December 15, 2003.

            To what extent is digital technology an alienating influence?

A Google search for “Gabriela Nudelman Hamden Connecticut” yields nothing pertinent but a webpage from Mylife.com, where another Gabriela Nudelman had set up a profile.

This is not my grandmother. My grandmother does not exist, according to the internet. She is null.

This is what society has to say about Gabriela Nudelman: She was a civil engineer. She was a Russian immigrant. She was Jewish. She was the wife of David Nudelman and the mother of my father and my aunt. She was buried in a Jewish cemetery in New Haven and her gravestone is in the shape of the Hebrew symbol “Chai.”

It means “living.”

This is what I have to say about a woman who grew stranger after her death: She was adopted. She wore a Chai on a golden chain around her neck until she died. She used to take me to work with her. She worked in a cubicle. I had my first experience with computers at her work. Her screensaver was “Deep Space.” It showed thousands of white dots blurring out from the center of the screen, which were meant to represent stars and the movement of a spaceship. Now that I think of it, “Deep Space” is emblematic of our extreme isolation in this digital age. I played my first computer game on her office-computer. It was pin-ball, the sci-fi deep-space pin-ball that has always been a facet of a Windows operating system.

She was killed by ovarian cancer, discovered too late to prevent.

This is what Google has to say about ovarian cancer: “Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries. The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce eggs.”

This description is difficult to read. Why? It is painfully disconnected. Like my own reaction to my grandmother’s death.

I was tough. I never cried, not once. I don’t remember the burial. Was I even there? My father cried in front of her grave one year later. It was wonderful and frightening.

I hated her after she died. I always thought that she was disappointed in me. My father kept her picture on his computer desk next to the living room. It was a black and white, candid setting, but she smiled as if posing, nervous and warm, as if caught in mid-twitch. I saw her in my dreams, but I didn’t want to. She was manifested in my poems. Truly, inextricable from my life story. Here are two of my many poems about my grandmother:

In December

Stuck in the blue other house,

my grandmother, croaking like floor,

said what a big boy.

I was.

Night my parents left

us in the house on the lake,

the air terribly.

Hands pressed dark for nothing.

My father’s face the next

morning and I knew

cold.

Blue the end of sound.

He said she didn’t open her eyes.

I said the entire body when that happens.

The head has an empty room.

 

Touch

In my father’s first house we are having dinner.

The dead grandmother

suddenly beside me.

She reaches over plates to touch faces.

When she touches my cheek

it’s cold.

When she left I was too young.

To be touched in a dream

is better.

 

The only way I can be “real” is through my writing. Who wants to be real? Raise your hand. The truth is, we were born into this digital age. And it sucks.

In ten years, I have not cried over my grandmother, except in dreams. Tears are a rare commodity. The last time I cried was one month ago. One of my favorite websites is Wouldhavesaid.com. Anonymous users upload letters of regret or thanks, addressed to entities who will never read them.

This is what the website has to say about itself: “Whether the person has passed away, contact was lost, or the strength needed at the time was lacking, this is a chance to say what you have always wanted them to know.” It is a good example of how the internet can be used for good, for storytelling, to evoke reality.

There is one letter on this site that I repeatedly read for catharsis, late at night, because it makes me cry. It is titled “Mr. Biggs.”

In it, Vincent, age 19, writes an apologetic but resolutely thankful letter to his first dog, the twelve-inch-tall and unappreciated friend who always loved him.

It is somewhat similar to my story. Ten years have passed. The writer gains a fulfilling understanding of the relationship through the catharsis of story-telling. He must have told the story ten times in his mind before it cleared enough for the page.

I’m telling this story: Baba Gala died of ovarian cancer. She lives again in this telling, but only so long as I am speaking.

I’m repeating this story, so you don’t forget it. So I don’t forget it.

Baba Gala lives. She dies. I change. I remain.

 

When revising a poem, I must distance myself from the emotion, to better understand the poem’s technical weaknesses.

This is well and good for the writer. Going over and over this story in my head for ten years, I have come to understand it better. But for my audience, or for any audience, once is simply not enough.

Gabriela Nudelman was my Yin; digital technology, my Yang—dualities in equilibrium; without the one, chaos. This is the difference between digital technology and story-telling. Digital technology seeks to inform. Facts cannot bring back my grandmother. Stories make her seem to live. Information is not evocation.

Computers are just another facet of a cancer which has been killing us since the beginning of recorded history. This cancer is the cancer of the once-told story, the story that is forgotten almost before it is read, and the story that entertains us only as long as it informs us.

Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story. Our story. This story. Of a life, of the death of a loved one, and its emotional yield.

Breathe. Everyone. In, out.

Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story.

Guest Post, Annah Browning: Hair and the Long-Dead Acquaintance: Some Metaphors and Vulnerability

Annah BrowningSome writers love to talk about their “writing process.” I am not one of those people. I could say it’s because “process” reminds me of something you do to meat, or because “processing” is what people say they’re doing after something horrible happens. The truth is that I’m a private person— a genteel way of saying that I frequently feel simultaneously embarrassed and protective of myself, especially the way my mind works (or doesn’t) in my off-hours from academia. And yet, whenever I sat down to think of some account I could give to this fine website, this set of very personal metaphors occurred, and no matter how much I tried nothing more clever or articulate arrived.

The truth is that often I am surprised to find that I have a poem, the same way one sometimes has an erect nipple—maybe the room is cold, maybe that picture is crooked, maybe someone died—years ago—and you just remembered. Sometimes I have a poem, and sometimes I can’t remember that Allison Horschel* is dead.

She ran cross-country with me in high school. I always liked her in the way, when you’re thirteen, you like everyone who seems braver than you are. She’d hock and spit to show people the way to pronounce her Germanic last name. HOR-schel. We weren’t friends. She was older and loud and funny and crass, and the last time anybody I knew saw her alive she was being stuffed into the back of a cop car in the mill hill—a tiny neighborhood of almost identical houses built by the textile mill that had once dominated the town. At the time of this supposed arrest (“supposed” because, as is the rule in small towns, the truth can get quite bent in successive tellings), she had already graduated; I was still cutting through the mill hill to train for meets.

A few years later, after I moved away to college, my best friend C. had to tell me three times that Allison Horschel was dead—on separate occasions, months apart, because I kept asking after her. C. looked at me in disbelief each time—don’t you remember she’s dead. She died. A horrible car accident. 

But I never remembered right away. To say that I felt like a heel each time would be putting it mildly. It was as if my mind just rejected the information—it felt wrong, so it couldn’t be true. At that age I still thought of home as a stage set I had momentarily walked away from, where I could return whenever I wanted, pick up the props and the people as if nothing had changed. She had died on C.’s birthday. Neither of us had spoken to her in years.

Another way of saying it: sometimes a poem is a small expectation breaking—like a knot of hair you can’t untangle. You pull it hard and you let it snap, rip out of your head. It always surprises me—how tough hair is, and how odd it is to see it disconnected from the body. An acquaintance, out of context. Uncanny.

Several friends have told me—as a gesture of what I would like to believe was affection— that after not seeing me for months, years even, they’ll find a long red hair in the pages of a book, or sealed up in a bag of sweaters, or they’re sweeping up getting ready to move house, and they think they could make a wig, really, out of what’s there. I want to believe that love is just such a contaminant— that when separated what we leave behind can be something so personal, so irritating, with the same gestures towards permanence and intimacy.

In the Song of Songs 6:6, the beloved’s teeth are compared to a flock of wet sheep emerging from the water. This analogy is disgusting and therefore permanent to my memory. When I was younger, I never understood describing the parts of a lover in terms of dirty farm animals. Now it makes some sense to me. Real closeness to anybody is never antiseptic or invulnerable. Teeth are wet because they live in the mouth. We are never as clean in our interactions, or in our metaphors, as we mean to be. Every comparison is a stretch.

One of the things I miss about the cows that used to live next to my parents’ property is their smell, the heaviness of it, the steam rising off their urine in the winter. I loved the way their eyes followed you as you walked. According to animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, if you lie down in a pasture and are still for long enough, the cows will circle around to look at you. Maybe lick you. I never thought to try that. I think at the time I would have been too afraid, too squeamish. They lived in their country; I lived in mine, for the most part. Good fences, etc. But that didn’t mean I never put my hand out for their snouts. They sometimes gave them, and let me pet their blazes— the weird imperfect stars of hair that grow between the eyes.

All of this to say, I guess, that I’m still here, holding up a hand. I have not yet lain down in green pastures, so to speak. But I do the work, and wait. Sometimes another hand happens to my hand, sometimes not. Sometimes there are poems. I am told, but do not remember, that many winters of my early childhood, my father would choose a cow, go with the neighbor to the abattoir, and then there’d be a freezer full of bloody meat for us to eat. What I do remember is that I liked drawing on butcher paper on occasion—even though it isn’t the best at taking pigment—because one side had a pearly feel, like skin. Impermanence, intimacy, death. There you are.

I visit home now and eat the soups and cornbreads that have contained many lives. I remind myself of Allison. I fill my cup back up with ice. It is summer in South Carolina— hot and damp. I remember the ratty ties we all wore in our hair in high school, tangled tight to our heads, and how we had to rip them out after running miles on throbbing shins and bloody blisters. When I am finished with my drink I dump my remnants in the sink, ice melted down to half-moons. I make another metaphor.

*not her real name

Guest Post, Amanda Fields: What Do I Write? Reflections at Two Months of Motherhood

Amanda FieldsIt’s 6AM. My daughter has nursed long enough to be lulled into a nap. She’s struggling to push out some gas, her shoulders tense and legs jimmying, her face scrunched as she grunts. She awoke hungry at 5. She’s no cruising nurser – she’s so serious about the food and the social opportunity at the breast that she stays until last call. And now, if she sleeps for fifteen minutes, I’ll be amazed.

It’s been almost two months since I was admitted to the hospital because I was overdue, because I am of “advanced maternal age,” because my amniotic fluid was low and my placenta, the experts surmised, was growing calcified and fatigued. Two months since I was induced for two days, my cervix constantly checked to the beat of the fetal heart monitor that echoed in my dreams long after delivery, midwives’ fingers attempting to pull my fisted cervix forward. Despite the prodding hands and pills and IV drips, the cervix remained stubbornly posterior, clamped.

It’s probably weird to draw a poetic analogy between my cervix and my current inability to write. But now that every minute is taken up with feeding and holding and showing the world to this child and the nagging question of when I can do the other work I want to do, my writerly self (whatever that is) seems locked up tight somewhere else.

Two months in, emerging from a haze of novice parenting to the work I choose to do, I’m starting to consider the inevitable merging of parenting and writing. Like all of us who face a new kind of writer inside as our lives change, I must get acquainted with this newly-born part of me that influences how I perceive and generate my work. I’ve written about mothers before, but now I wonder who that woman was who could write about motherhood before her own pregnancy, before her own baby. The novel I’m working on boasts two main characters plagued by the ghost of a teenaged son who killed himself in their backyard. A short story I published last summer in Nashville Review is about a woman whose toddler died. Who was that woman writing about the deaths of children? Not me, I suspect. Not me anymore.

The short story with the dead child was originally an essay about my time in Ireland just after graduating from college. Then it became a story, though the narrator was still me, observing and reflecting upon some things that happened abroad when I was twenty-one. Eventually, I applied some basic fiction lessons: give your main characters more interesting reasons to be wherever they are, and don’t make them observers with little at stake. Enter a young mother, visiting Ireland with her husband. Their marriage is falling apart because their young child has died. While we traverse Ireland, there are flashbacks of the mother feeling ambivalent about this child. I wonder if she is a convincing mother. She was a plot device, and her memories of her weird child were my memories of the way I imagined my parents perceived me sometimes. The story is published and finished, but I wonder how I would write that story now. I almost wish I could have another go at it, though perhaps the mother and child would evaporate from the story.

And what about this novel with the grieving parents? For almost eight years, I’ve been picking away at it, but I don’t know how to return to it. Writing a novel doesn’t match the blood, sweat, and tears of laboring with a baby, but it has been an awful lot of work, and I have to ask myself if I’m willing to lose all those pages and hours and immersion in that world just because I am not sure if I want to delve into the plight of those mourning parents. If I open this dormant document, how will I re-imagine them? Will I be able to stand even imagining their feelings? Will I be able to get around my superstitious certainty that writing or thinking about horrible things can both cause them to happen and ward them off? How can I write about a dead child when that is now the worst horror I can imagine?

The opportunity I have before me is to reassess the problems and choices I used to see in my fiction, to generate new problems and choices based on a perspective that is not necessarily clearer but different. It seems that being a mother and a writer will be about mining the generative parts of myself in several directions, like splitting the sun. After all, at least for the moment, I am the center of my child’s universe. Every morning I eagerly wait for my baby to rise and do simultaneously pedestrian and miraculous things. And, as these questions about my writing have emerged, I wait for the writer-me to return. I think I am the only one waiting, the center of my writing’s existence.

Guest Blog Post, Vanessa Blakeslee: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Vanessa Blakeslee1. Take care of yourself. Much like the announcements before flights regarding the placing of oxygen masks, you can’t expect to render your characters fully if you’re out of shape and eating poorly. Exercise regularly and eat fresh foods. Caffeinate moderately. Get eight hours of sleep every night. To underestimate the power of the subconscious, the breakthroughs that undoubtedly come from the dream-state and walks in the park, is foolish and undermining of the imagination at work. Never mind that your ability to contribute to the literary canon is severely compromised if you’re sick or dead.

2. Become aware of the effects of environment on your process—and change it up if need be. If you can’t settle in at your desk today, try the couch. If the sun is shining during your writing hours and you can’t stand being inside your apartment one more second, find a park bench or an outdoor café. If you’re in public and one-sided phone conversations keep intruding on your characters’ dialogue, seek out someplace quiet. Go wherever you need to be to enter the fictional dream as completely as you can.

3. Write first drafts in longhand whenever possible. My initial drafts almost always turn out truer to my vision when I’m connected to the physical page through a pen or pencil, thus saving time later during revision. I think there might be scientific data to back this up, but regardless, one obvious benefit is that you are much more apt to cross-out and play with alternative phrasing in the margins and between sentences, etc., sometimes literally question what you may be attempting to say on the page. Whereas in word-processing software, you don’t like a phrase, Delete-delete-delete, and not only is it gone forever, but so is your record of what you were aiming for, even if your initial attempts at grasping for an image or line fell short. When you type up the handwritten pages, you’re composing your second draft—added bonus.

4. Keep questioning the stakes of your premise. Often, at the beginning of a new story or before a revision, I’ll write, “Is this a great story of love and death?” across the top. If the answer is no, then consider how you might approach the premise differently to make it more gripping. If it is a novel, trace the narrative backwards to see where you may have gotten off-track, or strayed from the tension. You may be surprised in going over your drafts at how much of what you may have considered essential is in effect tangential.

5. If you’re stuck or between scenes or sections and uncertain where your protagonist goes next, take a short nap. Again, sometimes a quick dip into the subconscious is just the trick for stirring up new ideas/images. Although you’ll have to wait until you get home if you’re at a coffee shop.

6. That said, sometimes you have to just power through. This is tricky advice to give, when to step away (or nap!) and when to power through, and largely instinctive. But powering-through happens for me after I do a good bit of questioning and jotting down of potential ideas in my notebook regarding where the story needs to go next. There follows the sort of heavy feeling of anticipation, excitement, and despair regarding how I am going to accomplish what is to take place—but all that remains is doing it. That’s when it’s time to log out of Facebook, brew a fresh caffeinated favorite, push ahead, and trust.

7. The Internet/Facebook/Twitter/Etc. Figure out your relationship to it. I love nothing more than perusing for articles on strange happenings and the idiosyncrasies of my friends’ lives; as such, I’m a self-proclaimed Facebook addict. I’ve never been a big procrastinator, either, but when I arrive at my desk I tend to scroll the Facebook newsfeed until I have an overwhelming feeling that I’ve been pummeled enough by everyone’s happenings and achievements, and am then happily driven to the page and my inner world. In between scenes or sections and when I take a snack break, I will often log back on. Sometimes I go to coffee shops because although I have a smart phone, I am much less likely to be distracted by the Internet when I have actually driven somewhere and purchased menu items with precious dollars. Only you can figure out how to balance the work/Internet pull.

8. Learn to trust and develop your gut instincts regarding your work, and others’ critique of it. True, you’ll always be too close to it, because you’re the creator. And there will always be some voices ringing out in workshop that are way off for your vision of the story, your aesthetic, etc. But then there will be some who are right on, whose searing feedback or advice matches the quiver in your middle when you hold the draft up before your eyes. Better to have a handful—even one—of these voices in your corner than none. Cherish such readers, yet also keep in mind that someone who may have resonated deeply with a previous project of yours may not have the same relationship with the next one. Have the courage to seek out fresh eyes.

9. Realize the value of your work—because if you don’t value it, why should others? Delegate as many nonessential, non-writing tasks to whatever degree you can—to agents, interns, teenage children/siblings, eager grad students, etc. If you’ve got a $50,000 a year teaching gig, hire a maid service to clean your house once or twice a month so you can invest in those precious days off to write. Figure out which holidays you prefer to celebrate with family and which ones you can skip to attend a writers’ colony, or borrow a friend’s cabin in the woods for a couple of weeks.

10. Meditate on your death every day. This meditation will usually be fleeting and hardly morbid—but certain, yes. You are going to die. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or six months down the road. Then again, maybe today. All that will be left of your essence in this life will be what you’ve left behind, written down. Is what you have to say essential? If not, how to make it so? Most everything pertaining to the craft of writing can be boiled down to those two questions.

Guest Blog Post, Maureen Alsop: Requiescat, Self-Portrayal at Samhai

Requiescat, Self-Portrayal at Samhain: Spiritisim is Annunciation, You Thought You Were An Opera Singer

You are engaging a meditation on your death. Perhaps you broke the law, but it was an old law, a lost aria, unenforced. You are held in the residue and ascetic disaffiliation. Sleep’s epitaph, your eyes guarded by sixpence, silvered shine of wolfhounds. At the feast, they set a place for you among the dead. Cold stars languish under your crane-skin dress. Hornet’s nest kept in your hair’s gust.  Inexplicable speech. Moth light over gray meadow. You taste the hum in the walls where mule stood over the glass riverbank.  Sparrow stasis. For each animal there is a trade. There is a wormhole upon the forehead, bonfire constellations, maggot conscience. You’d been walked between bonfire’s remains, the dappled throng. Through the small barn window you saw the blistered flank of the fur-licked cattle.

Belief in the body is attempted, form found without words, form given. Leaving the mind starts out as a little joke. Here, Spiritism is a woman riding a colt; the space toward which she is moving is an immeasurable dark. How did you think things would improve? She gives night the permission to erase the host. Your architectures had always been enough, and perfectly therein.