Two Aprils ago,
my guest post for this blog held hope for my children. Now we’re in a pandemic,
all of us in one house trying to teach and learn still.
struggled with superstition. When I was a child, if I saw a cardinal in the
underbrush on the way to school, it would be a good day. If I didn’t, then
maybe I had but didn’t realize. Or maybe I didn’t say it as a charm under my
breath, so a bad day wasn’t coming after all.
My life wasn’t
bad, not as bad as other people’s. I told myself that over and over, scorning
myself for being sensitive. Addiction, mental illness, accidents, violence,
poisons in our environment and diseases that followed–forget how you feel. It
doesn’t matter. Be glad it’s not worse and get on living.
No need to
suffer heartbreaks if you figured out the game and played to win. Yet success
could be lost anytime, either by having too much confidence (pride goeth before
a fall) or too little thankfulness (taking it for granted). In other words, if
something went wrong, I had only myself to blame.
We didn’t talk
about bad things happening to good people, except maybe Job, and even he failed
the test. We didn’t confront flaws in the systems. Life was a vale of tears.
Only fools expected otherwise. Know your place.
As an adult, as
a parent, it’s endless, all the ways I can keep failing. I realize now the
adults around me as a child felt that way, too. Even before COVID-19, this was
everything to be back to the way it used to be. Except for me.
My uncle, my
mother’s brother, died last Thanksgiving. The Air Force emblem with its bald
eagle was part of the ceremony to honor his service. Growing up in southern
Illinois, I never saw eagles. But there, after his memorial, I saw one fly over
towards the river. Since then, more times than I can count, I’ve seen an eagle
flying overhead where I live now, hundreds of miles away.
The last time I
saw my uncle, at his daughter’s service, I asked him, although it was more like
a statement, how do we survive this, how can we go on.
And he held me
and said, because we do.
Superstition: a widely held but unjustified
belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action
or event, or a practice based on such a belief.
Middle English: from Old French, or from
Latin superstitio(n- ), from super- ‘over’ + stare ‘to stand’ (perhaps from the notion of ‘standing over’ something in awe).
What does it
mean to stand over something? Does the awe come from how things turned out? Or from
the surprise that you’re still standing despite what happened? Is it like
understanding, meaning you try to make sense of events by looking for what
controls them? Or does overstanding mean surviving despite realizing you don’t control
If I can’t
protect my children, then what does it matter what I wrote for this blog last
time, my father’s room of books, my mother’s lifework teaching, anything I’ve
ever written, what I write now?
It’s easy for
me to fall back into that kind of fatalism. But when I give myself space to
feel, I return to what I sensed despite myself from the beginning: it matters. Just
like the memory my uncle shared of riding in a motorboat on the river as a
little boy with his little brother. The Mississippi was flooding. His brother
had brought a toy he loved, a stuffed bunny. He held it in front of him so its ears
flapped back in the wind as they went forward. My uncle was joyful in this
memory. But in all the stories he ever told me, he didn’t share this one until
a few years before he died. It must not have been long after this ride that he
lost his brother in an accident.
On what turned out
to be our last day in the physical classroom this semester, my students and I
read E.E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:
children guessed (but only a few and down they forgot as up they grew….
stars rain sun moon (and only the snow can begin to explain how children are apt to forget to remember with up so floating many bells down)
Prior to the corona outbreak, which
has demanded that we form new relationships with isolation and stillness, I’d
been thinking a lot about the connection between religion, writing and the
concept of silence and solitude. I
often think and try to write about how religion and writing are intertwined,
how both seek to create meaning out of the ineffable. Many organized
religions rely on language to get at the holy, unspeakable things, and so does
writing. A good piece of writing shows the reader life’s ineffable nuances.
More than that, writing elicits the feeling of holiness—a feeling of
recognition, connection and empathy, without dogmatism or divisiveness. The act
of writing, for some, is a spiritual practice. It is for me. This isn’t to say
the act is joyful or anywhere near divine—it’s often a painful practice,
laborious and difficult. Still, it feels like holy work in that I have to do
it. Whether or not the writing is seen by anyone else, whether it’s good
writing or bad, the need to write calls, and I surrender.
By default all artists are
theologians. We create meaning out of disorder and succeed far greater in this
meaning-making pursuit than any organized religion ever will. We strive to
show, not preach, connect, not separate. Yet there is something to be said that
silence and solitude show up in religiosity and art-making. Virginia Woolf’s A
Room of One’s Own, and Thoreau’s Walden, are just a few examples of
the long history between writing and solitude; we understand writing as an
inherently solitary act, one that is often accompanied by silence. Some think
of cabins in the woods, private rooms in which to muse. Religions, too,
particularly monastic traditions, emphasize solitude as a means to get closer
to the divine, with nature and therefore the Self. The scholar Alan Altany says
that “silence and solitude are as mother to the monk, leading him into the
abyss, shorn of distractions to be alone with god.” Religious traditions are
rich in their attention to isolation, pilgrimage and exile.
In The World of Silence, Swiss
philosopher Max Picard asserts that silence is not merely an absence of sound,
but an internal state that can be achieved anywhere. Thoreau makes this point,
too, when he says, “the really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of
Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert.” Silence, Picard
says, is not a negative lacking: “When language ceases, silence begins. But it
does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language simply makes
the presence of Silence more apparent…language and silence belong together:
language has knowledge of silence as silence has knowledge of language.” Although
it is not necessary according to this point of view, quiet time with nature, for
me, is religious. And it’s true that I do not need language, theology,
or poetry for that matter, to tell me to feel moved. It’s just there. It’s
unnamable. It feels sacrilegious to try to name it outright—that’s what art is
for. In fiction we try to mimic that unspeakable feeling through plot, through
the specificity of an individual life. In poetry, via surprising, precise metaphors,
form and structure.
Now suddenly our world has changed.
The corona outbreak, this microscopic virus, has asked us to engage with large sociopolitical
dilemmas as well as theological and spiritual questions. The term sabbath
comes to mind, both as a religious observance and, more poignantly, as an
internal state of stillness and rest. Most of us are not retreating to the
woods, and many of us are attending work—i.e. nurses, doctors, grocery store
employees, etc.—all the people who are keeping us going during this time of
flux. Many of us are disengaged from a literal silence, but all of us are
interacting with isolation, change, uncertainty, fear, patience,
empathy, and surrender—these human conditions that are obsessed over
by both theists and artists. Altany writes, “Solitude and silence are not so
much attempts to stop the world or to escape it, but to engage in a new way.” We
needn’t identify as a theist or an artist to find internal states of sabbath,
nor must we live a silent, monastic life. We will continue to make meaning
because we are human.
The word sôma [or σώμα] in Greek refers as much to the singular, to soma mou [my body] as it does to a group, as in the body of a state or community; σώμα, often used to refer to the Greek police force, i.e. το σώμα του στρατού, or “The Force” as we’d say in English. The Force, a momentum of the singular body as it conflates itself with a larger body in times of war and love and pandemics. Crisis moments teach us we are independent in so far as we acknowledge our interdependence, the self a map made mutable by what contests and reshapes it. When I wrote “The Wig & The Scream, a forensics” (s[r] issue #24)) I was interested in the fallibilities of how we construct borders, how the law and emotions are mapped out — who do we let into our hearts and why, at what borders do we accept or reject individuals?
The COVID-19 virus has no regard for class, race, gender, or nationality; it is particularly Darwinian, as the strong and young are its best carriers who can unbeknownst to them lethally infect the elderly and weak. As with any plague, the virus has overwhelmed borders. “My heart is a country that is dying,” says a doctor on television from Bergamo, the Lombard town at the heart of the pandemic in Italy where military trucks are carrying off the coffins of its victims. “The new virus certainly seems to be effective at infecting humans, despite its animal origins,” notes Ed Yong in The Atlantic. Meanwhile animals are not carriers. Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” or Οιδίπους τύραννος (Oedipus of Tirannous) begins with an epidemic in Thebes, the body of the city vulnerable and equal to what infects it, including that of its king. “The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts, over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians” (Yong).
2. One’s life in the physical world
When the Greek government’s first measures closed cafeterias, restaurants, and hairdressers, it was a weekend. My neighborhood transformed from its evident café life with people out shopping in local shops to a community that spread itself into the groves of the Ymittos hill behind my apartment. People strolled the green embankments with their kids and pets and partners, or like me were alone enjoying the air and wild chamomile. It was a weekend of spring showing her gorgeousness in the sprays of wildflowers and newly sprouting greens. The virus, we were being told, all around us in the air, a contagion of breath that settles in the lungs and makes it hard to breathe; if we get too close to each other we will inhale these droplets if one is infected and coughs or sneezes; the pollen was plentiful so people were sometimes coughing and sneezing as the hill gathered us, and the sun, coating us in its embrace, promised that the virus, partial as it is to the cold, like any vampire, would die in that sunlight.
3. That which is material (as opposed to spiritual)
In an online March 19 piece in Verso Judith Butler asks how the pandemic is making us think of “our obligations toward one another” emphasizing that the politics of health care in the US “all testify to the rapidity with which radical inequality” allows for “capitalist exploitation … to reproduce and strengthen their powers.” Wealthy businessmen were tipped off to sell their stock before the pandemic started to affect the market that subsequently started to crash. Trump wanted to “buy (with cash) exclusive US rights to a vaccine from a German company… funded by the German government” (my emphasis). A German politician, Karl Lauterbach, responded with, “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the USA must be prevented by all means. Capitalism has its limits” (my emphasis). I wrote “The Wig & The Scream” in a series of vignettes in imitation of the 44 episodes of the crime series The Killing, a sequencing aimed to suggest the limitations of our assumptions; in “#13 There is a poverty to desire that insists on its object & only that” I was not thinking of Trump, or Midas, or the self-interest of big business, but the context of this pandemic and Trump’s poverty of vision (if we can use that noun for someone so blind), makes Butler’s question urgent: “Is it even thinkable within his world to insist upon a world health concern that should transcend market rationality at this time?” A statement by a doctor in Bergamo might be one answer, “At this point you realize you are not enough.” Another is that unlike Oedipus, Trump does not recognize his role in the plague.
We have gathered in our homes under the Greek hashtag #μένουμεσπίτι or #menoumespiti [#westayathome], we’ve adjusted our individual routines, kids home schooled online, teaching through computer screens. The materiality of space has taken on a new significance. In moments of danger we are viscerally aware of our threatened selves too often viewed as singular, our borders close, our doors shut, on what we view as “home”; it’s been interesting to see how countries are telling their citizens to “return home,” as I write airports such as Heathrow are overrun with people whose canceled flights have left them in limbo. But without a coordinated [συντονισμένη] effort, a shared base, we lose battles and borders are useless. A base might be the assumption that the good of the group begins with the good of the individual, i.e. “#9 The instinct to protect our selves begins with the body’s bone & flesh vulnerabilities as much as its heart” or “# 36 Our assumptions can cost lives, as in The Killing, as in the rejection of those seeking refuge” (“The Wig & The Scream”). Reuters reports that Fiat Chrysler, the Italian automobile giant, is now making badly needed masks and respirators. Panagiotis Sotiris in a March 14 article answers the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s critique of the Italian government’s lockdown measures, suggesting that state power used for the larger good can go “From power as a right of life and death that the sovereign holds … to power as an attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations.”
Biopolitics, a term coined by Michel Foucault, considers ways power has capitalized on (and made capital of) our persons. Sotiris writes, “Agamben has used it in a constructive way, in this attempt to theorise the modern forms of a ‘state of exception’, namely spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice, with the concentration camp the main example,” but here Sotiris detours to suggest an analogy to the HIV pandemic. This is “not [just] the disease of ‘high risk groups’” and our practice of social-distancing, and the state’s mandate to stay at home might be a possibility for viewing our biopolitical moment as one “of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions,” i.e. your person becomes a geography of others.
Two nights ago in Athens, neighborhoods of apartments stood on their balconies and clapped, keeping lights on through the night in a gesture of gratitude and solidarity with doctors and health care workers putting in around-the-clock hours to help save lives as they put their own at risk. Italy’s towns and neighborhoods are singing from their balconies. Some venues are projecting films on walls so Italians can watch them from their balconies. In China, a totalitarian state, the body is one with the State’s, and as my daughter reminds me, there were robots placed outside homes to insure that no one left them during the lockdown. In this case the State managed to flatten the pandemic’s curve. In Italy this has not happened yet where the death toll continues to rise, as in Spain, the UK, the US, and elsewhere. “We are all Greece,” said the PM on television Sunday night, as the Greek state went into further lockdown. Can we hope that “during such a crisis, in contrast to individualized ‘survivalist’ panics … state power (and coercion) [is] being used to channel resources from the private sector to socially necessary directions”? (Sotiris), i.e. “#22 The law requires obedience for the promise that it is there in good faith, to protect our flesh & bone vulnerabilities” i.e. “So many refugees assume the free world will welcome them, & so many have found death” (s[r] #24).
i.e. “Films for Action” (Facebook)
“A letter from the
virus to humans”
“Stop. Just stop. It is no longer a request. It is a mandate. …. Our obligation is to each other, As it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten. We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions, to bring you this long-breaking news: We are not well. None of us; all of us are suffering. Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth did not give you pause. Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan. Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India. You have not been listening.”
A system, whether a camp, institution, city, country, is constructed to function. Our biological and social eco-systems are meant to provide us with the privilege to get on with our lives. “In sickness and in health” goes the adage of the marriage vow partners take in a promise to look after each another; our marriage with the planet is in trouble. My friend’s marriage in “The Wig & The Scream” failed in a large part because of a partner’s refusal to admit to what endangered it. Our planet is telling us something with this novel Corona, or Crown of viruses, hitting us in the lungs: we will gradually stop breathing for lack oxygen if the mucus hardens and blocks our passageways. My daughter, now at home with me, joins in for an almost daily yoga practice with Victoria who has moved her onsite lessons online. She reminds us to concentrate on our breathing, and at the end of the practice tells us, “Let your breathing connect with the larger pulse of what is outside of yourself.”
Superstition Review Founding Editor Patricia Murphy and Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hagerman are preparing for the ASU Social Embeddedness Network Conference being held online Tuesday March 24. We had planned to collect video at AWP but we could not attend the conference due to COVID-19.
We are presenting on the following topic.
In our 45 minute presentation we will describe ways that we have created publishing opportunities for over 1200 international authors and artists, and how we support their careers through our blog and social media. We will discuss the way we invite international contributors into the “SR family” by supporting them on social media, sharing contributor successes, further collaborating with contributors in extra blog posts, and even just our friendly and professional demeanor through emails. We will include video interviews with several community members from around the globe.
We are asking anyone with experience with SR (as an intern, a contributor, a reader, or supporter) to drop in to our Zoom Room from 11-12 PST on Friday March 20. We will have a series of questions for you, and will also welcome any questions you have for our editors.
thirty hours a week as a tutor at an elementary school in the West Contra Costa
Unified School District. The school is struggling – it’s had four principals in
less than three years. The last one left suddenly, just before Thanksgiving, with
no explanation or apology. The school was without a principal for more than two
months. There’s huge turnover among the teachers, too. The district has managed
to create a budget deficit of almost fifty million dollars, so massive cuts are
coming. Morale is low, and the kids can feel it. They think it’s their fault.
students are children of color, and all of them have a cognitive disability.
About half have a diagnosis already, and the other half have yet to be
evaluated but exhibit signs of dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and other processing
disorders. All of them struggle with school in general, and reading and writing
in particular. All are at least three grade levels behind in all subjects, and
all are from low-income families. There are shootings in their neighborhoods. They
are faced with racism and bias, overt and subtle, every day of their young
lives. Many of their parents were not able get any higher education, so they,
too, have mixed feelings about school. My bilingual students have ESL issues,
and often their parents speak little or no English. A few of my students are
functionally illiterate. One third grader has trouble recognizing not just
letters, but numbers. Several of the fourth graders can read maybe fifteen
one-syllable words. Every week, at least one student looks at me and says, “I’m
dumb, Miss Brie.” Or, “I’m dumb at reading.” One student, a fifth grade boy,
confided: “I’m bad. I was born this way.” When I hear “dumb” or “bad” I say no.
No, you’re not. My students are stressed at school and stressed at home. There
are so many obstacles for them. So in the short time I spend with them every
day, I try to be kind.
co-worker and I started bringing snacks, because we noticed the kids are always
hungry. They are happy to get one Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookie. Or a
handful of popcorn, or a tangerine. Or a sticker, or one of the plastic trinkets
that my co-worker gets at Daiso Japan. Or some one-on-one academic attention,
or just five minutes of listening to their tribulations. They’re so innocent,
and also so hardened and cynical.
I frequently go to work worried about my own problems: It’s not easy parenting two teenage girls. They attend a large urban high school in a town that used to be middle class, and is now frighteningly affluent. My husband has a couple of chronic medical issues, both of which have no cure. Our medical bills are astronomical. Oh god, our property tax is due next month. Why is our electric bill so freaking high? I’m still taking an anti-depressant because I’m terrified that my suicidal depression will come back. We haven’t taken a vacation in years. I haven’t published enough. I don’t really need my MFA, why did I bother? And so on. However, after a day at my job, I know – again – that my life is ridiculously easy: We own our own home, and there’s no landlord hassling us for the rent. Incredibly, we have two bathrooms in our house. I have two beautiful children and a husband I love. Our neighborhood is safe. I may face sexism (what woman doesn’t?), but I do not face racism. I’m educated, and have spent time in other countries. There are trees on our street. I can pay my bills. There’s a wall of books in my bedroom, and I love to read. In short, I am fortunate.
any of this have to do with writing? Not much, at least not directly. Indirectly,
however, there is a connection. For example, sometimes I wish my students loved
books, even just a little bit. I want to talk about books with them, and books
just aren’t part of their world. Even while wishing this, I think about how
hilariously funny, and very smart my students are. And I think about their many
extenuating circumstances, of which I’m hyper-aware every day in the classroom.
I know that when a kid comes into our classroom pissed off and acting out, the
thing to do is not to reprimand him, but to take him aside and ask him what’s
wrong. This often works. One time, the kid wouldn’t talk at all. He shook his
head and sat down in a chair, and tears started rolling down his face. Sometimes
all a kid needs is sympathy, a kind word.
What I’m getting at is this: It’s not reasonable for me to expect my students to love what I love. Why should they? They love Fortnite, and Roblox, and Takis, and NBA YoungBoy, and Lil Nas X. Not books. Rather, the equation works like this: I teach my students a bit of what I know about reading and writing – because they’re in school and they have to learn. In exchange, my students allow me a glimpse into their world. They let me get to know them. That’s the gift they give me.
Growing up, I never thought I would be a teacher. I thought that teaching would only distract me from my real work, writing. But, weirdly, I have been writing a lot lately, in big bursts. Long shitty drafts. Maybe this is because, although my job can be emotionally exhausting, it gives back to me, too. As I suggested above. When a kid runs to say hi to me in the morning, for example. Or when the sixth graders all cluster around my desk at the beginning of class. Or, in general, by opening so many more windows on the human experience than I could have ever have found otherwise.
I am convinced that our best writing comes from
outside ourselves, which is the opposite of what I used to think when I first
started penning poetry and short stories. I used to think that my writing was
sacred in a sense that it was a part of me, my inner being, my ego. And because
of this, it was difficult to revise, to tear down anything that I had built.
But over the years I have completely reversed this notion. My best writing seems
to come when I let myself fall away or dissolve, and I am able to tap into a
universal consciousness, the source, the muse. It is more like channeling than
thinking; In fact, thinking just gets in the way. Sena Naslund claims to have
channeled her entire brilliant novel, Ahab’s
Wife. And when I wrote “Reenactment” all of Sir Parker’s dialogue came from
this ‘other’ place. I didn’t write his voice; I heard his voice. Now, not to
get too woo-woo on you—I don’t really know where this voice comes from, but I
think it’s something we, as writers, need to cultivate in order to work on a
higher, deeper level. Writing is not easy; we can use all the help we can get.
So here is how I go about inviting the muse into my
writing studio: I read somewhere a while
ago that we should visualize our muse, personify him/her. I visualize my muse
as a flamboyant red-headed lady decked out in silk scarves and bangles,
stretched out on a chaise lounge in her flowing brightly-colored skirt and
blouse. I make her a cup of tea and serve it in a fancy china cup with matching
saucer. She has discerning taste and is used to being pampered and surrounded
by the finest things in life. She is not a snob; but she expects the best from
me, and is willing to help if I am open and accepting. There are days, of
course, that she doesn’t show up. Perhaps she is busy helping others, or is not
convinced that I am serious about writing that day. Our material presence is
not enough. We must be fully present; not splitting our attention with social
media, or Amazon, or Pinterest. . . Not an easy thing to do in these times that
cater to the cultivation of short attention span. But if we expect to get help
from the universe, the source, the muse we must give her our full attention. And,
go ahead, give her a name. I call my muse Frida and have, at times, had lively
conversations with her (in my head).
One such conversation:
thank you so much for being here.
Frida: Think nothing of it, darling.
Me: I’ll try my best.
Frida (waving her hand): Dream away. I’ll orchestrate
Me: Then who
will sing the song?
Frida: The song is already sung.
She can be maddening at times, evasive, and elusive, but
patience and commitment are key. And once you have both settled in, the magic
will begin. You will come to love her; and she, despite her seemingly
indifference at times, will come to be fond of you. As Beethoven wrote, “Music from my fourth year began to be
the first of my youthful occupations. Thus early acquainted with the gracious
muse who tuned my soul to pure harmonies, I became fond of her, and, as it
often seemed to me, she of me.”
When the cold
water soaks through my hair to ice my scalp I think this is your punishment. I neglected to pay my gas bill last month,
for no reason beyond carelessness. I thought I’d set it to auto-pay like I had
the rest of my bills. Now that I’ve put everything I can on a subscription
service—tampons, razor blades, toothbrush head refills—I feel indignant when
anyone expects me to remember to pay for something by a specific date. The
maintenance guy from my apartment complex looked slightly sheepish, slightly
amused when he explained why my hot water was off. There are books strewn all
over my floor, some piled atop the long cardboard boxes containing Ikea
bookshelves I have yet to assemble. I get it. I’m a mess. And when I tell this
story to my friends I’ll make a joke of it, but as I lower my head into the
cold stream I ask myself, as I so often have, why are you unable to function in the world?
Incompetent. It’s what my ex called me, shouting
through the morning’s peace on a Charleston beach when he didn’t like how I was
walking the dog. Swimming away from him, salt water stinging my tear-raw cheeks,
I knew I had to do it, finally—leave the solid comforts of the life he’d built
around me for the vast unknown which beckoned, beautifully, as the mist cleared
and the sun began to reassert itself. All summer I’d be caught between the sad
task of nursing a doomed long term relationship into periods of stability and
falling in love with a friend who made me feel like I was in college again. I’d
been going out dancing every weekend, taking pickleback shots and writing like
I hadn’t since senior year, when I felt fancy drinking bottles of Barefoot
Moscato, when the dresser I’d put together incorrectly was falling apart and my
clothes were strewn across the floor, when I was sleeping with athletes and fretting
over nerdy boys who didn’t want to commit and starting fights about feminism at
bars with my poet friends with whom I’d roll into class the next morning
sporting neon wristbands and last night’s eye makeup. That year, the poems just
flowed. Something about the messiness of life, the highs and lows, the
devastation giving way to excitement giving way to floods of drunken tears—
I don’t mean to
romanticize it. I’ve been working in the Plath archives at Emory, and the
letters from the months before her death, when she was caring for her children
by day and writing Ariel by night, read
as a warning. As Patric
Dickinson wrote in a letter to Harriet Rosenstein about his friendship with
Plath, “you can’t go without sleep.” You can’t forget to pay your bills,
to take out your trash, to stop at CVS for toilet paper, to fill your gas tank.
But for me, like many creative spirits, those mundane tasks take on a crushing
weight. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, graduating from college
terrified me. While I welcomed the bright horizon of starting an MFA program in
a new city, I struggled to imagine myself living like a real adult. Doing my
taxes, changing my license, paying for car insurance, and making dental
appointments all felt like remote possibilities I would never be mature enough
to master. I entered a relationship I knew I shouldn’t, with a guy who worked
in finance and knew how to fix things. He didn’t read, his friends used racial slurs
as jokes, and he told me he wanted a woman to have dinner waiting for him when
he got home, but I stubbornly ignored these signs in my quest for stability. Over
the next seven years, I floated numbly through adult decisions I couldn’t
muster real excitement for, feeling like a supporting character in my own life.
I sat beside him struggling to focus at the realtor’s office as he deliberated
over mortgage options. I scrolled through my phone in Target as he calculated
the most cost-effective choice of paper towels. I cooked beautiful dinners and
cried when he’d complain about the mess they left. I wrote poems, but they
never came easily. My mind was cluttered with too many rules and lists. I
channeled my frustrated creativity into tasks like gardening and making jam
with muscadines from the farmers market, but these quickly turned compulsive,
feeling more like chores than leisure as I clung to my vision of domestic happiness.
And then one day
I left. Freed from the monotonous routine of my former life, I felt my thoughts
becoming poetic again. Chaotic, unwieldly, but charged with an insatiable
energy. A poem can’t be overdetermined, we know, but neither can a poet. The
unstable period that followed coincided with the feminist poetry section of the
“Poetry and Politics” course I was teaching. Talking through “Daddy” with an
eager roomful of students in my state of sleepless delirium, I was my most
animated teacher-self, feeling so intensely the poem’s urgency. Seven years,if you want to know. I thought about Plath up writing Ariel all night, wild with the sting of
betrayal, intoxicated by the righteousness of her anger. In the archives, what
chills me most is her handwriting, the bubbly script of an ambitious, happy girl.
I’m her age now and she isn’t the ethereal madwoman I once took her for. Like
so many women poets, I find myself constantly orbiting a fearful desire for and
resistance of identification with her. Can you write Ariel and survive?
I locked my keys in my car last Friday. It’s
happened so many times I immediately felt the nauseous pit swell in my gut—the
door’s cheerful beep unaccompanied by the reassuring clank of metal between my fingers.
Chaos is hardly glamorous, most days. Having grown up with two artist parents,
some part of me has always craved the order of a freshly-made bed, a planned
week of dinners, a sorted cabinet. But the unruliness inside me pulling towards
disorder is, I have to accept, what lets me write. I don’t have the answers. Even
as I’ve acquired some basic life skills, I’ll always be absentminded, always
get myself into fixes. I have a partner and friends and family willing to help
me out of every mess, and all I can offer in return is the promise of some dedicated
poems, maybe. I know I can’t survive forever on charm and art alone, but,
equally, I can’t survive without writing, and I can’t write when my inner voice
is drowned out by tedious litanies. And every time I fail in some extravagant
way, it brings me back to the page; if nothing else, I know I’d better produce
something powerful enough to justify my shortcomings.
The shower has long held the title of “Place Where the Best Ideas Come To You,” but I would humbly submit that a close contender for this title would be the treadmill. I would also humbly admit that the idea that came to me weeks ago on my last treadmill run was not wholly my own, but inspired by that most august of 21st century muses: an audio guide on my running app.
After writing, running is my second love, but for many of the same reasons that writing is my first: the tendency for it to be a solo activity, the flexibility for it to be a community activity, the simplicity of tools/gear needed to do it, the need for persistence, focus, and self-determination, the way in which fundamentally your biggest rival is really yourself. I only started running the year I graduated from college, and since then I’ve logged thousands of miles and completed dozens of races, some of them half marathons.
And then I became a teacher. And suddenly running time was in shorter supply than I had ever known. The runs themselves grew shorter than the list of reasons why I couldn’t go for one. Races—deadlines of a sort—became goals to cram for, sometimes at the risk of injury and occasionally at the expense of the same. Now in my 4th year as a teacher my second love has become more acquaintance than partner; my first love has fared much the same.
I am not special. The teaching/writing life is a well-worn one that has made or broken many a writer, or for most of us it’s made us want to break something. The underlying assumption driving this maddening symbiosis is that writing time is valuable and so should be the fruits of any such time. When this isn’t the case, it’s hard not to think that the time could have been better used on work. Likewise, a run that gets off to a bad start makes you think “Maybe I should have just gotten straight to my grading,” or “Now I have even less time to plan that lesson.”
For a while now I’ve been thinking on and grappling with this reality. Last year at AWP in Portland, OR, I presented on a panel about maintaining a beginner’s mindset in the classroom. Panelists wrote, shared, and discussed poems inspired by the work in the classroom around writing novices and amateurs, stressing the point that putting yourself in the mindset of someone writing for the first time—all the risks and mistakes and clichés included—is a liberating and rejuvenating activity vital to the writing lives of teachers and other professionals. I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience would be the first key advice shouted trying to bore its way past the writing impasse and into my ear.
Then came through the other ear (quite literally) this running advice from my audio guide: focus on running the run you can rather than the run you want to (paraphrased, but shout out to Coach Bennett). It’s a corny image, isn’t it? A writer on a treadmill nearly knocked over by a prerecorded, linguistically basic piece of advice that ought to make any beginner think “Well, duh.” But that’s the whole point: the fundamentals. It reminded me of the start of my karate classes as a high schooler, watching highly ranked black belts spend several minutes practicing simple punches on a punching bag when they were capable of high flying kicks. The kicks aren’t the goal and the bag isn’t your adversary—the perfect punch is both.
Sometimes experienced writers can be quick to forget or even snub the wisdom of those early, foundational years. Count me among those who have strayed down that path. Count me, too, as the hypocrite who has told students glibly that writer’s block is a myth and that what the sensation really means is that you need to push through your bad writing to get to the good writing, then turns around and throws up his hands as his own inability to get started on a writing project.
Humble pie is bitter but nutritious, and the slice served up by my audio guide has been fueling me ever since. The crappy draft poem writing is all the same as the flashy and deft poem writing; the smattering of blasé lines scrabbled together on a piece of looseleaf but containing one solid image, one beautiful sentence, is valuable in its own way; the one or two mile run you’re capable of right now is more valuable than the six or eight mile run you want to do but, for now, is out of reach; keep it as a goal, something that you aspire to much as a beginner might.
I’m lucky. I have an MFA, a book published, and a few awards to speak of. Rather than finding myself in a false position of grandeur, I’m finding myself back in that beginner’s mindset. I find myself asking “How can I write another good poem?” while simultaneously thinking “Shouldn’t all your poems be good?” And yet, I’m finding myself lacing up for a half marathon knowing I haven’t so much as run a 5k in months. I’m finding myself pushed, externally and internally, for a specific set of writerly goals: “Write this often,” “Write this way,” “Write at this level all the time.”
Writers must learn to replace these impostor mantras with simpler affirmations. A good poem and a bad poem both have in common that they are poems; good and bad runs share the same stride that can get you a few feet or a mile; the same twist of the hips lands weak and strong punches alike. Ignoring where you started is as flawed as assuming you know where you’re going. So for me, my starting and finishing point going forward is one and the same: write the poem you can write. That’s it. Sometimes you get lucky and write a stellar draft, or run miles at your best pace; sometimes each mile feels like a ball and chain around your ankle, or the poetry refuses to come clean out of the pen no matter how much you drag it across the page. But no matter your level of experience, the path of progress is that of a beginner. Keep punching out works on the page. Keep punching the bag—the only thing standing between you and that perfect strike is yourself.
Recently I came across notes for a
paper I presented in 2010 for the Geo-Aesthetics
in theAnthropocene conference
in Salisbury, Maryland. Nine years ago. The term “anthropocene”
had not yet been assimilated into the collective vocabulary beyond the academic
culture. Spell check still doesn’t recognize it. Although many of our waking
hours were increasingly spent behind the computer screen, social media had not
yet exploded, and what my colleagues and I had heard of it we scorned as the
height of hubris and vanity: Facebook-how
aptly named. We were artists, individualists-we did not join!
I look at these notes in wonder and cringe at how earnest, clueless
and naive I was about what was coming and what we were to become. I include them
“As a writer, primarily of poetry,
I can testify to the veracity of Gaston Bachelard’s assertion in The Poetics
of Reverie that
solitary contemplation of the natural world is the transcendent vehicle to poetic reverie, the wellspring of the
poetic impulse, which will
give birth to a new born poetic image-a simple image, with will
be the seed of a new poem. I
know so well of how all the senses awaken and fall into harmony
with poetic reverie and how
my writing depends on this harmony. Yet, at this moment, the crisp, sea-scented
breeze clicking the lacquered leaves of a magnolia like castanets vies with the
petty dramas unfolding in e-mail on the flat screen of my computer. Will I
respond to this invitation and take twenty minutes before my next class to sit,
bundled against the bracing fresh air, on a bench in the sunny courtyard, or
will I, as I seem to do with more frequency, use the time to respond to this e-mail,
or add my two cents to a blog? Will I choose the cold glare of the computer
screen instead of the sun’s warm glow on my face? Will I miss the opportunity
to wonder at how the bare, slender branches of a familiar tree could have
supported the profusion of leaves that swayed in the summer breeze as
gracefully as furled silk, how the tree is like a seemingly voluptuous woman
who, in shedding the ruffles of her bell-skirted ball gown, reveals her slight
frame? I see my colleagues hunched over
their computers and wonder and if I’m alone in this struggle. I know very well
the deadlines, committee meetings etc., which suffice to explain why a
committed relationship with natural world is so difficult to sustain; yet I’m
beginning to think these are not reasons but rather excuses.
Rilke writes… beauty is nothing but the beginning of
terror. Why terror and
terror of what? There are reveries so
deep, Bachelard writes, that help us
to descend so deeply within ourselves that they rid us of our histories. They liberate
us from our name. In reverie we are situated in the present, the now, in
which we are not defined by our past or are pulled to the imagined trajectory
of the future. We are liberated from
our name, from what “we do,” what we have “done,” and what “we will do,”
and must dwell instead in what we are in that moment, without the mirrors that
constantly reflect our importance, our identity. Without these affirmations, we
do not know who we are, and nameless, we are terrified, terrified that we will
lose our selves rather than find ourselves within ourselves.”
Who could have imagined that nine years later, a century of
selfies, so many of us would be caught in the vortex of social media, designed
to be endlessly self referential, a meta-loop propelled by the centrifugal
force of the most powerful of all addiction— intermittent reinforcement. Never
have we been so far from being liberated from our names, of being rid of our
histories. But look what we get—all these hundreds, thousands of friends!
All we are now is floating text next to a thumbnail of the body we left. We reminisce on all the ways a warm body feels against another body, how voices sound so differently in fog than in the dark and day and everything the smell of rain changes. We try not to complain about the constant ache of the phantom body and to be grateful: we like each other; we have emojis.
–from The Out-of-Body Shop
There is growing evidence that use of our personal electronic devices is becoming a major contributor to climate change.
If we could save the planet by giving up our cell phones, our tablets, our PCs—would we do it?
We talk the talk with such passionate intensity, but can we walk the walk?