On Poetry, Mallard Island, Mindfulness and (Attempted) Calm

“How are we going to talk about this?”

It was the last night of a retreat with ten women poets on a (tiny) island in (very) northern Minnesota, and one of our two caretakers—volunteers for this foundation, which hosts small groups of artists for one week at a time during summer—had taken us out for a “pleasure cruise” on the pontoon. We were coming up on the Canadian border.

I sat across from one of the more established poets–a woman with close-cropped gray hair and an aura of fierceness, wisdom and warmth; her question seemed part rhetorical, part not.

“I guess we won’t,” one woman joked. “We’ll hold it close.”

“I’ll just say, It was great,” another said, flashing a sly smile.

“It’s kind of like any vacation, or study abroad,” I offered. “No one will really get it or care.”

Later, I recognized the absurdity: that we, women united by a commitment to exploring our surroundings for the sake of love and zero American (or Canadian) cash, wouldn’t seek to etch meaning from this experience—one that, we all agreed, was among the more extraordinary we’ve had.

Of course we would.

In a sense, it was the same question we’d been asking ourselves all week: both on our own, as we spent time secluded in various cabins and cozy outdoor spots—each crammed with some of the island’s collection of 15,000 books—and as we convened for an hour or more each day to talk about craft (the poetry of Rae Armantrout, revision strategies, the role of shame in form—conversations that often bled into shared dinners, evening swims, canoe trips around Rainy Lake): how do we express the ineffable?

 *

Most mornings I situated myself (along with my notebook, books and coffee) in a sunny Adirondack chair at the eastern edge of the island.

Occasionally a motorboat or pontoon would blow past and slap a series of waves against the bedrock shore, but mostly, I looked out on stillness and quiet.

It was not a sensation that I, at first, could mirror.

On Monday morning, the first one we woke on the island, I felt like the lake’s glassy surface was staring me down, challenging me: I have nothing to tell you, it seemed to say. I’m just here. Look around. For God’s sake: relax!

There were probably a few obstacles that halted me from being able to genuinely, immediately relax into the experience of being there—disconnected from phone and email, in a small space with women I hardly knew.

But among the particular anxieties I recognized was simply this: the anticipation of leaving. How, I wrote in my notebook, to enjoy the pleasure of a moment without simultaneously grieving its inevitable loss?

*

In many ways, I’ve enjoyed tremendous privileges and good fortune in the last two years: I’ve been physically healthy, made strong connections, done meaningful work. (Also, spent a glorious week on a spectacular island in the Boundary Waters …) But, largely due to my own choices and (efforts at) growth—you know, abandoning a book manuscript to reinvent myself as a poet, disconnecting from family and dating, etc.—they’ve also been challenging.

In this time, two preoccupations have lent me great solace: poetry and Buddhism.

Like most poets (and maybe most Buddhists), I am loathe to use the word moral, but if pressed to boil down both practices to an essential idea, it might be this: pay attention.

Pay attention outside yourself—to what you smell and hear and feel and see and taste; pay attention inside yourself—to what arises in your body, in your thoughts, in your physical sensations.

In the last months, especially, that I’ve been pushing myself to pay attention as feelings arise, one thing I’ve recognized is how difficult it can be (#firstworldproblems alert) to relax into positive experiences.

That’s what I was noticing that morning, in that surreally fortunate setting—that as much as I wanted to settle into the place and the moment, a stubborn part of me remained agitated by life (and Buddhism)’s most basic principle: that everything is impermanent, every moment passes away.

 *

“You couldn’t have written about when things were really good?”

Over dinner with the dude before we both set off on travels a couple of weeks ago, I described to him my last post.

“No,” I said. “Who wants to read about happiness?”

“I do!” he shot back, grinning as he stabbed at my salad and chicken.

“Nope,” I insisted. “It’s boring.”

I stand by that, of course—happiness, generally, is less interesting than conflict.

Still, even when things feel good, we (or I, at least) am not necessarily at ease.

When things first began with him, for example, they felt a bit magical. This was partially due to the circumstances of our meeting: through an ex of mine who’s a friend of his, both of us on “breaks”; the night after we met and I turned him down, we ran into each other at a coffee shop where I was visiting with an old friend—one who immediately observed, I think he’s your person. Adding to the allure was that, due to my initial resistance, we abided some unusual parameters to keep things (I hoped) in check.

Of course, that didn’t stop us from quickly forging a strong connection; one of our early dates was a one-night camping trip. In the morning, we sat beside a fire; he played his banjo while I read Alice Notley and wrote; periodically, we’d exchange one of those glances, charged with mutual infatuation.

Part of me was able to enjoy that moment, and others like it. But another part, I felt aware, prevented me from complete calm. I feared, as we (particularly those of us with spotty relationship histories, ahem) are wont to do, that things wouldn’t last. I feared, too, that even if they did—that they would change. That the marvelous sweetness of early excitement would, as it always, inevitably does, fade away.

*

At a meditation class the other day, I asked a teacher about this–how to manage this struggle to relax with pleasantness, to release from grasping for a certainty we know we’ll never have.

She looked at me (as Buddhists do…) with patience and compassion.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “that’s our condition.”

It’s our doom, in other words, as humans, to crave the certainty and security–the permanence–that we’ll never posses.

“You have to remember,” she went on, “that even if you can’t hold onto the present, you don’t know what will come next. It might be sad, there might be loss.” Her eye suddenly glimmered. “But it might, also, be better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Patience, and Letting Go

When you are three months out of graduate school, at the end of a summer spent walking around Prospect Park and writing wretched revisions of your MFA thesis, a Big Deal Writer whose work you admire and with whom you have a very loose connection might, generously, offer to meet you for a glass of wine.

She might, unexpectedly, talk with you about the structure of your memoir, which she hasn’t read, but, based solely on your conversation, is able to grasp and talk through so expertly that you use her name in the subject line of subsequent drafts.

And then, three years and countless revisions later, when you are on the verge of sending out said memoir (drafting a query letter, making final line edits, setting yourself a hard June deadline), you might run into said writer at a conference and take her up on her offer to meet again, when she visits Minneapolis the following month.

You might giggle at the neon hotel bar with the techno soundtrack and the drunk, overdressed couple behind you, wrapping each other in slinky dance moves.

And you might sit there as she, again, without having read a word, and with no motive besides a disarmingly generous, empathic spirit and seemingly supernatural quality of wisdom, says the painful words that are also the exact ones you need to hear: You know it isn’t ready. 

*

One spring day a couple of years ago, A and I walked down a side street in the West Village. This was during a brief section of time we then recognized as charmed: both of us living in New York and working from coffee shops, coaching one another through tough, transitional times. (As, we’ve since learned, most of them are…)

I was feeling better about the manuscript at that point, but still not great. And I’d spent that afternoon struggling. I told her.

“I just listened to this really great podcast,” A said. We were crossing Mercer, side-stepping NYU kids with earbuds and denim coats. “It was about failure.”

My muscles stiffed.

“It was just about how, it’s such an important skill, as an artist. You know, to recognize when something isn’t working, and to let it go.”

I don’t remember what I said. I remember that I listened the way you listen to someone giving someone else driving directions, or the way you listen to something you’re not ready to hear.

It isn’t, now, that I am accepting failure.

I still hope, and believe, that a time may come when I will be able to finish this book.

But in this moment, I am accepting that that time isn’t now, or, likely, anytime soon. I am letting go of the way I thought things would go; accepting that my writerly life will unfold not how I wish it would, but as it must.

It isn’t pretty.

On Friday night, after talking with Dani, I biked home in tears. I’d forgotten my lights, again, and the mix of danger and disruption had me rush through downtown in a dizzy, slightly drunken cocktail of panic: I might get hit, I might have lost the primary purpose that had come to organize my mornings and afternoons.

When I got home, I let rip. I let my body heave with emotion, with shock, with loss. In the days since, I’ve felt something like grief.

But along with it, and perhaps even more strongly, I’ve felt relief.

I knew, I know, that the urge I felt to rush that book into the world didn’t come from certainty that it was ready. It came, instead, from impatience. From the desire to get on with it, to be done. Also, ego. (“But Dani, it makes such a difference to have a book in the world!” I moaned. She didn’t miss a beat. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t.”)

I had tried to convince myself of it’s doneness, I’ve realized, in much the same way I’ve tried to convince myself that I was in the right relationship. I have to assume that, when a book project does feel complete, and when the right (or, a right) person appears, I will feel some tendril of doubt: I don’t think we find total certainty when it comes to art, or to love.

And it is easy, when you’ve never finished a book or found a right person, to assure yourself that the grave, deep doubt at the bottom of your belly that you know should be troubling you, perhaps halting you, is simply normal. That this might be as close to complete, as close to right, as you’ll get.

It’s easy, in other words, when you want something deeply, to tell yourself stories and convince yourself it’s yours.

*

The morning before meeting Dani for a drink I got the good news that a wonderful journal will publish a new, weird poem of mine. I also got an email from an old friend, writing to tell me she’d connected with a recent blog.

It seemed to be some small gesture of foreshadowing, and of comfort: a reminder that in fact, my writing energies are driving me elsewhere. That even if I’m letting go, for now, of one project, it is worthwhile to pursue others.

In moments, I remember that. That things are right as they are, where I am.

And in others, of course, I despair.

“I just try to touch it once a day,” A said. Last night, I stood in my kitchen and talked to her on the phone; she was in her Lower East Side apartment, listening. “That feeling that everything’s perfect.”

And that, I replied, is the thing that we truly must remember.

Not just to be patient, but that it will always be hard. That those moments when we find patience, when we touch the reassuring idea that what is is what’s right, will so often elude us.

That no matter how much we meditate or trust ourselves or practice mindulness and intention, there will (if we’re lucky) be parts of the day when we feel strong, and others when we crumple with impatience and doubt.

*

You know how it goes: when a subject is on your mind, the universe has a way of surfacing all that relates.

So it was that, earlier this week, I opened Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I opened it in search of some morsel I might share with my Monday night class as we began our segment on poetry. Instead, I stumbled on the passage below, which says, I think, everything:

There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

 

 

 

 

On Art, Ferguson and Fear

I was going to write a post about not seeing a single attractive man during four weeks in Nebraska.

I was going to tell you about the fish fry at the Eagles Club and the wine tasting at the apple orchard where wines labeled “dry” were sweeter than your average juice.

I was going to tell you how I got so tired of myself inside that writing hovel that I resorted not only to binge watching episodes of Nashville, but also to dusting off that old OkCupid account. (At which I have received, among other sundries, the most polite and thoughtful request to participate in a BDSM threesome in the history of such requests.) (Also, and yes I’m using back-to-back parentheticals, panic not: I did make substantial progress on my book.)

I was going to commiserate with you about Minnesota winter: how I’m unsure which is more (so to speak) chilling–not having someone to cuddle with as temps edge to zero, or marching into my early thirties with child-rearing prospects pinned on a crowd of digital avatars, many wearing Packers jerseys or cradling fish.

And then.

And then last week.

Listen. I tend to avoid politics here because that’s not why you come. There are so many others more informed and eloquent than me writing about our world’s varied injustices. (Like him and him, for instance.) Years ago I realized I lacked the ambition for hard-hitting journalism, that my territory is more the stuff of personal relationships.

But that’s only a partial truth. The other part is that I avoid politics for the same reason we tend to avoid many things: out of fear. Fear of offending, fear of getting it wrong, fear of hitting a false note, fear of looking bad.

And if there is one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot in this past week, it’s how fucking dangerous it can be when we let fears drive us.

*

Of all the ways in which I am privileged, few felt more important last Tuesday as the one that allowed me (because my work is flexible, because I’m healthy, because I live in Minneapolis and have engaged friends here who tell me what’s up) to spend my noon hour listening to Bryan Stevenson.

It was the day after the Ferguson verdict, and like a lot of you, I didn’t know what to do with myself, and being in a sanctuary full of people hanging on his words (and crying about them, and standing and applauding energetically in response to them) felt perfect.

And oh, he said so much that’s so important. Much of it hinged on this idea: that our culture is so broken, we are so broken, because we have let ourselves be manipulated by fear: we’ve let those in power exploit our fear to put too many people away, to give up on those people while they’re imprisoned, to abandon them further when they come out. We’ve allowed fear to trump everything: human rights and and compassion and redemption and anything like equal justice.

And then, Friday, I took a break from my hermit-happy holiday weekend (reading thisthis and this, all of which I brightly recommend) and went with a friend to see CitizenFour. And there it was again. Say what you will about the film or the filmmaker, Snowden or the Obama administration, the message seemed plain: post 9/11, we’ve let fear be the primary engine of our public policy. In the process, we’ve sacrificed our most basic liberties. Worse, most of us aren’t especially concerned.

It’s hard to know what to do with all the injustice swelling up around us. (Though, certainly, there are things: from hitting the streets to, fellow white folks, engaging where we can). Still, so many of us feel so persistently heavy when meaningful change–in terms of racial equality, Spying In the Name of Safety and countless other national and international fronts–seems so, so far out of reach.

I don’t want to sound righteous. And I don’t have answers. Too often, I let myself simply clamp my ears to it all. It’s another privilege: I don’t have to worry about being unfairly stopped, I don’t have to spend each day worrying that my father or brother or uncle or child will get killed for their race.

And that’s just it: in fact, we are all driven, in varying ways and to varying degrees, by fear. The thing about fear is that it’s human. The thing about being afraid is that we all are.

We can’t inoculate ourselves from fear, but we can choose how we respond: we can strive to not let fear enable decisions that are irrational, or hurt others, or become dangerous.

But perhaps just as toxic an effect of fear is inertia. Fear compels us to hurt, but it can also compel us to sit still: to not make ourselves vulnerable in whatever way.

As I was reckoning with all this I came upon this A.O. Scott article, along with this conversation, on the role of art in politics — specifically, the premise that artists are missing the boat in this time of critical unrest.

This subject came up recently with a pair of grad school friends who I visited in Kansas City. We were driving to the contemporary art museum when I declared that I didn’t think overtly political art could ever be any good; they disagreed on principle, but between the three of us we could only name a single, World War One era poem that belied the thought.

An hour later, gliding past one another at an exhibition of some of the most stunning, evocative paintings I’ve ever seen (by the Chinese painter, Hung Liu), many of which curators had described on small white placards as “overtly political,” I whispered to them: We better have that conversation again. 

Later, we hypothesized that maybe visual art is different, that it’s easier to separate the aesthetic from the subject matter in painting than it is in a story or poem. I’d say the same is true for a song.

Still: it’s more complicated. And not very satisfying.

A.O. Scott pleads that it’s the job of artists to reflect society and all its woes. That resonates.

But I also agree with the artists he gathered, who express that art’s first fealty is to storytelling and true, human characters. No one wants, as the writer Justin Torres puts it, “literature that functions as a rant.”

The hypothesis I served my friend about art’s trouble with politics is that art should ask questions: complicate, not resolve. One way to make art bad is to make it polemical, to make it have something clear and unwavering to say. I do believe that.

But I also want to think there’s a way for art to wade into important issues without serving up a clear, one-note message.

Too: I want to think that what stops me, and other artists, from wading into the issues that trouble us is something other than fear. Because while it’s true that bad art helps no one, it’s also true that there’s no such thing as making things without risk.

 

Some Notes on Birthdays, Fall, and (Extremely Early!) Thirties Angst

“I think you’re accomplished!”

My friend K and I were sitting on the edge of a Kingfield tennis court, drenched and tomato-colored from fifteen minutes of volleys due to tropical evening humidity. She wanted to talk celebration plans for my upcoming birthday. I, for reasons I couldn’t summon, wanted to avoid the subject entirely.

“That’s not it,” I said.

I was grasping to explain why it is that (the anticipation of) this year’s birthday has felt especially rough.

Maybe, I said, it’s the fact that, despite feeling fairly settled here in Minneapolis, I’m still not completely sure to which state I ought to have mail sent come November.

Or maybe it’s the the fact of spending time with a boy who is a millennial and communicates in acronyms I am too old to comprehend.

Or, yeah, some spin on the “accomplishment” idea: that inevitable gap between what I hoped I’d have done by now (read: publish a book) and what I have.

Or, I said, grudgingly, it could be nothing more complicated than the whole, irritable, biological clock thing. (Can we delete that phrase from English now? Kthanksbye.)

We even discussed the impact of fall: the way it can prompt all of us to revisit “back to school” mode and consider what space in which we’re entering a new, annual cycle.

None of these ideas satisfied.

K wanted to talk backyard grilling. Fancy dinners. Cocktails. Official viewings of my favorite movies. (If you love me and you live here, get pumped for The Big Chill. It’s on.)

I wanted to sulk.

This is not normal.

Despite a breakdown on the actual day of my thirtieth birthday triggered by such non-threatening objects as an IKEA lamp, Lake Calhoun and a certain ex-boyfriend’s excitable mutt, I managed to slide through that, more major transition without a whole lot of drama. I’ve always been on the younger end of my grade and friend groups: by the time I turn whatever age, most people around me already have. It tends not to shock.

But something about this year feels different.

I’ve even joked about re-doing my thirtieth–as though I’m some middle-aged divorcee with bleached hair who shops for designer dresses and plastic surgeons and refuses to admit her actual age.

I mean, It’s silly.

As K put it, 31 does not represent a substantial or physical difference. As the millennial teased, fifty is the new thirty. (Making me, as he put it, about ten, and him about five — an extended analogy that may or may not have helped.) And as various older friends have repeatedly reminded, the thirties are often–emotionally, mentally–a vast improvement.

“Thirty one was better than thirty,” K said. “And thirty-two was even better. We’re moving up!”

I know this. I know that I feel as healthy and secure as I ever have, and plan to get stronger and smarter as years pass. I know there is nothing remotely useful or interesting about agonizing over something as intractable as age. I know that not one of the worries K and I discussed is solely responsible for activating a whole set of broader anxieties.

Rather, I know that birthdays are mere markers: moments that, whether we wish them to or not, inevitably trigger reflection. Self-evaluation. Sometimes, stress.

After tennis, a group of us went to dinner at a local, sustainable sushi restaurant. The owner, a coffee shop pal, brought us some new sake to try and a plate of steaming, crispy gyoza. We giggled about random family connections and favorite summer memories (topping the list: that time we all PONTOONED TO THE BAR) and ambitious meals we’d all like to cook. I paused for a moment to reflect that this is what matters: these precious, joyful moments of being with people I adore, enjoying food and each other.

I remembered another recent moment: sitting on my porch after reading and writing some poems, feeling, suddenly (and fleetingly) as though I don’t really care whether I publish or prosper from writing–that nothing external could be as meaningful as this, the concrete, internal pleasure of doing what I love.

Fuck birthdays.

It’s still frustrating that there’s nothing more tangible about what’s causing my burst of age-related angst–and that I doubt there’s anything more solid to remove the edge.

But it’s nothing from which I’m not willing to be distracted. So, today, I’m looking (still a month!) ahead to a night (or three! I mean, birthday is on a Monday…) of cocktail(s) and dinner(s) and movie(s) with dear ones. To all the fun afternoons and evenings and boat rides that may come after and before. To aggressively enjoying birthdays now and thirty years from now–because, what else is there?

On Dwelling

“Just, dwell in it.”

I was sitting at a kitchen counter with a friend, and it was late, and I was sharing some poems inspired by a recent heartache.

“Keep writing,” she encouraged. “And just, you know. Dwell.”

I keep returning to those words.

A few days ago, another writer friend echoed them. She told me about her recent discovery of pages that she’d written during a low period of her own, how struck she’d been by the clarity of that prose; how she is just now realizing the fullness of inspiration that time provoked.

“Use the pain,” she advised.

Writing aside, this is a spirit that has felt resonant lately: the spirit of sitting in the sadness, soaking yourself in the aches that come, when they do.

Not to mislead: I have zero pity for myself, which is exactly how much you ought to have. My life is still wildly charmed–living with a pair of my (and half of Minneapolis’) favorites, back in the balmy, bike-able bosom of Minnesota summer. I have plentiful time to write. I get to teach some of the most engaged students around. I have a standing, weekly date for a lakeside picnic. Things are good.

But I am still me: a gal with an uncanny knack for hurling my heart around several North American regions (the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest, mostly; but I’m not exclusive), caution and experience be damned. It is bound to get some scrapes. Also, I still lack a permanent address and can’t subscribe to magazines like a real person.

So, you know. Sometimes that fragile feeling sets in.

There have been times (times like a couple of months ago) when feeling fragile meant something completely different; times that, accordingly, called for a completely different kind of self-care. Then, I needed to keep moving. I needed to avoid being alone for more than an afternoon. I needed to release myself of any pressure to read, much less write. The last thing I wanted to do was reflect. I gave myself that. I didn’t have a choice.

Now, though, I do. And, I could choose to stick with that philosophy of momentum and speed. It’s tempting.

But more and more, I’m realizing that what I need now is something else: what I need is to bask in it. To spend as much time as I can bear reflecting. Writing. Dwelling in the nuances of feeling. Exploring these scales of solitude as I slide, with varying measures of sentience, along through them.

In a recent Louis episode, (the best/only current TV show I sometimes remember to watch), Louis talks with his ex-wife about his current relationship. Among the several significant obstacles to its’ success, he reveals, is the fact that she, the woman he loves, is soon to leave the country. For good.

The ex promptly gets furious: he’s introduced this woman to their young daughters! How could he do that? Aren’t they going to feel crushed when she up and leaves? Aren’t they going to feel sad?

They’re talking on a midtown sidewalk. Louis shrugs.

Yeah, he says. They’ll be sad. So what?

The tendency is to call this bad parenting; to agree that we should protect children from any semblance of hurt.

It’s a tendency that extends past childhood: to each other. And, to ourselves. To care for people, we think, is to protect them from sadness and hurt. To care for ourselves, we’re taught, means to avoid these sensations as well.

At the risk of stating something obvious: we can’t.

And still, that impulse, to shirk away from hard emotions, runs deep. Such that we, or at least I, can need reminding: that there is value in dwelling. That it is sometimes worth combatting the urge to distract and to avoid.

That the hardest feelings tend not to saturate us for long. That when they do, exploring them is often what leads to discovery. (And, too–conflict!–good art.)

In other words: some time soon, it is likely that other, more overtly pleasant feelings will begin to take hold. And they will be far less interesting.

On Conferences, Comparing, College Campuses and Aspiring Like Youth

“Which poet do you want to be when you grow up?”

My friend N and I were walking around a New England college campus.

She and I were there to attend a writers’ conference: four days of craft courses, critique, readings, and dark hour debauchery alternating with daytime discomfort, summer camp style.

Familiar liberal arts trappings surrounded us: sprawling grass fields, soulless, florescent dorms, red brick buildings, patio furniture bolted to cement. Together, they rejuvenated some spirit of youthful optimism: We can do anything! Be anyone! The world is ours!

This is an attitude that can collide with another one such gatherings are known to provoke: the prickly recognition that good fucking god there are SO MANY PEOPLE in the world who are writing things and how will any of us ever succeed and who in god’s name will ever read ANY of us?

That happened, too.

 *

On the train back to New York from New Haven, I sat across from an undergrad who was also in attendance, helping out: a young woman entering her senior year, she came across as effortlessly social, stylish and smart—the sort of person born to glide impressively through college life.

Still (or, perhaps, as a result), she told me, the various traumas the (idea of the) end of school engender aren’t far from her mind: the loss of close community, the loss of clear purpose. Even, she said, the pressure to accomplish the kind of Big Things that elite universities are apt to persuade their students lie, inevitably, in their path.

“You’re only twenty-one!” I reminded her as she described her angst.

“Yeah,” she shrugged, glancing out the window toward cement and tracks, the somber sidelines of Metro North. “But some people my age have already done so much!”

“Oh, stop it!” I rolled my eyes. “You’re so young. You have so much time.”

She wasn’t convinced. But of course, it wasn’t really her I was trying to sway.

I didn’t get serious about writing until my mid-twenties. Early compared with some, but more often it seems late compared with others—and at the Conference, it didn’t elude me how many folks not much older than me seemed to have accomplished so much more.

Overall, brief stints on college campuses notwithstanding, I’ve found the occasion to feel invincible about the future increasingly elusive. More and more, that toxic impulse to compare my accomplishments with those around me—particularly those close in age—beckons, gathering perilous heat.

It quickly becomes a losing game. One has to think hard to list accomplishments at which thirty-odds can’t arrive: A Nobel prize? (Actually, they can.) Meaningless awards of Lifetime Recognition? Grandchildren?

We’re told, over and over again, not to compare ourselves: that everyone has their own path. That it doesn’t matter. We know. I know.

And yet: we all do it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to comfort ourselves with lists of well-known people who bloomed late. We wouldn’t hear every other writer make a self-deprecating reference comparing their productivity to Joyce Carol Oates’. We wouldn’t scan the wedding announcements making a certain kind of mental note.

We don’t know how not to compare ourselves, just as we don’t know how to detach from the way we’re perceived: we derive so much meaning in our lives derives from how we fit in with other peoples’. How can we avoid measuring ourselves the same way?

On the last day of the conference, N and I googled some of the other participants, comparing their publications with our own. We made fun of ourselves as we did it. (We’re in a dorm room! I assured. We’re supposed to act juvenile!)

In truth, she and I have become expert at jointly indulging this, the lamest part of ourselves: the part fueled by ego, that maddening, driving aspect. It works. We share a sense of humor about it, and a convenient commitment to (mostly) differing sections of the writing world.

A part of me feels shameful, wary of enabling each other. A larger part feels relieved: it’s a tough part in which to be alone.

And it did feel important, refreshing, to balance that reflexive, negative spin with that more youthful, college-inspired one. The one that recognizes, as I overheard one participant put it, that some people take until seventy to figure ot their purpose. That, with writing, as with so many things, there is no formula, no model anyone can proscribe that will lead anywhere assured.

That it isn’t now, and in fact, will never be, too late to aspire toward goals, selves, people, projects we may (or may not!) someday achieve.

 

 

 

On Social Media and Stepping Back

“I just have to tell you, you look amazing on Instagram!”

It was the start of a coffee date with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and, sitting outside a cafe with herbal iced teas, these were (approximately) her first words.

I wasn’t sure how to receive them. Thanks? But what about here, in three whole dimensions? Or, Doesn’t everyone? Isn’t that the whole point?

In a pretty pure sense, those nifty photo filters are designed to make us all look better: a shade more sexy and glam. Less purely, or simply, one function of social media is to make ourselves look great. The various digital platforms on which so many of us spend so much time have the upside of enabling us all to curate our best selves. The downside, perhaps, is that they enable everyone else to do the same.

It can be a problem.

The day before that coffee date I’d met a different friend for an afternoon beer. (Welcome to the chaos of visiting home–next time, I swear, I shall tell no one I’m here). As she and I caught up, I told her how one aspect of my experience in Taos that had helped me commit to writing was being a part of an artistic community in which we so intimately shared the relentless rollercoaster that makes up a creative life: no matter anyone’s pretty website or impressive CV, everyone there experienced a cyclical tumult of good and bad news–an editor interested, and then not. A residency offered, another declined. A job prospect come and gone. Days in which we felt strong and fearless, and others in which we felt fragile and weak.

“No one ever talks about that!” my friend said. “All we tell each other are the good parts.”

It’s often true. Increasingly, we do rely on social media networks for knowledge of other people’s lives. And those lives, as we see them, are not whole. They exclude the downswings: the feelings of loneliness and rejection, the near-misses and self-doubt. We don’t post pictures of ourselves from bad angles or sour moods. Even those moments of vulnerability we do share tend to be crafted, the rawness given a glossy sheen.

It’s understandable. One of the most confusing parts about Facebook etc. is the breadth of audience. Normally, we decide how to communicate based on who we’re communicating with. These networks complicate that–we aren’t ever sure who’s paying attention. The former colleague? The ex-boyfriend? The ex-boyfriend’s aunt? The current crush? The current crush’s ex?

There are probably some in that mix with whom we’d be willing to share our lesser selves. But with others we’re inclined to be more cautious. It’s a lowest common denominator effect: the audience toward whom we are most wary tends to determine all that we’re willing to publicly share.

“I need a social media diet,” I announced to a pair of writer pals the other day in Wiliamsburg, one new friend and one old. We had been talking about inane google searches, how people turn to the web for the oddest insights, and I had self-servingly announced that I was going to turn to two smart women instead.

“You can do it,” they assured. “It’s just about self-control!”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t have that.”

I’m trying to get some. I can’t abandon the stuff completely–if I did, there is a very good chance you wouldn’t be here. But I can take a few steps back. Moderate. Try and prevent the kind of Instagram Black Holes like the one into which I fell the other night, after a middling evening out found me home, scanning pictures of Other People’s More Fun Lives.

The next day, on a neighborhood run, I told my brother R what I’d done–how crappy I’d let stupid filtered photos make me feel.

“That’s stupid,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “I agree.”

On Men and Women and Words; Storytelling, Journaling, and Re-Entering Singledom

“Sorry, I’ve used up all my words for the day.”

It was edging on one in the morning, and a couple of women in my teaching group and I were in bunk beds, holding a fiery debate over categories of creative nonfiction. (“It’s the difference between Eula Biss and Jo Ann Beard.” “I just feel really defiant about genre labels right now.”) No matter that they had to get up in not that many hours to teach. And, at the sight of the lone male colleague with us for the weekend, getting ready for bed, we invited him in. To talk.

“No thanks,” he said, holding up his palm — no more words.

Bless him, he’d held his own for the four hours prior, as the group of us sat on stools in the downstairs kitchen with pretzels and hummus and beer and wine, talking about teaching and writing and attitudes on communal living. But by this point, he had little interest in matching the extreme level of chattiness the rest of us couldn’t resist keeping up.

I try to avoid generalizations, and I know there are men out there who really love to talk and plenty of women who really don’t. But, in my experience, the reverse tends to be true: that men are more often the ones who run out of words.

It isn’t only, or necessarily, that women talk more. It’s that, often, we are fundamentally more interested in sharing. Reporting. Telling tales about our days. Our ideas. Our families. Our relationships. You know. The mundane shit of our lives.

*

“The problem is that it’s really easy for me to be single.”

I was sitting with a friend who also recently left a relationship. And he was telling me why it isn’t difficult for him to end up alone for long stretches of time.

I agreed. (Sidenote: I worry the whole dating blog thing gives me a rep as someone who’s always in, or always wants to be in, a relationship. Untrue.) I like spending time alone. I like being independent and having control over my travel and my time. I like meeting new people as a single person, not having to worry about developing relationships in couple form.

But here’s the part about being coupled that I miss: the part at the end of the day, when there is someone to hold you in their arms and say, “Tell me everything.”

I still don’t have a solid list of qualities I require in a partner. But if I did, Good Listener would be at the top. And I’ve been lucky to find men who have been. Who have indulged my desire to lie down and share all: about the phone conversation I had with my brother or the walk I took with a friend, the yoga teacher whose style I loved or the interview with a nurse who made me cry or the bearded guy at the grocery store who gave everyone the creeps.

All that banal stuff that, I suspect, men don’t always feel as inclined to share. And, perhaps, a lot of women don’t either. Maybe it’s the Writer Brain combined with the Female Brain combined with the Journalist Background, or maybe it’s just my DNA: I’ve always, automatically chronicled the moments of my day. It’s a running narrative in my head, and one that I’ve never been particularly interested in recording as a journal, or for myself. Instead, it’s always one I want to share. Either as art, or as conversation with those I love.

And now that I am re-entering the single life, I am looking for new ways to satisfy that need.

The blog, obviously, helps. (Thanks, team!) And time on the phone with girlfriends. And, lately, writing hopelessly lame poems about rainbows over Minnesota lakes and pairs of brightly colored underwear.

I’ve even begun to open up the occasional  Word document and write out my “reports” in the form of a letter — to a partner who doesn’t exist. I’m thinking of it as a transition to the genre of journaling, toward which I have long had a mysteriously epic aversion.

And I’m thinking of it, too, as another way I can practice self-care. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with wanting to share thoughts and stories with others, but there has got to be something worthwhile, too, in holding, even crafting that stuff just for myself.

 

On The Noise, The Process, Listening to Others and Yourself

“Trust yourself.”

The woman with wavy red hair and painted lips stood in front of a life-size, watercolor John Wayne. She leaned her elbows on a case of vintage turquoise and baskets of silver.

“I learned the hard way,” she said, telling me how she’d quit three waitressing jobs to take a gamble on supporting her kids as a stunt double. How she’d tried to make it in Nashville and misunderstood the rules on her way to writing a Country Song of The Year. (Never know who you’ll meet in Taos!)

I’d just finished telling her how the anxiety of waiting for feedback on my first book was making it hard to focus on the new project I’d just begun.

She’d nodded, empathic, and smiled as she told me to “let go of my ego.” And repeated that phrase: Trust yourself.

The words seemed to strike at the heart of where my head’s been lately—or rather, where I’ve been trying to get it.

Here’s one suggestion: if you’re setting out for a day of novel-writing, try not to begin it by reading this article. And try not to take personally the endless stream of rejections, or the news of diminishing, risk-averse publishers, or the emails that talented friends receive in which editors lavishly praise their work before, mysteriously, taking a pass. In other words: shut your eyes and ears.

I’m trying. Switching over to a data-free flip phone, circa 2006. It’s a step—one I imagine will send me into something like heroin or sugar withdrawal before setting me, hopefully, a little more free.

But the noise won’t go away, since most of it is in my own head.

The endless, boring self-doubts: Is my story worth telling? Are these sentences any good? Will anyone ever read them? Should they?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that at an artist colony, (if that term eludes you, see this) the question arises: why do we make art? In a climate where the prospects of one’s work ever meeting the world feel so bleak, the query takes on a sharper edge. Without faith that our writing will ever be seen, what should motivate us to get up in the morning, put our heads down, silence the noise, and get to work?

“What if your writing wasn’t appreciated until after you’d died?” V, a British artist and filmmaker and my neighbor at the residency, serves as both collective muse and spiritual guide. She meditates for hours a day.

Across my kitchen table, another neurotic writer from New York and I exchanged a wary glance.

“Sure,” we both muttered.

“But I mean…” I hesitated. “It would kind of suck.”

V summoned us to think of everything in the world as connected, to detach our self-worth from our art, to fulfill ourselves with the process instead of it’s end.

The next morning I took a break from the novel and dashed off a comedic story, feeling smug that I’d actually found pleasure in the writing. And the day after that, I could hardly wait to share the piece and send it into the world. So much for process.

When I left the stuntwoman/country singer’s shop my eyes were wet with ambiguously derived tears: or maybe not so ambiguous. I’d managed to get through two days of writing that didn’t make me totally hate myself, and then ruined it with an abrupt panic over my first book’s word count. (iPhone: be gone!)

I walked to the indie bookstore and listened to an employee explain to a customer that, yes, it was easy to click the button on Amazon and writers could release work there, but they’d never get paid. I bought a book. Across the street I plopped myself down at a diner and ordered an oversized breakfast burrito. (Just, because.) Outside, small pebbles of hail fell from the gray clouds slipping west over from Taos Mountain.

I pulled out my notebook and pushed myself to answer that question: why?

All of my answers felt like tired clichés. For the fun of it. Because it helps me make sense of things. Because I like it! Because, as Alison put it the other night on the phone, I don’t really have a choice?

Flustered, I remembered those words—Trust Yourself—and decided to resolve that, for the moment at least, they serve as answer enough.

Notes on Rejection and Awe

When one sends out an essay on Friday and by Monday has received not one, or two, but three (three!) rejection letters, it’s difficult not to feel as though the universe is trying to tell one something.

One perk of being a person with a merely blithe belief that the universe tells one things is the attendant ease with which one can then decide what the universe is saying: in this case, of course, I concluded the universe was (rather harshly) urging me to write about getting rejected three times in forty-eight hours.

Unfortunately, all I have to say about said subject amounts to: Ouch.

Or, if I must elaborate: No matter how deeply, intellectually, I understand that all writers, even famous, brilliant writers, have gotten (still get!) their work (even good work!) rejected lots and lots of times before they get it published, no matter how many times I send work into the world only to have it come back with the literary equivalent of ‘Thanks, but who cares,’ no matter how earnestly I assure myself that it’s inevitable, that rejection is going to happen, and that it doesn’t (necessarily) mean that I am (as a person) a failure or (as a writer) failing, it still fucking sucks.  

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to move on to another, more positive, but, in a sense, equally stifling emotional experience:

Awe.

As I mentioned, I’ve been making some rather pitiful, highly unusual attempts to write poems. In effort to render said attempts less pitiful, I did what any self-respecting baby poet would do, and took out some library books—including How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch.

“The spirit of poetry is awe,” Hirsch writes.

That line hit home. Indeed, my awe-inspiring surrounding are just what’s jiggered this impulse to write poems, after thirty years in which I’ve done well to avoid it: the thick, towering cottonwood trees in my yard, the snow-covered mountains in the landscape, the way they appear a different shade of stunning below every angle of the sun and formation of clouds.

Of course, merely experiencing that moment of awe isn’t enough; perhaps, I wondered, one reason why it’s so damn difficult to write a good poem is because it is so challenging to animate, or explore, or even share, the experience of awe.

One of my favorite sections in Geoff Dyer’s totally cynical, totally awesome book Out of Sheer Rage is this moment, where he describes regarding the ocean:

The sea: you watch it for a while, lose interest, and then, because there is nothing else to look at, go back to watching it. It fills you with great thoughts which, leading nowhere and having nothing to focus on except the unfocused mass of the sea, dissolve into a vacancy which in turn, for want of any other defining characteristic, you feel content to term ‘awe.’

 

There is something inherently unsatisfying in the word ‘awe:’ it describes the impact of being struck by something, beauty or brilliance, usually the likes of which we can’t quite comprehend—but does nothing to explain it.

And, being human, we aren’t content to know that something makes us feel awe. We need to know why. It’s that pesky, ineffable need: to narrate, to explain, to create causal relationships.

A paradox of literature, and maybe all art, is that we’re endlessly striving to capture an experience that can’t be captured. Of course, art doesn’t derive its beauty or significance solely from its proximity to truth. And yet, authenticity matters: particularly when it comes to words, often what makes us swoon is recognition—the sensation of yes, I know that, that is me, that feels real.

How, then, to render the truth of something as gauzy, as deeply personal, as, often, inarticulate, as the experience of awe?

But it’s one thing to render awe, and another, quite different thing to actually experience it. In order to even contemplate the former, it seems one had better get good at the latter. And, like many an impatient, progress-driven Americans, I struggle: I can hardly notice a mountain or cloud or sea before I notice my noticing…and it’s hard to observe a moment that hardly has a chance to happen. Like Dyer, I content myself to term the experience “awe”…and then set about trying to describe an experience I’ve barely had.

(Not that I intended to even try and make this cohere, but what the heck. Perhaps that aim of lingering in the awe can be instructive when it comes to managing rejection: there are certain moments in which we must allow ourselves to linger. And others, like when you’re told you’re shitty, that you had best leave right quick.)

But anyway. I guess we’re really talking about the same mental muscle when it comes to experiencing awe, writing poems, and even reading them: the one that allows us to slow down and pay attention. Tomorrow, promise, I’ll start meditating.