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.”