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 Isolation, Identity and Alice Miller

“When do you feel most like yourself?”

My new, dear writer friend S was sitting opposite me on the brown futon in my office/living room.

(Sidenote: I’ve moved! From one South Minneapolis house with a couple who are old friends, to another South Minneapolis house with a different couple, also friends. This time I’ve got two rooms-with the help of pals, I’ve painted my south-facing, corner-room office a gray blue, trekked to Home Depot for a batch of hanging plants, and managed to russle up enough shelves to display almost all my books. It’s, in a word, divine.)

S had just returned from a trip abroad, and we were catching one another up: her telling me about the stark, stunning beauty of Iceland, me telling her about the space I’ve lately needed to take from some family.

Related to that is a recent (therapy-driven) recognition with which S can relate: lifelong shape-shifters, we’ve been conditioned since childhood (like a lot of women, like a lot of artists) to attend to other people’s emotional needs–allowing us, too frequently, to lose sight of our own. And when your interactions with others are governed by a, to use S’s term, vigilant attention to the energies around you (sometimes, as we noted, anticipating others’ emotions before they’ve even surfaced) it can be difficult to grasp not just what you need, but who the hell you are.

So, I’ve been trying to figure that out. You know, resolving your identity at age 32–no big deal! Easy, right?

Well, no–but I don’t think I’m alone.

There’s the friend who I recently took an impulse-trip to visit in Portland, whose eyes began to bulge as I talked–”I’m glad you’re saying this,” she said. “I thought I was the only one working out my mother issues in my 30s!”

And the acquaintance who I recently bumped into at a coffee shop; she and I had only met once, but nevertheless wound up in conversation about our personal lives–specifically, how much work we’re both doing, in therapy, to sort out the childhood issues we know we’ve come up against in dating. “Gosh,” she exclaimed, caving her chest backward as she clutched a latte and looked out at Lyndale. “I swear to God, I keep having this same conversation–therapists’ offices must be flooded with women in their 30s!” (At which point, of course, we bemoaned that they are not more flooded by men…)

Also, the writer friend who I’ve been meeting for group meditation on Sunday mornings. After last Sunday’s session,  I asked her how she thinks one goes about truly, finally, seeing ourselves.

“When you find out,” she muttered as we slipped into a cafe for brunch. “Let me know.”

But back to S’s question. Because, while  I’ve considered self-discovery from different angles over the last few months (the mindfulness practice, the whole dating break thing, etc.) I hadn’t posed that simple, seemingly obvious question. And when I took a moment to consider it, what surfaced surprised me:

“When I’m writing, I guess…” I said, a little reluctantly. And then, “and when I’m in my body…really, when I’m alone.”

*

The day before, I’d caught up briefly, over the phone, with another friend who’s been out of town–my friend R, who I met in Brooklyn but reconnected with here. I shared with her what I’d shared with S.

“I want you to know that I’m here for you,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel isolated.”

A couple hours later, following a yoga class and en route to go thrifting with my friend K, I’d experience one of those rare moments of pure contentment and calm that feel, these days, like existential gold. The prior afternoon, I’d had to pull over my minivan in a north Minneapolis suburb to let out a sequence of three howls–the urgent expression of a fierce sadness and rage.

And in that moment, hearing R use the word isolated, I started to cry. In part I was touched by her caring. But I was also struck by how much that word, isolated, hit home.

I think of myself, as others probably do too, as highly social. Connected. Surrounded by many networks of peers and friends.

But there’s a difference between having friends, and having one person for whom who are top priority, a person you consistently check in with, whose job it is to know where you are–when your flight’s landed or if your doctor’s visit went okay.

And for all the vast gratitude I have for the friends who support me with generosity and tenderness, for all the ways in which I do feel good, and genuinely myself, when I’m alone, it’s true–though I hadn’t quite let myself admit it–that (choosing, for now) to be without that person, and (choosing, for now) to loosen those family ties, can feel not just sad and hard, but deeply lonely–yes, isolating

There’s no great fix for this, except to move through the moments as they come. I think there is comfort, though, in the hopeful promise that the work of discovery and healing will lead, long-term, to more moments of calm, and fewer of desperate dark.

*

Last week, in what couldn’t help but feel like glaring metaphor, three large boxes arrived on the porch of my new house–the last of my belongings from the childhood home that my parents recently sold.

As I steadied myself to open them (having zero clue what they might contain), the first thing I saw was a book–one that’s come up in conversation lately. It was first recommended to me by a beloved professor in graduate school, and recently suggested again by the writing/meditatation buddy I mentioned above.

The book is Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, and it’s one of those that should probably be required reading for most humans. I’m tempted to quote the entire first page, but I’ll restrain myself to this, which says, pretty much, everything:

“In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom.”

Cheers, friends, to that.

 

 

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.