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.

 

 

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!