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 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.

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.