Come what May

Tree-sized rhododendron in full bloom, with vibrant, deep-pink blooms, spilling over the top of a fence

May was a quick month, wasn’t it? The return of sunshine. Possibilities. Beginnings and endings. Petals everywhere.

I started two different posts in the last month, but I didn’t finish either of them. They were angry rants that I suspected no one would care much about. I hardly did, even though I care very much about the issues they addressed. (Hence, the anger.) I didn’t care about my rants, though. I found myself wanting to do other things with my time. So I did them.

I signed up for and began a poetry class with Bethany Reid. I first met Bethany nearly 40 years ago, when we were both students in Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop at the University of Washington. In our first session, she shared words her sister-in-law gave her when she was a young mother struggling to finish her dissertation and thinking about putting it aside until her children were in school:

“‘Nobody cares if you don’t finish your dissertation. But you will care.'”

Bethany continued: “Nobody will care if you don’t write your poems. But you will care.”

As I sat with those words, they opened up something in me that I didn’t fully realize I’d been keeping closed.

In 2010, after a writing residency that allowed me to work at writing in a way I never had before, I made a conscious decision to step away from writing poetry and writing for publication. I was in the weeds of single-parenting with a hostile co-parent. I was working a full-time job in K-12 education that was kicking my butt. I was in early recovery from…a lot of things.

It was a relief to let my writing aspirations go. It felt freeing. It had been so hard to do something so important to me in the piecemeal ways that were the only ones I could manage, and letting go of that effort felt like putting a burden down.

I want to be clear here, because there is so much bullshit out in the world about what it takes to do creative work that can make anyone who wants to and doesn’t feel as if their failings are entirely personal: Piecemeal was the only way I could manage writing in those days, and it wasn’t getting my work where I wanted it to go. The residency helped me see that. My problems with writing were not about a lack of will or discipline or ability. They were about a lack of resources. They were about how I prioritized the ones I had. The residency helped me see that, too. The other things I was doing with my time, energy, and intellect mattered more to me than any poetry I might create. Because I knew–as Bethany’s sister-in-law, and then Bethany herself knew–that nobody would care if I didn’t write my poems, but I would care if I couldn’t mother and teach in the ways I felt compelled to do.

Also: It just cost me too much to get so little result from what took so much effort. Truly, I needed sleep more than I needed to write in the ways I had been.

I don’t regret the poems/books I haven’t written in the past 13 years or the decisions I made. I made the right choices for my family and me, given my givens. It’s nice to feel no ambivalence about that. But, somehow, Bethany’s words cracked open an opposing truth: I also care that my poems weren’t written. Even if no one else does, even if no one would have published them, even if a lot of things about the literary world repel me.

I wish I had been able to write them. I will probably always be at least a little sad that I couldn’t. Or didn’t.

But: I am in a different place now. It’s a place where I have room to write in ways that I couldn’t before, and Bethany’s words are giving me some kind of permission I have not been able to give myself, even as my situation has changed. Until now.

When I retired and people asked if I were going to do more writing, I was non-committal. I didn’t know if I wanted to. I didn’t know if that would be a good use of my time. I still don’t, but my thinking is shifting, and Bethany’s words are providing some kind of catalyst. “No one cares” is so freeing. If no one really cares about the poems I don’t write, I’m free to create whatever I want, however I want, just because I want to. I don’t have to justify the resources I give to it by thinking that the work will really matter to the larger world. I can write poems simply because I will care if I don’t. That’s reason enough when I have the resources I need to make writing a higher priority.

I’m not sure what making writing a higher priority might look in practice, but I’m pretty sure it will mean writing less here. Or maybe writing differently here. Writing this blog is a thing that allowed me to be OK with not writing in a more serious way, and I’m grateful for how it’s served me. Now, though, I don’t want it to get in the way of other writing I want to do. Maybe it has been, and that’s part of why I haven’t felt able to write here in the ways I once did. Maybe the shifting was already in progress, and Bethany’s words were just a nudge I needed to get to where I was already going.

I have more resources than I used to, but they aren’t unlimited. I still need to make choices, especially with the resource of time. During the past month, as I haven’t been writing here, I’ve been working on revising an essay I began several years ago. I’ve been reading more, both poetry and essays. (Removed social media apps from my phone. Highly recommend.) I drafted a poem (following my first session of Bethany’s class). I’ve taken more photos, looking more closely at the world, which always feeds my words. Those choices felt good, and right. I want to keep making them.

Time is only getting shorter, always, for all of us, something I’m feeling more and more all the time. In what’s left of mine, I want my work–my life–to grow the way our climbing roses do after we cut them back to the quick each winter: quickly, widely, freely, and full of blooms.