Woke up Friday to a long read (appropriately) from Longreads about the literary world and online writing: Poets and the Machine. It was part history of online writing and part musing about why the literary world has shunned such as having literary merit, and it made me feel interested in writing here in a way that I haven’t felt in awhile. It reminded me of the possibilities for online writing that I got excited about back in the late 90’s (blogs are about to turn 30 years old!), and it got my brain turning. I felt a little spark, some ember of something within me flare.
On the subject of writing here, and online in general, I’m finding that more and more of my online reading is happening on Substack. (Head here to learn more about Substack.) Substack is a free newsletter service, but it feels (and looks) a lot like writing-focused, old school blogging to me. As my annual renewal for WordPress approaches, I’m thinking of shifting over to it. I’m not much interested in charging for my writing (what Substack is built for), but I like the idea of a free platform without ads.
One of my favorite Substack’s is Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study, which I do pay ($5/month) for. I learn a lot about topics I care about, and there is a robust community there; both make the small payment well worth the price for me. (Much of her content is free, but you do have to pay to be part of the community.) It is, as she regularly asks readers to keep it, “one of the good places on the internet.” Petersen has some regular paid-subscriber only prompts that are goldmines of great info. My favorite is “what are you reading?” which fuels my holds request list at the library, and I’ve found some great shows through “what are you watching?” A recent prompt to share favorite soup recipes yielded so many soups I want to try making.
Through a recent post there, I found another Substack this week that also blew air on an ember I thought might have extinguished: Rebecca’s Your House Machine. I particularly enjoyed “How you spend your time is who you are” and “Shield your eyes from your stuff–yes, really.” My neurodivergent self felt so seen by the latter one, and it helped me understand why questions about home interiors are so compelling to me that I once (with Cane) had a whole blog just about making a home. Basically, she’s writing what I wish I had written. (Maybe I did? Maybe I will again? We’ll see.)
Sari Botton’s Oldster, which is about “exploring what it means to travel through time in a human body.” I love this one, as my mind is being blown on a regular basis by the intersections of time and bodies and what it means to be human.
Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vajenda, an “an evidence-based hub for reproductive health matters.” Most of my reproductive system left the building years ago, but I find so much valuable information here. And I like the writing.
Kelton Wright’s Shangrilogs, which is “a peephole into a different life — one centered around small town living, high-alpine adventure, and deep dives into nature.” Wright is a Millenial living in a small mountain town, and I’m living vicariously through her engaging writing. (For the record, I could never actually live her life, but I like to think I could. That’s why I appreciate being able to read about it.)
So tell me (if you’re so inclined)…
Anything you’re reading online that you think others might like/appreciate?
Any thoughts on blogs vs. Substack?
Would it make any difference to you if I started over on a new platform?
What would you like Rita to write about? (Not promising anything, but this blog is feeling a little too aimless to me…maybe that’s why I’ve been ignoring it.)
(Also, one last read, about Lilla Irvin Leach, without whom there would be no Leach Botanical Gardens, where this photo was taken last week. I wish someone would make a movie about her.)
Originally, I intended this space to be more notebook than anything else, a place (as I say on the About page) to “collect bits and bobs of memory, thought, and feeling.”
Also this week, in a bit of serendipity, I came across Beth Kephart’s thoughts on notebooks in her book We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class: “Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, knowing is not just a talent or a predilection; it is a discipline. The tool of the trade can be a diary or journal or notebook” (p. 36).
She then draws upon the thoughts and practices of other writers who use this “tool,” including Lydia Davis, Patti Smith, Joan Didion, and Virginia Woolf. Kephart’s selection of these words from Didion, in conjunction with Kari’s question, got me thinking hard about purposes for this space:
We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.
Didion quoted by Kephart, page 39
Primary question: Why have a public notebook? Can it serve the same function as a private one? I suppose one reason I conceived of this sort of notebook was the digital nature of it. So many things I wanted to save were coming to me in a digital format. What is lost and gained, in public vs. private, digital vs. analog?
Some possible answers might be derived from something else that came to me this week (just this morning, actually, via Anne Helen Petersen), The Case for Phone-Free Schools. There is so much in this that I can’t pull out one or two particularly meaningful bits. It is primarily about adolescents and learning, but it is really about social connection and what smart phones do to our brains (and mental health).
I lost most of this week to migraine. I had one that lasted 7 days and could not be defeated by my usual meds or Urgent Care’s “migraine cocktail.” It finally succumbed to a drug I was previously told that I could not use any more, for reasons that are apparently lost somewhere within my medical charts. I held out on taking it as long as I could, but pain is a persuader like no other.
I have spent so much time in medical exam rooms, they feel like a kind of home. There was a small boy in the Urgent Care waiting room running circles around an island of chairs. The noise of his sneaker soles against the carpet, and of his breathing–jagged–almost undid me, but a woman (his grandmother?) spoke so kindly to him as she asked him to stop. He slowed, but did not stop. I needed him to stop and hated to see him stop, hated to need him to stop. I missed my grandmother.
What if those of us who are older ran like that boy in our bodies rather than in our minds?
I say I “lost” the week, but that’s not quite right. My week was rearranged more than lost. I moved the tomato plants that grew themselves from last year’s seeds; they sprouted at the edges of the planters, so I transplanted them to the center, and placed cages over them. They did not like being uprooted, wilting dramatically for several days. I spent several mornings sitting in the backyard, off my phone or computer, learning the ways of the small, blue birds that live in our arbor vitae. There is a squirrel that lives in a neighbor’s cedar, home to a scurry of them, that likes to eat the deep-pink flowers off a carnation I planted last year. It does this at the same time each day. I suppose I wouldn’t have seen this if it weren’t for migraine.
(I love that the squirrel eats my flowers.)
What’s the value of knowing about the squirrels and the birds, of having seen them? I am not sure. Perhaps it will be revealed later. Perhaps I will be glad, later, that I recorded this here, where I can easily search for and retrieve it. My paper notebooks do not have this feature.
Didion had me wondering if I should change the blog’s settings to private, cease making it public. What value does any person’s “bits of the mind” have for others?
After the headache cleared, I took a quick trip up north to my parents’ place. There was a moment, not recorded by my phone, when I was driving on a road that follows a shore’s path, and the swath of trees that borders the road gave way to a clear view of the water. At the moment of clearing I could feel something in my body shift and calm. When I was growing up, my parents were not boat people or water people, despite where we lived. I did not grow up on the water, in any way, but it was always there. Big bodies of it, surrounding me, as if I were a peninsula. Where I live now there is a big river–several of them–but a river is a straight line running past, not a surrounding sea.
As we got in the car to leave, my son said to me, “I can smell the beach,” and I took in a deep lungful. Yes, I could smell it, too, and feel it, standing on the pavement next to the car next to the house. Something damp and fecund and salty. I miss it when I am there, in it. I get it in my lungs and realize that I don’t feel as at-home anywhere else, even back in our neighborhood park full of fir trees that stand like sentinels, reminding me so much of the trees in my first neighborhood, the one at the top of the trails that took us to the beach, that I took a picture of the park trees this week, days before my trip home, while in the midst of the migraine that almost canceled the trip.
Migraine is another kind of home.
A notebook is a kind of home, too. This summer, I will be living and working in a place without easy internet access, and I’m wondering if I should go old-school–do all my reading and writing off-line, with paper and ink. I wonder what that might do, how it might feel?
I wonder if it might feel like going home. (You can never go home again.)
In a week where Tennessee dealt a major blow to democracy, and folks in Wisconsin are worrying about a challenge to the election of a judge (the only political bright spot in my week), and (speaking of judges) we have (new? more?) evidence of corruption on the Supreme Court (not that all of us paying attention haven’t known since the 90’s that Clarence Thomas is several kinds of terrible), and there is a new and frightening move to restrict women’s access to abortion and control over our own bodies–all of which is evidence (as if I needed more) that the political norms I lived most of my life with are gone and a minority is no longer even pretending that they’re not going to take power in whatever ways they can–I come to this place feeling as if I have nothing to say.
These kinds of weeks leave me feeling shut down, with my words all stopped up in my head. The things that occupied that space this week (aside from the above) feel trivial in comparison. But here are a few of them:
The new documentary about Brooke Shields. Brooke and I are the same age, and if I ever needed validation that I came of age in an effed-up time to be a pretty female–in which you had to, somehow, be simultaneously both knowingly sexy and virginal–I’ve now got it. The first episode, which focuses on the late 70’s-mid 80’s, reminded me of just how much it sucked to be a young woman in that time. (Not that I could really see it while in the midst of it. I just tried to fit in and get by and be OK, as most adolescents do.)
Here’s 1977 Rita, wearing her first pair of pantyhose, her beloved puka shell necklace, a new dress, and heeled sandals. I can tell you that she is both pleased with these new grown-up things and uneasy about them.
Just two years later, 1979 Rita has a completely different vibe (despite the fact that, like 1977 Rita, she hasn’t started her period or kissed a boy), and there’s something in these two images, and what that documentary helped me see about the culture younger Rita was becoming a woman in, that makes 2023 Rita both furious and sad.
This is not to say that there isn’t plenty that’s still effed up, but if you want to know about the specifics of what is was like for those of us born female in the mid-1960’s, go watch the documentary.
Speaking of those born in the mid-60’s, I encountered another generational piece this week, “The Dazed and Confused Generation,” written by a later Boomer about how people his age need a different generational label. As someone born in December of 1964–making me, by two weeks, technically, a Boomer, I can relate. I feel nothing like a true Boomer, and while I don’t identify completely with the group he does, what some have named Generation Jones, I also don’t fully identify as a Gen-Xer, either. I guess that’s because I’m a Cusper. Me and Brooke. Makes sense that a kid born to parents of the Silent Generation has often felt invisible and unsure of what rules to play by.
This week I bought more books than I should have. Because of Bethany Reid’s review, I bought Linda Pastan’s Almost an Elegy: New and Selected Later Poems. My purchase was prompted because of this poem (continuing to speak of generations and cusps) that Bethany shared:
The Last Uncle
The last uncle is pushing off in his funeral skiff (the usual black limo) having locked the doors behind him on a whole generation.
And look, we are the elders now with our torn scraps of history, alone on the mapless shore of this raw new century.
I’m not the elder generation in my family yet, but many people my age are in theirs. In a conversation this week about whether we are at the beginning or in the middle of what’s happening to our country, I could see how I was gathering my own “torn scraps/of history,” and Pastan is a good person to provide guideposts into the later stages of life. (Any stage of life, really.) I also bought Kate Baer’s What Kind of Woman, because Bethany’s post reminded me of how much I like a certain kind of plain-spoken poetry (Ted Kooser is a favorite in that vein), and I saw it in the bookstore one day after skating. I decided it was time I got over not wanting to buy a book by a popular, best-selling poet. Her writing fits into the plain-spoken category, and I’ve liked some of her poems that I’ve encountered via social media, so why wouldn’t I buy her book? (I’m not going to delve into what my aversion is about or where it comes from. Probably more social programming from my youth that involved responses to Rod McKuen.)
In addition to poetry, I bought a kind of book I never buy: City Farmhouse Style: Designs for a Modern Country Life. I encountered it in the library, and the first house featured looked so much like the Louisiana house Cane and I bought and have begun renovating that I bought a copy and sent it to my mother-in-law (who will be living in the house). What kind of woman buys a house in a part of the country that continues to vote in people she thinks are hellbent on destroying it and that is likely to be impacted by climate change in ways she can hardly bear to think about, and then buys a book that–on the surface, at least–is everything she dislikes about so much of contemporary discourse on home decor? This kind, I guess.
I wanted (and tried and failed) to write about the house, which we began demo on last week while we were on spring break. Here’s a peek at what it currently looks like:
This is the main living area, with doors to the bathroom and main bedroom. Here’s what the bathroom looked like mid-cleanup after demo:
I wanted to write about this house–which means writing about family and history and geography and politics and climate change and mortality and generations–but I got all stopped up with the complex messiness of it all. Maybe I’ll be able to sort it out in time.
Speaking of houses and design and artistic expression, I really liked a home featured on Cup of Jo this week. The owner is a pastry chef, restaurant owner, artist, and mother.
I like the homey-ness of all the images. I like how things don’t match. I like how it resists any kind of label I see in the titles of design books in the library (farmhouse, coastal, cottage, etc.). It’s a colorful, in many ways hand-made home, unlike so many of the ones I typically see in blogs, instagram posts, and real estate listings. (I love real estate listings and follow realtors even though we are not in the market to buy or sell or move.) We’ve painted almost every room in our house white, and my reaction to this house saturated in color has me wondering about that. The homeowner featured in the story passes on a suggestion from a designer to look in one’s closet for clues to our design style, and mine is filled with neutrals in solid colors. I like neutrals and I like our home (a lot), but there is something in the colorful messiness of hue and pattern in this home that really speaks to me and now has me wondering what kind of home 1977 Rita might grow up to choose and create for herself if she’d been 12 in 2007 or 20017 and why 2023 Rita is muted in so many ways and what these things that have caught my attention this week all have to do with what’s happening in the world as I am trying to keep my balance on the cusp of old age.
I would love to hear what’s caught your attention this week, or how you feel about your generational label or what it was like to come of age as your gender in your time or what you’re reading or what you’ve bought (or not) and what kinds of spaces you like to be in. Or mortality. (Good thing I haven’t aspired to write a lifestyle blog, eh?)
This shot makes me think of the last lines in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones.”
“This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.”
I’m guessing many of you know the poem and that she’s got a memoir coming out. This excerpt from it made the rounds this week. It’s a good read, speaking of women and their voices and socialization and poetry and success and how much things have and haven’t changed.
Can We Put an End to America’s Most Dangerous Myth? There’s some pretty stiff competition for the title of “America’s Most Dangerous Myth,” but this one is surely a contender. I think my life’s biggest regret is moving away from my extended family. My greatest hope is to build a retirement life within a web of familial interdependence (with “family” being any who, when you have to go them, have to take you in)
All True at Once (TW: suicide) A poem of an essay, with a question that I am now, like the writer, carrying inside my chest: What if it’s all true at once?
Cocaine Bear Kerry Russell’s portrayal of a mother in this gross, hilarious (I laughed out loud when a teenager got his head shot off, and I’m not really sure how they made that funny, but it was) romp of a movie is what I needed to see this weekend.
False Witness Not your typical violent crime thriller. I mean, she’s got a blurb from Stacey Abrams. Had a creepy encounter with a creepy man this week, and I wish I had more Leigh Collier in me.
Unlikely Animals Gilmore Girlsesque vibes with so much more important things to say. (Haven’t finished it yet, but it kept me good company on a day with nearly 8 hours of driving this week.)
Saturday morning Mel posted a photo of her reading pile, which got me to Googling one of the books in it, and I learned that it was written by Brooke McAlary–a name I thought I recognized. Turns out Brooke is a writer I used to follow long ago, when I was writing a different blog and she was just starting hers. It was in the early 20teens, before Pinterest, Instagram, podcasting, etc. ad nauseum left old school blogging (what we do around these parts) in the dust.
I stopped following when the blog became more of a commercial enterprise than a personal journal, but Saturday I stopped by her site to see if she still writes a blog, and yes, she does. I poked around in it a bit, and was especially pleased with this post, which reminded me more clearly about both why I originally followed (a strong writer exploring issues I care about) and why I eventually stopped. Brooke writes about going back to look at old posts she’d written and finding that most of them “just felt… small. Like returning to my primary school as an adult. What once felt big and unwieldy and hard to navigate simply felt outgrown.”
Boy, can I relate to that.
As I know has been true for so many of us, the last few years have brought profound shifts in how I see and understand the world and my place in it. I am still working to find some sure footing on what feels like unsteady ground, and often, when I look back at the place I used to be, I feel some feelings that could easily turn into shame.
Why didn’t I see…
Why didn’t I understand…
How could I have said…
Why did I…
Brooke seems to be coming back to writing after an extended absence brought on by a health challenge–something I can very much relate to–and I especially appreciated these words of hers, about looking back at her earlier writing and feeling some cringe:
“To allow ourselves to grow and change is such a gift. I wish I did it earlier. And while this is not the day to dig into this thought, I think self-compassion might be one of the biggest gifts I’ve received from spending much of the past couple of years being unwell. I’ve had to let so much unravel. And it’s in the putting back together that I can really question what old stories to bring with me, and which ones get left behind.”
And then I went looking for another writer I used to follow, and I must’ve gone a few other places, and somewhere along the way I found a simple list-ish way of giving a quick update on the week that is much like Kate’s lists of -ings that she regularly shares. Even though I have a million tabs open (per usual) I somehow lost that particular breadcrumb in my morning ramblings through the Internet forest. It was a simple, short list of -ings that I wanted to copy here.
I wanted to use it because I like connecting with others here regularly, but I’m just not in a place to write much these days. I had a good week–a really good one–but I seem to be in a fallow time when it comes to writing. My days have been full of PT exercises, skating, and mundane homemaking. That’s the surface of them, anyway. Under the surface, lots of shifting and dot-connecting that I don’t feel ready/able to write much about.
So, here’s my modified, from-memory list:
Listening…to The Love Songs of W. E. B. du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. I wish I had the print version of this book because it moves around in time and there are so many characters; sometimes I wish I could turn back to an earlier part of the book to remind myself of what came before. But: the narration is so good. The book is big, painful, beautiful, and beautifully written. Jeffers is a poet, and it shows. I can’t remember if an audiobook has ever brought me to tears, but this one did this week. I’ve also been listening to the Lori McKenna mix on Spotify.
Reading…A Headache in the Pelvis by David Wise Ph.D., Rodney Anderson M.D. This was recommended by someone, somewhere in my chronic pain journey, and its explanation of pelvic pain is helping me connect the dots of all my various kinds of pain and their root causes. After years of feeling hopeless and maybe crazy, this book–along with several other key things over the past few months–has me feeling hopeful and seen. I can’t express yet what that means.
Feeling…joy in my pain-full body. I skated 4 of 5 days last week after a break over the holiday, and it felt so good to move that way. To feel how much I had missed it. On the ice, I feel strong and joyful and free. No longer having the body that I had when I was a child, I can’t skate as I did then, but I can still feel in my body some of the ways I once did–and it’s such an unexpected gift. I can’t stop marveling over it. (Trying to tell my physical therapist about it brought me to unexpected tears this week, too.)
Planning…to paint our second bathroom. In early February, my daughter will be visiting her husband in Sweden for an extended stay, and that seems like a good opportunity to paint our second bathroom. It’s a room that’s never gotten much love, but it could use some. OK, a lot. I truly dislike the floor tiles (they don’t fit with the rest of the house and always look dirty, no matter how much or with what I scrub at them), but we’re going to work with them. Maybe a different paint color will transform them. It could happen.
Wondering…what it means to be a poet (or anything, really). In the context of a conversation this week, a co-worker of my daughter’s said to me, “You’re a poet, right?” and I wasn’t sure of how to respond. Later, she and I debated my answer to the question. Since I rarely write poetry now, I don’t really think of myself as a poet. She says that, since I have written and am still capable of writing poetry, I am one. Which has me thinking about the labels we attach to ourselves and how we use them. Am I still a teacher? What about a librarian? Am I still a grand-daughter, even though I have no living grandparents? Was I a skater all those years (45!) I didn’t skate? If I’m not the things I used to be, what am I now? (Is this a question we need/get to keep answering until we die?)
Trying…a new way to keep the house clean. We have 6 rooms/zones that are regularly used. That’s one per day, with a 7th day to rest. It’s only been a week, and I haven’t been perfect in this, but so far I like it.
Making…a Sunday dinner habit. Or tradition. Or ritual. Something. We began having nice Sunday dinners in the lead-up to Christmas, a Swedish advent tradition that we adopted. When advent ended, we didn’t want to dinners to. It’s the one night a week that Cane, Grace, and I are all together around the table. Tonight, we’ll be having Ditalini with Chickpeas and Rosemary-Garlic Oil, by candlelight. If the dinners don’t have to end, the candlelight doesn’t, either.
Taking…photos of things that please or interest me. From this week’s camera roll:
Hoping you all have a good week. I’d love to hear about your -ings, whatever they may be.
One of my favorite sites is Maria Popova’s The Marginalian; while I don’t have many words of my own to offer this week, I want to share hers, about the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. (I strongly recommend clicking through to read her post; there’s so much in it.)
Popova shares the origins of the story, which are rooted in war and fascism and friendship–and a real-life bull who became famous for his gentle nature. In this time that feels increasingly dangerous and bleak, I appreciated learning the story of this book that I have encountered many times but never read. I appreciate Popova’s insistence on the importance of art to help us imagine alternative endings.
I suppose some might consider Leaf’s ending of the story, which is far more happy than the ending of the bull’s life upon which it is based, sentimental. Perhaps they would consider it a lesser work for its lack of realism. Perhaps they might even deem it dangerous, for perpetuating a false idea of how things are likely to go in this world. Perhaps I would do so myself; there have been so many times in recent years that I’ve bemoaned an earlier idealism (naivety?) in myself that I blame for my previous lack of understanding of how so many things really are. I’ve attributed that idealism to beliefs instilled in me when I was young.
But Popova provides a different evaluative lens, one that I find useful in this time, with her claims that “We have always survived history’s dark patches by making our own light and meeting brutality with beauty,” and that “All the art we make — the picture-books and the poems, the paintings and the songs — is our act of resistance to the blade between the horns that menaces us with its unpardonable promise from the moment we are born.” She quotes Kathleen Lonsdale, who wrote that “‘those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking… must persuade others to do so'” and makes a case for the importance of art as a tool for such persuasion.
Leaf’s alternate ending isn’t a true one, in the sense of non-fiction’s truth, but it is a possible one. It puts into the world a story that could be true, and isn’t being able to imagine alternate endings the first, crucial step to making them happen?
As I’ve been writing these words, a variety of critters have come into my front yard, which I’ve seen through the window I’m sitting in front of. This past week, we’ve discovered a new inhabitant:
My students and I read “American Cheese,” Jim Daniels’s poem about, well, cheese–as you’d expect from the title. But, we’ve been working all semester on forming interpretations of literary text, and–of course–the poem isn’t just about cheese. “This is about/this is really about” has become our short-hand for moving beyond literal comprehension of the text’s subject (what it is about) to interpretive comprehension of the text’s themes (what it is really about), and my class of nearly all boys is initially stumped by the question of what the poem is really about, have a hard time getting past the seeming triviality of a man’s preferences regarding cheese.
I back them up. “What is the poem saying literally?” I ask, and we establish facts: The speaker attends department parties with fancy cheeses that he’s come to like. As a kid, he ate American cheese, the stuff that comes in individual, plastic-wrapped squares. (“You know, they can’t even call it cheese,” one student offers. “They’re called Kraft Singles because it’s not technically cheese,” he says.) His dad worked in a factory; there were five kids in the family. They ate cheese sandwiches. When he visits home now, he craves American cheese, and his mother is surprised by how he eats it without anything else.
They skip over what I think are the most crucial lines:
...We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs....
I send them into small groups to identify what the poem is really about, and when we gather back together to share ideas they circle round and round above the poem, talking about food, nostalgia, family–never landing on the lines about birds. When they offer their ideas, I ask them to clarify their thoughts, perhaps to extend them, but I don’t direct them to those lines. My goal is to grow independent readers and critical thinkers, not for them to understand the particulars of this poem, which, in the scheme of literary things, is not a particularly important piece of work.
Someone offers an idea about the poem, and I ask: “Does everything in the poem make sense with that idea?”
Finally, someone gets there, asks what those lines about the birds are about, how they fit in. “Think about how we use our background knowledge and own experiences to build understanding of a text,” I suggest. “What do you know about these kinds of birds, and how can that knowledge give you ideas about how these lines contribute to the poem’s meaning?” I ask.
I drill down just a bit. “How about sparrows and starlings?” I ask. “What about just those birds? What do you know?”
One student, a boy who regularly wears clothing adorned with American iconography, says, “They’re scrub birds.”
I ask him to explain, as I’m not sure what he means.
“They’re, like, nothing birds,” he says. “No one cares about them.”
I let that idea stand. “And what about blue jays?” I ask. “What do you know about them?”
“They’re cool,” he says.
“They’re big, and blue. They’re beautiful birds.”
“They are,” I say, and I turn back to face the rest of the room. “Here’s a great example of how we can form different interpretations of the same text,” I offer. “One person can see blue jays as better birds than sparrows and starlings, who are small and not very noticeable. Jays are bigger and stronger and much more distinctive–and these facts might influence your interpretation of the poem. But I have different associations and ideas about the birds because of an experience I had,” I say, and I tell them the story of the time I watched a blue jay attack a nest of small birds built in branches outside my bedroom window. I tell them about the sounds of the parent birds as their eggs were destroyed, how they never returned to the nest once they finally left it. “Blue jays are birds that attack other birds,” I say, “and because of my experience, those are more important facts about them to me.”
Now that we have turned the keys of these lines, the poem unlocks. Yes, it is about food, and family, and nostalgia. It’s also about social class, and a declining culture, and pride, and love of country, and community, and hard choices, and survival. What it’s saying about those things is open to interpretation, to different ideas.
We don’t reach strong conclusions about the poem’s meaning as a class. We are a diverse group. I like leaving them with some ambiguity. I want them to figure it out for themselves, to be able to sit with complex and contradictory truths. I know that me telling them what to think or insisting on a particular interpretation won’t meet my goals. They might say what they think I want to hear, but they’re going to think what they think, do what they want to do with their ideas.
As they are gathering their things and heading for the door at the end of class, the boy who shared his ideas about the birds says to me, “I liked class today.” He’s a student I have struggled to engage. We are very different people, he and I. He hasn’t done very well with me, and I know that most days he hasn’t liked my class.
“I’m glad,” I say. “I really appreciated your contributions to our discussion.”
“Thanks,” he says, with feeling, and he smiles at me. I smile back, also with feeling. We have such different views of the world he sometimes astounds me, but I will miss him when this school year ends in just a few short weeks. I am glad to have known him, and I think he might say the same about me. There are things in each of us that the other likes and respects. I want to believe that, anyway.
We have no way of knowing, right then, what the afternoon will bring. I don’t know that after I spend it grading my students’ reading logs–which will prompt me to think hard about purposes and how I might determine if they’ve been met–I will learn, while waiting for the copy machine after school, about the latest shooting in Texas. I don’t know that I will numbly run off copies of another poem for our next class, then go to my empty classroom and sit at my desk and wonder what I should feel and do. I don’t know that I will spend long minutes wondering about the nest I’ve built for us, with its twinkle lights stretched across the ceiling, and posters with art from around the world, and a cart full of window/mirror books, and chart paper with our lists of class norms. I don’t know that I will sit in that space, remembering the day in September we began building those norms as we discussed memes about gun control, or that I will leave memory as I tune into the sounds of students playing ping-pong in the foyer while they wait to be picked up, and that it will be the pock-pock-pock of those balls hitting the paddles that will be the thing that brings me to tears.
This post is about teaching high school students how to read poetry/This post is really about gun violence in the United States
I have been thinking, for weeks, about dormancy. And writing. And habits. I’ve been thinking about the weekly notification I get of how many hours I spend each day on my phone, which does not equate with hours spent on social media, but still. It’s a lot. An astonishing amount, really, especially when I consider how many decades I lived without a cell phone and all it contains. What did I do with the hours I now spend using a phone?
I’ve been thinking about how I spend my days, which, as Annie Dillard told us long ago, is how we spend our lives. Since June, there has been a great easing in mine. September and October, when I re-entered the classroom after a decade+ absence, had its rough days, and I know there will be more of those, but on the whole there has been so much easing. I’ve opened a space, but too often I have not filled it quite as I think I’d like to.
I have been thinking, for weeks, about how often I pick up my phone when there is a quiet moment. Or an uncomfortable one. Or an exhausted one. I’ve been thinking about how it has become difficult for me to sustain my way through the reading of a print book, and how astonishing that is. My father once told me, when I was a young woman, that when he thought of me he pictured my younger self sitting at the kitchen table with a book propped up behind my plate, reading as I ate. There was a time that I never truly ate alone, because if there was no flesh-and-blood human with whom to share my meal, there was always a book with its other voice to keep me company. I can’t remember the last time I consumed a book with a meal. I often want to, but I have no book I’m reading. I remember when I always had a book I was reading (usually more than one).
I start many books, but I finish few. I’m not sure why.
Sometime back in November, I went to the library to graze the stacks, one of the best ways I’ve found to tune into what the universe (or something that “the universe” is our shorthand for) is saying to me. That day, I found Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, a version of her classic The Artist’s Way, written especially for those “at mid-life and beyond.” Hers is a 12-week program of creative recovery, which is just about the length of a season. I read enough of it to decide to buy my own copy, thinking I would start working through its program at the beginning of January.
Instead, I began it this week, on the first day of winter. I have been thinking about winter since the day I listened to a Story Corps episode on the way to work in which Suzanne Valle talked about life in terms of seasons. She said that the winter of our lives begins at 60. Four days before that, I had turned 57.
Time is infinite, and the universe is infinite, but an individual life is not. I have been thinking about that, too. A lot. Despite what Cameron might have us believe, sometimes it is too late to begin again–because we have ended.
I have been thinking about Words of the Year, the choosing of which is a practice that some I follow or interact with on social media engage in. I tried it a few times, but it didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t, but I’ve been thinking about what I want more and less of in the coming year. “Scrolling” isn’t going to be anyone’s word of the year, is it?
As I’ve been having all these thoughts, I’ve been more mindful of what I’m getting (and not) when I engage with social media. I love Kate’s Instagram stories, because she so often shares things that are funny, wise, or visually gorgeous. Sometimes she shares words that seem to be just what I needed to hear at the moment I read them. I love being in the company of Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blogging Network. I love interacting with those of you who write to me here.
I have been thinking about June, when I might be in the position of needing to make a decision about teaching for another year. I have been thinking about all of the reasons I have never written in the ways I’ve said I would like to, in ways I gave up trying to more than a decade ago. I’ve been thinking about how, if I were to make a different space for writing in my life, I don’t know what I would fill it with, and how I am so often tired of the sound of my own voice. I’ve been wondering if the writing I do here is the writing I need to do, or if it is something that keeps me from the writing I need to do. I have been wondering how I want to spend my minutes, hours, days, life.
There have been a lot of thoughts rattling around in my (increasingly) old head, and I haven’t even started with the feelings.
So I keep returning to dormancy, and how that might work for a large mammal who cannot sleep underground for 12 or more weeks.
I’ve decided to take the winter off from things that make up too many of the hours I spend on my phone. I’m taking the social media apps (other than Messenger, which I use to communicate with folks) off my phone and I’m not going to write here again until Sunday, March 20th, the first day of spring. I’m not going completely off-line, but I intend to be much more intentional about being on. What I want is to clear some space and be purposeful about what I let into it. I think I need some arbitrary restrictions and some public declaration to make a necessary quiet happen.
I have been wary of writing that last paragraph because there are things I know I will miss, and because writing here has become a thing I count on for several different kinds of good things. I have been avoiding it because if I didn’t write it I could more easily change my mind about the whole thing. I was avoiding it because there’s some fear in this for me.
But I’m saying it and am going to do it because last week, when I went into Powell’s, a bookstore that covers an entire city block and was once one of my favorite places, I felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices shouting at me from the shelves. There is so much clamor in the world, and so often lately all I can hear is a grating din. I want to see if I can create a pocket of quiet within it, if I can make my way back to some part of that young girl who loved to make a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup and eat them slowly at her family’s kitchen table in the company of a book, able to hear nothing in her mind’s ear but the voice of one other person speaking to her. I don’t know if this experiment is as much about becoming some other kind of writer as it is about becoming a different kind of reader. All I know is that somehow, I’ve lost my way, and I want to find it again.
Hope you’ll check back in here come spring. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please consider signing up (top of right sidebar) and you’ll get an email when a new post goes up. (I don’t do anything with the subscriber list. To be honest, I don’t really know how to.) Wishing you all a good season of whatever it is you need from it.
First of all–and most importantly–you can’t go looking for it. (Except, of course, when you do, as I am here.) You will go looking, most likely, because you want it and you’ll get tired of waiting for it to come tapping on your shoulder one day when you’re in line at the grocery store or strolling the library shelves or walking the dog, as if your writing life were a romcom and you are a young Meg Ryan (if she were weightier, somehow, and far more deep, like you) and the poem is Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal (but smarter and more handsome). Honestly, you can go about it either way–looking or not, purposefully or not–but the best ones happen upon you, usually when you’re engrossed in some other pursuit, in being alive.
While you’re doing that–being alive, living a life–the true ones will come at you sideways, catch your attention for a moment through a fragment of memory, a snippet of language, a scent that takes you home. It’s such a balancing act, you know? There you are, immersed in some experience or another, and then, this other fascination comes along and you have to decide if you will follow it.
Let’s say you do. (You’ll have to, if you’re going to write a poem.) You turn to follow what beckons, to see where it might take you.
From there, well, things can go so many different ways. (Isn’t that part of the thrill of it, that you can’t know how it will all go?) It’s the beginning of the dance, and it’s different for all of us, really. It’s different every time, even though it might feel like you take the same steps over and over again. The more you write, the more you’ll come to know and hone your moves, develop your way of being with words. Some of us rush in, stripping ourselves bare before we’ve hardly gotten through the door, while others peel layers slowly, savoring each new revelation before reaching for the next. Either way, surprises abound, things we couldn’t anticipate when we started.
So many think it’s all about that first draft and getting it on the page. They think the passionate melding of your senses with your language with your hands with your memories is the heart of the matter, the most important thing; they think that’s what writing a poem is. Sometimes, rarely, maybe. But write long enough and you know: That’s only the beginning, that initial tumble into the sexy potential of it all. The next day (or week or month), when you open your eyes to light and see not a grand passion but crumpled sheets and stale metaphors and the mess of your feelings strewn across the page: That’s when you decide if where you’ve gone is worth a longer stay.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes that heady frenzy is the point, and it’s enough just as it is. Maybe you’ll walk away from it, grateful for some thing it helped you see or know or remember. Maybe it was just an itch you needed to scratch. Maybe it was nothing, and you can see that and it’s fine, just fine. It was what it is. You go back to walking the dog and buying groceries and picking up library books, perhaps more primed to notice the world’s glances that come your way, that spark that could turn into a real poem.
Sometimes, though, you know it’s the beginning of something more than words scrawled through some feeling’s heat. It’s something you could sustain, that could sustain you. So you turn toward it and hold on.
This is where the work begins. (All poems are work, just as everyone says.)
At first you tackle the easy things, a word here or there, a phrase, a clause. You begin tentatively, seeing where things hold and give. The more you come to know the poem, the deeper you’re able to go. You add, delete, and combine with confidence. You trim the redundancies and the modifiers that are about nothing but nervousness or bravado or fear. You might write or cut whole stanzas as you realize what the poem is going to be, to mean. The more you polish, the more clearly you see, and you keep only the parts that work with the whole. The poem begins to gleam. You do, too.
Sometimes, it’s as easy (and difficult) as that. Other times, you get snagged or stuck. You do and undo, do and undo in futile loops. You might come to doubt yourself. You might tell yourself that you’re a shit writer who’s never written anything worthwhile and that you’re probably not capable of writing at all. Get over that. It’s just early life trauma coming around to have its way with you. Don’t let it.
However, if you try and try and try and can’t get anywhere, it’s time to take a step back and consider radical revision. It’s time to look hard at the frame you built in that first coming together, to see if the way you began allows for a structure that holds. Do you need to let someone else be the speaker, change the tense, impose (or tear down) a form? Oh, how hard it can be hard to realize that what you’ve written doesn’t work, that to save any of the poem you will have to rebuild from the ground up. You might hate doing this because you’ll feel as if it won’t even be the same poem any more.
Maybe it won’t. It might not be worth saving, the thing you’ve turned your beloved poem into. You might have to let it go.
If you’re not ready to do that, you could try just putting it away for awhile. Go about your business and get some distance. When all you can see is weakness, when you can’t remember what you ever saw in the poem anyway, when you’re sick of the sound of its voice, when the poem on the page just can’t become the one in your head, maybe give it a rest. Just put it aside. Let it be. (You might even try writing some new poems for awhile.)
One day, when there’s a chance the words might sound fresh again, pull it out and see what it is to you now.
Sometimes you’ll realize you were an idiot, that you were just too close to the whole thing to see what you had. Other times you’ll realize it was as doomed as you thought, or that even though it’s not all that bad, it just isn’t and can’t be what you hoped for. Let it go, if that’s what’s true. Do so with peace. You learned something from it, you know. You always do.
None of your words are ever wasted.
These words grew from an exercise from The Daily Poet, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Solano. It’s a book I picked up last summer, when I was strolling a bookstore and imagining what the coming fall would be. I thought I would be fully retired, with lots of time to write. As I had no ideas about what I might want to write, I thought a book of exercises might be useful for building a consistent writing practice, a good way to discover what you want to focus on.
As this week turned toward its end and I realized I hadn’t written anything (again) or (again) felt the pull to write anything and knew I didn’t want to write about any of the things that had been yammering inside my head, I pulled out this book that I’d done nothing with (so far) but put on my shelf.
The book contains a writing prompt for each day, and I chose the one for the day I’d be publishing this post, November 14:
Teach Us: Write a poem that teaches the reader about something….Have this “teaching” happen through the poem, but have it be about something else entirely….See what you can teach the reader when you write the poem about something other than what is being taught.
Feel free to let me know what you think the true subject of the writing is. 🙂 I did not write a poem, and you don’t have to, either. The beauty of a book of prompts is that the whole point is just to get you started. You can do what you want with them, and this was a week in which I needed to do more of what I want and less of what I think I should. It was nice to shut the yammering up for a bit.
“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”
My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.
At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.
I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.
“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”
“But does it have to?”
“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.
“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”
Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.
How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?
Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.
“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”
Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?
“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”
“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”
I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.
Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.
It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.
What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?
She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.
“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”
In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.
Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)
Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.
As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.
I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.
In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”
“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.
The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.
I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.
“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”
I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”
It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)
To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.
In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.
What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”
Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”
Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.
But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.
As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.