In memoriam

34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.

I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.

But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.

The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.

I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.

I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.

Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):

“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”

You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:

We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….

Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”

Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.

I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.

He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.

Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.

In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.

Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.

Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.

The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.

I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.

This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.

I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:

Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.

Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.

I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.

I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.

We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:

…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”

Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.

It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.

A love letter, of sorts

“I’ve missed your writing,” a new old friend told me the morning after a high school reunion. I think he asked why I haven’t been posting anything here, and I think I said something like, “I don’t know, not sure, life, busy,” but I don’t really remember.

Writing, for me, has always been a bit of a hot-cold thing. There have always been long periods when the words lie fallow. Earlier in my life, those times distressed me, but I came to accept that times of silence are just part of how it is for me. I don’t try to figure out what it’s about, something that became easier to do once I realized the dormancy wasn’t about laziness or lack of discipline or talent or anything I could construe as a character flaw. It’s something that just is, for me. Being able to be this kind of easy about what some might call writer’s block is one of the luxuries that come from not attaching this work to my livelihood. (Another way to look at it: Knowing this about myself is one of the reasons I made a decision not to attach this work to my livelihood.) Honestly, I don’t feel blocked. It’s not as if there are words rising behind some dam. It’s more like the stream has dried up. For now.

I do know, though, that the state of the world isn’t conducive to creative output from me. Last night I walked through a neighborhood I no longer recognize, so many of its modest bungalows and old shops replaced by shiny towers of commerce and soulless studio apartments, grey and white boxes that seem like the architectural equivalent of fast-fashion. In front of me was a 20-something white guy with a t-shirt that proclaimed “Fucked by Satan” in some obnoxiously loud font. He had a tattoo of a spoon on his forearm. He had a lot of tattoos, none of them artful, but that one stood out to me. Why a spoon? (Why not?, I suppose.) All around me were walls and noise and people with expensive shoes and posturing t-shirts and it was hard not to hate everyone and everything, including myself for being there. This feeling was not, of course, really about them.

Except, it also was. It was about all of us on Mississippi Ave. drinking over-priced drinks and artisan burgers in a food cart pod that rings a permanent deck and picnic tables and string lights, all of us kind of playing at being Portland-weird and funky and plain folks in a part of town that all of the plain folks who previously occupied it have been pushed out of while, you know, kids in the other Mississippi ended their first day of school sleeping on gym floors because their parents had been arrested at work for being brown in America. (Or, as we like to say, ‘Merca!.)

And the shootings, of course.

(What does it mean that we can write sentences such as that last one, shootings as afterthought, or as such a given they almost need not be mentioned?)

Writing–or any art-making–I think, is ultimately an act of love. We do it because we care about saying something that those we love might need to hear. Or to serve those we love in some way. It’s hard for me to make love when I feel surrounded by white guys in “Fucked by Satan” t-shirts. Or MAGA hats. Maybe that’s why I’ve been silent.

I know that when I’m having a “world is too much with us” kind of time, the standard antidote to is to get away from people for a while until I can see their beauty again. Or, at least, get away from the gentrified parts of Portland. (I think that last fragment contains a redundancy.) I know I should probably get my Wendell Berry on and go search for the peace of wild things. But it is hard to do that and not think about the rampant, unprecedented wild fires in the arctic. (Just when you think “And the shootings, of course” is the most outrageous sentence you might put in a blog post, one like that last one comes along to challenge that.)

It is hard to seek out nature and not think about the wild fires in Siberia and not think that perhaps the wild things would really appreciate it, perhaps, if fewer of us were practicing self-care and more of us were “taxing our lives with the forethought of grief” so that we might actually do some things to prevent the losses that could be prevented. Maybe we would if we knew what they were. Maybe there aren’t any things, really, and that is why we go out in stupid clothes and spend money stupidly on over-priced food and drink in pretentious settings. Or why I do.

The day after the reunion I visited the beach I always went to for solace and guidance during adolescence, and I realized that what was comforting about it was the sense I had not just of the water’s size–which put my worries and problems into perspective–but also of its permanence. Somehow knowing that the tide would continue to come in and go out long after I would be able to sit on the shore watching it do so helped me endure whatever I was having trouble enduring. I know the planet has never been fixed, that it is always changing, adapting, transforming. But. When I go to find the peace of wild things any more what I feel most is grief, the kind you feel when you miss someone before they’ve even left you.

So what I’ve been doing instead of writing is painting a bathroom (among other things). While I sanded obsessively to rid the door jamb of ridges of (probably lead-based, but honestly, I find it hard to care about that these days) paint, I listened to the audio book of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, a Stephen Kingesque novel of a possible apocalypse. It was political and social commentary wrapped in a page-turner, profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. I truly disliked the performance of one of the narrators, but I listened to all 32 hours and 22 minutes of it just the same. (Deep ridges of paint. Paint that I should probably have just accepted as it was.) Sometimes there is solace to be had in sci-fi horror. It’s scary because the horror is rooted in what is real, but the world of the novel is so much worse than the one we’re actually inhabiting. Or, at least, it feels that way. Mostly. (I suspect the fictional white nationalists’ arsenals might be too spot-on.)

Anyway, I knew of the book because I read Wendig’s blog, which is profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. He has written more than once about the need to create things in times such as these, difficult as it can be in such times because it is easy to feel that art is frivolous when there are so many, many fires (both literal and metaphorical) that we’d like to put out. How is a poem (or blog post) going to save the planet or house the homeless or pick up those children from school? It’s not. But, Chuck (and others, notably Toni Morrison, who died this week) argue that art is essential in times such as these, when we need to connect with our humanity and each other and keep ourselves whole. If you think about it too much (which I am wont to do), the whole thing becomes paralyzing: Both writing and not-writing can feel like self-centered indulgence.

But, as I wrote at the beginning of this ramble, writing or not writing is mostly not a choice for me. I can try to force it, but I’ve learned that doing so doesn’t really work for me. Still, I’m writing these words now, I guess, even though I didn’t really feel like doing it when I sat down at my computer this morning, because I want to say that if you are feeling off your game (whatever that game might be) and maybe not even playing it, that might be OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are weak or lazy or overly privileged and just need to buck up and get to it. (I mean, maybe all of those things are true, but lack of productivity is not damning evidence of it.) We are living through a hard, shitty time, and most of us are doing the best we can. That’s not an artful sentence, but I’m pretty sure it’s a true one. I think it’s important to say things that are true, even if plainly is the only way we can muster to say them. Pay attention to what’s happening, and cut yourself some slack if need be. You’ll do what you need to, when you need to, when you can, as you can. Isn’t that what all of us are always doing?

I am writing these words now, I guess, as an act of love, both for myself and for you who are reading them. I don’t really hate you, even if it seems like I said I do. Not even if you’re wearing a MAGA hat, even though I really, really hate what you’re doing. You are kinda wearing me out and breaking my heart, but I don’t hate you. I am writing these words now, this morning because I tend to believe that love is more verb than noun, and connecting with our humanity is something we could all benefit from doing more of, and sometimes acting as if is the only way to make things so.

Stay gold, Ponyboy

You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.

You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.

You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.

What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.

As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.

As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”

As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.

You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.

But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.

Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.

Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.

You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.

Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.

You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.

You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.

You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:

All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.

The Student Who Shot My Other Student

He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.

I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.

I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.

I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.

The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.

Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.

In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.

The Morning I Notice My Old Wedding Ring

Because it was there to notice in the cardboard box where I once put it, the box in which I keep all my earrings

(because I’m not a jewelry person, the kind of woman who owns enough jewelry to warrant a proper box), the box I keep meaning to go through and clean out

Because so many of the earrings are missing mates that aren’t going to reappear, no matter how much I once loved them–that funky teardrop turquoise one, my birthstone; or the expensive gold hoop my parents gave me; or that silver heart-shaped one I lost somewhere in the old house, the one I lived in with the man I didn’t marry–and

Because for some reason I notice it this morning, when it’s been there so long that I usually don’t, and

Because I am in a place where, it seems, so many things must be tested, I stop to try it on my finger to find that it no longer fits, and then I wonder

Why I keep it and all the earrings I will never wear again, and

Why I never quite know what to do with things that no longer fit, and

Why I am not the kind of woman who would ever have an asymmetrical number of piercings, or who might wear a mis-matched pair, and

Why I am the kind of woman who hangs onto things she loves past their point of usefulness, and

Why I can’t part with a wedding ring even though the circle has been broken, and

Because I don’t have any of the answers, and

Because perhaps some day my children might want this piece of metal bent into the shape my finger once was, this little glittering rock to tell them that they came from something that mattered enough for their mother to hold onto an emblem of it,

I put it–all of it, the ring and the questions and the becauses–back into the box and go on with my day, knowing it will not be one in which I discard anything

Just because.

***************

I’ve never been able to commit to NaNoWriMo (or any other WriMo that requires doing a prodigious amount of writing every day in the month of November), but this year I did decide to join an online poetry writing group that runs Nov. 1-30, led by Jena Schwartz. This writing (poem?) came from one of the prompts Jena provided to the group this week. I have decided that for me, writing might be not unlike exercise:  I’d like to think I can just go it alone, but I probably can’t. There’s a synergy that comes from reading others’ words and talking about their words that I can’t manufacture on my own, a force that energizes whatever it is that makes me want to find my own. And, like exercise, there is a value in just showing up, putting yourself out there and doing the work, even if it’s not a contest for a prize. That’s what publishing this piece here is for me. I appreciate whatever it is that comes from being part of this group that made me stop and think about why I noticed my old ring and what it means that I still have it–which makes this, in some ways, also like the kind of daily gratitude practice some take on for the month of November. It’s been a well-spent $30.00.

 

In the middle of the beginning of the end

It is the first week of November.
The roses are blooming, still.

The petals blush and bloom outside the window where I sleep, and they are lovely in a gangly, over-grown way, but I am starting to wonder if pink is the color of doom, a gentle warning from a planet warming.

I remember a childhood summer day, Marie Osmond crooning on the radio about paper roses while I dug rivers and tunnels in my grandparents’ garden. Summer was mild sun and dusky July raspberries and watermelon with seeds and Puget Sound water so cold it almost made your teeth chatter just to look at it. Today I look out the window to the roses and wonder if I will ever have grandchildren who will know such summer days, or if instead I will have grandchildren who look forward to the brambly November blooms of feral roses. (Will I have grandchildren?)

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s always the end of the world as we know it.

In the first week of November I spend a Sunday afternoon at the library, listening to a poet I know talk about the role of poetry in times such as these. On this last Sunday before the election that will be the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, I sit in a room and listen to the words of a poet who first came into my life 27 years ago, right before the first time the life I was living ended and I had to find my way to a new one, and who appeared again at a later time when another life was ending. Perhaps that is why I have come to listen to what he might tell me today. Perhaps I am looking for the kind of support his words offered through those other transitions.

I want to enter into his words, but I cannot. The room is filled with gray hair and white skin, and we are sitting in the open space at the top of three flights of marble stairs, and while part of me fills with something like awe for our humanity and faith in such things as poetry and libraries, another part of me wonders if we are all fiddling away this fall afternoon while our Rome burns, if we should be out knocking on doors and sounding the alarm and telling everyone we know to vote, vote, vote instead of listening to the gentle poet’s gentle words about writing and living and folk songs.  I doze off while sitting up, his words and music (because yes, there is music–guitar, not fiddle) more lullaby than anything else.

I wake up to these words, with these words:  “Poetry is a luxury that could save your life. So maybe it can save your country.”

I am a poet.
I don’t write poetry any more.

He tells us that poets don’t have to be great writers. They have to be great observers, able to catch the poems as they wander by.

How can poetry be both luxury and necessity? How can roses bloom in the season when flowers are supposed to die?

The first week in November I am reading Anne Lamott,* who tells me that all truth is paradox “and this turns out to be reason for hope.” She tells me,

“…paradox is an invitation to go deeper into life, to see a bigger screen instead of the nice, safe lower left quadrant where you see work, home, and the country. Try a wider reality, through curiosity, awareness, and breath. Try actually being here.”

I put things out in the world, things that feel important for everyone to know: the caravan is a humanitarian crisis; the president lies; our kids don’t have librarians to teach them how to find sources of truth. Only a few people seem to reach out to catch them, these little nuggets of doom I offer the way some people offer prayer. “You think that if you just explain everything clearly enough, other people will understand and do the right thing,” a friend tells me in a conversation about how I am naive.

In the first week of November it is the mundane things I share that friends latch on to: a Halloween candy debacle, my clogged plumbing, my acceptance of leggings as pants. Maybe this is more fiddling, but I don’t think so. Maybe it is a kind of grabbing for life rings to keep us afloat in waters we don’t really know how to swim. We have a debate about leggings that is also about norms and appropriateness and oppression (OK, so I’m the only one who brought up oppression), and we all talk about how our ideas about leggings have evolved. For my daughter and her friends, this is a non-issue, a ridiculous conversation. For them, leggings have always been pants. That’s just how it is. Perhaps roses blooming in November will just be how it is for them, too.

The world is ending, as it always has, always will, and the most improbable things are getting me through it. My old, toothless, and increasingly threadbare dogs. Characters in books I haven’t read in decades (Francie Nolan and Harriet M. Welsch and Ole Golly.) German pancakes in a neighborhood bakery that fills with people and sunshine and sugar on weekend mornings. Friends who live half a continent away, people I’ve never met in real life but who give me comfort and laughter, a conduit to joy not possible in the world I was born into. One of them writes to me in the first week of November,

“Nostalgia kills me. Either I dwell on negatives I can’t change or I miss the positives that are gone and not coming back. So what works is focusing on the present…. The moment is right where I belong.”

And later in the first week in November, at the end of a long day, I walk out of school to a nearly empty parking lot and am struck by a wonder of red leaves swirling to the ground in the golden light of a sun about to set. I am weary and frustrated and going home to a house empty of anyone but those tired dogs, but in that moment I breathe in the joy of those leaves, that light, and it becomes something palpable, a good weight in the pit of my stomach. I share this moment later with my friend who belongs in the moment, though we may never share moments through anything other than code that represents them, and only after the moments have passed.

This moment in time is full of paradox, endings that are beginnings and beginnings that are endings. All moments in time are.

Each night I go to sleep alone next to the window next to the roses and remember when I didn’t sleep alone. My life isn’t what I thought it would be, what I want it to be.
I love my life.

The roses, they are breaking me.
The roses, with their common, uncontrollable beauty, they are saving me.

At the reading, after I wake up, a woman sitting behind me asks a question. I recognize her voice, though I haven’t heard it in nearly 10 years. She is the friend of a friend I once had, another poet whose words helped save me when I needed saving. How I have missed Sarah, miss Sarah still, will always miss Sarah, who died too soon, and our friendship that died with her before it had a chance to fully bloom. How I sometimes miss that life I was living when she was my friend and her friend was someone I knew, a life filled with mothering and teaching and writing poetry and living on a mountain where the seasons behaved as I expected them to. How grateful I am for the missing.

Before the reading ends and the poet puts his guitar away, I pull out my yellow pad of paper and begin writing these words. I don’t talk to the poet who gave the reading or the one who asked the question, but in writing I feel connected to them just the same, and grateful for the gifts they are giving me, these words among them. After I capture all the poetry I can in prose, I walk down the three flights of steps and outside the library, where I take photos of the leaves and the light before getting in my car and heading home to my dogs and my solitude and my roses.

I don’t really know anything.
I know more than I ever have.

*From Almost Everything:  Notes on Hope, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Unpacking

Why, yes–I did move back in May. And yes,  I’m still unpacking.

I’m down to the boxes where I find the kinds of things that can gut you just a little bit, if you let them.

I have always loved this photo of my girl. There’s something in it that captures exactly who she was then and is now and, I suspect, will always be. It’s in the line of her mouth, the set of her shoulders, the directness of her gaze. And, too, in the flush of her cheeks and the tender curves of her legs, dangling because they are too short, yet, to rest on the pegs meant to support them.

Earlier today,  I wrote a long-postponed letter to the daughter of a man I loved when he and I were young, who wanted to know more about the person her deceased dad once was, and I shared tea with someone from high school who I didn’t know then but wish I had, and sun shone through the rain-splattered window we sat next to and warmed us as our talk flitted from one age we’d been to another, quickly, as if we knew we couldn’t fit nearly enough of three decades of living into a too-short hour, so later this afternoon, when I lifted the flaps of a box to find this photo that I framed nearly twenty years ago, past and present wove themselves into a sheer tapestry shot through with metallic threads of joy and grief and gratitude and regret, forming a scene in which words such as “past” and “present” have no meaning, in which everyone I love and have loved and will love were simultaneously all the ages they ever were and ever will be–and just for a fleeting moment, it was almost as if I could hold it all in my hands, tangible as actual fabric, almost as if I could put words to it that could tell the excruciatingly beautiful facts of our brief existence true.

But I couldn’t. This is the best I could do.

I’m still looking for the right place to put these things, a shelf that can hold the weight of them.

 

The life you save may be your own

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.”
~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

When I was a girl, stories were everything to me:  solace, companionship, beacon, and guide. Much later, stories literally saved my life.

The story I’ve been telling myself this past week is that we are living in a dark time. I believe this story to be true, even though I’ve wanted to believe otherwise–to believe that, perhaps, I’ve got the story wrong or that I’m not seeing all of it or that I’m giving too much importance to the wrong details. I think there is great danger in telling ourselves stories we want to believe even though they aren’t true. I believe this because of my own story, the harm I’ve done because I believed stories that later collapsed around me.

I am fully cognizant, though, that others in my country are telling themselves an entirely different story about who we are and what is happening to us. About who are the protagonists and antagonists and what the central conflict is, about whether that conflict is internal or external.

While there is so much I don’t know, and the versions of the dark story I am telling myself shift so much that I can’t seem to chart a constant course through it–some days fired up to take action and others so hopeless I retreat to silence and solitude–one thing I always believe in is the power of story to shape story.

So many of the stories I grew up believing have proven to be false. So many of the stories I’ve told myself have, the past few years, turned out to be fairy tales or myths or wishes more than truths.  The wonderful thing about being a writer, a teller of stories, though, is that you know revision is always an option. When we are open to the stories of others, we always run the risk that it will change our own–that we will realize we have to “kill our darlings,” perhaps throw out whole chapters or abandon what once seemed like the whole point of the thing. To some, I guess, this feels like ruin. We love our stories, and we don’t want them to change. But to me, it feels like possibility and relief. How amazing and interesting and freeing, that none of us are the sole authors of our plot line or themes, that it is always something we create in concert and collaboration with others, that a plot twist we never anticipated can save us. It’s such a burden, isn’t it, to feel that we alone must carry the weight of writing our own story? Maybe we can set that one down.

Whatever story you are telling yourself now, what I hope is that you will tell it to others, that we will all tell our stories to each other and listen to them with empathy. I hope you will listen most to the stories of reliable narrators, those who are seeing clearly rather than clinging to sinking ships and in their panic thrashing at and pushing under those who are in the water to save them. I hope we can collectively write and tell and share our way to a lighter time, to a narrative in which we strapped our lifeboats together and hauled into them as many of us as they could hold.

 

Autolessonography

It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’re  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.

 

True Story

Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.

Would that this were true.

I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.

Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.

“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”

“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)

“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)

I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.

I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.

Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:

(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now:  That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.

Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.

Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.

A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.

It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.

There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not?  How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:

I am a writer.

No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one:  the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.

It is my life’s work, loving this way.

I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.

And I want to live.

Photo courtesy of Kate.