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.





10 thoughts on “In the middle of the beginning of the end

  1. Kate says:

    I’m so grateful for friends like you. Who I may never see but make me feel less alone. Who (much more beautifully) say the things that are on my heart. Who struggle with the balance of living our lives but don’t want to be blind to the struggles of others, who know how important the decisions we make today are for the future of tomorrow and are fighting off apathy with the pain of caring too much while trying to find joy. Embracing the ability to hold so many things at the same time so we don’t buckle under the weight of the heaviest things.

    Your library is a beautiful building and I was glad to see your writing this morning. I needed to feel less alone.

    • Rita says:

      I think you are no slouch in the saying of things beautifully department. I am grateful for you, too. Thinking of you today, especially. I feel like I am holding my breath all day long.

      That library is Portland’s central branch, downtown. It is a grand old place.

  2. Diane says:

    Your writing matters to many of us – I think (I hope) I am one of those friends that you’ve never met but feel connected to through media that were not available to us in our earlier lives. And your mention of Francie Nolan caught me in the throat – just last week, I read that book again for probably the fifth or sixth time. The first time I read it, I was 14. My mother recommended it, which made me sure I DIDN’T want to read it; then, she took back her suggestion (based on the scene with Francie and the molester in the stairwell). That was all I needed to make me then change MY mind. For the next several days, when I got home from school (shortly before my mother got home from work), I pulled the book off the shelf and read it on the floor of our little den, hurriedly returning it to its slot when I heard her car. Today, we go on reading and writing and connecting with people near and far. Tomorrow, we vote and hope it will make a difference.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, you are one of those friends! I remember my grandfather (who I wrote about recently) recommending the book to me. I found it on my grandparents’ bookshelf. I loved it back then and hadn’t looked at it for years. (I still have his copy. I “borrowed” it and never returned it because I loved it so much.) Went back to it because I was having a discussion with a friend about which literary characters we are most like. I was stumped for awhile about who I’m like, and then it just came to me out of the blue: Francie Nolan. So I had to go back to the book to see if she is as I remembered her.

      I’m glad to know that you will be voting!

    • Rita says:

      I love it when I read things I didn’t know I needed to read (but did)! Hope you are doing OK today. Have been thinking about you and your new venture.

  3. Marian says:

    “How can poetry be both luxury and necessity?” I think words (which are often poetry, when done well) are what makes us human. Although other animals can communicate, no other animal can talk in the same way, and to the same level, that we can (that we know of, at least). I think it’s that which makes poetry/words a necessity; we humans are lessened when we lose our words. I think the luxury bit comes in because words are above and beyond what we need for bare survival. We NEED food, water, air, shelter; and while we may be less human without our words, we’re still alive.

    “…another part of me wonders if we are all fiddling away this fall afternoon while our Rome burns.” I think about this a lot: what important/meaningful/heroic things SHOULD I be doing with my time? For me, it’s vital that I’m doing *something* towards making a dent in all the things I’m worrying about. But I don’t think it’s possible to be attempting to save the world (or just your small corner of it) every waking moment. So then, for me, the question is how should I spend those OTHER moments? The thing I’ve landed on basically contains the imperative, “Do less harm.” (“Less,” and not “no” because our very existence does harm.) Words/poetry have got to be one of the least harmful ways to spend an afternoon. Think of all the things you could have been doing instead, Rita … one thing that comes to my mind is retail therapy; instead of supporting the arts and listening to a poet and being reminded in a bittersweet way about a friend you lost and still miss but are utterly grateful for you could have gone out and bought a bunch of stuff you didn’t actually need or want.

    Curious minds need to know: leggings and oppression. I really want you to explain this 🙂 .

    “Only a few people seem to reach out to catch them, these little nuggets of doom I offer…” For some reason this made me laugh. To me, this sentence is both poetry and dark/ironic/tongue-in-cheek comedy. It’s also a sentence that offers me relief, because this is precisely what I feel I do. Pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. I wait for an opening (in one of my increasingly rare opportunities to converse with someone/anyone) and then dispense whatever bit of doom I’m currently obsessing over. I think I do this because I want to wake people up, I want to make them open their eyes and see the same things I see. I want to feel not crazy for seeing all the things all the time. I want to be not alone in seeing all this. I also think this is my bizarre way of looking for kindred spirits.

    Thank you for putting these words out in the world, Rita.
    Marian recently posted…All I Really Need to KnowMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Your last paragraph made me laugh, in such a good way! I am so glad you are one of my kindred spirits. 🙂 The leggings/oppression conversation happened on Facebook. I posted an apology to my daughter for all the times I told her leggings aren’t pants–because I was wearing them as very comfortable pants. And it turned into a conversation (mostly because I took it there–see nuggets of doom, again) about how being judgey about leggings is rooted in bias based on gender and social class. I can delineate that for you if you want…

      I appreciate the reframing of how I chose to spend my Sunday afternoon. Thank you.

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