Why I Write (and don’t)

When my children were babies I began writing poems after a long dry period. I’d thought I’d lost my capacity for writing poetry–too many demands and not enough resources–but somehow, amid mothering two babies and working full-time, I completed a book of poems.

Clearly, capacity wasn’t quite the issue. (Not to discount that. Lack of resources is a true barrier, and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t. It was, and has always been, a factor for me.) What helped me overcome my capacity issues was a drive to record what we were living. I wanted to remember it, and I was afraid the memories would be lost in the blur of feeding and changing and grading papers and fatigue. Committing them to words committed them to continued existence; each poem became conduit to a specific memory I can now recall and relive, at any time.

The moments I wanted to pin to memory weren’t big ones. A nurse’s comment in the NICU, a bedtime bath, rocking a toddler back to sleep in the middle of the night, wondering if it might be the last time I’d do so. I had no fear of losing the bigger moments, but I wanted to capture the small ones in greater danger of being lost to a multitude of days.

As my daughter prepares to leave home again, in a different, more permanent way than she has before, in the midst of so many different kinds of fall, I’m feeling driven to purposefully remember again, to put moments and images into words. While I was awake in the middle of one of this past week’s nights, the phrase “exquisite pain” kept floating through my head. Earlier that night, we’d sat at the kitchen table, talkingtalkingtalking about her plans and what they do and don’t mean, about times with her grandparents, about choosing (or not) to play board games with children, about her hopes and intentions, about home renovations and what they’ve meant and mean to us, about red and green flags, rings, forms of marriage. Even earlier than that, we’d had tears and a coming to understanding over words I’d tossed out carelessly–except, of course, the feelings (neither mine nor hers) weren’t as much about the words as about so many other things, and as I sat at that table under its amber light in the waning of a very early autumn night, I could feel what I often don’t in the moment: That this would be a night that lives in my memory, a few hours extraordinary, in some part, for its ordinariness in the midst of the profound. I could see them fusing to a Before that I will long for in the coming After, the way I long for so many things now gone.

It has been a season of ordinary embedded in extraordinary, this time of pandemic and unrest, fire and smoke. As I anticipate her absence, it is the small, ordinary moments I have been hardly able to stand the thought of losing. When I look back over my life, it is seemingly unremarkable moments that rise to the surface and trigger the deepest grief: morning sun shining through my grandparents’ kitchen window and Paul Harvey’s tinny voice coming through the kitchen-counter radio as my grandpa spread butter on toast; sitting at a department store lunch counter with my grandma after an afternoon of shopping, fingers in my pocket playing with my first pot of lip gloss; a rainy Saturday afternoon snuggled into my dad’s recliner with a book in my hands, a fire burning in the fireplace and The Wide World of Sports theme song playing on the TV, feeling snug and happy and so glad not to be that skier tumbling over and over and over down a mountain in an agony of defeat.

Similarly, what I want to remember of this time are only snippets, quick snapshots of memory:

The Hannah Montana theme song playing in the room across the hall while I edit her graduation video.

Catching the moment the solar patio lights blinked on as we sat beneath them on a warm June night.

Shopping with G. for clothes at a vintage emporium filled with racks and racks of clothing originally sold in the decade she was born. “I didn’t own this exact dress, but I owned this dress,” I tell her, holding up a wide-wale corduroy jumper from Eddie Bauer, remembering the early-teacher self I once was, when I was only three years older than she is now.

Sitting side by side on the couch at the end of an evening, each of us holding a dog swaddled in a blanket, rising oh-so-carefully and carrying them to their beds and hoping, as one does with infants, that they won’t stir and need to be soothed back to sleep.

Hearing the low murmur of her happy voice through the wall as she talks with her love, half a world away.

Stopping at McDonald’s on a Friday after picking her up from work and getting french fries and Cokes because it’s “Frie-day,” the car filling with her music and a salty-oily-sweet smell that reminds me of her high school years.

I don’t have in me, right now, whatever it is that poetry requires. Maybe it’s because I’m 20 years older and it takes more out of me to process grief than joy. Maybe it’s because I’m coming to understand, in new ways this week, that we are in collapse. Or, that we have been in a long, slow collapse for most of my life.

(I remember an afternoon in the late 70s, in my grandparents’ living room on a bright day, a conversation in which my grandfather drew comparisons between the United States and the Roman empire. “All empires fall, Rita,” he told me. “I’m so old it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it very well could in yours.” I sat on the floor, picking at the pile of a soft, cream-colored rug, wondering what downfall would mean for us, thinking of Britain, which seemed to have come through the loss of their empire OK, and hoping that our fall could be more like theirs than, say, that of the Russians.)

The morning after the presidential “debate,” I read a piece that describes what collapse can look like. According to the writer, a Sri Lankan born in the early years of his country’s civil war, it looks pretty normal, for many people. It looks a lot like the collection of memories I shared several paragraphs back. In reading the piece, and thinking about it, though, I realize there are other moments in my memories of this summer, too, that I didn’t list above:

Noticing, on a walk one day in July, a couple in a broken down camper parked next to a grassy median dividing my neighborhood from a freeway onramp. Noticing, in September, exiting the freeway on my way back from getting groceries, that the median is now–like so many small, grassy places in the city–filled with tents, and the curb once empty except for the camper is now lined with cars.

Waking in the middle of a night when my daughter was out and seeing that she didn’t text to tell me she was home, and my body flooding with adrenalin as I shot from my bed. Noticing, as I moved down the hallway, that the light I’d left on for her had been turned off, but not believing that she was really home, OK, until I opened her door and saw her sleeping in her bed.

Driving downtown and seeing empty storefronts, boarded windows, and graffiti-covered buildings. Fighting the usual traffic and feeling sad to see another high-rise taking over the block that once housed our favorite food carts. Abandoning our quest to go to Powell’s because the line of mask-clad people waiting to get in stretched down the entire, block-long length of the building.

How leaves on my willow turned dark brown during the days of hazardous air, and how we tried to tell ourselves that maybe it was just the leaves getting ready to fall, the way leaves do. How, in the week of the debate that revealed–again, but in a slightly new way–what peril we are in, we noticed that there are now only green leaves on the tree and told ourselves that the tree is OK. (Though the ground beneath it was littered with the dried, nowblack bodies of the ones that turned dark.)

How do you send your child half a world away when your country is in the midst of collapse? How–if she is so lucky to have that chance–do you not?

The words of the essay I read the morning after what was supposed to be a debate–in which the President signaled to the Proud Boys who marched in my city the previous weekend and who live all around me that he is aligned with them–ring painfully true:

I lived through the end of a civil war — I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.

https://gen.medium.com/i-lived-through-collapse-america-is-already-there-ba1e4b54c5fc

In February I left my parents’ house knowing I would see them in March, but I didn’t, and now I don’t know when I will see them again. In March I left work knowing I wouldn’t see students and colleagues for a while, but would again, surely, before the end of the school year. Now I don’t know when I will see them again. In a week my child leaves me, and, while we have plans for when we will see each other again, I know now that I don’t know when I will see her again, and that my plans are as fragile–and perhaps already as dead–as those leaves that fell from my weeping tree.

But also: I have not been punched in the face. My parents live, my paychecks arrive, my child is going where she wants to go, healthy and safe. We eat meals under patio lights, made with food bought from stocked grocery stores, and we shop for clothing, watch TV, and fret about how to best care for our dying pets. We get takeout, and drink cocktails, and set alarms because we are living in a world in which being in particular places at particular times still matters.

I cry nearly every day, my body like a sieve, but the tears come and go swiftly, like thin clouds that intermittently block the sun. I have not been punched in the face (yet), but I do keep tripping and skinning my knees.

I can look back over the whole of my life and I see moments where I knew–I knew–things weren’t right, that the center wasn’t holding. For godsake, I became a high school English teacher because by the end of the Reagan era I was worried about the health of our democracy, and teaching children how to read, write, and think critically seemed the best contribution I could make with my particular set of talents and skills.

But there are all the other moments I can see, too. Sun streaming through windows, a child’s warm weight on my chest, words gathering around a kitchen table. That essay brought a kind of comfort. Yes, we are in collapse. We have long been in collapse. So: No, I am not crazy to see things the way I am seeing them. But also: Maybe collapse isn’t quite what I’ve feared. Aren’t all of our lives, always, in some kind of collapse, always moving from something they were to something else they will be? Isn’t everything always fleeting, our world always ending? Isn’t that the exquisitely painful truth of what it means to live?

There are many reasons to write, but this is mine: To capture the ordinary gorgeous of the everyday however I can, so we don’t forget what we once had, and can see what we still do.

8 thoughts on “Why I Write (and don’t)

  1. Ally Bean says:

    “a season of ordinary embedded in extraordinary”

    Your words are a perfectly succinct summation of this last half a year. I cannot wrap my head around the changes, yet there is a normalcy to my life. Some days it doesn’t dawn on me that there is anything horribly wrong in this country, then it hits me and I am overwhelmed, unable to make any decisions. Worried. Then, like you said, I realize life is fleeting and that I’d best get on with things. Live now.
    Ally Bean recently posted…As September Ends, Learning About The Color Orange + A Colorful Poll QuestionMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      One of the things I most appreciate about your writing is its brevity. You said in a paragraph what it took me so many words to say. Maybe a sentence: Live now.

  2. Marian says:

    Oh Rita. I wish I knew what to say. I’ve now sat here with my computer on my lap for an hour, trying and failing to come up with suitable words for what you’re going through—personally, with Grace moving so far away in only a week’s time, as well as with what you’re going through as a country—and I’m completely at a loss. Sending you love—
    Marian

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    YES. When you wrote about Paul Harvey, you touched a nerve for me. It is the ordinary that is extraordinary for me, at least. It is all of those moments that will define my life at the end of it. Not the big moments. The little ones that we don’t think mean as much as they do while we are living them.

    There are things I am learning daily and I think, ” how did it take 50 years for me to learn this?” but then I think I needed to learn it. I hate this thing we are going through but I am learning through it.

    You should publish your poetry, you should make a book of your poems. Even in a horrible time, you should do that for the world. I would buy that book, Rita. Many people would. Because even in a really scary time, people need words, need hope. I look forward to your words each week. In fact, I wish you wrote more than once a week, selfishly.

    I wish I knew what to say about Grace leaving but I don’t. I only know my experience with Anna going to college but that is not even close to what you are going through. But like you said, she is lucky to get this chance. But also, like you said, with the uncertainty, when will you see her next…I wish I held the answers for you. I will only be here for you to talk to and to write funny things and happy things and occasionally sad things.

    I hope someday we can look back at our words and see this pain and be able to learn from it. I really hope it is sooner than later because I am really fucking tired and I know you are too, my friend.

    Sending you so much love and strength.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…10 Reasons Why I Will Never Be Featured on Huffington PostMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kari. I am tired. And astounded pretty much daily at how long it has taken me to learn some things–which always makes me wonder what I’m not seeing right now that will, in hindsight, seem so obvious.

      I can’t tell you how much I’d give to be back in that kitchen listening to Paul Harvey, watching my grandpa get ready for work. I miss that world I used to have something fierce.

      I am barely able to write here once a week, and poems are not something that’s calling to me. But I’m glad to have this, and grateful to be able to connect with you.

  4. Kate says:

    Oh Rita, I’m so grateful you choose to share your words with us as you capture your moments and memories. There is plenty to be grateful for, there is still so much to grieve. (Both/and. I learned that here.) I’ve learned so much from you here and it makes me a better person.

    I wish we could sit out with coffee or cocktails and chat, but I’m having my morning coffee with you and sending hugs and thank yous from here.

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