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.

13 thoughts on “A love letter, of sorts

  1. Marian says:

    Oh Rita. I’m blocked too. I’m grateful to you for letting yourself write this, so that I can reach out and say me too. (Selfish, hey, to hope for someone else to take the plunge while I sit back and wait…) The world is way too much for me these days, so I tell myself (kid myself) that once I know precisely HOW to speak (and write) I will. Because the stakes are too high and I can’t make YET ANOTHER mistake that will send us/me backwards and make things worse instead of better. (This is actually a terrible plan, and I’m less than an hour from biking to someone’s house to have a heart-to-heart and to speak some much-needed truth that wouldn’t need urgent speaking/fixing if only I had listened to my instincts and spoken up right from the get-go.)

    This:
    “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.”
    Can I just say that I admire the courage it took to write those words? This is precisely the kind of stuff that I have sitting in my drafts folder. I think much of what we need to do, we DO know, but aren’t willing. And the rest of it is systemic. And how can we hope to change the latter when we can’t even rouse ourselves with the former?

    xo
    Marian

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Marian. I understand the fear of saying/doing the wrong thing. But something I remind myself of often is that if what is happening is not working, I don’t have much to lose if what I want to say/do also doesn’t work. I suppose I can make things worse, but not working is still not working.

      As for the what to do about the environment: I really struggle with finding some balance. I know the things that need to happen to have any impact are systemic, and that even if all of us were to do the small, individual things that have an impact, it would not likely change the trajectory we are on. So doing it feels pointless. It is easy to think: Why make life harder for no meaningful gain? Still, I do what I can that feels do-able. I sure miss thinking and writing about lighter things.

  2. Kate says:

    Everything. EVERYTHING you said.

    I’m having a love/hate relationship with the adaptability of humans. I’m grateful that I can go on buying groceries and visiting family and paying bills and doing laundry and scrubbing toilets and reading bedtime stories (The One and Only Ivan) and LIVING when all the crazy, crazy world stuff is happening but sometimes it hits me that I’m just going on and my friends are just going on and THE WORLD IS GOING TO HELL and why aren’t we all DOING something besides drinking our cocktails while our kids play in the pool while talking about how hard it is to find a decent contractor!! (But who wants to spend all their time thinking about that because laundry, groceries, and LIFE is exhausting enough without turning on the soul crushing news.)

    I guess your post hit a stream of consciousness nerve. I’ve been trying to write a post about it all – how surreal and dystopian and yet completely functional everything feels – but I don’t trust my lens or my words right now because I’m just full of rage. I guess mine is the letter of a spiteful pissed off ex who just realized she’s been duped and we all know those are better left unsent.

    • Rita says:

      Boy, can I relate to feeling as if I’ve been duped. About so many things. And rage. I was in a conversation with someone last night about political agendas and I suddenly realized I was yelling. In a car. Not cool. The rage just comes busting out sometimes. I know we’re all walking around as if everything is normal, but of the people I know who will show me something of themselves just below the surface, none is fine or OK. I don’t think any of us are, really. Other than the ones who want to see it all burn down.

      I am having to work real hard to love my fellow humans these days. Many days I know that I love humans, but that there are a lot of us I don’t like very much right now. I have to retreat from them on a regular basis.

      I’d kinda like to see that letter of yours. Maybe part of the problem is that we’re not really talking about what we really need to be talking about?

      • TD says:

        Rita,
        As you write, “and I suddenly realized I was yelling. In a car. Not cool.”

        I did the same —this week. Alone, in a car, as I was driving over the causeway bridge back to my home. Anger, not yet rage of which is a strong dangerous word that I have experienced before. I was expressing my feelings of anger about “it all” as loud as I could because I needed in that moment for a listener, even if the listeners were all the fish in the bay.
        Then I said out loud, much calmer, that my therapist long years ago told me to yell it all out in the privacy of my car. Then I thought that therapist was wrong about that! No cool. It’s not cool…

        …as I didn’t feel any better and absolutely nothing was resolved.

        Yes. The tides come in and the tides then the go out, as so it is with our emotions being human. So it is.

        • Rita says:

          Well, I’m OK with yelling in cars. There was a period of my life a few years back when that was the only place my rage about a really difficult situation could come out without hurting anyone else. I’m glad I could do it there. I was saying “not cool” about myself because there was another person in the car, and my words were directed at him. I didn’t mean to be yelling, and the anger wasn’t at him.

          But the bigger thing, I think, are your final words. When I’m really in the throes of something, I’m always reminding myself that the feelings are going to pass. They always do.

          • TD says:

            In theory, yes yelling in the car sounds like an okay thing to do for release. I learned that it taught my mind and body that yelling is an okay coping mechanism… and before you know it I was yelling at a person (or a person sitting with me in my car). Not cool for me.

            I live alone and I was finding myself yelling in the mirror (but my dogs ear sensitive). Not cool for me.

            Beating pillows with my fist was another therapist solution. In theory sounds okay. That taught my dog to chew up the pillows when I left him (pillow monster). So when I left the house I had to place all pillows in a drawer. The dog didn’t chew anything else. Also not cool for me.

            I like myself better when I’m not yelling. I haven’t found a solution (yet), but I’m working on improving myself.

  3. TD says:

    Rita,
    Your love letter from Portland is extraordinary.

    “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.”

    Perfection in timing for my heart as grieve along side of you. And yes, I must self care. Do what I can when I can. Even if that means being very quiet and listening or handing a homeless soul a cold bottled water in this intense heat wave as no one really never truly knows what another person may be struggling through.

    Your words above touch me as I have been struggling with my sending family members a note card expressing the passing of my oldest dog. I did not know “why” I was sending the note cards and I have been struggling with myself and my need to write to each of them. When I read your words it all my sense to me! Thank you for your love letter from Portland. Hugs.

    • Rita says:

      I am sorry to hear that you have lost your dog. Both of my old guys have been having troubles of late. I can empathize with the difficulty of letting them go and adjusting to the empty space they once filled, as I’ve been contemplating what that is going to be like for me when mine pass. Take care!

      • TD says:

        Thank you. One, extremely loud silence especially at night. Two, actually sleeping a full night and less worry. Three, knowing my pet is pain free at rest now.

        I remember your Penny, but I can’t remember your other fellows name. Thank you again.

  4. TD says:

    Oh dear Rita, I’m reading ABC news (twitter).
    “Risk of clashes at rally mobilizes Portland, Oregon, police
    By By GILLIAN FLACCUS Associated Press
    Aug 13, 2019, 5:59 PM ET”

    “We’ll be ready for the 17th here in little Portland, Oregon,” Wheeler, the mayor, told The Associated Press. “But at the end of the day, the bigger question is about our nation’s moral compass and which direction it’s pointing.”

    Keep your self safe Rita!

    • Rita says:

      Honestly, I am so angry about this situation. And conflicted. I would like to go and be a person showing up against hate, but I am worried that this thing could easily turn lethally violent. I am not willing to put myself in the middle of a situation that’s been created by right-wing extremists, the President, Ted Cruz, and the media hype. I don’t trust our leaders to be able to keep it under control. I really hope it turns out to be a non-event.

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