Complicated distress

My recent reading list borders on the bizarrely unrelated: Helen Macdonald’s essays in Vesper Flights, Malcolm Lowry’s descriptive pastiche of a novel Under the Volcano, and Daniel Defoe’s wandering and curiously relevant A Journal of the Plague Year.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin
..."is to learn something."
                               --T. H. White

Lowry’s book offers a strange escape for those of us preparing for yet another few months of pandemic quarantining. The escape is Mexico, its mountains and villages, its expatriates, world-travelers, drunkards, outsiders. But the characters cannot escape. The Consul cannot be saved from himself, from his tragic upbringing and his betrayals and his alcoholism. The novel’s so sensual and the descriptions so loving that I feel a sense of personal exile everywhere in the text. And I’m learning about Mexican-British politics in the pre-WWII years. It is a sad novel, but a different variety of sadness than the one I carry with me currently.

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Most birds possess the power of flight, something humans have longed for and envied forever, inventing angels and airplanes to mimic birds. Macdonald’s essay on swifts’ vesper flights describes how the birds rise in flocks up to the top of the convective boundary layer, where the wind flow’s determined not by the landscape but by “the movements of large-scale weather systems.” The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (one of my favorite informational sites!) suggests the swifts–not intellectually, but somehow as a group–orient themselves using the many-wrongs principle:

That is, they’re averaging all their individual assessments in order to reach the best navigational decision. If you ‘re in a flock, decisions about what to do next are improved if you exchange information with those around you…Swifts have no voices, but…they can pay attention to what other swifts are doing.”

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights

We have voices; and yet we are not, in general, so good as the swifts at paying attention. Perhaps because there are too many voices shouting so loudly that the information gets confused. The sheep-following fashion of thinking goes with whoever’s most noisy, we follow; that way lies error. Paying attention and using a many-wrongs principle means we have to be willing to change course when new information arrives. It requires a certain humility that, let’s face it, most of us lack.

~

While reading Defoe, I am struck by parallels with today’s pandemic. But of course–times change, people don’t. His narrator feels torn–do I leave for the country, or stay in London? Is it wrong to shut people up in plague-touched houses, or safer for the greater number of the population? Is the Mayor making the best choices for the city? When new information about contamination arises, how are the people–as a community–to respond? And what do we do about those people who show total disregard for others? When there are so many responses, for good and ill, to a pandemic of such scope–what choice is best?

What can be said to represent the Misery of these Times, more lively to the Reader, or to give him a more perfect Idea of a complicated Distress?

Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

Complicated Distress: a phrase, composed in 1722, relevant today.

Practicing

When I was 15 years old and learning to type on my dad’s old manual typewriter, I decided to write my memories; I was composing memoir before I knew what memoir was, under the influence of fiction (David Copperfield). I lost track long ago of where those pages are, but I do recall that I wrote page after page. What on earth would an adolescent who was raised in loving and non-traumatic circumstances in a middle-class New Jersey suburb have had to say that was worth recording?

I wrote about losing a toy bear, and learning to read; receiving second-hand books with joy, reading voraciously, wondering what it would be like to be an orphan, and feeling terrified of dying. I wrote about the attic of our old house and learning to ride a bicycle. There were other things, too, that I can’t remember now. Generally, mundane and typical 1960s-childhood events–and descriptions galore. It felt important to write down the small details.

Perhaps I should have gone into journalism.

These days I’ve no interest in writing memoir. I have kept a journal since I was ten years old, and that constitutes enough self-indulgent scribbling on its own. I treasure, however, the practice all that writing gave me: practice in constructing sentences, employing vocabulary words, creating metaphors, using punctuation in various ways, expressing abstract ideas and describing concrete objects. Writing, learning to write, critique, and revision have been immensely valuable to me.

I’m not sure who I would be if I hadn’t been constantly writing (and reading). Maybe I’d have been a contemplative.

~~

All of which is to report to my readers, who may be experiencing their own obstacles to their art, that –yes– the writing continues in the face of loss and grief, anxiety, and the work of the body in the world, in the mundane spaces of daily grind and in the wakeful hours, and in the containers of dreamwork and consciousness. Right now, the writing is not “good,” not crafted, aware of itself, ready to speak to others than the self. It is, at present, more akin to what the Buddhists call practice.

Photo by Donald Macauley on Flickr | https://tricy.cl/2DSmsmY

~

Keep working, keep practicing, keep breathing.

Short lines, few words

A friend has been sending me the occasional haiku she’s written; she says that the haiku form has kept her busy and creative during a time when her attention feels divided. I am reminded that, in the past, composing haiku has been a useful practice for me, as well–a method of retaining images and moments that might later prove useful in other types of poems..

My colleagues Dave Bonta, Michael Czarnecki, and Marilyn Hazelton, among others, find in haiku and tanka a wide range of possibilities for expression–and compression. Though I suppose that is true for any poetic form or strategy.

I just want to get writing again.

~

This morning I made some attempts at writing again. Writing poetry, I mean–different from my other acts of writing. Writing against frustration, grief, and absence and pain…obstacles, for me, to composition.

If I were a fiercer poet, a fiercer person, I might manage to write in media res, the midst of the goings-on; I might accomplish poems through my anger or sorrow. Instead, I have to wait it out, mull, observe, speculate. It’s just my natural modus operandi.

Maybe I’m lazy, or afraid.

~

No luck with haiku. I wrote a couple of mediocre tanka that might be salvageable once I work on them a bit.

I wrote this–no form, just words. Putting it out there for now, with an illustration. Not exactly haiga, not nearly luminous or complete.

Hey, Muse. This is all I got.

~

Introvert
 
Long-necked gourd
tangled in
its own vine
twists and curls.
There is something
fantastic in its nature,
imprinted in seed,
patterned and tendriled--
an urge to
turn
and flourish
hidden though it is
beneath broad leaves.
 




zucchino rampicante


			

Break/change

David Bowie famously invites us–or exhorts us–to turn and face the strange. Necessary, especially during times people are wishing things were as they used to be. Change seems a stranger. We don’t want it at our door.

Facing change presents challenges and requires confronting fears. No wonder people resist; yet change is all there is. Without it, not even death (which is all about change). Just stasis. Not-life instead of no-life; un-life.

For now, a break from blogging, from submitting poems to journals, from sending out my latest attempt at a manuscript, from attending readings and conferences and workshops. I might say “it’s all too much” under current circumstances, but the reasons are more complicated and center around transitions of the not-writing kind.

In time, knowing the way my writing process occurs, these transitions will lead to more writing. More poems. Lots of process.

Meanwhile. I’m in the woods. I’m in the garden. I’m even (I think) going to be in the classroom. But it will all look different.

IMG_6972

Foretelling

I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.

~

I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

Uncertainties

Best Beloveds are again in difficulties. Difficulties abound, it seems.

As do beans. It is that season–the beans have come on mighty sudden. Bounty presents its own challenges, but there’s joy riding along like a kite above it. And when I meditate on things, I realize that all times are “uncertain times,” a phrase bandied about so often these days as to render it a meaningless cliché.IMG_1547

~

Herewith, a very early draft of a new poem, one on which I will need to work (revising…) for some time to come. But it’s a start.

~

Hypothesis

Garden teaches a comfort with uncertainty,
knowing that I cannot know, each plan a guess.
From a clear day, hail spewing.
Tree fall on a windless afternoon.
Influx of virus or insects, invasion
of the burrowing vole. I’m never sure
what to believe, or whom–
each seed, each season a test of my hypothesis,
the hypothesis of the garden,
on which nothing at present depends.
We won’t starve. I can purchase food, certainly,
although the garden demonstrates
how rapidly such certainties may change.
Maybe tomorrow, no oranges, no flour,
no disinfectant soap. We live without guarantees
despite the product labels’ promises.
This year the pear tree bears no fruit:
few bees? late frost? Does it want a reason?
Yet I quiver with my need to know.
Knowing, old as I am, uncertainty means change.
Comfort? That requires a trust not at odds
with what’s ambiguous. I weave for myself
a hammock of my unanswered questions,
settle into it, become seed pod, chrysalis, womb.
I place my trust in change.

~

Just speak

Much has been going on in the blogger’s back-of-the-blog life, compounded with news of the nation. And frankly, I have been mulling for well over a week on how to say what I want to say; or how to say anything, for that matter. There are times in the life of a writer when said writer recognizes the limitations of words.

Also: words can be dangerous–inflammatory, distracting, powerful, persuasive, false, painful, hurtful. People get defensive at words they feel are “aimed” at them. Aimed, a weaponized word. I have had people (okay, white people) tell me they are tired of hearing about their privilege, because they and their families worked hard for their place in the world and because many, many white people are underprivileged and suffering, just as people of color are suffering.

While this is true, it is also fails to address the argument. Defensiveness is a diversion tactic used when people are too uncomfortable to address hard discussions. A student at my university recently exhorted us–“us” being mostly the uncomfortable white people who teach or take classes here–to speak up. “Even if you’re afraid you’ll say something the wrong way,” she said, “if you let me know you are uncertain but that you really want to have a discussion, speak up anyway. Because then at least I know that you’re reaching out to me, and I’ll dial it back a bit.”

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers–to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry–if it does–and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

I am not defensive about my privilege because I can admit to it. I acknowledge that things I have little control over–the society into which I was born, the family that raised me, the historical structures of the social contract norms, the assumption that I would be educated–have randomly assigned me to accepted norms of privilege. In simplest terms, I’m lucky, randomly fortunate.

Which had little to do with how hard my ancestors worked. They scraped and toiled and suffered, they may have been run out of Europe for their beliefs, or out of poverty or risk of prison, they may have arrived with nothing and been poorly treated by the elite in the early USA. All true. They worked their butts off for generations and never became wealthy or politically powerful.

They were permitted to attend school, however. They were permitted to own land. They were permitted to vote.

These foundational opportunities for equity were denied–often by the laws of this democratic nation–to black slaves, who were brought here completely unwillingly and indeed by main force under even worse conditions than any poverty-stricken European on a ship headed to this continent. These opportunities were denied to the Chinese who labored on our railroads. They were denied to the original residents of this continent, whose own nations and norms were largely and purposely erased by the European immigrants. The historical barriers became legitimized into social norms.

Do I have privilege? Yes. Do I value my privilege? Yes. Do I think I’ve earned my privilege? Absolutely not.

I am for equity. I have no idea how we can possibly achieve it in the United States, and I cannot say I have a lot of hope. My dad was working for civil rights back in 1965;  55 years later, there are more female than male students at my college, and more students of color or of diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds…so some things have changed, though mostly due to “leg up” approaches rather than “barriers down” actions. It is a start.

Equity means that no mother residing in this nation would have to worry about the safety of her young adult son while he is driving to work, walking down the street, taking a jog or a bike ride, or going to a pool or a beach. That’s been one of my privileges. Of all the concerns I may have had as my son grew up (he’s past 30 now), I never needed to think about the danger of “walking while black.”

Because he isn’t black.

And that’s not equitable.

~

Untitled-writer

Unsettled sentences

One of those unsettled-weather days…rain all night, cloudy mild morning. I weeded the vegetable patch and made note of bean sprouts and zucchini sprouts, pea blossoms and strawberry blossoms.

Then, more rain, so I worked on some housekeeping and writing tasks indoors. I wrote sentences and thought about the loss of syntax and vocabulary.

~

Eastern Bluebird-4299_Laurie Lawler_Texas_2013_GBBC_KKThe day warmed and brightened. I harvested spinach, found more weeding to do (it never ends), watched a pair of bluebirds perch like sentries and swoop toward their nest in the magnolia tree. Fast-moving clouds morphed and swashed overhead. We had a sunshower, and I had a flashback to one of our son’s earliest sentences.

We were indoors on a day very like this one–he was not yet two years old. I was nursing his infant sister while he perched on a chair and peered out the window.

“Sun out, rain coming down!” he said. Observant, expressive (communicative), and properly syntactical (though missing the to-be verbs). A moment of major language development!

Also, cute.

~

I cannot visit my mother, whose aphasia worsens by the week. It hurts me to listen as she struggles to get her point across, endeavors to employ expression which used to come so naturally. Loss of vocabulary and syntax: unsettled sentences.

~

A funnier anecdote about sentences: our daughter’s first full sentence likewise made an observation about the environment around her. She pointed to a corner of the rug and said, “Look–cat barf, Mama!”

We rarely lose that urge to get our point across. Let us be listeners.

 

Flurries

Every 20 years or so, my region gets a truly late freeze.

This is one of those years. It seems strange when snow flurries alight upon dogwood blossoms, but this period has been strange in many respects. What’s one more weirdness? We can adapt. It just requires employing strategies we haven’t used before.

Which brings me, today, to Marilyn McCabe’s chapbook Being Many Seeds, just released by Grayson Books…like my own chapbook, a publication somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Make note, though, that you and I can still purchase books online. It just may take a little longer to receive the text. And isn’t anticipation fun?

Her chapbook has a lovely cover. [Readers may know I’m a fan of milkweed.] And the poems fascinate as they unravel–almost literally–on the page, in a form of erasure poetry followed by brief prose that is not so much interpretation as deepening. McCabe tries strategies with her poems as words and also as meanings. If that makes any sense. Want to know more? McCabe posted about the evolution of this collection on her own blog (which I suggest you follow) here.

beingmanyseeds-graysonsite_orig

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I walked out into the meadow and scouted the broken stems and perennials emerging, on the lookout for seed-silk. I found several varieties, mostly dandelion, milkweed, coltsfoot, and eupatorium. Translucent puffs that evolved to disperse lightweight seeds through the use of breeze. Or breath.

Effective, and also quite beautiful. When the seed is stripped from the silk, the puff drifts away. The seed, however, now has the opportunity to sprout and grow. Even when the air is full of flurries.

 

~

Delights

May begins with its usual pleasures of redbud, dogwood, cherry blossoms, camassia, mayflower, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit…spinach in the garden, peas starting to send out tendrils, swallows and orioles returning, bees and other insects waking to the work of pollination and feeding the birds.

And yes, a time of anxious confusion and maybe a little more rain in April than necessary and adapting to working conditions that aren’t entirely satisfactory due to a situation beyond our control–though human beings like to pretend we have control. It’s a belief that keeps us from despair, probably.

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights. 41ZEJWNt9CL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.