I love how the first three books all have BOOK in their titles. The Adnan and the Mitchell are re-reads that settle my soul while keeping my mind active and inquisitive. The Book of Joy has been surprisingly helpful to me so far (I am reading it a bit at a time while other things are going on).
Anyway, I can garden. We have had plentiful rain and now I have plentiful beans, basil, zucchini, carrots; numerous tomatoes cluster under leaves, so whenever they ripen we’ll have more splendid organic tasty produce. I will continue to pull out the crabgrass, wild mustard, pigweed, smartweed, etc. Culling, cultivating, collecting sunlight through my vegetables and through my skin (yes, I wear sunscreen–and a hat)…there are worse things in life than an inability to compose poems. And I can read, thank heaven. Reading poetry, and reading about poetry, provides plenty of joy.
One of the practices of joy mentioned in the Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book is gratitude. Fortunately, that practice has never been difficult for me.
under clouds /heat rises from soil /beans grow plump
We had some mild, sunny days around the equinox, days that lured me to the yard and garden. The neighbors’ pussywillow pushed its fuzzy catkins out in the warmth, and the sight of daffodil and hyacinth leaves making their way upward was cheering. A rather sluggish field vole ran out from under some mulch, much to my annoyance–the voles have really torn up the ornamental beds and the lawn under the cover of the snow. There’s a large meadow behind my house; why don’t the voles stay out there? At any rate, I wanted this one away from the garden. I figured I could catch it and let it go in the hedgerow where the grasses are dry and thick.
I was wearing garden gloves and the vole was a bit startled by sunlight but too fast for me. Because I had a hose in my right hand, I aimed it at the vole. I figured the wetting would confuse it enough that I could sweep down fast and scoop it up with some thatch, then release it. Or really, I wasn’t thinking much. But it did work: the vole, suddenly damp, froze for a moment. I snatched it and cradled it in my gloved hands (they bite!) and let it go along the edge of the meadow.
My compassionate spouse admonished me, though. He said it was cruel to spritz the vole. I realized he was correct. In the moment, I was considering my good intentions to remove the creature to a “better” place to forage; but that in itself was not a very kind thing–it was my wish, certainly not the vole’s! And I am positive I frightened it terribly.
The episode made me reflect on how often we privilege our own desires as being motivated by good intentions. We reason our way out of thoughtless behavior by saying “But I didn’t mean…” I have done so far too often. I think this is what props up microagressions and passive acceptance of egregious social behaviors like racism. Today I stumbled across an article by Shayla Love that suggests our much-vaunted concept of our true moral selves is illusion. She cites an article by psychologists that concludes that “[t]he true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.” Strominger, Knobe, & Newman’s article on the true self is here.
So I am celebrating in a very small way, hooray for the little things! For the fact that my 88 year old mother has had her vaccine, and so have I, and now we can visit in person and appreciate little joys like cranberry, raisin, almond, and dark chocolate trail mix, floral bouquets, slow walks through the garden starting to green up and–soon–bloom. Maybe I will even be able to take her out for a beer (at an outdoor restaurant) in a month or two. I can read her some of the poems I’ve written about my dad. We can just sit and watch the birds.
For the fact that my students are slogging away, enduringly hopeful that by the time they graduate the USA will somehow be better. Maybe it will. With their help.
For the fact that my siblings and I have friendly relationships with one another–and honest ones.
Hooray for my spouse, mowing the meadow with his 1947 John Deere Model M tractor! For a new manuscript of old poems that I’m finally spending some genuine, careful, critical time revising.
Last night, first time I heard the tree crickets’ din blossoming in darkness; cicadas’ daytime clatter began last week, and the lantern fly nymphs are in their last stage before morphing into winged tree-pests. The heat’s oppressive, which seems to suit the general mood. I have not been writing poems, but this morning wakened early to surrounding birdsong and felt a moment of beauty amidst the tension.
As usual, my garden has offered respite. I harvest beans in evening’s humid warmth, pulling pods from the resilient stems. I marvel at the squash blossoms–bright bells amid enormous green leaves–and gather cucumbers and zucchini, and wait for tomatoes to ripen as I tie up the vines heavy with green globes. The scent of lemon basil pervades dusk as the last fireflies start to wink. Yes, there are disappointments and bugs and there will be yet more weeding and work. It is, however, labor of the body for the nurture of the body. A body in the world.
Twenty-odd years ago, we planted an American beech and a stellata magnolia 15 feet apart in the yard. For years, the magnolia–an understory tree (more of a shrub)–grew taller than the beech. Beeches are slow growers in their early years, but it caught up. Now the magnolia flourishes happily under the spreading beech, and in the space between them there’s a mossy, shady refuge where I sometimes sit to escape the heat or the stress and worry of life. I’m not the only one who seeks the protective room beneath the spreading trees, as that’s where the snapping turtle buried her eggs, and there’s a sandy spot in the mosses where another creature has made a place to lie.
I sought the place last evening after watering the garden. Wandered there over the brittle grass and spent clover blossoms of our meadowy yard. Felt the things of the earth beneath my feet. Still a barefoot girl. Still in need, now and then, of refuge.
Oh yes–my book of poems, Barefoot Girls, is still available. It is a limited run, though. $8.95 from Prolific Press. Reading poetry: another type of refuge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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!
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.
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. 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.
Yesterday, I was happily puttering in the vegetable garden, prepping soil and setting up raised beds and sowing peas. We had a visitor who is 26 years old and not a gardener, so I teased her by saying, “If the Apocalypse happens, come to us–I’ll have food!”
“This isthe Apocalypse,” she responded. Joking, sort of, not really. She’s anxious, and I understand. When I was between 21 and 26 years old (and living on almost no money in New York City), a virus swept through and rapidly killed some of my beautiful, talented, young friends–a virus about which medical science had no firm understanding and few ways to diagnose, screen, or treat. And no vaccine.
It was frightening. There were also the hostage crisis in Iran, gas shortages, and a rise in nationalist and fundamentalist/apocalyptic/anti-feminist rhetoric that led to a polarized presidential election and divisiveness among neighbors (all of which was partly the inspiration for Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale).
Am I less frightened now? Yes. Does that make me less cautious about “social distancing” and public gatherings? No–although I would say I am perhaps less freaked out than most people I know. We went to the local diner last evening; I met a friend at a coffee shop. My workplace has asked staff to go to our offices, so I’ll be there tomorrow even though the students will not. They are finishing the semester online, as are so many other university students.
Looking back at the past couple of years, it seems we live in a time of plague and fire and politically difficult situations; but that’s the way the world has ever been. Many times have felt like end times to those enduring the uncertainties that come with changed routines and dangerous events, natural and human-created. Here we are, raking the garden, hoping there’ll be harvest.
When my young friend asserted that this is the Apocalypse, I wanted to assure her that, at very least, she’ll be eating some of my garden veggies this summer. To let her know that normal’s just a word we made up that, when you think about it, has a very shifty continuum for a definition. Also, I wanted to give her a hug.
The image on the right is from a book in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Asian Art, available through its new digital collection of Japanese illustrated books. It is written in Chinese, however: Jieziyuan huazhuan; Kaishien gaden 芥子園畫傳 and is catalogued as The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (3rd Chinese edition): [volume 3]. I do not read Chinese, but I think the drawing must be of quince in flower. My photo of pink quince blooms focuses on a particularly floriferous branch; in fact, the quince in my back yard is thorny, broken off in places, and often a bit scarce as to blooms–more like the drawing.
The book itself is interesting. It demonstrates and describes how to paint these shrubs. The sketches show the stems as the initial composition, with gaps where the blossoms are later to be painted. Then the blossoms get painted in, and then ragged lines of twigs and thorns to complete the painting. Since I cannot read the text, I interpret the stages from the drawings.
It occurs to me that this approach–one of guessing the stages–feels familiar. It resembles literary criticism; and it resembles the process of reading and re-reading a poem to try to determine its making, which is usually hidden since it takes place in the mind of the poet as she revises.
note the gaps…
An analogy here: when I first write down the phrases, images, “inspiration” (if you will) for a poem, there are gaps. These lacunae appear in several forms, sometimes as spaces or blank spots in a sentence, sometimes as an unsatisfactory placeholder word, sometimes as a dash or ellipsis. These marks, or lack thereof, act as reminders to revise, rethink, resolve missing links or relationships in the poem’s developing ovum.
Winter makes for gaps. Skeletalizes the trees. Snowfall temporarily erases the known. Clouds cover sun and moon. Even the songs of birds, mostly absent.
As David Dunn, my long-dead friend (another emptiness), would sigh during moments that conversation became too intense or too difficult: “Anyway…”
In a temperate climate, we do need winter. The birds will return.
when sap runs red
forcing budding trees into blossom
What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Similarly, while I love art, I cannot imagine living with “Guernica” on the wall…or Goya’s “The Third of May.” Or anything by Francis Bacon. Some creative works are meant to push viewers out of their comfort zones; some are no doubt as uncomfortable to create as they are to view. A work of art that takes emotional and craft risks puts the artist not only at risk of critical rage or misinterpretation of intentions, but also at the very personal risk of failure.
And that effort is important, that willingness to fail. Without it, nothing invented or imagined can be achieved.
I am not a good painter, and trying to paint clouds or winter trees or landscapes means I am going to paint bad pictures. I have better gardening skills than painting skills, but I love trying a new seed or plant or cultivation method, even though the results often don’t succeed. Pushing the comfort zone has mixed but invaluable rewards.
Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.
In Zechariah 12:2, the Lord promises terrible punishments for the enemies of Judah. Elaine Scarry approaches the conundrum of pain’s subjectivity (among other things) in The Body in Pain. I find wonder and ideas in the continuum of pain zones, in the concept of pain as punishment versus the concept that life is dukkha and inevitably contains suffering, and many other perspectives that people take concerning anything from mild emotional stress to mental illness, age-related physical problems, various forms of “disability,” and the Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale.
Here, from WORDPEACE online, a poem of my own that I found uncomfortable to write, and which some readers have told me is uncomfortable to read. Taking the risk:
It is I am told all in my head but the body how the body loves the head
where language resides in the soft and voluble brain
and hurt undoes every synapse until sweat and stress the bullet
between clenched teeth [as if to aid?] good god deliver me
groan swear-word ululation weep and reeling, eloquence undone.
The crucible my own right leg: fire pulley strain does not allow
gravity or, god, motion, my evidence convincing to me only to me
unavailable to others [no one privy to, spare me, my—agony—
no object but destruction of objects no intention but self-obliteration]
Pain’s constructed in waiting rooms, waiting for morphine
or anything anything; I am animal in pain and sentient in my pain.
Good god who dares believe in me now that I believe in nothing?
The university takes a long weekend in October; I thought it a propitious time to snare some solitude for writing and revising and thus betook myself and a mountain of my work to a semi-secluded cabin. Designed and largely built by Jack Fisher, the place offers light, comfort, memories, art, nature and spaciousness of environment. While I had no particular plan in mind–in retrospect, possibly a mistake–I imagined these days would act as a mini-writing retreat.
I love the cabin, the memories, the aesthetics of the house and generally I love solitude as long as it does not extend for too many days. The circumstance I discovered once I opened up my pile of poetry drafts, however, led me to one conclusion: I was going to have to organize, read, evaluate, consider, and cull before even getting to the “fun” part of revising. This level of work tends to discomfit me, feels tedious and draining and sometimes fruitless–which is why I have pretty much put it off since…oh…graduate school. Almost two decades.
But I made myself time to be alone and undisturbed, so let my work disturb me as it must. If a writer never allows herself to experience discomfort, she is unlikely to move her work forward in any meaningful or craft-related way.
I do not mind a little disorder in life, but the state of my drafts long ago sailed past disorder and into chaos and redundancy. It helps me to make an analogy to the garden: time to weed, time to save seeds (and label them!) and make notes on what thrived under which conditions and to note where the voles and rabbits are breaching the fence. A realtor might substitute the analogy of “deferred maintenance.” [Yikes!]
If this long weekend turned out to be less full of new work, or of fruitful revisiting of poems to make them stronger–if it has tested my comfort level with my own writing and forced me to face the mediocrity of most of it–that’s fine. The edges are where the interest lies, at the tension between the expected and the challenging. Sometimes we need a little less comfort and order to test the mettle of our creative acts and of ourselves. The days at the cabin were peaceful and full of solitude. I believe they will have yielded, for me, a clearer view of where my work–and I–are headed.