Normality: it’s not a thing

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 is the 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.

I think of Samuel Pepys, the diarist, and the London of his life and times. Times of plague and fire. All of which makes Dave Bonta’s Samuel Pepys erasure poems project about as relevant as can be! Also of relevance, Jeannine Hall Gailey on Slate.com about love in a time of coronavirus.

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.

But–you know–social distancing.  🙂

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Garden painting

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.

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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.

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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.

color birds-blooms1

~

when sap runs red
forcing budding trees into blossom
mating time

~

Comfort zones redux

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.imagesAEC

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.

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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:

A Cup of Reeling [for the sufferers]

“Pain is…language-destroying.” Elaine Scarry

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?

~

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(Dis)order & (dis)comfort

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.

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Edges & the middle

My spouse told me of how he once interviewed a woodworking craftsman, renowned for his “perfect” furniture finishes, and asked about his technique. The craftsman advised, “Take care of the edges, and the middle will take care of itself.”

This phrase came to mind last week when I decided I had better tackle the weeds in my strawberry patch. Still hobbled by a foot injury, I figured weeding the berries was a task I could manage sitting down. The job seemed daunting, however; I have neglected the garden and permitted all manner of invaders–perennial and annual–to colonize the strawberries’ bed and twist around and root beneath their superficial root systems. Frankly, most people would not have recognized it as a berry patch.

It’s the equinox and the weather’s wonderful so I heaved a sigh, grabbed a few tools, and started to work. A garden bed has little in common with a French-polished tabletop, but I kept the idea in mind: tend to the edges, maybe the middle would “take care of itself.” Bermuda grass and galinsoga pull out easily, but there were also deep-rooted clovers, thatchy crabgrasses, English plantains, pigweed, ladies’ thumb…too many to name, though by this time I am pretty good at identifying the weeds of eastern Pennsylvania. I worked from the inside edge southward to the corner, then westward.

So far, still a pretty nasty-looking affair. After a few sessions of working along the scrim, though, I did begin to see progress; and–yes, the middle was much easier to finish weeding after I’d taken care of the edges.

~

Sometimes, I find motivation in a good analogy. I wondered whether I could transfer the French polish/strawberry patch concept to writing. Could that be one way to draft or rework a poem? What if I spent my efforts taking care of the poem’s edges–would the middle sort of take care of itself? (And what would be the edges of a poem? Its closing and opening phrases or stanzas? Its end-of-line words? Its beginning-of-line words?)

My gentle readers may recall that fringe landscapes and edges are a major inspiration for me–just type edges into this blog’s search bar, and quite a few past musings will show up. I will try working on my poems’ edges intentionally and see what happens.

Meanwhile, as the cooler weather approaches, I’ll cover up my berry patch with straw and promise to check the weeds a little more regularly next year, so I can get the results below in June of 2020:

high angle photo of strawberries in strainer

Photo by KML on Pexels.com

 

 

Forward

Lately, less gardening and more writing; we have experienced the region’s not-uncommon August/September drought period. My vegetable garden has given me about all it can at this point, so what remains to do is clean up. That’s a job that will have to wait, because I’m processing new poems instead of pears.

I tell my students that writing is a process, but the processing I’m doing now is more akin to the verb form of process, in the sense of “to treat raw materials in order to change or preserve them” (Merriam Webster). That could be another metaphor for the revision process…

Also applicable is the etymology of the word process {from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + cedere “to go”}.

So, forward I go. More drafts, more changing the raw materials of poems (what would those be? words? ideas? emotions? observations?). More going forward into the whole process. “Without hope and without despair.” (That’s Dinesen by way of Carver.)

 

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Repetition

Repetitive tasks often lead directly to boredom, then to daydream, and then–if forced to continue said task–to numbness. The sheer effort involved in repetitive operation makes for drudgery; if the labor is also dangerous, hot, physically difficult, and unrelieved, the human mind gets sapped of joy and creativity. For much of human history, our time on earth has consisted largely of this sort of work, constant toiling, just to survive.

My thoughts dwell on that fact when I spend a day or two as a re-enactor and when I harvest beans and other produce that won’t keep and need immediate attention, else the food will go to waste. I think of all the people now and in the past who have to cut firewood and stack it, keep it dry, then keep fires burning in stoves or hearths and watch the food so it doesn’t burn. And do the same, day in day out.

I think of my grandmother who, when she was still in her 50s and 60s, kept a large truck patch from which she fed her extended family. All the canning and processing and freezing she did…the jars of peaches, jellies, tomatoes, beans…meant hours of often-tedious, not to mention exceedingly hot, work.

green peas on white ceramic bowl

Photo by R Khalil on Pexels.com

I cannot recall ever assisting her with canning; but from the time I was a very small child, I would sit beside her on a wooden bench or chair and “help” her shell peas or snap the ends from green beans. I suppose I prattled to her, because I recall her distracted “Mmmm Hmmm” responses. After awhile, however, I’d get quiet and daydreamy just opening the green pods and slipping the fresh, round peas out with my finger over and over, listening to the plunk as they dropped into the bowl in my lap. It was soothing.

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I remembered that long-ago activity today as I shelled black beans from their dry, tan husks: two or three pounds of them! My shelling created a crackly noise that intrigued our kitten, who has otherwise been drowsy from the heat. I’ve been freezing green beans, cooking tomato sauce, and harvesting pears and black beans for days in the humid August heat–but not non-stop (I have a day job, and the students have returned to campus!).

black beans in a bowl

So for me, the potential boredom of the repetitive task gets replaced by a rather Zen attitude. Be here now, shelling the beans, stirring the pear butter. Appreciate bounty and what the earth has given us. Remember childhood. Daydream awhile. Think about poems.

~

In this case, repetition means abundance. New poems as autumn arrives.