Journals

While re-reading May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal, I recalled reading this essay about the book, by Jeffrey Levine, in June. I first read At Seventy when I was, I think, 40 years old…I recommended it to my mother-in-law, who–like Sarton–lived alone and loved to garden. I now recognize in Sarton’s journal aspects of life and aging and creativity that I had not thought much of when I was younger–at 40, I felt envious of her freedom as a single woman. I was raising young teens, managing a busy household, working on a master’s degree, feeling I had no time to myself.

One thing that interests me about Sarton is her decision to keep journals intended for publication, beginning I think with her journal about recovering from cancer, though she had written at least one memoir before that journal.

Another poet who wrote journals intended for publication was the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki. Perhaps his most famous diary (in the West, at least) is “The Verse Record of My Peonies,” thanks to a translation by Earl Miner. Shiki kept writing haiku and haibun, as well as reviews, for the newspaper even as he was slowly dying of tuberculosis. His journal entries (there are others) were intended for readers.

My journals (and I have kept one ever since I was ten and read Harriet the Spy), however, would not make good reading; I would be embarrassed if they were published, especially unedited and unrevised, and no one would feel inspired, delighted, or edified by them. The concept of writing a daily journal intended to be read seems either brave or a bit dishonest, like a persona. Then again–many early weblogs were exactly that: daily public journals read by whatever online audience stumbled upon them. And perhaps this blog acts as my public journal, mostly about what I read, what’s in the garden, and what I’m teaching. Those pursuits, made public, do not mask who I am. They are the things I choose to reveal.

I don’t know if that’s different from a social media persona. But here’s a sleeping cat to look at while I ponder.

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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.

~

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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Bittersweet

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These berry-laden vines are called oriental bittersweet–aptly named for this aggressive plant. Sweet because indeed, they are beautiful; but their introduction to the Americas has nearly wiped out American bittersweet and threatens trees because the vines are adept girdlers. They squeeze trunks as trees grow, sometimes killing the tree.

I should remove them from my hedgerows, but I haven’t the energy. Look at this link for the challenges involved. My lack of intervention probably falls under the category of deferred maintenance, and has led to a sense of plaintiveness, perhaps, and to these drafts of tanka poems on this late November day.

~

the leafless hedgerow
studded with red berries
each wintry morning
my walk’s accompanied
by bittersweet

~
how dull gold husks
open to red fruit
how such slender vines
grow to strangle trees
–bittersweet

~

an old cliché
take the bitter with the sweet
older now myself
I try balancing
life’s flavors

 

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.

~

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.

Not a perfectionist

My late mother-in-law, may her memory be for a blessing, spent much of her last decades gardening. I learned a great deal about flower gardens from her, and we discussed cultivars and shade-loving plants and pest control with the sort of enthusiasm that avid gardeners well know. She enjoyed landscaping her place with colors and textures, carefully tracing expected bloom times as well as plant heights and spreads so that the beds produced an ever-changing canvas to delight the eye.

hail and roses

Hail: One of Nature’s curveballs

Except: Nature is always throwing curve balls. My mother-in-law’s gardens were beautiful, but she always eyed them critically. It is true that most gardeners notice what isn’t thriving, where the weeds are, or what has not grown out or bloomed as hoped. That comes with the territory. But the process of gardening is so much more enjoyable, even soothing, when one is not a perfectionist.

Not being a perfectionist myself, I find that time in the garden acts as a meditative oasis. It is part mindless physical labor, part problem-solving, part mindful awareness of the environment. This year, I’m making it even easier by planting fewer vegetables and fruits and more blooms to attract pollinators; I’ve a smaller variety of produce but am experimenting with some new (to me) seeds–a melon from the Caucasus, a few heirloom tomatoes, black beans as well as green ones.

I learn as I go–as I cull and thin, inspect insect damage, note responses to growing conditions. It occurs to me that this activity bears a resemblance to the writing process, particularly when putting together a collection for a chapbook or longer manuscript. In that undertaking, I’m also not a perfectionist; and I should not be quite so quick to gainsay the need for the perfectionist attitude when creating one’s art (as long as it does not lead to fruitless caviling).

But I’m just not constitutionally ordered towards that sort of purist idealism. The best I can do with my poems is similar to the best I can do with my gardens: devote mindful attentiveness to the “product” and try not to worry about eventual outcomes.

“Write a little each day, without hope, without despair.”  —Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen]

See what grows.

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By July–who knows?