My Back Pages

This month I’m writing a memory-based prose passage every single day for 31 consecutive days. Full confession: I want my disparate anecdotes and narratives and fragments to turn into a book, and this seems like a way in. Don’t ask me what kind of book it is; I just call it a book. I keep saying book book book to myself every day this summer hoping that at some point the whole concept starts to look and feel less illusory. Even writing these words right now—confession, book, memory—makes me feel a little twitchy, a little cheap. A little foolish. But I can keep deleting and putting blank pages in the file or I can write some memories. The trouble is, I’m not too good at memory. My most vivid stories are from the recent past, and luckily I’m hell-bent on putting a few of those down for posterity. There’s a shape that’s been taking place in the arc of this decade I’m fast approaching the end of, and I know that’s the heart of the thing. The book. But what about what came before? The then that informs the now? I know some of that is stitched into these recent lines. Mary Karr says: “If you have a bad memory, give it up.” When I read that I scoffed a little, wondered how right she was, and then said fuck that. I’m doing it anyway. I don’t know if it’s age, I don’t know if it’s my genes or what—or, much more to my chagrin, if it’s the years and years of drinking (& a few drugs) that shot my mental storage facility through with holes, but I’ve never had a really good one. My sister always rolls her eyes at how poorly I remember things, but I’m grateful at least she can recall the bulk of our childhood, because I sure can’t.

Yesterday, the day after Sam Shepard died, my old buddy John texted me and said remember that time you smoked a cigarette with Sam Shepard on the bricks in front of the Cedar? I nearly slapped my forehead with my palm. Even after reading Shepard’s obit and the beautiful essay by Patti Smith about her old buddy, I still didn’t remember my one moment of faux intimacy with that oddball genius, his striking, sad face. But then I did, sort of. I remembered it like I do most of that time of my life—a little drunk, a blurry frame around a mess of feelings I didn’t know how to name. When John said he asked you what you knew about horse country, I thought to myself Ahh—the memory straightened up a bit in the frame, illuminated by the Cedar in the background, a warm buzz of sounds I can layer together with a whole stack of different nights, melded as one. I told John I wish I remembered more of Shepard and less of some of those other nights, but I’m not necessarily writing those stories. He told me that perhaps there’s something embedded in the fact that I don’t remember it all. Or all of it. I’m still working on the truth of that idea, but what if my memory is more willful than I think? What if I have all the pieces I need, and the ones I’ve forgotten are where they ought to be?

I started seeing a healer recently. I can’t really explain what that means, and it doesn’t matter. Like anybody else, I’ve got some stuff to sort out. In the first session she asked me what was coming up in my mind, one thing to put a pin on, and I said Home. She asked me to stand up and face the direction that meant home to me right now, and I turned my body facing west, toward the mountains. Then she asked me to turn the other way, and face where I’d come from. Here are the memories, I thought. I felt my insides flooded with salt water, my mother’s face, my sister. Light on the horizon, slung low beneath the clouds. Red and fiery pink. There’s more there, too. Pine trees and a yard needled with their green, legs covered in mud, splintery oars and a john boat tipping ever over. A little blurry in the frame. A mess of feelings I’m more apt to name now. I remember today it’s been six years since I stopped drinking and I’m glad for many reasons, but not the least of which is a clearer memory. Less to forget, and more of a way in—which is where I’m headed.

Road maps & Reports.

This morning I’m thinking about domesticity, about keeping house. Going through the motions that are as familiar to me as my own skin: Untangling the vacuum cord and sweeping the power nozzle in clean lines, back and forth, across the rugs, emptying trash and recycling cans into the dumpster out back, wiping an old t-shirt across surfaces to pick up dust, placing the dishes strategically in the dishwasher, though I pine for hand washing most of the time. I could go on. There is something else at play though, in these tasks. Often it’s procrastination (what/when will I write?), and more often than even that, it’s restlessness/desire (for me, these two concepts are mostly intertwined in meaning). If I’m being honest, it’s also that old sticky habit of trying to control my surroundings, as if a clean, bright space can provide a balm for all the chaos and uncertainty in the world (in me). In this, too, is not just the keeping of house, but the making of it. At first, the artifice of placing recognizable things in the living space, and then the settling in. Learning the give in the floor in certain places. The click of the door handle as we come and go. The barking dog next door. The sprinkler system coming to life at 11 each night. I guess what I’m really thinking about this morning then, is patience. Knowing that as many times as I’ve “made” a home in my lifetime, this one might take longer. It might be more abstract for more months, or mostly internal from this point forward. I’m not prepared to fully adopt the cliché about home being in your heart or whatever, but I do know it’s a little more fluid these days.

It’s been nearly six years since I quit drinking. I always remember it as August 1, or thereabouts. I’m not terribly interested these days in accounts of life before/after, though even if I didn’t want to, I’d still keep track of these years. They almost count themselves. Drinking was home for me for a long time. The first sip could unravel staggering tension or despair, or just plain old discomfort. I can still taste that intimacy, despite how public the spectacle, the act. When I quit, I didn’t know what I would unearth, but I knew the intimacy of me and drinking was a false marriage, a shallow pool. The luster had worn off in a big way. As I began to step out of escapism and numbness into total feeling, I was buoyed by determinism (and yoga and diet and strength). It felt easy then. The truth is, it’s harder now, years later. I’m not talking about it being harder not to drink. I don’t care about drinking and I don’t crave it. But the new intimacy I’ve stepped into with myself is a gigantic thing. It bowls me over and yet I’m here, still. My new home means a space where I am awake to everything, negotiating and exuding nearly unbearable sensitivity, and a lot more wonder. There’s no escape here, and sometimes that sucks. The other night Tommy told me to be patient. Let some of this desire unfold, let it come when it will. He’s right. All of these things I crave now—writing a book, loving myself unconditionally, serving others, doing meaningful work, showing the people I love that I love them—are in me. Audre Lorde said: “I am my best work—a series of road maps, reports, recipes, doodles, and prayers from the front lines.” She’s right, too. Cheers to that, and to coming back home.

20 Things Juniper Taught Me

1.     If I had to choose between lists & questions, I couldn’t. Both are essential.

2.     Engaging with what makes you uncomfortable is always fruitful.

3.     Square One: I exist, We exist.

4.     While I was waiting for a transformative moment, I was transformed.

5.     A cup of Coca-Cola is not an adequate stand-in for coffee. Neither is aspirin.

6.     Chronic amazement begets gratitude. Can be found in clouds, in bumblebees, in the first opening of eyes each day. Also good for not quitting writing.

7.     Comparison is the thief of joy (Already knew this. Bears repeating).

8.     When caught in a rainstorm walking uphill on a foreign campus, catalogue the smell of wet asphalt, the greening of grass, the tiny pricks of joy on your skin.

9.     Reading by flashlight in a dorm bed until 1 a.m. is strangely exhilarating but also physically discomforting if you are no longer a college kid.

10.  There is such a thing as too many desserts, but almost always no such thing as too much coffee.

11.  Sharing creative work in a room full of strangers is a radical act.

12.  Ditto for trust. Trust of process & people & all of this.

13.  Ditto for saying “this matters.”

14.  Language is both the barrier & the bridge.

15.  Slicing through clouds with thin wings as we descend to earth provides chronic amazement (see #6).

16.  I don’t like going anywhere without Hank.

17.  What is home? I ask the shock of mountains as we drive headlong into their beauty.

18.  The poem is the question & the question is the poem.

19.  My teachers are in my head, edging me onward (Thanks, Tim).

20.  Also, my teacher is me. Now. Always.

 

 

*with thanks to Harryette Mullen & Orion Magazine & Everyone

Please/Enjoy

This week I’m in Massachusetts for the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. When I was accepted I thought about whether or not to come—do I spend the money, do I indulge myself so soon after finishing the MFA, after moving across the country and uprooting my life?—but I did come. I’m here. And I’ve added more questions to the questions. I’m in workshop this week with the wild and wonderful poet Harryette Mullen (who I quite frankly imagined as totally cerebral and intimidating, but she is the nicest most unassuming woman & poet and I want to sit beside her all the time). Harryette has us thinking about what happens when a poem asks questions, when it interrogates or affirms or negates what we might believe (as readers and writers).

I look at the news occasionally this week and feel like I’m drowning, which is to say that it’s a good time for Harryette’s workshop. It’s a good time to wake up and pay attention. To question everything. To expect more of ourselves. One day in class when we were all bemoaning the fact that we want to write more, and find our rigor/discipline, Harryette said, “a bad time for anything else is a good time for writing.” Which is to say don’t mop the floor; go write. Don’t fold the laundry, don’t mail the thank-you cards. Go write. Do it first. Do it most. There will always be other things tugging at you, getting in the way. That never stops. I’m not sure if she even said all of this exactly, but that’s how it keeps resonating in my head. Stop putting off this thing that takes up most of your headspace anyway. Sit down and give it some good love, some good attention. Respond to the news. Create a discourse. Write about it. (Also, there are not simple answers to these profound current circumstances aka crises. But I must try to do something, somehow).

Also, something I’ve been thinking concurrently about, which I know that Harryette did say, with certainty, is to connect to the pleasure you experience in writing/creating your own work. Of course! Shouldn’t it be this? Shouldn’t we love it more? It makes me feel weird, this whole idea of pleasure, but maybe that is a deeper, more intricate psychological layer of mine—that pleasure and I don’t connect more. Somehow I’ve never felt overjoyed by the pleasure of writing. I’ve felt it with reading. Oh, I have felt it so many times that books vanish within me after I complete them, lines are burned on my brain and I try to hold the heat there but it goes, too, after a while. I don’t have enough room for it all. The pleasure I feel while listening to writers read, I’ve felt those palpable waves, too. But somehow, this doesn’t always translate/transfer to my own process of writing. My own creation. Why? Why the struggle, the drag, the avoidance, the fear? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve felt surprise and joy and yes, satisfaction, when a piece begins to take shape that I really like, that I really believe in and trust, but often the process is nebulous and too full of doubt or whatever to feel super joyful. Maybe it’s my content. Maybe I’m too sad and self-reflective. Maybe that’s what makes it hard? Maybe it’s a lack of permission in my consciousness, my intellect, my body, my cells, to really take in pleasure freely. Is it a lack of allowance? Is it a lack of YES? I’m not sure. Writer Joy Williams shared this Wittgenstein quote today in a panel on the intersections of art and politics: “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not in order to enjoy ourselves.” Well, shit. I nearly laughed out loud. He’s right, but he’s also not right. And Harryette is right, too! Pleasure. That is all. Not drowning, but waving. Paying more attention to what makes me feel good, what I like, what interests me, what matters to me about the world around me, what challenges me. Letting in the difficult questions, sending out the word.

What Now?

Right before we moved to Boulder I finished my MFA. The day before, to be exact. I donned a black robe and sat in a convocation center with a dozen of my MFA peers and a few hundred other graduate students from disciplines other than arts, or something more directly applicable to employment (more on this later). How thrilled was I when I discovered my very own teacher and poetry star would deliver the address. This couldn’t be skipped, despite my vague thoughts around the tiresome ceremonial gesticulations and my own eagerness to be “done” (never done, obviously). Tim read us his best zombie poem and lovingly warned the whole damn room to wake up and don’t be zombies. Don’t lose yourself to the ever-beckoning screens. I was rapt, of course, and nodded vigorously the whole time, just like I was in lecture or workshop or reading. Women tend to nod as audience members far more than men, big surprise. Bridget taught me this last summer, among so many other things about gender and power. Later, as the names droned on and we marched onstage to shake hands and not pick up a real diploma, a man in front of me muttered that the poet went on way too long. Imagine my disdain, and also my tinge of righteousness. Oh, you just didn’t get it, sir. But then I had to remind myself that most people don’t get poetry, and that’s why it will forever be embedded in the American consciousness as a lesser art, a replaceable art, something too confusing and too emotional to ever gain respectable traction beyond the freaks and the academics. This always brings me back to Muriel Rukeyser, a woman Tim introduced me to in the very first semester of my MFA, three years ago, a real game-changer moment. Rukeyser knew all too well about the “failure between poetry and its people—its writers and audiences.”  She kind of describes poetry as lost opportunity (my words, not hers. I’ve read and re-read her passages so many times I’ve begun to co-opt them, no doubt). Meaning, poems are an invitation, to be awake (see Tim) and alive and emotionally and intellectually conscious, but we resist that invitation all the time. We are too afraid to go there. It’s stunning to me how vital and contemporary her words are, yet Rukeyser was championing this stuff in the 1940s. Still so relevant. In recent years, Brené Brown has made herself rich and famous as a major proponent of this very same content. It’s vulnerability, guys. That’s it. Not everyone is going to get it from poetry, but the invitations are all around us, every day, to be more awake and yes, more vulnerable. And most of us ignore ignore ignore. I’m not suggesting I’ve got this all figured out, nor am I super good at it (I fail at this business of vulnerability pretty often), but what I know for sure is that poetry has been, and will always be, a way for me to go there. Few other things in my life have stripped me down to my bare bones in this way, but quitting drinking and immersing myself in yoga practice and getting married have all allowed me to do the same work. What now, though? In the weeks since graduating and moving across the country I’ve allowed the what now thought into my head. I mean, of course I have. What now about everything but also what now about post-grad school reentry into the “real world,” what now every time I listen to the fucking news or look at internet muck, what now whenever I succumb to shitty moods and judgment and yes, grief. One friend said I would feel a palpable grief after the MFA that could last for months, and maybe longer. I feel that, but then again I feel grief regularly for a lot of things. I’ve been this way since I was a kid, maybe since the year my father died, but anyway a little grief seems to keep my juices flowing. It’s muddied up right now in my insides with homesickness and fear and also giddiness for something new each day. I know I am privileged to even feel this grief. There wasn’t a time during the MFA when I let myself forget how utterly lucky I was to study poetry for three years. What now? I came across a call for submissions that asked for reflections on “Your first post-MFA summer: What did/will you do?” And I won’t answer all of those questions here, and I won’t submit a video to that contest, but I smiled to myself and reveled a little bit in the universality of the thing I’d stumbled into. Universal in the niched world of MFA grads, I suppose (not very universal at all). If I submitted to that contest, it would be filled with one I don’t know after another—a whole sea of vulnerability. I won’t rate my experience. I won’t assess it. I won’t boil it down to me before, and after. I won’t pretend to know what it meant or what it will do for me. When I got to Boulder, after graduating, I did what I always do. I set up my house and I got a job. It feels good to make a little money and smile at people and be of service. I think about poetry sometimes while I’m waiting tables but mostly I just do my work and try to take a big breath every once in a while. Try to stretch my back and laugh at myself when I get super annoyed with the men that stand in my way on the patio and behave as though I am invisible. I’m privileged to be here, too. I’m writing a little every day and I’m fucking terrified to let go of my writing, so I won’t. I’m not going to. Sometimes I look back at what I write and I still, after all these years, literally can’t tell if it’s brilliant or awful. Every single time. I don’t know if there’s a more universal writer experience. Most of the time though, I think it’s probably just fine, it’s somewhere in the middle, and I persist. It just matters that I’m going there, getting a little vulnerable, and a little less afraid. The jobs will come and go. I’ll start teaching again, soon enough. But what now, for now, is just this.

Welomce to discomfort!

You practice sitting cross-legged and quiet on the floor at the foot of your bed for twenty minutes, which is obviously too long. You wrap your lower body in a blanket and cup your hands one on top of another in your vacant lap. Still cold from walking the dogs this morning, still eyeing the snow outside your window like what? It’s May. Three days ago you emptied your POD storage unit into your new home for hours, sweating a little in shorts and sandals. Never mind. This is to be expected here, people say. Welcome to Colorado. You are pummeled by fast, hard thoughts—god, teeth, money, sex, nachos—in between attempts to settle back into a bigger, slower belly breath. Remember this? Meditation. You begin to craft bits of this essay in your head, since you probably have 19 minutes left on the timer. Every other line you think essay, who am I kidding? Or I love you no matter what! Or ground your ass down into the earth and go slow.

Never in your life have you been so acutely aware of discomfort. Everything rattles around in your head in terms of familiar/unfamiliar. Which is to say, nothing is familiar right now save for the absolute grasping and reaching in every cell for control. You look at that sentence and feel uncomfortable. You are reminded of how this feels in your body—all four sides of your neck like concrete sinews. Shoulders skimming your ears. You don’t often tell people you’ve had a headache for two decades, because it sounds ridiculous. Untrue. What's more unsettling is not the pain of the headache, but the understanding of why it persists. One is bigger than the other. On the second day of your new life here, you hike Mt. Sanitas with your husband and your dogs and feel enraged. You stop every few minutes and gasp, dump water down your throat. People say, it takes a while to get used to the elevation! Make sure to hydrate! Your husband bounds up the mountain and leaves you behind, muttering I don’t belong here to yourself. You can’t blame him. Where the hell is your sense of adventure now? Your godforsaken sense of humor? You watch your little terrier try his damndest to scamper over the red rocks and get to the top, first. He never will. And he’ll never stop trying. If this doesn’t comfort you, what will? Four days later, after tons of rain (they say, unusual!), you brave the same hike and don’t want to die. You smile more and take your time. Slightly amused this go round by your foolishness, your quick anger and your suffocating discomfort, you chill the fuck out.

You start to put the house together. You understand that a bed, some pictures on the walls, and beloved books neatly pinned against each other on bookcases feels familiar. Street names glom together in your head, your past places—Spotswood, Westover, Belgrave, West Ocean View, and even further back – Station Square, Winchester, 110th Street, out of order and imprecise. You tell your husband this is your favorite of all the places you’ve lived together (this is the third). Yesterday, after a tantrum resulting from money spent on car repairs and utter time wasted worrying yourself to death about jobs and made-up future lives you haven’t lived yet and might not, you squeeze a bag of potato chips until it explodes on the patio. You sit among the crumbs and finish your bagel sandwich until it (what?) subsides. Feels familiar, doesn’t it? You know this is the moment. Not the aha bullshit, but the resting into it. Grounding down. You didn’t pack up and leave your life to grasp for control every minute of the day, your little red heart beating itself into oblivion for protection, fight or flight game on point. Your best ever. No. You didn’t disembark your familiar fences and playing fields just to arrive here (where?) and have it all figured out. Come on, you. What then? You’re done then, that’s what. And you are just beginning, damn that cliché all to hell. You are just beginning and you are doing a fucking great job. It is beautiful here and so are you. So are you.

Home / Practice

Unfold Your Wings

 

Just as staying home is easy for some,

traveling comes easily to others.

Each of us was made for some particular work,

and the desire for that work

has been placed in our hearts.

How should hand and foot

be set in motion without desire?

 

 —Rumi

Liminal.

For days now I try to write about moving, about leaving home. Desperate for a metaphor to capture what it feels like—a link between two strange and totally opposed entities of home, and somewhere else. What is known, and what is unknown. I string together bits of the last night before another move out of another house: Boxes stacked and ready, rugs rolled up, drawers piled nakedly outside of dressers, shower curtain folded, still damp with the sweat of a last bath. Reading by headlamp in a room with only a bed and a bag of packed clothes and my husband and dog snoring beside me. Bare floor dusty and a few dead bugs in the windowsill. Quiet hum of air conditioner cooling my skin. Days after, I touch my key ring and mind its lack of heft. What remains. I think about the last time I didn’t have a key to a home, a door to unlock and enter as my own, and I can’t remember. Maybe it’s been since I was a kid living in my first home, which we rarely locked. Did my parents ever use house keys? Were there copies? I never knew. I just knew I belonged there, I knew it was always open. Poems seem far away right now. Out of reach. I am lists, questions, dollar signs, embraces, final this and that. I am keenly aware of what’s not being said in every exchange. What’s felt. But poems, especially the lucky bits of brevity and color seem too hard. I am jumbled and unlined. I am unquiet. I am unstill. Yoga is out of reach, too. I am aches and pains, held tension, headaches. The two things I need the most, I am always moving away from, and toward. The ebb of my practices. When what I need is the coming back. The toward. This morning I think about being uprooted. How I have a choice. The luxury of adventure and risk, calculated. How I get to enjoy and explore change, and truth be told, how I can always come home. Or something like home. This morning the dogs wake me up too early and it is already too bright and I sit in an attic room at my mother’s house surrounded by things that don’t belong to me in a place where I don’t quite belong, either. But I have a choice. What does it feel like to have your home destroyed, maybe even while you’re still in it? No more things, no more home. What does it feel like to flee, to forget how you feel, to forget home? To know you can’t go back, there is nothing to go back to. A forced reckoning with change and uncertainty and unknown. How many people this is happening to right now. How many people are trying to get home, and can’t. I have no idea how to even craft sentences around this. But I know that no one forgets home. Key or no key, it’s indelible.

As in, enough.

 

“by which I knew upon waking /

it was telling me /

in no uncertain terms /

to bellow forth the tubas and sousaphones, /

the whole rusty brass band of gratitude /

not quite dormant in my belly— /

it said so in a human voice, /

“Bellow forth”— /

and who among us could ignore such odd /

and precise counsel?”

Ross Gay, from “catalog of unabashed gratitude”

 

I look for a book I know I have but can’t find and feel panicked.

As in attachment to my things, not very many things, but as in love for books over even music these days.

I heard a girlfriend of mine tell her daughter recently Sarah loves music and I wondered, in that moment, if she had told a lie. Or if the truth of the memory is enough.

Soon I will finish graduate school and have an MFA. Soon my husband and our two dogs pack our whole life into a truck and two cars and leave home for Colorado. As in, a new home.

As in everything is completed.

As in everything starts over.

As in evolution. Constant.

These aren’t so profound, these thoughts. They aren’t even necessarily mine.

The other day I listened to a therapist give a talk on how to change your mind about things. How the mind loves what is familiar. How we must make the unfamiliar familiar. As in, I am enough. As in saying that so often that you start to believe it.

As in not giving a shit about whether or not it’s corny to do such a thing.

And then I find my books. All three of Ross Gay’s books, which I knew I had all along.

I can’t stop thinking about him since I hear him ask, “What do you love?” on the podcast yesterday.

As in, no really, what do you love?

What do you love?

WHAT

 DO

YOU

LOVE?

As in celebration and joy and saying what you love rather than what needs to be improved.

As in knowing praise more than criticism. As in knowing that I am enough. That everything is enough.

As in sitting down and writing if you want to write. Rather than just talking about it. Rather than worrying about what other poets are up to.

As in loving what other poets are up to.

As in feeling ridiculously overwhelmed by how good a poem is.

As in that’s all. Feeling it.

As in embracing change and making perfectionism unfamiliar.

As in, these questions, still, every single day:

How do I face 45 and climate change and helplessness?

How do I revolutionize my own thinking and my own emotional interior?

How do I use this in love and poems and difficult moments?

Which I have, always? Always, but mostly inside of myself?

How do I tend to myself, first, and then others? Finding a way to serve?

How can I be of use?

Because the life I have in the world is simple compared to so many, and yet, I am tired?

As in Ross Gay:

As in hero.

As in poet.

As in teacher.

As in gratitude peddler,

love purveyor,

bliss bellower,

criticism naysayer.

As in the new

familiar.