As Eric’s 13th deathaversary creeps closer (Sunday by the day of the week, Tuesday by the date), I think about how much everything has changed, and how much is the same.
One big same is I still live in the house Eric and I bought together almost 40 years ago. I look out on the same pastures and farmyard. The stone wall of the cemetery up the hill, with a burst of flaming forsythia among the gravestones, still draws the closest horizon. I run the same routes in the morning and hear the same birds. Today a loon called as I ran along Northwood Lake, its eerie tremolo announcing its arrival as it landed in the water.
Eric loved loons and their regular presence around me is a way he stays with me. A loon shows up in this poem from The Truth About Death, the book I wrote the year after Eric died. As always, loons cry as they fly overhead at dawn most mornings in the spring and summer, moving between the lake and the ponds to the north.
But there are some big changes that ride along with what has stayed the same. I’m older, I’ve lost more people, I have grandchildren, I have more time for my own creative work, I run slower but still fast for my age, I know a lot more widows, I’m no longer a widow myself.
But I don’t think of myself as being in a new category anymore. I’m just here, and mostly it works.
The garlic cloves and onions all have shoots of green. It’s that time of year — sunlight in the yard while I peel and cut a winter squash to roast for dinner. The squash is getting soft in the center and white under the rind. Winter is almost over and the vegetables harvested last fall show it. A lovely folk rhythm is coming over the speakers and the sun is noticeably warmer. Enjoying these signs of spring, everything feels just right, just now.
I have so many poems and prose pieces about the particulars of these sweet moments and how all of life wants to crowd into this corner, to be in this space of knowing I’m where I should be and doing exactly what I should. I’m good at lyrical writing.
But I’ve felt less lyrical the last two years. My poems have changed from meditations on loss and the details that describe whole worlds to expressions of dismay at the level of lies and cheating people will stoop to to remain in power. I’m saddened by the more obvious tolerance for prejudice and the disregard for the harms people cause each other and feel compelled to speak out. I’m interrogating my own comfort and how to write to challenge myself.
So I’m writing fewer blog posts and hardly any lyrical poems. I’m focused elsewhere. I helped flip the NH House seat for Northwood from forever-Republican to first-time-ever Democrat. I’m on a local land conservation board and the policy committee of another nonprofit. A lot of time is going into being a facilitator in two projects, one examining race and equity in NH, the other to encourage people to listen to different points of view without being triggered into fight or flight mode.
Two nights ago my friend Aron and I led the second of the Open Discussion Project sessions at Gibson’s bookstore. We discussed Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders by Reihan Salam. There were a range of political views represented, from far left liberal to conservative. People didn’t argue, though they often disagreed. People took turns standing and saying what was true for them, how they thought about immigration and how they viewed economic vs. humanitarian arguments for allowing people to come to our country.
The design of the Open Discussion Project is to get people with different points of view into the same room to talk about difficult political issues and listen to each other. Not to argue and convince, but listen. Not to judge and defend but to listen.
So far, it’s working. Making space for people to talk about issues that usually fracture into left vs. right/Democrat vs. Republican, without having to defend their positions, is powerful.
Towards the end of the first meeting of the Project, discussing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, I asked how many of the 85 people who came were there to hear points of view different from their own. Everyone raised their hands.
Here I face east and see the ocean, a blue mass that fills the horizon beyond the bare trees and rooftops, down the hill to the long flat spit of sand that makes the beach. At home I face west and look at cows, pastures and a distant line of pine and hardwoods.
I’ve purposely displaced myself. I want to see what I see when I’m looking at a new view, sleeping in a different bed, tapping at my keyboard in different light. My sister and her husband are off on an adventure to Australia and New Zealand, which means their comfortable house on the coast is empty and quiet and perfect for a writing retreat.
Whatever it is I let distract me when I’m home won’t be here. I can’t make plans to see a friend or go to an appointment because I’m away. I can’t reorganize the cupboards or pick out a new paint color for the bathroom. I can’t straighten the house or put the ski boots away. I’m also good at following rules I set for myself and I came here to write, so I’ll write.
Yesterday I finished an OpEd and sent it off to the paper. I wrote a poem and I’ll write another one today. I’ll open the documents of poems I’ve been writing for the last month and fiddle with those. I’ll read the books of poetry I brought with me — The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz, Midden by Julia Bouwsma — mostly to enjoy the poems but also to see what I can learn about writing that directly confronts injustice and harm to people of color. I’ll sort through the poems in the manuscript I worked on last winter to see what will fit in the new book I’m working on which, in a sea change for me, isn’t centered only on grief and recovery. Or is it the same book, just completely reimagined?
It doesn’t matter. There’s paper and pens and a computer and books and time. Time to write.
What can I say that will lessen discord and polarization and help people listen to each other? What can I say that will move the world closer to my vision of justice, kindness and compassion? What can I say to trolls that would make any difference? What can I say to a woman who tells me she loves me after insisting that Democrats are always wrong and Republicans always right, followed by a declaration that she’s proud of Trump?
Do I need to listen more? Maybe I need to listen to more poems by Wislawa Szymborska. Maybe everyone needs to listen to more poems by Szymborska. My friend, poet Marie Harris, read a poem of hers at our Skimmilk Poets group the week before last. This week I listened to Catherine Barnett read Szymborska’s poem “Maybe All This” on the New Yorker Poetry podcast. Her book View With a Grain of Sand is now on my desk.
CHILDREN OF OUR AGE
by Wislawa Szymborska
We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So, either way you’re talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death,
at a round table or a square one.
Meanwhile, people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
I’m not actually sure it’s been weeks, but it feels like it, so that’s how I’ll count it. I love having a full house, love seeing and hanging with my children and stepchildren and grandchildren and all the partners and friends that come with them. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
But there is a wall. A wall where the part of my brain that disengages with daily life and picks up in the pursuit of art — poetry, prose, drawing, collages, gardening, book-making — starts to stutter and slam around and ask for more attention.
When David and I are here in the house by ourselves, we’re easily able to ignore each other for long stretches of the day so we can fall into the tunnels of our own creativity and our work to make the world a better place. When family and friends are here, I love them too much to do anything but hang with them. Time with them is precious.
And then there’s the shopping and cooking and eating together, long meals with long talks, and games of Catan and Set and during these too too hot days lots of playing in the water. When I wake up Emilio is up right behind me so my early mornings aren’t at my computer unless we’re watching videos of endangered species. This morning I woke to taps on my shoulder and Ava’s whisper, “Mimi, Mimi, Mimi.” Time to get up and make her a honey “samblewich.” So busy. So sweet.
Later: I wrote the above over a week ago and haven’t been back to it since. Because I was only alone for one evening and then it was three more days of company and then once all the visitors left David and I put water toys away and did laundry and weeded and cleaned out the fridge and focused intently on his campaign for State Rep from Northwood (yes, he’s running!, but that’s another post).
Now I’m really alone, in Vermont, on a second story deck overlooking two old oaks, the closer one with a gaping, bubble-edged scar where a branch fell off what looks like a long time ago. A big mouth saying hello. These are very grand trees and very old. And my only company.
I’m in Montpelier for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. Yes, I’ll be spending a lot of time with other people during the day — workshopping a new poetry manuscript, going to lectures and readings and meals where, once again, there will be long talks. But the talks will be about writing and I’ll be living alone. When I come back to my AirBnB there will only be the page to talk to.
I love to make things. I make poems and blog posts and stories and prints and broadsides and dinner and sweaters and gardens and friends and granola and yogurt and books and books of boxes, which will soon have poems in them, the boxes that is.
Yesterday I made things all afternoon with Alison, a friend who also loves to make things. And she knows how to sew. With her help I lengthened a too-short sweater by attaching the extra of an extra-long scarf to the bottom. Now my favorite sweater falls past my hips, exactly as long as I want it. I made treats for Alison to put in her freezer and she made a skirt out of another too-short sweater I never finished or wore.
While Alison and I were happily making things, David and John made music, playing guitars and singing. John remarked on how much better David has gotten and David answered, “I’ve been practicing and playing like I need to make a living at it.”
I thought, yes, that’s how I write, I put in enough hours to create something I could sell. Given what I write, if I do “sell” a piece it may not bring in much money. It may not bring in any money. But I work to create marketable pieces. It’s extremely unlikely that David will ever play guitar and sing for money, but he wants to be that good. Using the standards of the material exchange economy keeps us working hard, and we have the great good fortune of not having to make the exchange actually happen. The results of our creative focus are free to be gifts.
Have you read The Gift by Louis Hyde? He won a MacArther Grant for it and it was well deserved. Creativity is a basic human instinct and the art that comes from that instinct is a gift. It doesn’t have to be in the market economy to be meaningful. In fact, creativity is even more important given our culture’s focus on money and commodities. We need to create not to earn but to share.
If you want to make art of some sort but don’t think you have permission or the time or a worthy talent or the necessary creativity, read The Gift.
There should be a name for the color of the particular blue deepening into purple-black indigo of winter evenings, especially as a day of snow slips over into sleet. The indigo glow through my windows right now brings back this poem from February 2007. The barn and shed and silo are still there, though the farmhouse burned. And l need a bigger wagon, there’s so much more to hold than a hole now.
The first real storm washes out the little color
in the landscape, the barn and shed and silo
weathered to the gray of a cut snow bank.
Sparrows peck in the perennial bed, tall stems
and seed heads clustered through snow. Small storms
of snow blow up off the roof of the hay shed,
sweep past. We would ski at midnight to catch
the pure snow before the storm slipped over to sleet.
So much happens every day, I need a wagon to hold
the hole. Last night I lay on the kitchen floor,
where our cat slept for her last year, her old body
bony, weightless. I noticed the narrow maple
floor boards running under the hutch, thinking
the world is flat even as I know it is round.
My conversation with Adrienne about daylight savings time started on Instagram. Under her photo of scrambled eggs and coffee she wrote daylight savings is weird. #theend. When I commented I want my hour back she replied every year! Time for the poem from 10 years ago!
Yes, Adrienne has listened to me complain about this lost hour all her life. It’s such a let down after that extra hour (bonus galore!) we get in October.
I’m not alone. Twitter is full of complaints today. Mamas, how are your #daylightsavingstime naps going? (Accompanied by a photo through a door of a child standing in a crib playing with a mobile.) I remember those days.
And, as always on Twitter, there’s politics and humor. You didn’t lose an hour of sleep #BernieSanders just redistributed it to someone who needed it. Losing an hour of sleep means you have to sleep in, right? I woke up and it was like noon wtf low key wishing we lost the next four years vs one hour of sleep last night. so do i have one more or one less hour to be high today? Well, at least the clock in my car is right again…
There was a suggestion we all chill out by Relaxing Back Into Soothing Stillness w/this #GuidedMeditation
Here’s what I had to say about it ten years ago, the poem Adrienne recalled. I wrote it the weekend Sam and I helped her move to live with Matt in NYC. March 2007, in the midst of the writing fever that produced The Truth About Death, less than a year after Eric died. I could feel the raw pain coming up off the pages as I looked through the manuscript for this poem. What a time.
Our daughter is going to the epicenter, someone is always
going somewhere, I can’t make small talk, I talk too much,
I am following the little red car, I can do anything I want,
I am a sparrow feeding in the bushes, the promised manna,
such pain to get here. Highways, cars, family, the irrevocable
center, flip your hand, wave off the evil eye, not evil, scary.
There is a blue balloon floating, this song is the tits, this song
is the bee’s knees, it’s if I had wings. I’m still mad
about the hour they took away two weeks ago. There are bells
ringing, it’s 6:00 p.m., the boys are watching college hoops,
the buildings out the window fall down in cubes, gardens
tucked into ledges, trees and statues below, a lion and a nymph
holding bounty, a set table in a room of glass, birds, planes
lifting west. I dance with a maenad, I dance by myself, drive fast
with my family. A lovely and ancient tradition. At dinner we discuss
predictive text, our son never finds his phone, our daughter’s lover’s
mother knows the pre-revolutionary Russian for lovely,
beautiful – veeleekalyepnah. When she found her grandfather’s book
of Torah commentary it opened to her son’s portion. Go forward
and be a blessing unto the world. Never enough, never enough.