writing

eventual arrival

"Where every student [of fiction] eventually arrives is a place where the formal problems of the work are the same as the psychological problems of the student and the philosophical problems of the student's worldview. And that's a good place for students to arrive; it also shows that the formal problems of the work are now deeper." –Jane Smiley

last light

How the fall brings a familiar melancholy; not unpleasant. Not unwelcome.

The dwindling hours of summer – the last gathering in the backyard of friends around a canopied table. Last smoke rising from grill fire. Last barefoot run through damp grass. The children upend plastic cups full of water over their heads and shriek with delight.

Last delights of shapeless days.

How strange the summer was. How we stumbled through it. How I have been craving a return to the kind of order that fall brings, cocooned as we become. There are expectations, after all, that the summer be careless, carefree, and laughing – long afternoons bathed in salt water and golden light. What relief as fall rolls in. We anticipate fewer joys.

We spend the weekend nesting. I tend to the houseplants, fold the laundry. There is dusting, washing, scrubbing. All the windows are thrown open wide, but the air is still and heavy with threat of rain.

I sit with Rings of Saturn for the second time this year, wanting its particular brand of sadness. What peculiar pleasure it is to spend long hours immersed in such decline; in bearing witness to the ends of things.

In the evening, we drive down to an engagement party. The house of the betrothed sits at the edge of the Narragansett Bay and for the evening, the yard is tented and there is music. White mist hovers over the Bay. A few drops fall as the evening’s toasts are made, but no real rain. We spend some time chatting with a few people we have not seen in some time. We don’t stay late.

When we drive back, there is still some evening left so we stop. Over cheeses and sweets, we take stock of the summer, plan for the weeks and months ahead. When we return home, the house is quiet, as if a blanket has been draped over the whole of it. Dimly-lit and warm.

On his travels, Sebald’s narrator comes upon a bit of beach along the North Sea coast that is dotted with the makeshift tents of fishermen. The fishing to be had there is limited and our narrator opines that these men do not pitch their tents expecting any real catch; rather he says, “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”

I am reminded that I have walked such beaches before – in early morning mist, in the thinning light of late afternoon. How the cold spray of the sea invites contemplation. Melancholy, too.

I dream of water. Of the lake we visited this summer. The stillness of it, save for the undulating grasses that rose from its floor of silt and sand. One morning, early, we rowed out to a narrow winding inlet flanked by grasses and reeds and squat flowering shrubs. Baby turtles sunned themselves on lily pads and fallen branches. Some dove back to the dark water as we approached.

Sebald, along the shore, speaks of herrings. From his reading of a natural history of the North Sea, published in 1857, he recalls:

It is even said that vast shoals of herring were brought in towards the beaches by the wind and the tides and cast ashore, covering miles of the coast to a depth of two feet and more. The local people were able to salvage only a small portion of these herring harvests in baskets and crates; the remainder rotted within days, affording the terrible sight of Nature suffocating on its own surfeit.  

 He tells also of a peculiarity of the herring:

Once the life has fled the herring, its colors change. Its back turns blue, the cheeks and gills red, suffused with blood. An idiosyncrasy peculiar to the herring is that, when dead, it begins to glow: this property, which resembles phosphorescence and is yet altogether different, peaks a few days after death and then ebbs away as the fish decays.

How strange to think that it is in death that these creatures glow. He continues:

For a long time no one could account for this glowing of the lifeless herring, and indeed I believe that it still remains unexplained. Around 1870, when projects for the total illumination of our cities were everywhere afoot, two English scientists with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown investigated the unusual phenomenon in the hope that the luminous substance exuded by dead herrings would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself.

They were unsuccessful.

But imagine the sight on the shore: These fish, unfathomable in number. First thrashing in the throes of death, then still.

Then days later, glowing.

These multitudes emitting this last and terrible light.

sentences

I am thinking about sentences. Movement, musicality.

I read Florida by Christine Schutt at the urging of a friend and find her voice is so compelling and her prose so deft, I am entranced – read it through nearly without stopping.

There are so many exemplary passages, but here is one, near the beginning of the book. The narrator, Alice, is riding in her uncle’s car, being driven by her uncle’s driver, Arthur:

All ways were dark, but this way deeply. We only knew what things were as we passed them, dark stands of trees, rows of mailboxes, wooden markers, the start of hills – up, over, over and down – down a narrow, brambled road, as in a story, abruptly turning and traveling upwards again to a gawky house with finials, deep porches, churchy windows. Here was a spinster closed for winter. I couldn’t see inside although I tried.

Consider the length and construction of that second sentence in a paragraph where each of the remaining three sentences is no longer than ten syllables. It suggests the movement of the drive itself: its initial darkness, its pivots, its arrival at something recognizable.

There are many things that this paragraph does so well in the movement of the narrative, but what I was particularly struck by at this moment in my reading was the sound of the words and sentences. A poet’s attention to repetition of sound. The first sentence composed of two clauses, parallel in structure with the last word in each a hard “d” sound: dark, deeply. The repetition of the word dark early in the next sentence. The series: stands of trees, rows of mailboxes, wooden markers. The phrase abruptly turning and traveling upwards – not only the “t” sound repeated (as well as the ending in –ing) but its proximity in both places with the “up” sound – abruptly turning, traveling upward. The deep porches refers back to deeply of the first sentence. Then the repeated “in” sounds in spinster and winter.

And all this ends with a simple, direct:

I couldn’t see inside although I tried.

Alice’s inability to see inside this house sets up this next revelation:

“This was where your father came from,” Arthur said, and I was amazed. My father, the mysteriously dead and only ever whispered about – Arthur knew where Father came from.

Arthur, driver and guide. Arthur, revealer of secrets. Arthur, replacement father (consider even the sound of the word Father and its similarly to the sound of the name Arthur). That passage then ends with a moment of clarity. Alice sees something she didn’t know she could see.

I said, “You’ve been here from the beginning.” 

the mathematical science of the infinite

For reasons that I cannot yet fully articulate, I am trying to understand set theory. Trying and failing. How is it that I simply cannot comprehend even the most basic abstract mathematical concepts? I read a sentence or two. Read them again. And back to the beginning. I miss the logic from one statement to the next. 

Frustrated, my mind wanders. I find myself thinking about Good Will Hunting and then that Russell Crowe film where he plays a mathematician. I think about what it must feel like to grasp some difficult abstraction intellectually for the first time. I have no recent relevant experience to compare this to, but I think perhaps it must be like the flush of erotic excitement? An overwhelming hunger satiated fleetingly: a bright hot flash and then a lingering pleasantness as the knowledge, this new, deeper level of understanding seeps into the cells. 

Despite my limited understanding, I find the language of mathematics beautiful. Consider a few of the topics in the articles I find on set theory:

The Continuum Hypothesis; The Axiom of Choice; Independence Proofs; Natural Numbers; Cardinalities of Sets. 

“Set theory is the mathematical science of the infinite,” one post in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins. Oh yes, I think. I want to study the science of the infinite. But when I return to the page, I am flummoxed.

As any object of our study, the ordered pair has to be a set. It should be defined in such a way that two ordered pairs are equal if and only if their first coordinates are equal and their second coordinates are equal. This guarantees in particular that (ab) ≠ (b,a) if a ≠ b.

Definition. (ab) = {{a}, {ab}}.

I followed until the definition. Why is the second coordinate now represented {a,b} and not simply {b}?

“In any case, it seems obvious…” the article goes on, but sadly, it is not obvious to me and I question my ability to think well and deeply about anything at all. How might I have this understanding inserted into my brain? How have I gone on this long without the ability to grasp these concepts? What re-wiring would it take for this to make sense to me?

Why is this important? It is important to me now because the language is important.

In the new project I am working on, I envision three sections, the last of which is Set Theory. I encountered the term in my research and recognized that it followed a pattern which could include the other two section titles (Problem Sets, Data Sets, Set Theory). The three titles together seemed to suggest a kind of linguistic progression and, as far as content, could be interrelated. Each section (or “element” in set theory) could in fact be convincing as a “member” (set theory, again) of the same set.

It is a way to understand the project, too, I think, the scope of it.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) was a Korean-born American visual artist, filmmaker and writer best known for her book Dictee, published in 1982 in which she weaves together biography, history, poetry, found texts, and images to tell a story about alienation, dislocation, memory, and about the limitations of language itself. She spent most of her life in the San Francisco Bay area, then moved to New York in 1980 to further her career, which had begun developing momentum. In November of 1982, weeks before Dictee was released, she was attacked, raped, and murdered by the security guard who worked in the building where she was meeting her husband, photographer Richard Barnes. They had been married earlier that year.

I was introduced to Dictee in 1998 by Carole Maso, with whom I was studying. I was struggling with writing about my mother’s recent death and about my own coming of age as a Korean-born adoptee raised by first-generation immigrant parents in a working-class suburb of New York City. Cha’s concerns – the limitations of language, separation from one’s own history, the representation of women’s lives and the role of religion and of myth – had powerful resonance.

Like many, I read about the short life and work of photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) before I had seen many of her photographs. Woodman was raised by artists, who imprinted her with a seriousness of purpose about the making of art. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence where I have lived for the past two decades. She moved to New York in 1979 to take up her art career in earnest. In January of 1981, she took her life by jumping from the window of her apartment building.

I was drawn to Woodman at first by the mythology that had developed around her, but soon found her photographs to have resonance with formal artistic concerns of my own – representations of self, representations of women’s bodies, stillness and motion, light and shadow, disappearance and erasure.

At some point, I realized that Cha and Woodman were living in New York at the same time. This is not in itself remarkable in a city of millions, but I began to imagine them, walking the streets of their city, working, dreaming, their lives unfolding. I do not know that they ever met, but I hold in my mind the image of a heat map of the city, with the spaces around each of them glowing red, pulsing.

Common themes can be found in their work and they seem to have shared some influences – French philosophers and writers, filmmakers. Both women worked almost exclusively in black and white, and used their bodies as vehicles to creative expression.

I do not mean to compare and contrast their work, or to draw some grand conclusion about them as artists or as women. I am not particularly compelled by Cha’s status as victim or in Woodman’s psychological state. My primary interest is that their lives were cut short at a time when their creative work was blossoming, at a time of great possibility, so that we are left to puzzle over what is left behind – these fragments, these incomplete stories – and to imagine what might have been.

What I am working on is an attempt to take these pieces of what is left and hold them near each other, to explore what the spaces between and around them might yield. I think that as someone who lives with incomplete information about my own story, my own history, I am particularly compelled by working with fragments – with rupture, disappearance, erasure – and by attempts to invoke some imagined possibility that the reality of life (and death) renders impossible.

As to set theory:

The language of set theory is based on a single fundamental relation, called membership. We say that A is a member of B (in symbols A ∈ B), or that the set B contains A as its element. The understanding is that a set is determined by its elements; in other words, two sets are deemed equal if they have exactly the same elements. In practice, one considers sets of numbers, sets of points, sets of functions, sets of some other sets and so on. In theory, it is not necessary to distinguish between objects that are members and objects that contain members — the only objects one needs for the theory are sets. 

These women’s lives. The work they made, the influences they had, the artistic concerns; their vision and ambitions. The cities they lived in. The languages they spoke. The city in which they died. I think there must be a way to represent these as interrelated sets and that there is something to be learned from articulating the properties of the sets they inhabited. If the  ultimate goal of set theory is “to describe the structure of the mathematical universe,” there must be room, beneath this mantle to evoke and observe the work of Cha and Woodman, to build an armature to support close examination of their lives. 

child in a red apron

Didn’t it – for a time – seem like it might never stop raining?

Someone jokes: “We live in rain now,” and the phrase stays with me, a way to think about one day running through the office parking lot in the downpour and then the next, walking briskly, and then the next, not rushing at all, but letting the cool water run down my face, my hair, soak my work clothes. No longer: It is raining as if it were something that happens, an occurrence that interrupts a state of being, but rather we live in rain, a new state of being.

Eventually, it stops. Blue reasserts itself and a double rainbow arcs across the sky, so vivid, so perfectly rendered, as though it is projected directly from a child’s imagination. This tiny corner of earth gasps and scrambles to take photographs. We gaze skyward, holding our breath, hearts quickening. A collective sigh.

And when the light returns the next day and the sun is high in the patchy blue sky, doesn’t it seem like it has always been thus? A gift and a curse that we can forget darkness. That it can drift past us and through us. Clouds moving across the gray sky, obscuring then revealing the vault of blue.

I have taken to walking, midday, across the river to the museum or to the library, for a bit of quiet solitude amid the meetings and the chatter of my days. There are some students still in town, carrying portfolios and cardboard models wrapped in plastic. Suited men make their way between office building and restaurant. Occasionally, I will see someone I know and we will nod at each other or wave our hands in acknowledgement but we don’t linger. This time – untethered from screen and phone – is rare; we allow each other wide berth.

A protracted end to the school year (to accommodate snow days in one case, an excess of social activity in another) and the odd weather has lent a strange unreal quality to this season of transitions. Work in the garden has been sporadic. There has been some unexpected travel. Meandering through these days, wandering through the museum galleries without pattern or order. From one time period to the next without attention to history or chronology. In the galleries, some people take notes. I sometimes feel like I am floating. I sometimes feel like I am watching myself float.

The people who live next door to us argue in the middle of the night. They are out on the sidewalk in front of the house shouting. Someone has been injured in a fight. They are awaiting help. Somewhere there is a child. A woman’s voice: “Do you see what I am dealing with here? Do you see?”

M. stands by the window, peering through the curtains in the dark. I stay in bed, stare up at the ceiling fan, its blades spinning. The flashing lights of the rescue truck glow red through the curtains. And then it is quiet.

I read about other people’s struggles through mid-life and it makes me feel both less alone and then more. I take fleeting comfort  in knowing that my sadness, my confusion, my frustrations are not unique. There is, after all, relief in recognition. But relief yields then to a kind of shame, blurs into it. How small I am, how insignificant my inarticulate grief. One more voice calling out into the vastness, one cry in the cacophony of this human drama repeated through centuries. One life, finite; the struggle, eternal.

Grief changes nothing. It is wearying. I tell my friend that my heart is tired all the time and he says: “Think instead about all that you are able to give.”

I try to, but cannot. I feel greedy. Stingy and petty. “Think about your capacity to love,” he says, but what I feel is the opposite of capacity. I give nothing without expectation. I am disappointed all the time. All the joys of this life, the love, the light in it will never be sufficient.

“Acceptance is a small, dark room,” I remember reading.

Well ok, I think, I will enter, but you cannot make me stay.

At the museum, there is a painting by Berthe Morisot called Child in a Red Apron. A young girl, the painter’s daughter stands by the window of her home, peering out onto the wintry landscape of Paris. It is a personal painting, a quiet domestic moment, the lines and brush strokes of it suggest haste. It has the quality of a sketch. It is full of motion and light.

I stand in front of it for a while, linger there before I have to leave. There is another woman at the opposite end of the small space. The afternoon light is gentle, illuminating the white-walled room and the painting and both of us standing there.

I think of this painter in her studio. How she happened upon this scene, her young daughter, so beautiful, so still. How she was moved to capture it, to layer it down on canvas. Her urgent, quick strokes. A breathlessness. A gesture toward immortality.

This painter, now gone, and her daughter too. How fragile, how fleeting these lives. Our lives. How we build these tiny monuments to what we have seen here in our time, what we have done, how we have spent our days. Who we have loved and how well we have tried to love them.

All we have tried to do and failed. That we have tried. 

with warmth and tenderness

Francesca Woodman sent a letter to friend Giuseppe Casetti (“Cristiano”) in 1978. She wrote it in the form of a recipe on a page torn from a book. The book was Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking. Her message was written in Italian. The translation (as appears in Francesca Woodman: Roma 1977-1981) reads:

A Winter recipe for a fizzy omelet a la Francesca

1 teddy-bear of ricotta

2 of those Green apples that are delicious inside and
ugly outside

Stir in the direction of Ducasse’s tail wags

1 twist of Cristiano

grate into it and stir well, but be careful to do it slowly and
calmly.

Cook the mixture with warmth and tenderness.

If the omelet does not fizz, or if it has a hard skin, it is worth
convincing it or even going on a visit.

If, on the other hand, the omelet melts, or is too sensitive,
give it a special spherical word or a little caress in order to
convince it to stand up straight.

Even a bite around the edges. This omelet may seem tiring
but it is delicious and highly nutritious. It will last a long
time and preserve well; in fact it gets more flavor if it is kept
warm and treated well.

Bon appetit!

"it walked out of the light"

There are advantages to aging, my friends tell me. Think of all the stupid little things you no longer worry about. I nod and laugh, but I wonder if this is true. It doesn’t seem to me as though I have let anything go.

I meet my friend at the bar I haven’t been to in some time. The menu has changed. The bartender. I ask this new one about his predecessor. “Gone,” he says. “I’m the only guy here.” I explain to him that the old bartender – we’ll call him Ken – would see me through the glass door on my way in and start mixing my cocktail. He nods slowly. “But what if you wanted something else, you know, for a change?” I have no way to answer this so I just laugh out loud instead.

It’s not really true, what I say about Ken. He’d always ask as I sat down. Why would I lie?

It’s still a few minutes before E. arrives. When she gets there, we hug. We talk about writing projects. Things we are reading. We talk about aging. I tell her of my resistance. My childish insistence on denying its realities.

“I don’t know why I am fighting this,” I tell her. “I think I should embrace it.”

“You are supposed to learn to love it,” she says. “Love your pain, love your struggle.” She spreads her arms out wide to demonstrate.

“I feel like I am just angry all the time,” I say.

“Maybe you can learn to love that, too?”

My mother was forty-two when she married. Forty-five by the time I arrived, a pre-packaged, fully-formed toddler. Had she given birth to me, it would have been at forty-two, the age I will turn this fall. It is difficult to imagine having a child now. Not only the physical demands pregnancy and childbirth would make on the body, but that sense of starting again. Of such intense attention and care. Of being completely consumed by the endless tasks of early parenting, the constant vigilance, the sleeplessness. Those early months of being beholden to the needs of this small creature with whom there is no reasoning, for whom there are no real boundaries of time or between bodies. I am very aware of infants when I see them – out walking or traveling. In restaurants and parks. I am drawn to their smallness, the stab of nostalgia for a particular kind of fantasy of motherhood, but I also feel such relief. Not me, I think. Not me.

And yet the fact of it – that I might no longer be able to choose not to have a child, that my body will in fact render such questions irrelevant – is a bit of a blow. Like the early waking, like the constant irritation, like the heaviness I feel in myself, it is an undeniable reminder that my body is changing, has in fact always been changing. That from the moment of my birth has been marching me toward its inevitable conclusion. I am not yet ready to love this.

The year I turned forty, I found myself pulsing white hot. I was alive to my body, attuned to its desires in ways that were startling, unsettling. I was a raw animal, an exposed nerve. Fierce hungers. I explained this to a friend of mine who laughed and said, “Oh that is just your body’s last gasp before menopause.” I was unable to speak to her for days.

I tell my friend that I am going to try to embrace the struggle. Love it, as E. suggests. “Why would you do that,” she asks. “I have always known you to be a fighter. Why give up now?”

I suppose it might be a fair question, but also not an uncomplicated one. “Maybe I’m tired?”

“No. You are the most tireless woman I know,” she says. This strikes me as the kindest thing she could have said. Something I did not know I needed to hear.

The year before I turned forty, I met a writer – an older man who had recently retired from decades of high school teaching – and we maintained a sporadic correspondence for a few months after the seminar we had been in together ended. I expressed to him some of my earliest anxieties about turning forty. Some weeks later, a book arrived from him. It was called Forty: The Age and the Symbol, written by an anthropologist about the cultural invention of the so-called midlife crisis. It traced the traditional and mythological meanings of the number forty, and scanned literary and historical texts for the appearance of the number, the symbol. Assembled the references and evidence to conclude that our understanding of it – the number, the age – has changed over time and will continue to. Intended, I think, to provide some relief to the middle-aged. To suggest that maybe these years of mid life are not so limiting as we might think.

I thanked this friend for sending it, pointed out all that I found interesting and notable in it. I did not tell him that the book did nothing to explain the madness I felt living in my own skin.

In Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” the speaker is struggling through the end of a love affair. She visits her mother and her ailing father and reads Emily Bronte. She describes a series of visions that come to her while she attempts to make meaning of this time. There are thirteen visions in all. The piece concludes with the last of these. I read it as a kind of passing from the fierce clutch of a thing to perhaps what might be an embrace:

I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
But as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off
the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

bird

1

Small bird, hopping bird, brown bird. One hundred points of articulation in your tiny brown neck. 

Raise your small head up to see the sky. Look down to see gray stone. 

2

We went to Madrid and walked the city streets. Even at night, the city pulsing. 

Behind the plaza where the men played music, we found a store that sold only springs. From floor to ceiling, on every surface. In boxes and in drawers. Great silver springs. Springs of copper. And springs you could wind around your smallest finger or hold in the palm of your hand where they might glisten like fallen stars. 

3

Your mother is a great and dying bird. Once, she tended her grand feathered nest. Once, she preened. 

Now the bones of her spine have fallen beneath the weight of decades, her neck bent in pain for which she no longer has words. 

Flightless bird, broken bird. 

You lift her from bed to chair and then back again. 

So light now, so fragile. Such hollow bones. 

4

You bought a box of springs. You could not help yourself. You were giddy like a child when you spread them out across the wide hotel bed. 

The small ones you wound into my hair. 

The largest one you rolled across my naked skin. 

5

Your mother at the window, watching hummingbirds.

They told her that the feeder was too heavy. The pole on which it hangs is bent beneath its weight. 

Sweet pink liquid spilling out onto the ground.

And the hummingbirds hover there: ecstatic, coiled, in constant frantic flight.

this is not even what I set out to say

We drive down to the beach house of a friend in the thin gray light.

It rains all day and the wind is relentless through the long limbs of beach roses, the lilac branches. White sailboats bob on the dark water.

Bach is the soundtrack for our time in this house. The Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos. All through the afternoon.

Outside, the wind, the rain, the sky smeared gray and milky white, the frothy waves of the bay.

I bring Anne Carson and Theresa Cha, steadfast companions but find it difficult to concentrate. The wind, the view of water, the tall masts of sailboats, green horizon line of trees on a distant shore.

The rain picks up, rinsing the windowpanes. It is like a dream.

We have come here for years now. We have brought friends and family. We have celebrated holidays at the long dining table, tea lights scattered down the length of it.

We have walked the path down to a strip of beach and climbed the rocks there. We have watched as morning mist burns away to wan yellow light. We have seen afternoon fade into evening and then to darkness. Shrouded in a quiet that at home it is so easy to forget.

Cha, from Exilee, Temps Morts, Selected Works:

monologue
back and forth conversing

what if
i say
this
in saying that
for the heart of the matter is
that
if i should
say
none the less
in a way
in such a way
that would
that could
suggest
in other words
none less than
another possibility
an other way
only one way possible
the only other way possible
by that
meaning
it is already
said
being said
all along.

I wake in a white room that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Bright morning light. The faint scent of bleach from the warm white sheets.

In Korea, white is the color of mourning, Theresa Cha reminds us again and again and whiteness and mourning suffuses her work in her writing, her video and film, and her performances.

From Dictee:

One morning. The next morning. It does not matter. So many mornings have passed this way. But this one. Especially. The white mist rising everywhere, constant gathering and dispersing.

In the stillness, we whisper about how the day might unfold. I am aware of my knees aching, as if I have been running for hours.  

Theresa Cha was born in Korea in 1951 and emigrated with her family to Hawaii and then later to San Francisco. She went to Catholic school and studied French. At UC Berkeley, she studied comparative literature and art.

She works in film and video and performance art. She meets Richard Barnes, a photographer who she will later marry.

In 1980, she moves to New York.

In May of 1982, she and Barnes marry. In November of that year, she is murdered in New York, in the basement of a building in SoHo. She is 31 years old.

I was writing the story of my mother’s death (in a white room in a small town in upstate New York) struggling with it when Carole Maso, with whom I was then studying, gave me Dictee.

As a document, Dictee was like nothing I had seen before. Fragmented and nonlinear. A collage of history and autobiography and image and text. About displacement and memory; about language and loss and grief. It kept me company while I struggled through my own writing.

My mother in her white bed in the white room in a white house with black shutters. Little house on a hill. Little village near woods.

The cemetery where she is buried lies behind a train station. It was a cool morning in October. The trees were starting to turn. It was my birthday. I was 21.

That I am compelled to return again and again to that white room, to that morning in October more than twenty years ago shames me at times. My grief – if that is what it can be said to be – embarrasses.

What more, after all is there to say about the death of one’s mother? A loss that most of us will experience in our time.

This is not even what I set out to say this morning, in this light. As the white clouds give way to slivers of blue.

Cha, again from her notebooks:

11.78

writing conscious-unconsciously. in delirium  it’s fiction. its fiction
from left hand corner to the right hand corner. from left to right.
what abound. n’importe quoi. mere it said. sea and boundary.
wall dividing. sea and boundary. fingering through and through.
some absent touch bound to be somewhere. a new line curve a page
a possible chapter. it’s unseen. as soon as it is invisible
as soon as. retaliation. retreat. into. excerpts. pittlings.
pittance here and there scattered ashes bits towed by wind invisible.

write your way to the tree

There is a new project; its newness thrills.

It is all possibility.

I make notes, follow unexpected paths. Discover that one idea is linked to another and then I am scurrying around the library at lunchtime, stacking books.

As to the writing itself, it is difficult to know where exactly to begin.

I turn back to Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings:”

Paul Valery also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.

No small task, tree creation.

I sit in on the final presentations of graduate students in architecture and in the conversation that follows, there is talk of beginnings. One young woman has chosen to design interventions for four city sites. Instead of presenting one problem, she works with four.

“This is a project about beginnings,” someone says.

“I guess I now know how to begin,” the student says when she is offered the opportunity to speak.

She says: “I was sitting in a courtyard in Oaxaca and it was a public space, but set back a bit, so it was also quiet. I wanted to create that sense of quiet in a public space.”

Ruefle:

An act of the mind. To move, to make happen, to make manifest. By an act of Congress. A state of real existence rather than possibility. And poets love possibility! They love to wonder and explore. Hard lot! But the poem, no matter how full of possibility, has to exist! To conduct oneself, to behave.

In the class, an observation is offered:

“You are working with beginnings. Each one a kind of experiment. Perhaps what is useful to know is that if you keep repeating experiments, a methodology will emerge.”

The repeated act of beginning itself revealing its hypotheses.

To begin with one small thing: a breeze through a quiet courtyard in the afternoon sun.

To extract something of value and attempt to translate - through form, through the page, through material objects - that value.

To recreate it. Translated through self. Self as translation. Intervention as machine.

Text as machine through which value is extracted then reproduced.

A thought came to me while watching the presentations and hearing the questions they engendered and I carried it, turned it over in my mind, throughout:

How might you frame the problem such that your solution seems inevitable and urgent?

This is not so different, I think, from the fruit and the tree.

A breeze through a quiet courtyard in the afternoon sun. 

Sun on the skin is a place to start. Light and shadow. 

A point of entry: An archway in the courtyard.

Stone steps leading down to water. You can also say they are leading up.

Here is a way in. Here is a place to start.

Here is tender fruit on the ground. 

History, too is written backward.

Start here. Write your way to the courtyard, to the sun on your skin. Write your way to the tree.

babbling into the void

This morning, I woke thinking about Jesus, which is not something that I ever do. I was raised Catholic, Catholic schools for twelve years, but Catholicism is not something that I practice in my adult life for reasons which are ultimately uninteresting. But I woke, thinking of Jesus as scripture has him, in the garden of Gethsemane on the day he is to be put to death praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”

I blame Anne Carson.

I read the Paris Review interview from 2004 where she discusses her Catholicism. She has been talking about writing as a way to flee the self, to get outside of oneself.

Will Aitken asks, “Is Catholicism a way out of self for you?” and she says:

No, quite the reverse. I don’t think I am ever so resigned to myself as when I’m in church trying to understand why I’m in church. Sitting there thinking about my mother and all the times we sat together in church. The only good memory I have of it is leaning up against her fake fur coat during Mass. I remember the smell of that coat, how comforting that was on a cold winter day. But, no, it’s not a way out of self at all, it’s a way back into some self that I’m not sure is a good version, but which seems to be embedded or necessary.

“Do you think of yourself as being particularly devout?”

No, I think of myself as being particularly baffled on the one hand, by the whole question of God and the relation of humans to God, but also, possibly because of lots of empty spaces in my life, open to exploring what that might mean. I have open spaces where I put that question and just see what happens.

The day was a dispiriting one. A day in which the pettiness and meanness and sadness of self and others seemed on continual parade. I sat in meeting rooms and then at my desk. I returned phone calls. I held my head in my hands.

At the end of it, I met up with a friend and at an overpriced bar and we sat in deep club chairs in the shadow of a taxidermied moose head. Over wine, we listed our grievances for each other and found reasons to laugh. I drove home while the sky was still light.

“Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?”

No. But that’s not bad. I think in the last few years since I’ve been working on this opera and reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with the emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. So, sad fact, but get used to it, because nothing else is going to happen.

There are things I have to do today that I would rather not do. I am anxious. I feel unprepared. It seems as though this time of year takes on a breathy urgency as the end of the school year rushes up and various deadlines loom.

I fear I am not making progress in my life. I fear I am not moving in the right directions. Or at least: not quickly enough.

I am standing at the edge of a cliff throwing scraps of paper against the wind. I am – Anne Carson, again – “babbling into the void.”

“When you talk about your dad, I don’t ever get that clear a picture of him. When you write about your mom, she’s palpable, she’s in the room. Why is that?”

I don’t know. I think that has more to say about her than me. I certainly did love her and have a connection, but we didn’t really get it right all the years we knew each other. It wasn’t what I would call a successful interaction. In psycho-therapeutical terms. But she’s certainly real to me in a way that nobody else in my life has been. And maybe that’s all that love is, actually…

“Realness?”

Yes.

In the morning, we argue.

Not so much argue really, rather: I go silent, leave the room, spend the morning close to tears. He sends an apology. I botch the response, holding on, as I am, to a desire to wound as I feel I have been wounded.

Why let go of some bitter thing, after all? Why try to let it go when instead you can harbor it, let it grow wild inside you?

I am trying to return to a better version of myself, but there are times, it seems, when the distance is too great.

By evening, I have not improved much.

I sleep fitfully. Wake while it is still dark, strange thoughts of Jesus in his garden, strange thoughts of Anne Carson, missing her dead mother.

“I miss her like an old sock,” she says. “One sock, you always need the other sock.”

Before I get up, I press myself against him. I hear his breathing change. I inhale the warm, familiar scent of him.

For years, I too sat in church with my mother. Anne Carson describes “a kind of thinking that takes place there that doesn’t take place anywhere else,” and I remember this, too. A kind of space and time where nothing happens and there are no expectations except a quiet collective attention inward. How the mind wanders as if through an empty house, doors and windows hanging open. Occasional song.

To return to the version of myself sitting straight-backed in the wooden pew or kneeling head bowed, whispering prayers: what might I find?

Anne Carson says:

Nothing changes, I don’t become wise about this, I don’t become ethically better or more interesting. I’m just the same person, I’m that person with this space open and I do think that for me, in this life, that’s as far as I’m going to get with spirituality.

yield

I cannot yet explain why (perhaps I will be able to in time) but this passage, from Mary Ruefle’s essay, “Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World,” just made me cry:

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives — is that too much to ask? — retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

Perhaps I have been thinking too long and too much about reading and writing as a way to pretend we are not dying.

I spent an hour in the garden this morning, digging out some bulbs that had managed to take root, uninvited, throughout the yard. It is impossible not to think about time passing in the garden and how the hours pass, with me on my knees, accumulating a pile of spent leaves and branches and weeds and bagging them for the trash. These tasks repeated hour after hour, day after day, year upon year. For what purpose, these hours spent in the dirt?

The joy of blooms, yes; there is that. When the beds are tidy and freshly-mulched, there are aesthetic pleasures to be taken in their orderly arrangements. But that particular pleasure is fleeting and the work of it is endless.

A way to mark time, I think. To fill shapeless hours in a life that is itself shapeless. We sketch it out. We make grand gestures in the sky with our hands. But from our first breath, don’t we carry our death inside us? Cocooned within our bodies until it breaks through, its own kind of blossoming; the one inevitable yield of our time on this tender earth.

land of morning calm

The guidebook says that older people can be easily spotted by their light-colored traditional clothes. They travel in groups, it indicates. I imagine a slow-moving horde. “They have amazing energy, always travel in groups of all men or all women and spend their time sightseeing. They particularly like vacationing at mountains or hot springs. After a lifetime of following the strict rules of society, they are finally free to do as they wish. This may include staring straight at and talking to you.”

There is a wrestling game that is played in a sand pit. Men bind their legs tightly with cloth. They face each other, squatting and grab at each other’s thighs. Each tries to make the other lose his balance. The first to make the other fall wins. 

Do not assume that someone who smiles is happy. Do not chatter excessively. Do not carry a hereditary disease. Do not steal or lie. Do not laugh or chew with your mouth hanging open. 

Women are marriageable from 22 to 26. After 28 or 29, options drop precipitously. Older sisters marry first, then younger. 

Consult the fortune teller for the best days for the marriage. Consult the fortune teller to confirm the best possible match. 

If you have three daughters, the pillars of your house will fall down. 

Bend at the waist and bear a box of gifts on your back. You are a horse. Walk all the way to the house of the bride without speaking. Carry the box up the many flights of stairs to her apartment where her family waits. They will give you money. They will spread a feast for you. Give the money to the groom. Take some for yourself. Take your friends to the bars where you will all drink until morning. 

The groom might carry a wooden duck.

A section on Korea that is difficult to write. It goes slowly. I read travel guides and travelogues. A book about the Korean war. 

Decades ago, in the darkened gymnasium, the boy came up to me and said: I hear you are Korean. He was tall with dark hair and a broad face. Dark eyes, pale skin. He extended his hand. His name was Ken. Yes, I said. He said: I am half Japanese and half French. And if you’re Korean, you are supposed to hate me. 

At the time, I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Or about the comfort women. That would come later. At the time, I was baffled. You know, he said: Japan. The Koreans hate the Japanese. 

There are things I know that I wish I did not have to know. I read the first-person accounts of adoptees who have gone back to find their families. To try. 

There is the woman who sits across the table from the social worker. There is a file folder open between them. Your mother was twenty-seven. Your father was thirty-two. The did not have much money. You were the youngest of four daughters. They were hoping for a boy. 

There is the man who finds his mother, but his father has died. She speaks some English and says: How did you find me? I did not want you to find me. 

There is the man who goes back to Korea to live. He writes me a letter after we have not spoken in years. I found them, he writes - my mother, my father, the whole family. I lived with them for four years, then I got tired of drinking too much. I moved to Thailand to become a scuba instructor. A lifetime of searching reduced to this:

I got tired of drinking too much. 

They were hoping for a boy. 

I would come to you if you were sick. I would come there to the hospital and rush past all the people who were there for you. I would go to you, hold you in my arms, and say this is what she needs and this. The people there would ask, who are you, and I would only say this is what she needs and this. 

We are sitting at the restaurant by the water. She is holding my hands in hers. We have had too much wine.

Do you ever think it is strange, I ask, that we should have found each other? I do not believe in fate, I tell her, but look at us: You, with a daughter you could not keep. Me, running out of mothers? 

Do you have any idea how much I love you, she says. Do you know that I carry you with me all the time? 

I let the words glide past me. The sensation of floating. My cheeks are hot and I am dizzy.

You have not imagined this, she says. This is real. 

I know you. I know who you are. I see you. You are part of me. 

This is real. You have not imagined this. 

You will not lose me, she says. Know this: You will not lose me. 

A dull ache in my head. A pulsing behind my eyes. I dream that my house is filled with people I do not know. They are drinking coffee in my kitchen. They are lounging on my sofas. They are eating with their hands and laughing. I am a stranger in my house. I wander the rooms unnoticed. 

The guidebook offers suggestions about leaving:

Singing and drinking can continue for several hours. The longer you stay, the more you are assuring your hosts that you are enjoying yourself. When you are ready to leave, your hosts will accompany you to the door. 

Put on your shoes. Face your host and hostess, bow and say goodbye. Sometimes your host will accompany you to the front gate, or as far as the street. Other times, you will have to find your own way. 

petitions of the faithful

I spend the first few minutes of my writing time dithering. I open screens and close them. Open books and close them. I am aware that time is running out. 

I want to understand what I am trying to do, although the poets - or at least the ones I love best - say that no one knows, really, what they are doing. I know that I am here, and I know that I am constantly putting words down and thinking about making things - ideas, images, sounds - with words. I hear them in my head. I hear a kind of singing. It is a kind of music to me. 

I go through the notes I have scattered on my desk, pick up one, write toward it. Here is what I write:

the mole on the side of your neck
music that is too loud for the morning; tea that has gone cold

the sock with a hole just big enough for a toe to slip through
which one does not matter
or it does
I can’t remember what matters anymore

I am thinking about your neck
It is a shrine
It is a sandwich
It is the color
we call white

You are not as handsome as I remember
But you have this neck

I move through the days. At times it seems as though I am walking through a dreamscape, shrouded in mist. Where am I? How did I find myself here, how did I come to be here, in this place, in this mist? 

Then, there are days when the sun is bright on me and I move with a kind of confidence, with a kind of grace. The days of sun and grace and of knowing, in the smallest possible ways one can know a thing, with the smallest bit of certainty that can still be called certainty and go forward in tiny steps. Incremental. The pace is glacial, we often say. Say it aloud: The pace is glacial. It has a lovely sound. 

I have lost myself, a little in this process. The word process sounds forced. I use it all the time. I have lost myself a little. Like I am floating all the time. It is one of the things, I think, that is useful about trying to make a thing. I will not say art. It is hard even to say useful. But bewilderment seems a valuable state. When I start setting down words, I do not know where it will end. When I start setting down whole passages, I do not know where they will end. I am living this act of making marks and making shapes or trying. 

I am living this continuous act of trying. 

I stayed up late last night to finish a task. I had been putting it off for a long time. It didn’t take long when I finally sat down to do it, and as I usually do, when I have put a thing off and then I have done it, I wondered why had I put it off for so long? Was I afraid it would be difficult? Was I afraid it would be boring?

I started writing it. I would give myself short breaks. The breaks would be to go downstairs and take one load of laundry out of the washer and put it in the dryer. And take the things that were in the dryer and put them in a basket. And bring the basket upstairs. And fold the things. Or hang them. 

Then I would go back to writing it. And it didn’t take long. Not much more than an hour. Certainly not as long as two. And then it was done. 

And my laundry was done, too. 

I say I am not interested in plot. I have said this so long. I keep saying it. I think it is true.

Yesterday, I made a grand statement over dinner: “Plot is a market-driven concern, not an artistic one,” I said. I was leaning back in my chair. And then I leaned forward, as I often do, as if to signal that I think I am saying an important thing. 

And what often happens after I say a bold thing, is that I follow it with several tentative things. Like I have puffed myself up to say the bold thing, then slowly deflate. My ambitions are modest. 

Except perhaps when they are not. 

Meanwhile, my sister only just had her power returned. They have been living for many days in the dark. She tells me about how she makes breakfast wearing a miner’s cap that she bought on a whim. I picture her, tiny woman, in her bathrobe and her miner’s cap, standing at the stove, making pancakes. “They all laughed at me when I wanted to buy it,” she says. “But no one is laughing now.”

I am not a religious person. She is, my sister. Now. She prints out bible passages on slips of paper and tapes them around her house – over the kitchen sink, on the mirror in the bathroom. Many of them concern anger. Controlling it. 

When we were children, she had a quiz for her catechism class. It was a fill-in-the-blank. She had memorized the answers but not the questions, so when she asked me to help her study, she handed me the sheet with the answers filled in and before I had a chance to ask a question, she blurted: “holy spirit; holy spirit; talking to God.”

What if the questions are in a different order? I asked.

She said: “Talking to God, holy spirit, holy spirit.”

I lost God a long time ago. Or he lost me. We don’t talk about whose decision it was to leave. Best to let some realities sink in quietly. So what I think I am trying to say is that I do not have God and he does not have me, but what I have is this daily practice of sitting here at this desk, listening to the odd, staccato music trying to take shape in my head. Sounds and words and phrases conjured here staring out the window. Or driving down North Main Street past the fire station. Or stepping out of the shower. Or standing in line at the grocery store check-out. Or folding laundry in my basement. And this – writing these things down, sometimes speaking them aloud – is a kind of prayer. 

In that I am brought here by blind faith in what I cannot know. In that it is a way to organize my disappointment. In that it gives me the tiniest bit of grace to go forward to the day. And again to another and another. 

The petitions of the faithful: Hear us.

Holy spirit, holy spirit, talking to God. 

song of the king

I am distracted. The mind wanders. I lose focus. 

I am thinking about fragility, about brokenness. 

Once, I saw a performance in a small black box theatre in which one dancer drew long chalk lines across the stage while another followed several feet behind, writing fragments of text between the lines. The man then drew a chalk circle downstage and stood in it. Then, he bent at the waist and rested an egg in the small of his back. He walked the lines he had drawn with the egg balanced there. It was odd and it was beautiful. We held our breath. Halfway across the stage, the egg dropped with a quiet thud to the floor. A collective gasp. The egg.

There were four of us and it was late. They led us to a long table in the far corner of the deck, closest to the beach. We had already had cocktails upstairs and at the newcomers reception and then again in the lobby bar in various configurations. One group would disperse and then another would form and now, we were the last, the devoted. It is likely we were quite loud. There were two waiters attending to us - the lateness of the hour I suppose and also the bit of spectacle we must have made, four laughing women, our lipstick fading, the straps of tank tops showing now that our blouses and wraps had slipped from our shoulders. We drank frozen margaritas and told stories about the places we had been before. In the distance, the pitch dark sea. Our voices big and laughing. We stayed out until we were certain we had extracted every last pleasure the night could yield.

Anyone can love the perfumed days of summer, but I have come to love the cold dark mornings best. They are quiet, save for the radiator knocks. The sky moves through its early morning palette of blues. 

This morning, a gray pallor to the brown lawn suggests frost. There is a slight, occasional wind. It makes the tree branches shiver. 

M. returned late last night. The week ahead will be a busy one. I have fallen behind. There is never enough time. 

I have come to an uneasy place in the writing. The fragments come and I lay them out, one after the other. I number them. Occasionally, I will move them around, change their order.

I am preoccupied by a number of themes - brokenness, fragility, loss. Hunger. There are others, I am sure. I am haunted by this sense that I must drive this thing forward to some sort of conclusion and when I start turning words like conclusion over in my mind, I become paralyzed. Exploration? Yes. Absorption, obsession? Yes. Momentary suspension of grief, of despair? Yes, yes, yes. Conclusion? Emphatically no. 

A few years ago, I met a dear friend of mine met for breakfast in a little cafe in a part of town I rarely go. I don’t know why we went there - perhaps it was soon after it opened. It was nearly empty on the weekday morning we met and we sat at a table in the corner, lingered. We were talking about writing. I was lamenting, as I often am, the passage of time. The year before, she had enrolled in a graduate program in Boston, but soon after the semester began, she withdrew. Her family situation is a complicated one. She explained that she was needed at home. She gave up the apartment she was renting near campus and returned home. She never shared with me the details of her decision and I did not press her, but I remember being tremendously disappointed on her behalf. 

In my limited-attention-span way, I move from writing to reading one thing and then another, to listening to music and writing down lyrics, to searching for lyrics; to watching television or at least, flipping through channels; to scrolling through screens online and back to reading, back to writing, back to texting (rarely sexting); trying to read, trying to write, trying to hold the sounds of my family waking up and making their way down the stairs in one part of my head while at the same time clinging desperately to a line or a phrase or even a word or two that for whatever reason has whispered itself to me and asked me to remember it. 

These words, these phrases will come to me at inopportune moments. In the shower or driving to work. Over dinner. In a staff meeting. As often as I can, I write them down on whatever scrap of paper I can find. I throw the scraps in my purse over the course of the day and then when I am next at my desk, I take try to make some sense of them. Here is what I had this morning:

  • sadness
  • fire/burn CD
  • french audiotapes
  • I think we are still talking about writing
  • blossom should not ever fly from bee to bee to bee
  • turn the music up louder

The blossom line is from the musical “The King and I.” It is a song the king sings defending his polygamy. I looked up the line, which I had misremembered. Here it is:

A girl must be like a blossom
With honey for just one man.
A man must be like honey bee
And gather all he can.
To fly from blossom to blossom
A honey bee must be free,
But blossom must not ever fly
From bee to bee to bee.

I am running out of time. This is the way it is. Recently, I sent some poems to a well-respected colleague, a poet and teacher who knew me as a fiction writer, years ago. I explained, this is what I am doing these days, these fragments. It is difficult to sustain anything longer. He wrote back and kindly, generously validated these “bursts of text,” given my life and its attendant demands. 

My life is getting in the way of my life. These are my words, not his. 

In the times I turned away from the screen while writing this (and there were many), I found a few additional scraps:

  • a dimension of performance
  • lottery
  • mole on the side of his neck 
  • where a thing lands, where it touches down, even if only for a moment

to get the board on to standing

I take the boy out for pancakes and at the table, he draws in his notebook while I read. It is early and for a time, we are alone in the cavernous dining room. Then, men come in in yellow jackets from the construction site. They sit at a table nearby. They order steak and eggs and bacon and potatoes and toast. I have never seen anyone eat steak and eggs for breakfast. It sounds delicious. 

They are young and they speak loudly. They are talking about vacations. About snowboarding. One says: “I couldn’t get the board on to standing.”

In the writing, a tiny breakthrough. A sliver of light for which my gratitude is boundless. 

Another man comes in. Another order of steak and eggs. I spread jelly on my toast. I pierce the yolk of my egg. 

At the next table: “Everyone was driving around with their eyes closed last night. I saw three accidents, full-on. Four, maybe.”

We stay at the table for a long time. When we are done, I take my lipstick from my purse. There was a time when I would see women doing this in a restaurant and I would turn away in distaste. There seemed to me, at the time, something forlorn about such a scene. A whiff of despair. But here I am, my pocket mirror flipped open and propped against my plate. I bring my face down toward it, slick the brush across my lips. I will catch a glimpse of myself in window glass sometimes and see my bright red mouth, the last feature on my face to hold out against desolation.

I take Dorothea Lasky to the gym and while the glowing screen tracks my slow progress, I read. The din of television screens all around me, but this:

This is a poem for you

How could this come to a good conclusion
I thought of your face, strange and French
And your sweater full of robins
You most likely think
I do not pay much attention
To your face
But I was sitting by the train
When inside I saw it burning
I’m sorry that some people
Think of this burning as nostalgia
Or sentimentality
And that we have to endure them
And that they are so boring
To want to think away everything
That is beautiful on this earth
I’m sorry that we have to think
Of other times when it might have been
More acceptable to burn
You were there
When I told you that a cold November
Would come
Wind and rain, the cold
May have hardened me
But there is not much else I am willing
To leave anything for but your
Face that is wet with wildflowers
The white wind, the warm wind
The cooling prisms above the beach
The beachtrees and scattered leaves
Above the Winter that will never come
I am not sure if we matter
I am not sure if your face matters
But I will destroy this house for it anyway 
But I will scorch this black world for it anyway
Wet face and wild wind
I told you all it would come
This is a poem for you
This is a poem for all of you
Awful and quiet

It is a stunning autumn day. I drive beneath the branches of trees still golden and orange and red. Bright sun high in slate blue sky. My son, in the back seat, sings quietly.  It is a song about the constellations. It is a song about the earth, tiny planet spinning in an endless expanse of stars.  

this is not a love story

I stay up too late - sleepless, thrashing. The heat sputters on through the old pipes, a hiss and cough of steam. I think of all the things I had hoped to accomplish, so few of them done. I consider rising, descending the stairs, switching on lights, making tea. In the end, I force myself to lie still, slow my breathing. 

When I rise it is still dark. The room is cool. I wrap a blanket around myself and sit at my desk and stare at the glowing screen. 

M. and I talk about 40 again with his birthday approaching. I know now what you were feeling, he says. I think now I understand.

He says: It is like getting to the crest of a hill. I look down, he says, and I can see what is below. And the path that leads to it. At that we are on it. Neither of us says aloud, though we think it: Inevitable. Neither of us says aloud: Relentless.

I write these scenes. I put these lovers on a beach on a gray afternoon. He leads her down from the house blindfolded. She can hear the sound of the waves on the shore. A cacaphony of gulls. The smell of salt air and of eelgrass. I let him undress her there, a fine mist on their skin. I write her silent, save for her quick breaths and the gasp that escapes her lips as he enters. I write him silent too, but he whispers to her, his hot breath on her ear. We cannot hear what he says, but we can guess at it. We have ourselves known these urgent whispers. We have ourselves spoken them. 

They pass the hours like this. Binding and unbinding. 

In the end, there is only sadness. I write them embracing on the damp sand like the last of the damned. I write the cruelty that settles in on them now that they have known the ways in which each is broken. 

I let them sleep lightly. I write the air turning cold. I wake them still hungry but now they are fast and brutal as evening falls. His fingers leave bruises. She marks him with her teeth.

The library in the town where I spent my teenage years had a carousel of paperback romance novels in the main reading room. Their tattered covers depicted windswept heroines on horseback. They were white-necked, their thin dresses blowing open. The men had piercing eyes and broad chests. Some were dark-haired and brooding: These were the ones I loved best. 

I read them methodically, compulsively; worked through the titles until I could turn the carousel a complete rotation and not see an unfamiliar face. 

What was it I was looking for in those brittle, yellowed pages? What did I find?

For a time, I thought I knew these stories so well that I could write them effortlessly, and I tried and failed repeatedly for years. I am reminded of this now as I struggle with plot. It is a simple idea: rising action, conflict, resolution, but this offers no solace or no real instruction as I sit staring at a page full of fragments. 

In the end, in the windswept romances, there is the promise of the future, of what they have overcome some obstacle to achieve. In the end, the future lies glittering before them – an endless horizon where everything is possible because nothing has been chosen. The future is unformed and shapeless. A bright abstraction yet to be drawn. 

Why am I drawn to the tragic? Why do I write scene after scene in which moments of beauty are so steeped in sadness? And why is there no resolution? Why do I insist on withholding resolution?

I think I am an optimist. By that I mean: No one writes, no one creates with any seriousness who is not, in some small way, an optimist. Or at least, one who believes that our human struggles matter. Or at least one who believes that despite the steady report of indications to the contrary, there is beauty and meaning and hopefulness, in fact that at times we are even giddy with a surfeit of it, in each of our own small lives. 

Perhaps that is its own kind of resolution, provides its own kind of momentum: That we hold each other, even though we know that we are dying. That we walk upright even when our hearts are breaking. 

I drive my daughter to school and we talk about The Walking Dead. Misery follows misery and each episode is more brutal than the last. The things that give comfort are taken away, one by one. Each flicker of hope is extinguished before it can burn bright enough to cast real light. How can they go on? we ask ourselves. 

My daughter says: “I would give up.” I say: “I would too.”

And we laugh. And we make our zombie jokes. And we touch each other’s hands and arms as the traffic moves slowly forward. Because what else, after all, is there to do?

we'll just have to wait and see

I am falling behind. It is difficult not to panic. 

The hours pass, the days. Weeks. 

I don’t know what I am doing or why. 

I add songs to my playlist. As if that counts for productivity. 

I print out pages, staple them. 

I carry books around and when I read them, I underline passages and make notes in the margins. I write: danger in disguise; violence at the center; does not reflect well on her and the occasional “!!!”

I spend much of the afternoon in one meeting or another. It is a gray, dreary day and has turned cold. 

After work, I meet my friend at the bar and she fills me in on the week she spent with her new love. It was fine, she says. It was lovely. We had a fight, though. One. Maybe two? 

Over what? I ask. 

Well, she says, he doesn’t think I should use the snooze on my alarm. He thinks it is a sign of moral lassitude. 

We laugh, but she is serious. 

“I asked him if it was about more than the alarm clock. I said is this about something else?”

And what did he say?

“He said, no this is just about the alarm clock.”

Over breakfast, M. and I talk about the writing. How I seem to have stalled.

“I will give you a piece of advice that I have not yet made work myself,” he says.

I say: “I hope you’re going to say: give up.”

He laughs. “No, not that." 

I enumerate my complaints. I hate this, I tell him. I am not getting anywhere. I don’t know what I am doing and I hate sitting there in that chair, and I hate making decisions, and I hate the piles of paper on my desk and I hate everything I have already written and I really hate the internet most of all. 

"Are you done now?” he asks. 

“Yes." 

We talk about process. It doesn’t give me much pleasure, and yet I keep doing it, I say. I mean, I sit there and it gives me nothing, and yet, I don’t want to get up, either. So I just sit there, and watch the time run out. 

He says well you are constantly trying to get back to that place, to that time when it did give you pleasure. You are trying to recapture that. 

I ask him if that is how it is for him, too. Every project he is working on he says is his last. "Even after the point at which it gives you pleasure?”

“Yes, I think so,” he says. 

We are still talking about writing, I think. 

I don’t know, she says. It was a great visit, but that fight really affected me. It was like this shard of glass that pierced my beautiful little love. And I don’t know that it will ever be the same. 

Oh, I tell her, you can’t think like that. Love is kind of rough and tumble, you know. 

She shakes her head. I don’t want it to be. I’ve never done this before. I don’t want anything to change. I want it exactly the way it was. 

But it’s always changing, I say. You’re both always changing all the time. You know, you never step into the same river twice. It is not the same river, you are not the same man?

But that’s not the way I want it, she says. That’s not the way I want it to be. 

Toward the end of the evening, we start talking about work and she tells me about a project she wants to do. It seems impractical and difficult and I tell her so. She persists and describes it in more detail. She waves her hands around. I feel myself bristle. I sit back and cross my arms over my chest. Or I lean in and rest my chin on my hand. She raises her voice. But do you understand the concept? she asks me. Do you understand it on a conceptual level?

I do, I assure her, but I don’t see how you can get support for it. 

Even as I hear myself say this, I am thinking who have I become?

After, I send her a note. I say: I am sorry I was so grumpy. Please ignore me, I tell her. You should do it, I say. You should do it. 

Everything you said was important, she writes back. 

We’ll see what happens, she says. We’ll just have to wait and see. 

the juggling, the balls

It snowed last night. As I stood by the gas pump in the dark, pelted by icy snow, I thought, as I do every year: “This will be my last winter here.” 

Every year, we talk about moving. There are times we talk about somewhere warmer - somewhere further south or west. Sometimes, we consider New York, which still to me even after decades, seems a kind of returning home. But every spring, the giddy daffodils, the drifts of forsythia, the lengthening days and I am again as if in the throes of early love, brimming with stupid hope, the winter’s cruelties forgotten. Surely, there must be a cure for such chronic forgetting. 

The writing has slowed. I have reached my first challenge in my adapted nanowrimo. I don’t yet know this character I am trying to write. I don’t yet know this father. The first rush of words came easily. I was putting down the broadest strokes. The major arcs. This next section is about the father and there are things that I simply have not yet had the time to know. The new words come, but in a slow trickle. 

In order not to lose momentum, I read. Erratically, promiscuously. (“You are promiscuous in your interests,” I was told once. He said: “I don’t mean that to be unflattering.” I said: “Oh, then perhaps you could have used a more flattering word?”)

Speedboat is there on the desk, of course. For form. The Kiss for the breathless scenes of daughter reunited with estranged father. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for desire teetering on madness. Madness, Rack, and Honey for craft - infuriating, painstaking craft. The Rings of Saturn for sentences, for pacing. 

And then the new stack, waiting to be read, some of the recent birthday’s bounty: Junot Diaz, Nick Flynn, Carole Maso, Ben Lerner. The Collected Letters of Samuel Beckett. 

And Proust, of course, for Proust Group. I am so far behind. 

My daughter talks about her anxiety over her various activities on the way home from school and I find myself slipping into soapbox mode, droning on about how many things she is juggling (I actually hear myself say: “You have all these balls in the air.”) and how she will need to make choices or she will have to learn to live with the discomfort of knowing that some will be dropped. “You can either become comfortable with juggling all these balls knowing there will be times that you will drop some, or you have to decide to put some down.”

I stand by this advice, in principle, but there must be a better metaphor. 

M. and I talk through plot this morning at breakfast and so I feel better. I think I know what I need to do next. While it might not feel like progress in the same way that the early pages did, the way they came in a rush as if all I had to do was get them down, (“That will never happen again,” he says laughing.) it feels like a thing to do, an important thing to do, while waiting. 

See you tomorrow. xoxo

why so snarky? bowl of sadness?

A bit of snarkiness in my twitter timeline over the last few days regarding NaNoWriMo and I find it curious. Why begrudge a sense of a writing community to those for whom it might be important? Who are these self-appointed protectors of the sanctity of process? 

I talked about it with M. this morning and he pointed out that he couldn’t imagine athletes reacting this way: “Oooh, you losers going to all get together and work out on Sunday? Oh, you’re going to help each other get better at your game? Good luck with that. Losers.” 

I’m sure every pursuit has its haters. 

I spent my three pomodoros yesterday worrying over my outline and giving in to waves of self-doubt. But I also put together what I think is kind of a fine - even if a bit melancholy - playlist for the month. 

I played a bit of it in the car this morning for my daughter on our ride into school. The first song was Joel R.L. Phelp’s “Landslide.” She commented on how much she loved it and I told her about how, for a time, I played this and then Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” on continuous repeat.

“Why would you do that to yourself?” she asked. A fair question.

“Did you just pull up a chair and some tissues and sit with your bowl of sadness?”

The poet Sandra Simonds has just started an oddly compelling video project that requires her to go to TJ Maxx every day for thirty days. You should probably check that out this month while you’re writing your novel and growing your mustache

This morning, I looked at my outline and figured it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. It is a place to start. I tweaked my playlist. Here it is. I have not quite figured out the order of songs yet, and I will admit, perhaps to the chagrin of mixtape purists, that there’s been a certain delight to playing it on shuffle, the moment of anticipation when one song ends before the next one begins.

Cape Canaveral / Conor Oberst
Drain You / Horse Feathers
Holocene / Bon Iver
This Woman’s Work / Kate Bush
Landslide / Fleetwood Mac
When I Go Deaf / Low
Pistol Dreams / The Tallest Man on Earth
By the Time It Gets Dark / Yo La Tengo
Escape / Richard Buckner
The Haunted Man / Bat for Lashes
And It’s Alright / Peter Broderick
What We Had / Handsome Furs
Love to the Test / Niki & the Dove
Line by Line / The Walkmen
Hospital Beds / Cold War Kids
Landslide / Joel R. L. Phelps & The Downer Trio

Thank you so much for your comments yesterday. If there’s a way to respond to comments directly, I haven’t figured it out, but I am grateful for them. If you send me a message through the “Ask” box, I will happily continue the conversation. 

See you tomorrow.