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Flying Blind: How Moths and Artists Navigate Darkness

A few nights back, my girls and I google “why do moths fly towards the light?” We live in the country, and this evening, with our house aglow in computer and lamplight, the thump of wings tap, tap, tapping against the window is the soundtrack of our search.

In our brightly lit front room, we discover that moths don’t see well; they’re programmed to fly towards the moon and stars because, at night, before the age of electricity, this was the only way moths knew which way was up. This built-in homing device obviously doesn’t serve them as well as it did hundreds of years ago, what with so many light bulbs masquerading as moons.

The next morning, I wake up to a phone call from a friend who’s a painter. He’s thinking about collaboration. “What’s the show going to be about?” I ask, and he pauses, laughs, starts, “Well…I’ve been painting blindfolded.” He tells me about the logistics, how his neighbor is helping out by coming in and taking photographs of the paintings at each stage before taking the paintings away until it’s time to work on them again. If all goes as planned, my friend won’t see his paintings until they’re hanging in the gallery on the night of the opening.

I ask why, and part of the reason is the artist’s own fear. He says he can imagine every loss; he can imagine life in a wheelchair; he can imagine life without sound. But when it comes to his eyes, the loss is unimaginable, unthinkable. He’s trying to get in front of the fear.

At some point the conversation becomes about our own desire to be, as my friend puts it, “released of the terrible burden of creativity,” and I think about the series of epistolary, persona poems I’m working on now. How, after winning a book award for my first full-length collection, I had to get as far away from my own voice as I could in order to continue writing. But also, when I consider my friend’s fear of losing his sight, I realize that writing in a voice that isn’t my own, in form that doesn’t have to follow the same rules as a straight narrative or lyrical poem, has been the only way I can give myself permission to write about the things that scare me. At this point I should mention that I, the mother of two daughters, am writing a series of epistolary poems written in the voices of Demeter and Persephone after Persephone’s abduction and during her subsequent rape in captivity.

When I write these poems, the persona and epistolary form allow me to maintain a certain intimacy with my subject matter, while still keeping some distance from it. This helps my heart and mind go to some very, very difficult places.  And, on a more practical note, the epistolary form helps me ignore the fact that I am crafting poems. These aren’t poems, I tell myself, just letters with attention to imagery and metaphor and line breaks. I disguise my poems as letters, and I write them in voices that don’t belong to me so that I might write each piece the way my blindfolded friend paints his canvas. I am closing my eyes to my own world, trying to move deeper into the one unseen.

These days the world is aglow with artificial light, and perhaps what I’m coming to, as I tap, tap away at these keys with the same rhythm of a moth flying again and again into an illuminated window, is that the call to fly blind is the one we answered as soon as we decided to create something out of nothing. And if we want to keep seeing, we have to be willing to plunge ourselves into darkness and lose our footing. It’s the only way to gain any real ground.

This morning the sky is dark and grey. I have a few lights on in the house. The girls are watching television while I type, working to understand where I’m going with all this. And somewhere, in this same city, my friend is blindfolded, paintbrush in hand, feeling his way across the canvas, both of us working to find some relief, some release from the beautiful, terrible burden of creativity.

My new knowledge about moths is a welcome, if not heartbreaking lesson in humility. I think of all the years I scoffed, thought, “Stupid moths” as I watched them circle flame or a lamp light, diving again and again towards the thing that would eventually consume them, when all along they were just trying to find their way up.

 

Inside Out

I’ve always loved nighttime journeys through neighborhoods that aren’t my own. As a child, before I knew the pleasure of evenings spent walking alone, I remember looking out the backseat of my mother’s car as we drove home, mesmerized by the windows of each house we passed in the night.

This was my version of playing house, as I imagined  myself into the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, and the life of some perfect family that I’d willed into being through the force of my imagination.

Of course, I didn’t want inside every house we passed. Using the few details I could gather, I made decisions about whether or not the lives led inside those houses were happy ones.

Were the curtains in the windows open or closed? Did the windows hold the soft, yellow glow of lamplight, or was the interior of the house  shuddering, laid bare by television light?  I didn’t ache to enter those dark houses illuminated by their televisions. They looked lonely. They looked familiar.

*           *           *

Ever stark, ever blue, I grew up in a single parent household, painfully aware of the the holes in my life. Long before I began writing, I knew it was up to me to fill in the gaps, so I told tales, dizzied by my own spinning as I made up story after story to compensate for what I lacked.

The ugly, grey 1977 Plymouth Baracuda that’s half-primered by someone who never finished the job? The one with the passenger door that doesn’t open? The thing that rumbles and spits as my mom pulls in front of my school?  It’s actually a race car. No, really. We bought it from a retired race car driver.

Why is there a bed in our living room? That’s just a fold out couch that we never put back up because we like it that way. It’s not really my mother’s bed, the place she sleeps because we can only afford this shitty, two bedroom duplex, and she knows my brother and I are too old to be sharing a room.

Why do my brother and I have different dads? Where is my dad?  Where, for that matter, is my brother’s dad? I can’t remember the stories I told about our fathers, but I’m sure they were as complicated as our relationships with them came to be.

I’ve always felt like an outsider, and so, imagine my surprise when I found myself living in the Middlewest, married to a wonderful man, inhabiting a beautiful home, the mother of  two girls. Suddenly, I was inside the kind of house, the kind of life, that before, I’d only been able to imagine. Even  more unexpected is the fact that,  after a while, there would be moments I wanted out.

After the birth of my second child, my husband was out of town for work quite a bit. On a particularly difficult evening, I remember dragging our huge trash can up the hill (cursing my husband and my house every step of the way), and when I got to the top of the hill and set down the garbage can, I had a terrible thought: “What if I just keep walking?”

*          *          *

When my four year-old brings me a piece of her clothing that is inside out, she asks me,  “Will you inside out this?”  Her choice of words reminds me of the moments I’ve been lucky enough to experience my life inside out, viewing it from an outsider’s perspective.

Once, while walking the dog, I saw my husband turn up the road and drive towards me. I was deep in thought, and, for a nanosecond, I didn’t recognize him. In that brief moment, what flashed through my mind was, “Who’s that handsome guy?” And then I realized it was my husband, and when he pulled alongside me, I saw two little girls beaming from the backseat. And hey, they belonged to me too.

This momentary sense of bliss at seeing what I have, it won’t last. On any given day I’ll catch myself  looking out of my own window, longing. For what? I couldn’t even tell you. Am I cursed with this longing because I am an American living in the 21st century? A woman who, with the click of a mouse, the push of a computer or television button, can see all the possible places and lives she might’ve lived ? Or is it because I am a writer? Even when I am sitting still on my couch, I’m off visiting other places, living other lives. Perhaps this propensity for looking outward has to do with being a mother with one foot in the domestic realm, the other in the larger world, wondering if she should be venturing further out, or pulling back and moving deeper into her home to tend to the people who matter most.

Some native american cultures believe that if one travels too quickly, she risks leaving her spirit behind.  My life has changed quicker than I ever expected it to, and perhaps the child in me, the one that built a life out of what she imagined and willed to be true while looking at the windows of houses she passed, hasn’t caught up with the 35 year- old woman who pretty much has everything.

A poem:

The Other Side of the Story

after Dunn’s “One Side of the Story”

My husband’s started a to-do list titled, “House

Projects.” We make lists when there’s so much

to be done that we forget what we need

to do. My husband likes lists because it’s satisfying

to draw a line through something, call it finished.

We have two small daughters.  We can’t

draw lines through them. But we like to pretend there’s some end

in sight, nights we slide into bed, turn towards each other,

and speak of all the things we’ll do when they’re older—

sleep in, take a trip somewhere far

but not too, Kansas City, maybe.

Just talking about filling our suitcases

with only what we need—a change

of clothes, a toothbrush—makes us feel lighter.

I just read a poem where the poet said,

I was thinking

so many people walk up to me

and tell me they’re dead,

though they’re just describing their afternoons,

and I think of us, in the dark, trying to find

ways to stay alive in our house.  Maybe

we need a new list. There are days I want to sail

into a new area code in a baby-blue Chevy,

windows rolled down, the wind and Lucinda Williams

blowing through my hair. When that dream stales,

I cross theAtlantic, find myself  lounging naked, smoking

on a balcony inPrague. Trouble is

I’m getting old enough to know

that the balcony and the Chevy

don’t exist. And even if they did, it’d only be a matter of time

before I dreamed myself back

into this house, only a matter of time

before I started a new list titled A Way Out of Here or

A Way Back In, “In” and “Here” being relative

to where I am, which is beautiful

house, wonderful children, marvelous husband, and it’s terrible,

getting what you want,

because that’s when you know you’ll always want

something different. And this afternoon,

I went to the library, read that poet’s book, came

home, put the baby down for her nap,

and got on the treadmill.  So am I dead, or

not?  Whatever the answer, I’m pretty sure

there are days when you, whoever you are, are dead

too. And if we walked around alive all the time,

we wouldn’t have our small resurrections.

Like my two girls. Like the cherry tomatoes I planted last summer.

The ones on my list. They actually grew.

*         *         *

In the arms of a new city or an old flame, sitting in a house on the hill or a downtown apartment, each of us is a still life –a Cassat, a Picasso,  a Kahlo, a Van Goegh– framed by our windows. There are days we stand there, imagining a way out of our lives, even while others are passing by our windows, imagining a way in.

When Making An Appearance Requires A Disappearing Act

Recently, my husband and I secured a babysitter so we could attend a reception at the Omaha Creative Institute. When 6:15 rolled around, I was exhausted, but I thought I could rally. Until I reread the invitation. “Please join us for an evening of cocktails and conversation.”

I looked at my husband with pleading eyes. “It says ‘cocktails’.Does that mean I have to wear a dress?”

My husband, whose idea of formal wear is throwing on a Hawaiian, short-sleeved, button-up shirt over his t-shirt, shrugged, “I don’t know.”

In my jeans and blouse, I went to my closet and began smelling the underarm area of at all my nice dresses. I can afford to have a few cocktail dresses in my closet, but apparently, I can’t afford to dry clean them on a regular basis. On the hunt for a dress that didn’t smell too ripe, I found one that wasn’t offensive, only to look down at my legs and discover that it’s been a while since I’ve shaved. As I tried to calculate whether or not I’d have time to shave and make it to the reception, my youngest (who was coming down with a cold) latched onto my leg and began crying, begging me not to go.

And that is how I ended up on the couch in my sweatpants watching “Chicak-Chicka Boom-Boom” with my four year-old in my lap while my husband navigated the cocktail party on his own.

Since the birth of our children, my husband has had to navigate lots of things on his own. My husband is a writer and an active organizer. He is a very, very busy man who is driven by the desire to create the kind of poetry community in Omaha that he would’ve loved to have been a part of when he was a young, aspiring writer. And in order for my husband to appear at all the places he needs to be and do all the things he needs to do, I need to retreat and disappear into our house to take care of the children. I don’t resent him for this, but I do get frustrated when well-meaning friends and acquaintances ask things like, “Are you coming to the reading?” Or, “Why don’t you slam anymore? You should slam.” If you see my husband, you usually can’t see me, and if you see me out and about, chances are you won’t see my husband.

As I mentioned in my first post, I recently attended the 2010 AWP conference in Chicago, where I attended a panel called “Keeping Your Debut Book Alive.” One panelist, the novelist Marie Mutsuki Mockett , said she wasn’t necessarily there to talk to us about keeping our debut book alive, but rather how to keep ourselves as writers alive. I  appreciate her viewpoint, as it emphasizes (and thus values) process over product, something Americans have a helluva hard time embracing. One thing the panelists all agreed on is that a working writer needs to be blogging as a means to sharpen her voice and keep herself  (and her work) out in the world.

I’ve been avoiding blogging for a long time for the same reason I’ve avoided using PowerPoint in my classroom and owning a phone with a keypad for text-messaging. We spend so much of our lives in front of screens, and there’s something incredibly odd and disconcerting about the fact that these screens, while acting as portals to the distant and wild worlds of other places and other people’s minds, can make our lives very, very smalI. Why go to a concert when I can watch the artist on youtube? Why meet a friend for coffee when we can text each other back and forth all evening?

In an effort to be more present in my writing life, I’m in front of a screen, making an appearance right now, typing and thinking, constructing this post. And the dog is lying at my feet, looking up at me, anxious for a walk. A load of laundry is waiting to be thrown in the dryer. And last night, as I began to structure the opening of this piece, my little girls were running circles around me. In working to establish an online presence, I have moments when I am not at all present in my real life. If keeping myself alive as a writer means I must establish and maintain a presence online, the implication is that, if I’m not writing or blogging or posting on facebook, then I’m dead.

One of my favorite Chiapas poets, Jaime Sabinas said we ought to “Live, then write. In that order.” I try not to think about the living and the writing as two separate entities working against one another, vying for my time. But I do. And I am. And this is why I feel conflicted about the fact that this is the first spring in a long time that I’m considering not planting a garden. Too many things in my life need tending right now, and while some part of me knows that while I’m tending to my students’ poems, my daughters may be withering a bit, and while I’m tending to my daughters, my own writing might be wilting, and while I’m tending to my writing, my marriage might be in desperate need of some watering, the last thing I need is to look out my window and see sagging, parched tomato plants, concrete outward signs of my neglect.

For six years I saved a message my grandmother left on my phone about growing tomatoes. My grandmother is incredibly resourceful and wise. She’s been alive long enough to remember Victory Gardens and, growing up, she was poor enough to remember the underwear her mother made for her out of flour sacks. My grandmother lives in Indiana, so when I wanted to grow and plant my first tomatoes from seed, I made the long-distance call to get her advice. After getting my seedlings going, I was planning on transplanting the plants outdoors. Having walked me through the whole process, my grandmother forgot one important final step. It is thus, I came home to an urgent message on my voicemail. “Sarah, Your tomatoes have to harden-off before you plant them outside. You have to put them in the sun a little bit every day so they can get used to it. It’s called ‘hardening off.'”

As I recount this story, I am present in this moment with you, my reader, but I’ve altogether disappeared from my grandmother’s life; she and I are now estranged. When I had a question about cooking or gardening, I used to pick up the phone and call her. Now I just google it (I suspect google is replacing all our grandmothers). Our estrangement is a long, complicated story. The reasons for the dissolution of our relationship are complex and have to do with a pain that is generations deep. I don’t know if my grandmother and I will ever speak again, but I am so grateful to her for that voicemail. I wouldn’t have known about this ‘hardening off’, and there’s something beautiful about the knowledge that something that needs light to live must be taught to learn to accept that light.

Last Tuesday was a beautiful day, and even though I had papers to grade and a house to clean and errands to run, I was determined to accept the light. I decided to take Lucia and the dog for a walk. If you’ve even been on a walk with a four year-old, and if you’ve ever walked a dog, you know that these two creatures have something in common when it comes to pacing. Half the time I was running to keep up with the dog and Lucia, the other half the time I was forcing myself to slow down so that the dog could sniff another glorious patch of grass while Lucia stopped to collect another pine cone. When these two were running ahead of me, I was frustrated that I couldn’t keep up. And when they were stopping to take notice of some small thing, I was frustrated. I wanted to keep moving.

This is the kind of physical, spiritual, and intellectual whiplash we all experience moment by moment, day by day. I want so badly to be present for my children my husband my students my friends and my writing. I don’t want to just make an appearance in these parts of my life, I want to inhabit them.

I want back in. I want to know what’s inside. Here I am, fumbling with these keys, wanting the writing to go on, but not at the expense of living.

Daily Life by Susan Wood

A parrot of irritation sits

on my shoulder, pecks

at my head, ruffling his feathers

in my ear. He repeats

everything I say, like a child

trying to irritate the parent.

Too much to do today: the dracena

that’s outgrown its pot, a mountain

of bills to pay and nothing in the house

to eat. Too many clothes need washing

and the dog needs his shots.

It just goes on and on, I say

to myself, no one around, and catch

myself saying it, a ball hit so straight

to your glove you’d have to be

blind not to catch it. And of course

I hope it does go on and on

forever, the little pain,

the little pleasure, the sun

a blood orange in the sky, the sky

parrot blue and the day

unfolding like a bird slowly

spreading its wings, though I know,

saying it, that it won’t.


Once, In A Lifetime

When I was in my early twenties, I had a man tell me that if he had more lifetimes, he’d give me “at least two.” Because I was young and living without the responsibilities that come when one decides to hunker down and build a life, I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that. I’m older now. I’ve got much less time on my hands. I made a decision to have a family (one I don’t regret). Only now, in this, the busiest time in my life, when my time belongs to everyone but myself, do I truly understand the significance of what this man said.

Two lifetimes ago, before I met my husband and had my daughters, I was, for many years, deeply involved in a relationship that was, well, I don’t really know how to describe it. I can tell you that during one of our worst fights, when we were living in separate states, he smashed his beloved guitar, and then put it back in its case, got on a greyhound bus, and travelled hundreds of miles to lay the thing on the doorstep of my apartment. When I came upon it, he told me, “This is what you did to me.” Horrible, yes? But when you’re young and you’re an aspiring poet, one who understands the power of metaphor and imagery, beautiful too, no?

We were young. I was 19 and he was 21. We were both artists. Something in us was fueled by the chaos that we created for one another. I have a line from a poem in my book that pretty much sums up the nature of our relationship:

You tore into each other just so you could clean/ the other’s wounds.

This relationship ended many, many times. And, five years later, when it ended for good, with him calling from many states away asking to come back, and me, threatening to call the cops if he did reappear, I thought we were finally free of each other.

But this person has been showing up in my dreams for the last 12 years. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up in a cold sweat because, all night, I’ve been dreaming that I accidentally married this person. Sometimes, in the dream, I’m not married to this person. Which is a relief. Until I find out that I’ve cheated on my husband with this person and thus am about to lose everything that matters to me. These dreams are scary as hell.

My husband prescribes to the Jungian idea that the people and things in our dreams are really just reflections of different parts of our psyche, different parts of ourselves. Recently, I can across this excerpt from an article in The Sun Magazine (which I no longer subscribe to because I think its subtitle, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-Free,” should actually be, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-Free. And Depressing As Hell”). I found this from an interview with Jeremy Taylor:

At another level, everything in the dream is a reflection of the dreamer’s own psyche: these menacing characters are in fact representations of repressed aspects of the dreamer’s own self. While the dream is occurring, I might be absolutely convinced that these unpleasant figures are “not me.” But the fact that I am creating the dream means that it isall me. The more I think of figures in the dream as “not me,” the more likely I am to be projecting my own problems on others in my waking life.

Last night, I dreamed of this person again. This time, we were in a bar in my hometown (where I no longer live) and, for some reason, I was a waitress at this bar (not because it was my job, but because it was fun). My ex walked in the door, saddled up to me, and smirked, “Wow. Looks like you’re doing AWESOME. You’re 35 and you’re a waitress.” To which I replied, “Actually, I AM doing AWESOME. This waitressing thing is just for fun. I actually teach at a university and I just had a book of poetry published. And I’m married with two kids, Asshole.”

Guess what happened next? This ex, this MONSTER who has made a regular job out of making a regular appearance in my dreams and treating me like shit on a regular basis for THE LAST 12 YEARS, begins to tear-up. He then pleads, his voice shaking with emotion, “But who was it that pushed you to write? Who told you you were a great poet?!” And I answered, as loud as I could so that the whole bar could hear it, “It was YOU. You are the one who pushed me to become a poet. I’d never be where I was if it wasn’t for you.” And then I woke up.

I’m halfway through Patti Smith’s phenomenal autobiography, Just Kidswhich chronicles her time with the now famous (and deceased) artist, Robert Mapplethorpe. I’ve found myself both stunned and heartened by the way this woman navigated a very difficult relationship with a man who was her best-friend, her collaborator, her lover, and who also happened to be gay, something he discovered during the course of their relationship.

The book is beautifully written, and one of the reasons I think I’m so taken with it is that Smith writes of her relationship with Mapplethorpe in a way that allows the two of them to be fully human; Patti Smith is able to write about her past with this man, outside metaphor, and her rendering of the time they shared growing as artists is not oversimplified or romanticized. Her memories of their time together are woven with such care and such attention to detail, that when I think of holding that book, I think of holding a bird’s nest, something that is delicate, yet incredibly strong; A thing that is both beautiful and functional.

Reading this book before bed each night, I believe, is what finally allowed me to have a fruitful confrontation with this ex.

My time with this man was very productive for me artistically. When I think of our time together, I think of the broken blinds and the overturned coffee table; I think of all the nights we spent crying and screaming; I think of how beautiful we were when we were apart, and how ugly we were when we were together; but I think, too, of a moment when he sat our our bed looking though my first chapbook. He read the book all the way through, then looked at me and said he didn’t know what to say. Half-smiling, half-shaking his head, he finally said, “You’re good. This is good. This is really, really good.”

During my time with this person, I began to believe that I was “good” and that I could, indeed write. I began to think of myself as a writer, an artist.

This ex is no longer the person he was when we first met all those years ago. He’s evolved as have I. But he represents a time in my life and a part of me that is an integral part of who I am as an artist. I don’t think this ex, when he appears in my dreams is my ex at all, I think he’s the part of me that is an artist, the part of me that looks at a shattered, splintered guitar laid with such care on my doorstep, and thinks, “That’s horrible. That’s beautiful” –all in the same breath.

I’ve spent the last ten years building a very practical life with a man who I’ll love until the day I die. I’ve spent the last ten years doing everything I could to shake my tendencies to fall in love with men and ideas and places and lives that are only beautiful because they are broken. But now, maybe it’s time to acknowledge the fact that the parts of me that are scared and ugly and broken and lost and absolutely impractical are, in fact, practical.

A student once e-mailed me from a psychiatric hospital he’d been placed in by recommendation of his doctor. This student is an incredible poet, the real deal, you know? I e-mailed him back and told him something along the lines of, “Whatever you’re going through, it’s part of who you are and it’s part of what makes you an incredible artist.”

I’d like to think I was telling myself the same thing in my dream. Whether in waking or dreaming, when we encounter some part of our past or present that’s broken or strange or lost or ugly, maybe we ought to look at it and speak to it. Maybe we ought to tell it what is gave us.

Gross Oversimplification: Is It Possible (Or Necessary) to Write Outside Metaphor?

Gross Oversimplification: Is It Possible (Or Necessary) to Write Outside Metaphor?

Gross Oversimplification: Is It Possible (Or Necessary) to Write Outside Metaphor?

I spent last week navigating my first AWP in Chicago. Over the course of those three days, while attending some fantastic panels on topics like “How to Keep Your Debut Book Alive” and “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life”  I met dozens of incredible people and publishers at the bookfair. A publication I suddenly find myself taken with, one that I had no idea existed until a few days ago, is Ruminateand yesterday morning, in an effort to hold myself together before going off to teach (on very little sleep and having flown in from Chicago the night before), I found myself reading a creative nonfiction piece by James Silas Rogers called “Outside Metaphor.”

I was pulled into the essay by this opening line

I often find myself praying on airplanes…

I used to think that every time I got on a plane, I was going to die. Time has proven me wrong, and the older I get, the more I realize I’m just not that special, you know? When I step on a plane and buckle myself in my seat, the panic starts to creep in, and I channel my inner Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, telling msyelf, “Really?! You think this plane’s gonna go down? Out of all the planes that are taking off and landing all over the country, this is the one that’s going to crash? Really?!” So I’m not as terrified as I used to be, but there is a prayer and an image that I cling to in that brief moment when the plane’s wheels leave the runway and I know that nothing but sheer power is what’s lifting that hunk of metal filled with people into the sky. The prayer is a variation on a Navajo prayer (go ahead and roll your eyes ya’ll, but I did grow up in New Mexico, so I’m allowed), and it goes something like this

Beauty before me, With it I wander.
Beauty behind me, With it I wander.
Beauty below me With it I wander.
Beauty above me, With it I wander.
Beauty all around me, With it I wander.

A very good friend passed the chant on to me, and it calms me when I say it in my mind as the plane rises. Along with my prayer, I always rely on a particular image to give me courage as the plane begins to ascend. I envision an army of angels running under each wing. Typical angels, they’ve got long, straggly hair and long white robes, but they’re all wearing Nike’s, yo! And they’re running beneath each wing, as fast as they can, lifting the plane up into the sky as we rise. I’ve been doing this for years, the ritual so ingrained in me, that the image of the angels always comes at the right moment now, whether I call on it or not.

I was enthralled then, when I saw this particular issue of Ruminate features the art of Micah Bloom, whose  series, “Interventions” is filled with images of angels intervening just before some imminent disaster. Sounds cheesy, but the art is captivating.

So I felt called to James Silas Roger’s essay, “Outside Metaphor” because of the opening line about praying on planes, but what kept me reading was the fact that the essay had very little to do with a fear of flying (what I assumed the essay would be about), and so much to do with the act of memory, specifically, how our individual memories are shaped by metaphor, and how our metaphors shape our memories.

In the essay Silas Roger’s references this quote from Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons

We yield to our present but we choose our past 

and throughout the essay, as he remembers his mother and his childhood (which, by the way, wasn’t a particularly unhappy one), he returns again to Eavan Boland, musing

Eavan Boland keeps reappearing in my thoughts. Her great project, as a poet and essayist, is to write the silence of women back into literature, and she titled and important collection Outside History. She insists that we make a distinction between history and the past, and that history-the stories that get told-is something different from what really happened. I want to make a comparable distinction in my own life. I want to cling to those moments not freighted with category and naming and interpretation. I want to hold my mother outside metaphor.

And that last sentence is the one that got me. I want to hold my mother outside metaphor.

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately, and part of the struggle is tied into the fact that I’m hyper-aware of the narrative I’ve chosen to shape my memories, and how that narrative is a construct, one that I fear grossly oversimplifies my mother and father and all the people who were an integral part of my childhood and adolescence.

We do tell ourselves the same stories about ourselves over and over, even as those stories are no longer relevant. And when we begin to understand that the stories we may’ve been telling ourselves thorough our writing (our poems our essays our fiction) are far more complicated than we thought, then what?

I’m a writer, and I operate in metaphor. I see everything in terms of metaphor, but I’m beginning to see how metaphor can be dangerous because it allows us to oversimplify.

When I was in college, it was the poetry of Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath that captured my imagination. These women so artfully named their pain, so beautifully exposed the underside of their lives and the lives of those people with whom they were most intimate-their fathers, mothers, husbands, lovers.

Through these poets, I began to view my world through a lens of pain and tragedy, and while this angst is what initially brings most young people to the page, there comes a time when one begins to see the angst as a construct. The reality of my childhood is much more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and now that I’m a mother to two small girls, I have a much deeper appreciation for what my own mother went through as she struggled to raise two children on her own.

I recently wrote a poem titled Genealogy, and it scared the hell out of me. I’d just finished reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters” and this is what came spilling out (pardon the form-I can’t get the cut and paste to format the thing correctly)

Genealogy

For my daughter

 

Genetic factors appear to play a significant role in alcoholism and may account for about half of the total risk for alcoholism.-The New York Times, July 9, 2011

 

You are an heiress to drunks.

The statues of your forefathers stagger,

memorialized by gravity, their faces

half-lit eternally, as they reach into refrigerators

for another something

to keep away the cold empty.

I am sorry for the stories

unfolding in your blood, especially

the ones that could end with you, 16

18, 20, 40, stranded

in your body, looking for messages

in bottles of Heineken, Pabst, Blue Moon,

or Jack Daniels. By the time

 

I figured out that whiskey made me angry,

I was overseas, away,

kicking my fallen best friend in the ribs,

pleading in the dark, screaming street,

Why can’t you just be a man? That was my first

real lesson in addition and subtraction.

I vowed afterward

 

to only drink the clear stuff, to stay

away from anything amber—no more bourbon, rum,

marigolds, Wurlitzers, Monarch butterflies, Raymond Carver.

No more sunrises, or sunsets, no more Tom Waits or slow burning

fires. No more long walks in November. Sorrow

 

is when you’re afraid to love anything that glows,

is when you believe that any kindness is a sniff

of raw meat, a dab of honey baiting

the trap. Before your father was your father,

he came to my front door with flowers, and my heart sank,

I sneered, What do you want from me? that fragrance,

an anchor, dropping me right back

 

into my mother’s kitchen

her eyes fixed on the vase stuffed with lilies, a plea

for her to keep quiet about last night, last week,

and all the ones before it. Mom’s taste

in men, her love for all things broken

taught me metaphor. Around our house,

poems wrote themselves

 

Love is a busted dead bolt on the front door.

Regret

is the next morning, those same hands shaking

as he mends the broken chain on your blue bicycle.

 

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe

regret is the busted dead bolt, and it’s love,

that’s the shaking hands. I can never seem to keep it

straight. And this is why, Daughter,

 

I am writing to you from all these years away,

to tell you I am glad I learned to take flowers

from your dad, that no gesture

is empty, and that, while my father waltzed with his guilt

and my mother, her fear, the two of them

spinning and spinning,

 

I held my breath, a bright penny,

tight in my fist, my hands at my side,

which is why, sweet daughter, now

that I’ve arrived decades later, with my life still

intact, I am giving you

this.

 

This poem is going to be published in SDR’s upcoming issue, so it will be out in the world soon, but I must say, this poem makes me feel very, very uncomfortable. And it’s not just because of the deeply personal nature of the subject matter, but more because of how limited the poem is. The reality is so much more complicated. And just because I’m a writer, does that give me permission to render these people (who appear in the poem) in a certain light, viewing them only through the pain and confusion of my childhood? And if I view them this way, that’s one thing, but I’m putting them out into the world  (perhaps even against their will), and that raises a lot of other issues/questions.

I don’t know the answer, but the question is killing me: As writers, can we write outside metaphor? Is it necessary? Is it possible? And if we do in fact “yield to our present” and “choose our past” what right do we have to write about the lives of others through the narrow lens of how we perceive them?

My colleague, Todd Robinson, just came out with his first poetry collection Note At Heart Rockand when I told him which poems were my favorite in the collection (one of which was about his cousin), he said something like, “Yea, I wonder if my cousin would feel the same way.” I was heartbroken and relieved to hear that a fellow writer felt the same ambivalence about writing his family into his work. I’d assumed this worry about what others might think about the work had to do with being a woman writer and wanting to be all things to all people, trying to please everyone. As it turns out, this ambivalence about how we choose to remember and render certain people, events, and places in our lives is more common than I thought. Which is both heartening and terrifying.

“Do I Look Okay?”

This is what I ask my husband when I’m on my way out the door to teach my class. As I’m asking, I take my right hand (palm facing towards me) and make large, circular motions around my face and torso. I’m not looking for validation. The subtext of my question is not “Do I look pretty?” or “Am I beautiful?” When I ask my husband, “Do I look okay?” I’m being practical: Is there toothpaste on the corner of my mouth? Is my fly open? Am I nipping-out in this shirt? Have my underwear risen up past my slacks? This afternoon, when I turn around to write my “Story Plot As Inverted Check Mark” graph high up on the chalkboard, am I gonna end up exposing my students to my turquoise panties, losing the respect I’ve worked so hard to earn?

And this, my friends, is why I’ve avoided creating a blog for so long. How can I write something and put it out into the world without having labored over it for days or months or years? Right now, writing this feels an awful lot like getting dressed without looking in the mirror. And when I post this, my God, it’s going to feel like I’ve left the house without asking my husband (who loves me and so will always tell me the truth), “Do I look okay?”

The title of my first full-length collection of poetry, Cradling Monsoons, is inspired by a line taken from a poem that didn’t make the final cut in the manuscript. The poem “If We Are Measuring In Years,” is a short piece I wrote for my husband on the occasion of our third anniversary. Echoing the tradition of throwing rice at a newly-wedded couple, I wrote

“If we are measuring in years/then this marriage is hardly substantial, a handful/of rice. But if you imagine each drop of rain it took to grow each grain,/ then you will know that the spoon you put to your lips cradles monsoons.”

Driving to work this morning, I returned to that image and saw these grains of rice as a metaphor for every poem I’ve ever written. In the context of the larger world, my poems seem insignificant– murmurs, small ripples. I remember publicly lamenting (on facebook) about my struggles with writing. An exasperated friend commented, “Writing isn’t work. Digging ditches is work.” He’s right. Poems don’t put out fires or build bridges or cook a meal or restore power after a storm.  But I believe (because I have to) that this friend is wrong. I choose to believe that I have been working on my poems, devoting hours, months, sometimes even whole years to perfecting them (some that will never see the light of day) because they matter. I’m driven by the desire to create an image or line or moment that is potent enough to capture a reader the way Carolyn Forche’s “The Memory of Elena” captured me when I was eighteen years-old.

I was in my bedroom, lying on my bed when I read of

 “bells with their tongues cut out, waiting for this particular silence”

and I can still remember how the light fell on my white and floral bedspread when I came across this image. That single image is what made me want to write poetry, and it’s an image that has sustained me all these years and kept me writing. A few months back, I was able to meet Forche and tell her how that poem changed the trajectory of my life.  I brought my 15 year-old copy of A County Between Us to Forche’s reading and she signed my book, “For Sarah, who remembers the light.”

My mentor, Bill Trowbridge, suggested Cradling Monsoons as the title for my first book, and I immediately latched onto the image.  It captures the beauty and the terror that I felt during the three year span in which I met my husband, moved to Omaha, and began having children. I wrote most of the poems in the book while raising two small children, and I’ve described them (the poems, not the children) as prescriptions. Choosing to become a stay-at-home mom in a town where I had no ties to family and very few friends was a terribly isolating experience, and I now look back and see each poem I wrote during that time as a kind of self-prescribed prozac.

And now, here I am, out in the world. The publication of my book landed me a teaching job at the university, a Nebraska Book Award, and many readings in Nebraska and beyond. For the last year and a half, my mantra has been “say yes to everything.” I am motivated by fear, and the fear is that I’ll never get asked to do these things again because I’ll never get another book published. Nothing can assuage these fears, and the fear has me caught in a vicious cycle. I’ve spent so much time taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to me by the publication of my book, I haven’t had the time or energy to write anything that’s worth a damn for the last year and a half a while. I was lucky enough to hear Mary Phipher give a talk in Nebraska City during my residency, and during this talk she used the term “An avalanche of roses” to describe her successes as a writer and the downside of those successes. There’s just no way to hold it all. It’s impossible to cradle a monsoon. Things slip through your fingers. But when the writing is the thing that keeps getting lost, you’ve got to do something about that.

I was driving to work, heading South on 72nd street, when the ideas for this blog post started to flow.  Trying to steer, shift, and jot down legible notes without killing anyone, I realized that, on this drive, though I usually hit every red light, on this particular morning, ALL THE LIGHTS WERE GREEN! I could have taken as a sign from the gods that, yes, this blog thing is a great idea. And yes! I should go with it! “Go! Go! Go!” But I was (and still am) desperate (literally and metaphorically) for a red light, desperate for a minute or two to write down the ideas as they come. So here I am, all these hours later, sitting on my futon, finally writing, wondering, “Do I look okay?” Or can you all see the toothpaste on the corner of my mouth?

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