The Civic Society

I have been introduced to James Baldwin this year and I find him to be such a compelling voice, both in his time, and surprisingly, now: both within me and within the culture I live in; a culture seeming to carry around remnants of past sins as it plunges into a future of unprecedented darkness. This is not what I mean to write about, but I think part of me needed to say those words, make them concrete, see them in black against a white screen. Now I have, and a space that was occupied with tension inside me is eased slightly and I can move on to what I mean to write about. Baldwin writes:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent- which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

As I have begun writing this past year (I think I will always say that I have just begun it) I have noticed some interesting and perplexing effects. The one I anticipated was isolation. To read and to write are occupations of retreat, though I suppose it depends on what type of writing and reading it is. But for the most part, the reader retreats into the mind of the writer, either to the writer’s thoughts or to a world within the writer’s mind. The writer does the same. In writing, he retreats into his own mind. Even if the writing is nonfiction, even autobiographical, the writer leaves the world of reality to enter only his own reality. At this point, two lives are being led: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Moving between one and the other is one of the hardest things for me to do; a life of balance. John Steinbeck wrote his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, about this very thing as he was writing one of my favorite books, East of Eden:

When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity- my responses slow.

I believe this is why I stopped writing when I had children and why I was so resistant to taking up the pen again some years later, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Soon after I started writing, I noticed how my body interacted with the real world around me- doing dishes, giving a bath, having dinner with my family- while my mind was still in retreat. All of a sudden, having everyday conversations when I picked my daughter up from school became a difficulty. In fact, engaging with others in general became something that required intentionality and anomalous effort.

What I wanted to do was blend the two lives; bring my inner life out into the open. I quickly found that the outside world was not in a place to receive my second life. When asked the question, “What’s new with you?” I would answer with opening the door to the inner life of my mind, by talking about what I was reading or what I was trying to write. This was mostly met with a concentrated brow of confusion or encouraging nods as the other person pretended to actively listen as they occupied themselves with other things. Either way, the conversation was ended, usually awkwardly. I cast no blame in this- they just didn’t know how to respond. After a while, I closed the door, answered “Nothing really,” and the gulf that separates those two worlds grew larger.

For a whole year I continued in this, relying heavily on one or two friends to bridge that gap. The evidence of my life has proven to me time and again that despite being introverted, I require community. I have an innate hunger to interact with others. The connection between author and reader via text is a treasure to me, but it is surpassed by the interaction between author, reader, and other readers. The discourse that follows from that group collectively takes the text further than any one of the individuals can carry it. This is why book clubs abound. We are a people hard-wired for community. Our joy in reading something reaches its height when we praise it to the point that someone else reads it and returns to us praising it as well. Pleasure leads to worship which culminates in corporate worship. (Look to sports fans and one will see this clearly.)

The world seems to be growing more and more “frighteningly indifferent” to the arts, but I am young and have a history of only thirty-four years. In my naivety I can assume rarity in our culture that is no stranger to the past. The pendulum always swings. But as Balwin notes, the very indifference of the many raise the passion of the few. I began my search for “the few” and have found some of them. I am a member of the Fort Worth Women’s Chapter of the The Civic Society and have joined a writers group with Art House Dallas. In my time with these two groups, I have been gifted with encouragement and fellowship. At these meetings I am galvanized by the ideas of others and valued for the work I do. The door between my two lives is left open and the people, and I, walk back and forth.

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The next Civic Society meeting is Saturday, February 17, and we will be discussing George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you are interested in joining me there, send me a message.

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A New Endeavor

In my last post, I wrote about how I have started writing again. No one was more surprised than myself to find poetry coming out. It was utterly unexpected, and brought with it joy unprecedented. I don’t always have the time to devote to a long piece of writing. Poetry has offered me a chance to work on a piece and actually finish it; to hold in my hands a completion- an accomplishment of a kind, no matter how small.

Writing can be such a lonely endeavor, but in the sharing of it, it becomes less so. I have found such encouragement from friends; those in my physical life, and those of you who have followed this blog. Thank you! I hope you have been able to connect to something in the poems I share.

My family and I celebrated this weekend the publication of two of my poems: Grandpa George, written about my favorite farmer, a man so connected in my mind to the earth and its fruits, that every time I see open fields he is found in them. And a different version of There’s No Hiding In a Closet, though I like the version here on the blog better- proof that I am learning the process of revision. All my thanks to Sleeping Panther Press for publishing these pieces in the 2017 Panther City Review.

I am learning as I go and trying to get better. For that reason, I have taken down some of my poems due to submission guidelines. In the future, I won’t be posting any poetry until it has reached publication or been sufficiently rejected. Either way, I can’t wait to share with you more. I am still writing, sometimes more slowly than I would like, but there is still joy in the process and rest in the room it creates inside. Thank you for being in it with me.

 

 

The Silent Years

I have always needed and loved to write. The process of a tiny thought ruminating, growing, and then hungering for expression. Taking up space in me until the floodgate opens and words gush like water. And then I had a baby. Some of the thoughts changed but they still underwent the process. And then I had another….and another. Over the course of five years, I stopped writing despite my best efforts. Whether the thoughts stopped or I no longer had the ability to process them, or I lacked the time to express them- likely some combination of the three- I’m not sure why it happened. But those years, my time of silence, was a season. And just as I had stopped writing despite my effort to keep at it, I also started writing again despite an effort to suppress.

We knew Eloise would be our last baby. She turned two, and I reflected that if our schedule had continued, I would be preparing to bring home another one- but I wasn’t. I was done. I had three beautiful girls. My oldest had just entered Kindergarten and my youngest was growing in independence- two going on 20. Third children…they grow up so much faster. My life began to ease, and I found myself with some time. Enough anyway to read- something, anything!- other than children’s books on repeat.

You readers, you know. You begin to read, your mind is being filled and yet there is always more space for response. And the better you read, the better the thoughts are that fill the space created. Once that happened, the thoughts did what they do: they grew, they hungered, they demanded to be released. Against every effort, against my defiance, they persisted. In December I succumbed. The need to write overpowered the need to rest, in fact it became a kind of rest. I created this blog, needing to break away in format and content from my old one. I needed it to be a place where I was a person- a whole person- and not just a mom. Where thought could exist outside my home.

Why did I resist? That thought is still soaking. It’s not ready to be wrung out. No doubt fear lurks in the water. Some thoughts you don’t want to grow; you are afraid to express. Some day, when I’m braver, when I understand it more myself, those thoughts can find their way out. Because after all, thoughts are just thoughts. They are not truth. But when you let them out into the light of day, you can see them for what they are. The truth or the lies they contain become discernible to you- and to everyone else.

In that, I’m learning to let go of needing to be right all the time. There is a journey in discovering what is true. We never start there. We are bent, all of us, to believe lies. And once discovered, Truth is no shallow pool. We wade in, slowly, pushing under, until we’re fathoms below, if we ever get that far. Maria Popova, on my favorite blog wrote this about Amiri Baraka, and it brought me so much freedom to speak- to speak even what I doubt, even what I fear, even what I struggle with:

Any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

While I probably don’t believe this in the same way Maria does, I do believe we are all moving in a direction. We are never stagnant; we are never still. We live in a current. For me to be able to write something not as Truth, but as Thought or Battle or Attempt, gives me the freedom to be wrong, and the courage to be humble.

Attempts for Dreams: A Trade of Regret

I lost you as a game of chess
waged on a battlefield
square patches of dark and light.
In the end they blurred to gray mist.
Oh chess, my downfall!
Where any game safely played
is never won.
You, my Queen,
I surrounded with pawns
unwilling to test our limitations.
I didn’t want to know them.

You would not be risked,
not even for victory.
Never underestimate the comfort
of untried possibility.

But now, having lost so
slowly, so
inevitably
I have come to think it would have been better
losing you in a sudden stab at glory!

Irony

Dear God,
Can I wonder with you?
You fashioned my mind,
made it
pulse with curiosity,
made it
question the answers,
and yet
when I wonder I ask
not looking to know
but just wanting to journey with
another curious mind who
doesn’t have the answer.
A mind as limited as mine.
And that’s not you
is it?
Can I wonder with you?
Your answer that unchanging Yes,
but mine is No
because I don’t know how.

There’s No Hiding in a Closet

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There is a place for everyone
where you can breathe your fill,
sit in peaceful silence until
the demands of the world call you back again.
A place where you are utterly alone
but not lonely- an escape of only
minutes and seconds counting down.
Mine is found in the smallest of rooms:
the unaffected space of my closet.

For when I was young, my closet
had a treasure chest inside it,
holding my most valued things.
Then older, my closet
gave space to my solace.
I closed all the doors
on my way to just being.

But now, my closet
is where I undress.
Peel away the
hiding rags like
invisibility cloaks
til I’m bare.
Just me, as I am.
No more, and no less.

There’s no hiding in a closet.
Eight feet by eight
the borders and corners
already claimed.
Silent and still
this truth-full reflection
only feels safe
as my sole companion.

A Rusted History

I spent last week at the farm. Each morning began with making my way through town, trading the softball fields for corn fields. Every now and then there would be livestock, but mostly field after field after rolling field of corn, sometimes bean. The farmers were out planting, so though the first day looked like an abandoned mess of dead stalks, by the end of the week each field bore signs of purpose and hope with their uniform rows. When I return in summer, the brown soil landscape will be green and spurting “knee high by Fourth of July” as my grandma says. As I turn from the paved road to the gravel one, I pull over. I can see my destination in the distance, which means they can see me. So I stop, take some deep breaths, before going on.  I drive these familiar roads like they are maps of my heart. I drive with windows down, cool morning breeze blowing my hair, rock pounding underneath, dust billowing up behind me, as if making the declaration, “Here she comes!” I pass lines of evergreen from memory. I pass the cemetery. I crest each hill with the tension of not seeing down the other side. I drive free, the only way you can in a car that isn’t yours but is as old as your license: I drive with no assumptions, and when I arrive in the gravel driveway, I put it in park and turn it off with grateful thanks.

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This place. Its field of dandelions: wishes or weeds? This place is both. As I walk the grounds in morning dew, memories flood me, bringing a confusing concoction of emotions. Every breath takes in youth, wonder, happiness; every exhale anger and betrayal and shame. I feel them all at once. I am a patchwork quilt. So my steps are slow and my breathing regulated, letting things sit in me just as they are. Letting these antitheses exist in me side by side. Letting go of being able to categorize each memory, each person, each part of me. I let them sit and I listen to the birds.

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I reach the top of a neighboring hill and look down. It is an empty shell of a place from long ago. Its fields sold, to be toiled and cultivated by other hands. The animals are gone- the barn housing only a riding lawnmower, old hay, broken glass, a creature in the back corner that was too shy to show himself to me. The hen house has broken windows, the clothes line is bare, the garden, a wasteland. I pass areas unmowed that hold rusted tractor equipment and burn piles, and I feel sorrow over the passing of this place, like the death of my childhood. I mourn as if the land was an appendage of my own body.

How did this place come to mean so much to me?  I did not grow up here. I grew up a thousand miles south where the weather is warmer and “everything is bigger,” even though the trees are not. My parents were born here- my dad growing up in this very house. This is where my family, as I knew it, began. We made trips- once, sometimes twice a year- back to my grandparents’ farm. When I was eight, I started flying here alone, to spend a week or so with them every summer. I adored everything about the farm: the smell of the animals, the reaping of what was sown, the sun shining off tall green stalks, grass blowing in the wind like waves across an ocean. The hymns, the strawberry jam, creaky stairwells, carpet from the 70s. It was the essence of summer, the essence of childhood. Each day was a wide open door: freedom and adventure beckoning me to bound through the threshold.

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Each day I walked this land alone, growing more and more at peace in the conglomeration of all it represents. I could close my eyes in the barn and breathe in my grandpa, nearly see him out in the distance working the land. I could stand at the kitchen sink, imagining my grandma bent in the garden looking up and calling, “Kati! Come see this cucumber!” I sit at their headstones and simply say, “I loved you. And I loved this place….except when I hated it. But you are what made it beautiful.” On my last day, before heading to the airport, feeling the suffocation of the city approaching, I took one last turn about the place and said goodbye.

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There is only one man
In the world I would follow
Into a corn field

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We’ve so much to say
That words could never convey
So we speak volumes
(without them)

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I’ll walk this gravel road with you
all the way to
the cemetery

Capturing Words

I tore the boxes open with haste, because I could not wait to see in black and white the six years I have lived with my children. The idea was given to me by a high school friend’s mom. I had run into her at Blockbuster (remember those!) just weeks before we were all leaving for college. She told me she was making finishing touches on a journal she had kept for her son. She wrote him letters, from the time he was a baby until now, as he was being launched upon the world at eighteen. I stored this thought in my mind, and nine years later put it into practice. I had just come home from the doctor’s office, having watched on a flat screen against the wall the little kidney bean that was new life inside me. I watched that little bean intensely, like a seed planted that would break forth in life and beauty, as the sound of rapid heartbeat filled the room like music. I ran by Barnes and Noble on the way home to buy a journal, broke its binding at my desk, took up my pen and began my first letter to my first child.

Now seven years, two more children, and twenty-five letters later, these books arrived at my door. I hadn’t been able to keep up with hand writing all the letters, so I had moved to a digital format. The company I was using to print them is going out of business. I had to order quickly or lose all my work. They arrived, and I read through them and as I read, hundreds of forgotten memories became crisp and clear, almost tangible. I could hear my daughter’s two-year-old voice, reliving some of the most special moments of her youngest years. In that way, the books are gifts to myself as much as they are to my children, maybe even more so.

And this is one of the reasons I love to write. If I work quickly, I can capture a moment in my mind and let it spill out in language that years and years later can transport me back to that place and time. I can hear and see and feel all the things for as long as I’m able to read. I have been studying haiku….not my favorite type of poetry, but every style of writing has it’s advantages, and this one to me is like having a camera at the ready. It reads like a snapshot. I have been teaching myself to play the piano, and it is slow going. Music theory is hard enough, not to mention making my hands do what my mind is learning to read. My kids are completely satisfied with hearing “Lavender’s Blue” or “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Greensleeves,” but I am not. So for our ten year anniversary, my husband got us tickets to one of the Van Cliburn performances. It was beautiful and exhilarating to hear this master play Bach and Chopin. There is one image from the night that has stuck in my mind, and with a haiku I am able to take a snapshot and relive the music.

Night with Richard Goode

Ten fingers leap like
two spiders dancing ballet
across ivory keys

And Mrs. Rainey, you are a gem. You had no idea in Blockbuster that you were planting seeds in me that would bear fruit for my own children. Thank you.

Elegy to Innocence

Life doesn’t thrive in darkness
which is maybe why you feel dead.
Dark eyes in a dark room doing dark deeds.
The only light, a computer screen.
Dirty mattress on the floor,
bars over windows, locks on doors.
You wait to be seen.

Led down a staircase, tripping
over a shoelace you are
too young to tie.
You brace to meet the face
of your next admirer, knowing
it’s no use to cry.
His erected affection leaves no
room for objection.
This is subjection of the basest kind.

How to breathe? How to swallow this
air of dirt and sweat and fear?
So you close your eyes, remember:
A time where no shadows blocked the sun.
When you ran and sang, and what was that word?
Fun? Brothers, friends, mama, hens…
flash through your days of old, and then
it is over. He’s done. A tear falls, he runs.
You close your eyes, whisper:
Goodbye.

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Grandpa George

I still think of you when I taste
the tart of a fresh raspberry.
Imagine it covered in cream and sugar
until it’s so sweet you could drink it.
You left memories with all of my senses
So that I can close my eyes
and remember you with my whole body.

Tight smooth skin when I reach
the shine atop your head,
the unassuming blue
of kind eyes,
Or nuzzling in the crook
of your neck, breathing in
sweet tobacco and sweat, the
ripeness of a day’s labor.
And with my head against your chest,
the beating of a pacemaker
tapping the tune to your song
as you rock me slowly to sleep
singing “bye oh bye oh baby bye oh
bye oh bye oh baby bye”

I grow taller as you bend over
under the weight of ninety-four years.
The last time I see you, you’ve traded
your overalls for a black suit.
There are potholes in your skull
breaking smooth lines.
Your blue kindness hidden
behind closed lids.
Tobacco and sweat erased by
formaldehyde, and in the silence
I strain to hear your song, but it’s gone.
Because you’re gone.

So I repeat our last conversation,
where you told me good-bye, with a smile
I asked if you were scared, no
sad, no
ready, yes oh yes, so tired
So I pretend you lay your head in my lap
and I rock slowly,
sing you to sleep.

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