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I was told for many years, by many people, that I wouldn’t survive. There was no doubt I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t safe where I was, ever. When identity is based on this kind of fear, how do we move through this to a place of power? I have spent my life trying to answer this question, as well as many other questions associated with the discovery that there are horrific events in our world. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we continue to live, to survive? How do we deal with the guilt of being survivors in a world where so many of us don’t make it? These questions create a gravitational center from which radiate the many aspects of truth that make up the circumference of meaning. The meaning is not found in answering the unanswerable, but in asking the questions over and over again.

 

The nature of fear is to consume. It’s like a flame. A flame can be destructive or life-giving.

 

I have come to learn that my fear has saved me as many times as it’s brought me to my knees.

 

I have brought this fear, a fear I know intimately, like the palm of my hand, with its many deep lines—the palm readers say I will have a long, interesting life—with me everywhere I go. It is with me when I sleep. It protects me and knows me like a lover. Of course it does, because it sleeps next to me every night. This fear sits next to me when I eat, follows me into the restaurant when I am meeting friends, orders coffee at the end of the meal. For a long time, my fear stood outside my writing—I could not even bear to bring them together in a conscious way. But, little by little, my fear started to inform my writing, make it face itself, make me face my own darkness in words, made me have a conversation with it through my writing.

 

This allowed for a third ghost to enter the picture—a witness. I became my own witness to my thoughts, sensations, beliefs, and stories about Fear.

We don’t just want to write something good. We want it mean something. One of the scariest things is to think none of what we do matters. Writing is about connecting—to ourselves, others, the place where body and mind meet, our own stillness and silence that is part of the world’s stillness and silence, from which strength and courage and truth and love come in unlimited supply. To touch that, even for a moment, with our writing, with words, actions, intentions, is meaningful. Every second we experience our lives is meaningful. We deepen our own awareness into acknowledgment of that meaning—it is a task, every day, to do that.

 

Meaning is the antithesis of fear.

 

*

I’m worrying a lot right now about being honest in what I write. So much is coming up for me and it all feels so raw. I want to write about it but it feels too scary. I can barely talk about it.

 

I can barely talk to people who’ve known me my whole life, who know me and know this fear, know my fear.

 

And I realized that that’s exactly the place to start, so I start at the not being able to talk about it, what that feels like, that place between feeling and expression.

 

That is part of the fear—and the freedom.

 

I want so much to be free. To feel free and safe. I want this for everyone in the world.

 

It shouldn’t be so hard to feel safe and that has created a grief that has been inside me for as long as I can remember.

 

We want to be known. And we want others to be known. We are fierce, fearless creatures who inhabit a haunted, beautiful, scary world.

 

When we know our own personal fear, it’s a weird intimacy, because we know it, we sit there with it, watch TV or read, or do the countless tasks we do throughout our day and night, we sleep, wake up at 3 in the morning, and there it is, the fear, sitting on our chests like an animal from another realm. So we know it, it’s like a friend coming to visit, but it’s a friend who talks to us about all of the things that haunt us and upset us and scare the crap out of us. And we sit and have coffee with our friend, who’s listing all of the catastrophes and tragedies of all time, because fear is timeless, isn’t bound by time, so it knows everything about every horrible thing that’s ever happened in the history of all humanity and all life and all death and all of the extinctions and all of the genocides and wars, and we’re sitting there on the couch, drinking our coffee and wondering whether or not to offer coffee to this friend, who says they’ve traveled for miles to see us, but we know they live next door or in our bathroom or in our bed. And they know every inch of us, everything that makes us exhausted with fear, just totally tired, but talking with them and hanging out with them makes us feel better in a way, because it’s a conversation between a witness and a child, or a witness and a scared adult, or a witness and fear itself. And this is the way we face fear.

 

*

 

This winter, the weather is haunted. We watch as snow piles up on our windowsills and presses against the screens. We watch the weather reports, 10 degrees, 20 feels like summer.

 

*

 

Just as I’m getting used to appearing and reappearing, I disappear again into fear. Fear takes hold of the mind and the body responds, the chest tightening, lump in the throat, thoughts darting around like hunted things, blind and terrified. Fear is not easy. It’s not rational and, while it can be attacked somewhat rationally, there is an element of it that is like the center of a flame, unreachable and primal. The need for safety is universal, as is the instinct for survival. When these are threatened, fear digs in and constricts a wider view—whether the danger is real or imagined. What is the way out of this?

 

When we are in the midst of it, feeling the constricted pattern of the fear, thinking, writing, muttering, talking through the fear we’re feeling, then sitting silent as stones, we somehow, through all this, move past the paralyzing stage of the mind playing out scenarios that seem as real as the room we’re in.

 

My Buddhist teacher says to ask, is this scenario in my mind real?

 

When we are afraid, the lines become murky and foggy between what we’re afraid will happen or is happening and what is really happening. It’s easy to convince oneself of the worst. We don’t know how to polish things up and end writing or end a trail of thought or conversation with some kind of flourish or optimism or something to turn to or lean on—courage is the ability to come back to and be present in the room. We are in the room or park or supermarket, we know and are aware that our bodies are here right now and we can be witnesses to the mind tightening in the grip of terror. Trying to be as present as possible and name things: I am feeling terrified and scared and unsafe. My chest hurts. My heart is beating fast and then it’s barely beating. My breath is shallow.

 

And that is all there is, until the next moment.

 

*

The way time moves. On certain days, it dictates. On others, it runs smoothly parallel to the mind, to the beating heart. And we don’t wait for things, we feel time as a gentle presence and boundary that moves things along like breath and baking, heating up leftovers, resting. This is resting, when time moves like this, when we are aware of it like this.

 

Resting in the discomfort, in the fear, we open up space. We see and feel ourselves standing in a field with weeds and visual access to the horizon. We can breathe.

 

*

 

The winter hopes. It is long. I am tempted to pull out the string in the back of it to make it speak or tell fortunes. Where is it that we leave our playthings when childhood is taken from us like specks of dust in the light as the light thins and then disappears altogether? We’re haunted, all of us, by this dimming light. Sometimes the haunting has words, unintelligible and in different languages, their sound lilting or suspicious or frank. The dotted lines marking the map to oblivion. The chest pounds. We are all afraid of what might happen, and we drown ourselves in the aftermath of probability—how many scenarios of the Apocalypse, of the impending destruction of our perfumed lives can we view, as if on a screen, before we listen to our hearts beating, right now, inside of us, and acknowledge life is this? Life is the beating heart, the fast or slow breath, the tired muscles in our legs as we walk at the end of the day, the energy we have for those we love, we keep going, going, in spite of fear, of harsh predictions.

 

This evening I allowed myself to feel empty and spacious, having no plans for the rest of the week save one dinner. This isn’t rare for me. I try to keep an open schedule so I have space and time for myself and writing. For myself to just be, in unscheduled time, and for my mind to be at rest, or to be reading, or thinking in a spacious way as to allow new thoughts to come in. And tonight, I was reading a bit and watching Endeavour, and taking breaks to just walk around my house and drink water and pet the cats, and I felt empty and peaceful. And then a tinge of restlessness. Rustled the water a little. The clear lake becomes the tiniest bit murky as the silt is stirred up, the undersurface of the water. And I decided to call my great uncle and check on him in this cold and made a time to see him this week. I understood even more clearly than I had that giving myself this space and not just filling hours with work or TV or social engagements lets what is truly important rise to the surface so I can then take right action. It is a deliberate result.

 

*

 

There is a deeper peace, and a deeper silence. From out of this acceptance as things are arise right ideas.

 

*

 

Reading The Hunger Games as Katniss drops honeysuckle nectar on her tongue, this visceral memory comes back to me of my pre-adolescent body and what it felt like— energy coursing through me, through my muscles— everything bright and new, glistening, reflecting sunlight, bright, bright sunlight, and being excited about everything—  my best friend Sherri’s apartment, and her mom, who was a single mom, and the peacock-back wicker chairs… I remember the apartment complex we lived in and the honeysuckle that grew by the train tracks and the smell of the honeysuckle and eating it and hanging out with a group of boys and girls whose names I don’t remember and flattening pennies on the tracks. This feeling of being in my body, part of nature, and city, being outside in the air.

 

*

 

Maybe what I think of as claustrophobia in a place of fear is actually closer to freedom than I think. I think it is a cramped room. I think it is a place from which I can’t escape. But the very experience of fear makes me human. The struggle with all of this makes me human. The fact of the struggle, this medium or median translating dust and fog into constellations— that is purpose and meaning. And does this give rise to hope? Does it create fertile conditions for hope and presence to grow? Maybe it does. Maybe the sensations and thoughts and visceral experience of being afraid and staying there for one second, with the tight chest and barely beating heart and stopped breath, create freedom.

 

In the end, we don’t know. We are tired from not sleeping enough or waking up too early, in the dark, unable to get back to sleep. So we wander in the darkness of our houses, before the sun has come up, to boil water in old kettles. And now I am thinking— I really should replace my old beige kettle. I want a bright red kettle, not bright in shade, but a rich, deep red. We make coffee. This is the promise of a new day. We begin the movement forward, in time, of this day. Time moves and seems to splinter, burns together, when we focus on what we’re doing, and maybe we get satisfaction from that. And these moments are blessed and whole. We embody them.

 

I have stayed in my house for two days because it is so damn cold. I really need to get over it. I need to go out. Then, the next day, I go out. It takes half an hour to get ready, put on all my layers. I have lunch at my favorite diner. They are playing Men at Work, and people are talking, and there are coats, scarves, hats piled everywhere. I see a friend from the food co-op as I’m leaving. I go buy some coffee and salad greens. I come home and take off my wet boots, my sweater, my second shirt.

 

Over the weekend, I go out and walk along the park and take pictures. I take off my gloves to hold the camera and my fingers freeze. My thighs are numb. The park, the trees, the monuments around the entrance to the park at Grand Army Plaza are ghostly. I take pictures of the ghosts. The trees are thin-limbed, their dark branches bones against the silver-gold of the sky. The sun is magical, bright behind the veil of winter. When I come home and look at the pictures I’ve taken, they are of another world. They are beautiful, and make visible the line between worlds.

 

This is freedom. I am completely entranced in the magic of winter.

 

 

 

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This is part 2 of a series. 

2

The infected root canal was a ridiculously minor trigger, but as a tipping point it definitely had its precedents.

On May 25th, 2010 (the same day I had a flarf poem published in the Wall Street Journal —  yes, a flarf poem in the Wall Street Journal!) I received news that my Fulbright Specialist candidacy was about to move to the next, much-desired, level: a school had requested me.  I would be teaching in a small town in Russia called Orsk, on the border of Kazakhstan, thirty miles west of Siberia.  On my original grant application I was asked to pick two global areas where I’d prefer to teach, and I chose Eastern Europe and Asia.  Teaching in Orsk would be a dream gig because of its location on the Ural River, across which stretched a famous bridge with signage indicating “Europe” on the western side and “Asia” on the eastern.  I was ecstatic, and started making preparations, even though I wouldn’t be traveling for a year: I researched Orsk, Siberia, got a Rosetta Stone Russian course, began formulating my lecture series and started drinking vodka to raise my admittedly wimpy (for a writer with an Eastern-European ancestry) tolerance for the “little water.”

By September, though, the details of the gig began to get convoluted and the preparations frustrating.  First, the date of my teaching stint, agreed upon by the school and myself, had to be moved up (the wording on the grant summary regarding the start date wasn’t very clear), and so instead of traveling to Orsk in April, I’d be going in mid-February — yes: almost-Siberia in February.  Next, my travel agent refused to sell me a plane ticket because she didn’t think flying over the Ural Mountains in the dead of winter on a regional airline she’d never heard of before was safe.

“And they just had that big Aeroflot disaster,” she whispered, “right over the Urals . . .”

Her voice put the fear in me for the first time.  It felt like a cold fluid moving quickly up my spine and spreading out inside my brain – the first presentiment of the anxiety that would soon take over my life.  I seriously decided (for about ten seconds) that I would tell my American program officer, Alice, that I couldn’t reschedule for February because my school wouldn’t allow it.  But who turns down a Fulbright?  Riddled with anxiety but determined, I explained the situation to the school, and found a Russian travel agent by half-jokingly asking the students in my fiction workshop (on the day that a tornado touched down in Brooklyn, by the way), “Anybody know a good Russian travel agent?”  Not only did someone have a ready answer, but the agent she knew turned out to be a practicing Buddhist.  I had taken refuge as a Buddhist the year before, after my sister’s death, and so I figured this was a sign — not only would everything work out, it would work out Buddhistically!   But it took the agent, Izabell, a week and a half just to get a purchase confirmation for the plane tickets — she’d actually tried to buy them when she was in Moscow — and I spent my 50th birthday anxious and worried that the whole thing might fall through, but trying not to dwell on it because I was on a three-day silent retreat at a Zen monastery with my husband.  Things got even more complicated when I got back: my Russian program officer, Natalya, mentioned in an email that the school I was to teach at, a local branch of a state university, hadn’t gone through the proper channels or done the proper paperwork to procure a Fulbright Specialist, and that was why, a month before my scheduled departure, the “Letter of Invitation,” which I needed in order to apply for a business visa, still hadn’t arrived.   Visa processing, I learned, could take up to eighteen business days, and the Russian Embassy would be closed for the first two weeks of January, for Orthodox Christmas.  Natalya told me not to wait, but to just go ahead and apply for a tourist visa instead.  “At least it’ll get you into the country,” she wrote in an email.  I took her advice, but when the school found out I had a tourist and not a business visa they said I couldn’t legally teach  — or even stay — on the campus.  When I put the emails between Natalya and my contact at the school in Orsk through Google Translate (Natalya hadn’t bothered to delete them) I discovered the only place I’d be allowed to stay legally was “the infirmary” of the campus sports complex. I’d already spent a considerable sum on warm clothes appropriate for a Russian winter (not reimbursable by Fulbright) and the Rosetta Stone course (also not covered).  And then there were the five months spent researching and writing my ten lectures on “What American Literature Shares With the World”  — and how was that time to be adequately reimbursed?  When the letter of invite finally did arrive — a week before my departure — David suggested that I say nothing about it; if they didn’t know I had it, I wouldn’t have to go.  But, again: who turns down a Fulbright?

“I’ve known you for twenty years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen you this anxious. I thought this was supposed to be a positive experience.  Are you just doing this to have something to put on your CV?”

At this point, yes, I thought, as there certainly was no joy left in the project.  On the other hand, I didn’t want my five months of preparation to be for naught, so I applied for the expedited $350 business visa (also not covered by Fulbright, per policy), which wouldn’t be ready until the day before my departure.  Izabell, sensing how stressed-to-the-breaking-point I was, suggested that I go with her to her weekly meditation session and dharma talk with a well-known expatriate Tibetan monk, Pema Dorje, on the Lower East Side.  I agreed, and we met for dinner before the session at an Indian restaurant on First Avenue.

I’d never met Izabell, only talked to her on the phone.  She had a soft, measured, thoughtful voice.  And so it was a delightful surprise when a gorgeous, dark-haired woman my age (her birthday, in fact, fell on the same day as my sister’s death), entered the restaurant in a swirl of beige and ivory wool scarves and delicious perfume, and embraced me like a long-lost friend.

“I was thinking,” she said as we sat down, “when I was driving here — and I drive from New Jersey, so I have lots of time to think — that I just do not understand why you’re having so much trouble with this.  When I travel to Russia with my husband — he’s American — they treat him like the Dalai Lama or something.  They fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other to make an impression on him.  And this is a government agency?  There’s something wrong here.  Can you back out?  Or will you lose all your money?”

“At this point,” I said, “I don’t even care about the money.  It’s the time.  I have literally spent every day — almost all day — for five months writing these lectures.  I can’t just give up, with all that behind me.  I could’ve been writing other things.  But there I was, you know?”

She sat back in her chair, and looked at me intently through narrowed eyes.

“Okay, listen: after the dharma talk, and when the meditation is concluded, I’m going to introduce you to Pema and we’re going to ask his advice.  He is very wise.  He’ll tell you what to do.”

The dharma talk took place on the third floor of an unprepossessing walk-up on First Avenue and Second Street, next to a McDonald’s.  Who knew that secreted away in that dull grey building with the fire escape on the front was a shrine room decorated with icons and thangka paintings, a tall, golden altar at its center? As I got comfortable on a cushion on the floor next to Izabell, seven or eight people came in, greeted each other with bows, settled onto their meditation cushions and waited until tiny Pema Dorje entered and began the session.  After the meditation we chanted prayers, and then Pema gave a light-hearted talk about the significance of the night’s new moon.  When the session concluded, Izabell took me by the hand and introduced me to him — he was no taller than my shoulder — and explained my situation.

“Ah, you know,” he laughed, mischievously, “we always fear our obstacles, don’t we?  We want to fight them — overcome them!  But our obstacles are also there to teach us.  You understand?”

“Yes,” came a deep male voice from somewhere behind me, “obstacles have often saved my life.  Pay attention to your obstacles.”

“That’s right,” a woman said, from another corner in the room.  “Your obstacles are serving you.”

Again, the cold fear up my spine.  But still, and even against the advice of a monk (and everyone else in that room, it seemed), I remained determined.

At the eleventh hour, the school in Orsk generously agreed to pay for my expedited visa, and as our plane skimmed a patch of very Russian-fairy-tale-looking snow-tipped fir trees near Sheremetyevo Airport, I was relieved and ecstatic to actually be in the country with David by my side (traveling at his own expense, to make sure I actually got there).  We checked into our hotel in Moscow — a Marriott! — and took a nap.  Afterward, refreshed and happy and looking forward to seeing some of Moscow before dinner (despite the 10 degree temperature), I got into the shower and promptly slipped and hit my head on the back of the porcelain bathtub.  I didn’t see stars, didn’t lose consciousness, but the pain was incredible.  When David called Natalya, my program officer, to get a reference for a doctor, she told him rather diffidently there were a couple of clinics I could go to, but didn’t provide phone numbers, or any Embassy or Consulate medical contacts.  I wasn’t surprised, actually; this was the same woman who’d instructed me to get the wrong visa.

“She’s no help,” David said, disgusted.  “I’m going down and asking at the desk.”

The hotel concierge, more helpful, called the paramedics, and they came to my room — a thin, dour, Harry Dean Stanton-looking man, and a husky, efficient woman — and checked me out: it didn’t look like I had a concussion, but I’d have to watch for symptoms (nausea, headache, vomiting) during the next twenty-four hours.  Naturally, Natasha Richardson came to mind.  The woman touched the bump on the back of my head and declared, gently, “маленький” (“small”). As I signed my name in Russian on the medical report I asked (via the hotel translator) if they thought I’d be okay to fly to Orsk the next morning.  The woman laughed and said (via the translator), “If you can sign your name in Russian you’ll probably be okay!  But just keep watch over yourself, especially if you have symptoms.”

The flight to Orsk the next morning was at 6 a.m., and at 6 a.m. I was, of course, in the cab en route to Domodedovo Airport with David.  The concierge packed our complimentary breakfasts up in plastic “lunch boxes,” so we’d have something to snack on while we waited at the gate.

“So where are you traveling to so early in the morning?” she asked, cheerfully.

“A place you’ve probably never heard of, even though you’re from here.  It’s called Orsk, and it’s right above Kazakhstan.”

“You’re right,” she laughed, “I don’t know it.  But I do know that it’s very, very far.  Very far, indeed.  So be careful, you know, because of your head.”

Her words so did not offer comfort, and the familiar chill arose.  And halfway to the airport I began feeling nauseous and headachey.  And panicky.  There was no way to tell if it was because of what the concierge had said, the overheated cab, the lack of a proper breakfast, an attack of nerves about flying over the Urals in the dead of winter on a regional airline that my travel agent mistrusted, Pema Dorje’s advice, or because I really did have a concussion. I looked at David and said, “I really feel sick.  I don’t know what to do. What the hell am I going to do?”

“Alright, I’m putting a stop to this nonsense right now,” he said, and the decision to turn back was made, on that dark, empty, snowy Moscow highway.  Natalya had never suggested helping me reschedule my flight so I could rest up for a day, so I knew that turning back would be forfeiting a Fulbright — the thing I most did not want to do, the one thing I had pushed and pushed against for all those months.  After we arrived back at the hotel and rebooked our room I called Natalya to tell her what happened.  She was sympathetic but not helpful, though she did suggest I try to get a free dinner from the hotel since I had fallen in their bathtub.  When I told her I didn’t feel right doing that she said, “Yes, they are probably accustomed to American tricks.”  We flew back to the States the next day and the day after that I saw my doctor.  Everything seemed okay by then.

Disappointed but resigned that the Fulbright was obviously never meant to be, but happy to have five months of pressure and worry behind me, I got back to what I’d been working on before I’d had to spend every spare moment on grant preparations: a very emotional  “prose poem story” about my sister Renee’s death in November 2009. On Wednesday, February 16 I read it at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan.  The response from the audience was unexpected and overwhelming, and some people came up to me with tears in their eyes.

“I envy your ability to expiate,” one friend — a journalist-commentator for National Public Radio — said.  It had been immensely difficult to write, and twice as difficult to read in public, as I was revealing the secret that lie at the core of my family’s own “breakdown”: that my father might’ve molested my sister.  Back in 1984 I walked in, after work, on a “family meeting” that she’d called, to make her announcement.  (Why did she do it while I was out of the house? I always wondered.)  Renee and our parents had been sitting around the kitchen table, and as I walked in the door my mother had said, “Your sister says Dad molested her when she was little.”  The discussion ended with her saying that it actually never happened.  Later, I told my parents I didn’t believe it, and I told Renee that I did.  Because I had seen something, when she was eight and I was ten, that had remained with me: as I was coming into the living room from the hallway I saw Renee and my dad on the couch, and he was whispering into her ear.  She had an odd, unidentifiable look on her face, a combination of boredom and annoyance.  Our dad was always sneaking up behind us and saying “Boo!” or whispering goofy things in our ears like, “Hey, how did that wheelbarrow get up there?”  There was no way of knowing what was happening, so I stopped and tip-toed backward to the bedroom and sat on the bed, scared.  As an adult I couldn’t help but wonder if molestation was the reason, along with abandonment by her birth mother (Renee had come to us as a foster child in 1968, and we adopted her two years later), for her nightmarish life of addiction and homelessness.  She’d died in a nursing home, and I didn’t find out until three days later, by which time one of her natural sisters, with whom she’d been reunited years before, had had her cremated.

The evening after the reading, while eating granola cereal before bed, I felt a sharp pain in my tooth.  I knew I’d probably broken an old filling.  The next day I went to my dentist, and she said I’d fractured the tooth and would need a root canal, which she wanted to begin right then.  I have no idea why, but I asked her if it could wait until Monday — I needed to take antibiotics before dental work because of a mitral valve prolapse diagnosis.  I don’t know why she didn’t just write me a prescription, have me fill it at the drugstore down the street, pop two pills and get back in the chair — maybe she had appointments the rest of the day.  Whatever, she said she’d see me on Monday and to take ibuprofen if the pain got to be too much.  And it did indeed get to be too much because she never told me how much ibuprofen I could take.  As I drove to our house in Pennsylvania on Route 80 a day later the pain was overwhelming; it was that singular, nightmarish, deeply acute dental pain that feels like the suffering of all beings focused tightly on one tooth.  When we got to the house David called the dentist’s office and spoke to her partner, who gave me better directions regarding dosage.  Finally, with a combination of 3 Advils and deep breathing, it abated.  The procedure commenced when we got back to the city that Monday.

By Wednesday I noticed that the lower left side of my face was swollen, but figured it was because of the root canal. I called the dentist to ask her what the best way to bring the swelling down might be because I was starting to look like the Lady in the Radiator from “Eraserhead” (at least on the left side).

“The swelling is on the bottom?” she said, sounding surprised.  “Well, it’s probably infected.  Can you come in now?  I have no appointments the rest of the day.”

And that was what set the two-year breakdown off, at about 2:30 in the afternoon on March 23, 2011.

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

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Fire

Opening to vulnerability is hard, there is always resistance and magnetic force towards the center that is vulnerable. Tension is created by these opposing forces. Accepting the risk of impermanence is part of everything we do—vulnerability is power. Accepting that risk of every small death, every emotion that rises and falls, is to be aligned with the core of nature. The other day, I was looking up at that continually running digital clock in Union Square, counting minutes, towards what, I’m not sure. I stood, looking at the big, copper-colored building and all of the buildings surrounding Union Square and everything looked absurd. Instead of buildings, I saw what was there before anyone built anything on that land. Not even a hut. On the subway that morning, as it headed out of the tunnel to its two stops above ground, I felt the same thing, thought the same thing. What have we done, building on top of open fields? All of these solid buildings will fall away at some point, will decay and become part of the cycle.

 

The thing for water to do is water. The thing for water to be is water.

 

Emotions and attachments have the same cyclical nature.

 

Loneliness and loss are active forces, not voids, the way we sometimes experience these aches. Living archives, maybe of bones or fossils— maybe of dead, passed away things, and always moving towards something else, becoming something else. Loneliness and loss are magnetic forces. Being conscious of what is being brought in is important, having discernment and awareness of those elements gravitating towards us. There is never a vacuum, emotion, the heart, the will, the body pull in what we need. There is no void. There is action and stability in that forward motion. Time, at least at this point, cannot go backward.

 

How sadness bears the truth. How it can bury it. How it resembles a life of moving objects. Set trajectories that are all unlivable and not fated so the course of life itself seems to shift but it’s only the rearranging of molecules to preserve the natural integrity of things— of the way things actually are— not the way they are seen but the way they are penetrated and penetrate us. This involvement and attachment is the opposite of sadness but is also made of it— of all we’ve lost, all we’ve ever had, our homes, buses, scattershot, bruised, tenable with the right map. There are flowers in the field and we pull up stakes in the Spring to let the trees run free. Of their own magnetism— and gravity. The gravity of leaves sets the world on fire.

 

Sadness builds a city, and then some. Its walls are ether and glass, impenetrable except by light and seeing.

 

Not knowing is part of the truth. We walk straight into the sun. Half- blind, we keep walking. Yesterday, I walked into a café, gold-black spots dancing in front of my eyes until my sight adjusted to the slightly dimmer inside light, where the young barista was playing Jason Molina, Songs: Ohia, which can instantly turn a busy street into an empty field. Drawn in by his iridescent melancholy, I had a chai latte and enjoyed the falling light in the window and his sadness filling the room. His sadness is so big, it doesn’t turn into joy but it is beautiful in a way that resembles joy and life, a voice from the grave, singing soulfully into the arms of angels. One of the most perfect late fall days, where the light seems to come down from heaven, because it is so bright, human eyes can’t bear it, and it is tinged with the iridescence of a shell’s interior, invisible normally to the naked eye.

 

 

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Between the worlds is a seemingly endless construction of darkness and sparrows.

It takes courage to live the life you have. That is so powerful. Walking back home and now, lying down in my air-conditioned bedroom, I feel lucky and content and happy. I looked at my tree-lined street with its brownstones and its beauty and lush and calm and I said to myself, I live on this street. And walked up my stoop and went inside, like I have a thousand times before, and looked at the entranceway with its peeling paint and old walls and woodwork trim near the ceiling and thought, this is so homey, this feels like such a warm, happy home. The home my loved ones make for me. The home I make for myself.

Being naked in all this – the deer eating my mom’s begonias and the shivering of Souls in summer curtains, and fear.

 

Acceptance is simple, yet elusive.

What does it mean when I say, I want to live closer to my soul?

*

So far, Retrograde has been slow. I’ve been slow-moving, sometimes almost at a dead standstill. Everything grinds to a halt, with only little rivulets of work, thank the heavens, and reading a mystery, set in Brooklyn, that I picked up on the street a couple years ago. I’ve been thinking about coffee but feeling like it’s too late in the day and it will keep me up. I’m sleepy, though, and really want to read so a nice jump start would be nice. It’s so nice to be sleepy, though, so I stave off the urge for coffee.

*

Getting there…this idea of animals, first of all. The way they are who they are, survival instinct, instinct for affection and family, but no psychological anguish about having to change who they are.

That constant doing something and getting somewhere and pushing ourselves. That does more harm than good. Being stressed out 27/7 because time both expands and contracts when you’re permanently stressed out. I’m so done reaching my potential and having to do things on an endless, meaningless loop. Silence and acceptance. Letting go of resistance to what we’re feeling, grief or anger or fear or joy or surprise, bewilderment. So much. To think about the depth of emotion is impossible because it’s unthinkable and immeasurable. We go on.

*

Presence has no measurable product except positive feelings, feelings of support, intimacy, and happiness. When we stop being busy and productive and switch to just being still and aware, we ourselves will also feel support, intimacy, and happiness, even if no one else is around.  – Tricycle magazine, Jan Chozen Bays

*
Woke up before 6 am today and the morning wasn’t humid or blazing hot yet, opened all the windows and curtains to let in early morning summer light. Looking out the kitchen window at the gorgeous roof garden the neighbors have started and keep adding to, and the day is so quiet and still, there’s no wind and the tree beyond the window doesn’t move at all, the leaves are still. This is the courage it takes to move through every day as who we are, what we really think, what we really feel, awareness and our thoughts and actions and feelings aligning, not speaking falsely or against ourselves. What are we really feeling in these moments? What are we thinking? What do we say? What actions do we take? In how much of these daily actions and words do we measure our truth and freedom? What freedom really is, not what it means but how it’s made real in our daily lives. Intimacy with that magical force of uncertainty.

Buddhist practices are just that – practices. They have to have bone and blood and muscle. They live in the real world as real actions and real energy, not as abstractions. Mindfulness, awareness, kindness are measured by their practice in the world – thoughts and beliefs are the root, and then the root comes into the air through the earth and the tree or plant or action or human being or animal lives. It lives. Buddhist practices are alive, they have a life, as emotions have a life, as bodies have a life. This is what makes practice powerful and humble and meaningful. Because of its presence, its blood and bone and tongue and hand in the world.

*

I personally wouldn’t get an abortion. I also don’t drive. So I guess I have the right to tell people they can’t drive. Yeah, that makes sense. I also don’t own a tractor.

*

Solstice magic. “Golden days of sunlight.” Patterns in sky, thread, lines in the palm, hold together. “All that was missed will come back to you in another form but the same form.” (The same form you yield to.) The stretch of the circle begins, red ribbons of ashes, silk, river. Turnkeys. Heartache and darkness of walls, light of walls. Getting things done even when it hurts. Trusting body. Appreciate connections, bonds, intimacy, those who love you, bring you gifts that are invisible, felt. Hurting isn’t judgment or imbalance. The larger sphere that moves everything, like gravity. Joy weighs as much as pain. Consciousness revelatory, gratitude for all that.

*

What helps with intensity and revelations (sounds vaguely biblical but there are as yet no arks but there are encounters with the divine and a reorienting of faith towards all walls and windows, in all directions): working out every day, the body is god, it knows everything and can tell you anything you want to know, my loved ones, who are amazing and strong and loyal and kind and are love, reading, hours and hours of quiet, non-speech, non-words and the quiet of words too, the return or reacquaintance of a primal energy, movement of souls and body and faith, the sun, the night, the day, summer light, the wood of the floor, cats, dogs, green, life in full measure close to pulse and magic.

So what do you do when something becomes truth, you find out something so intense that it falls through you like so many nights and gravity itself and weighs in you like a separate solar system that now you must incorporate into your universe?

*

Maybe it’s the Solstice and moving through some invisible barrier but it feels like the fever of June has broken. There’s the aftershock but it’s gentler. Energy isn’t being sucked outward — life is not a wind tunnel. It feels calm at least for one second, maybe a minute or two and then three. Sitting here with my loved ones. You just move with it all, be as awake as you can, close your eyes and let it all go and sleep then do it all again. And every day is so different even though it seems the same. I think in that difference is the movement, the belief and the awakeness, the awakened, the letting go.

*

Juen (or June) the awakened self floats in the jar like a semi-suspended orchid I am love I am fuel and atrocity but the mind always.

This has been one of the most emotionally intense months. Looking forward to a weekend of decompressing, processing, but mostly, resting and recharging.  Solstice, where the light makes itself known from every corner of the sky.

*

Weird days leading up to the Solstice. Maybe the Solstice will even things out. It’s one of those times when new light and new information have come into my life, my sphere of knowing and experience fundamentally changed. It takes a while to integrate this new light that has shattered, to some extent, a held-together picture of what life is – this is both deepening and opening, so I’m trying to focus on that. And also get good nights of rest and sleep and dreams: a wooden sky.

*

Oh, June, you just keep bringing it. It just makes me stronger, more focused, more passionate. Everything happens in order to make meaning of these broken fields. When truths are revealed, they shock, disassemble and clarify, finally unifying life and patterns of being and soul and time into something blessed, whole. So keep bringing it, and along with it, the blazing sun of summer will burn through to its root, leaving nothing but the essential. You leave nothing but roots scattered.

*

It’s strange how sounds affect you. There has been infernal banging, sawing, drilling at both sides of my apartment, and I’m here, doing work, and listening to construction sounds: noises, jarring, loud intrusions – and the beautiful, lulling sound of the rain and the rain is so generously beautiful that, although it’s softer than the banging, and the walls don’t threaten to come down around it – the rain drowns out the other noises for small, sacred bits of time.

*

I am compiling a list of movies to watch on Netflix from a list of Existential Films. And am pulled toward a film about people in a small village, huddling in the winter cold under a big circus tent to view the carcass of a whale. Somehow, this seems, not prophetic, but a reality existing in an actual world of memory, of a past shared in ancestry and blood, a supernal physical presence, because I remember the cold and I remember the dead whale, and the pain that froze, because pain freezes, and then melts, but if we, ourselves and our ghosts, live in a climate that is winter nine months of the year, the winter gives birth to a Spring that is fleeting and hopeful, but doesn’t exist in the grand scheme of things. In other words, three months go by so fast, they don’t leave any lasting impression on the soul or the body. They are time waiting for winter to return. And whether winter returns in a boat or with a turnkey, it always does. And so we must sink into it because it is our life.
*
The welcome harmonies of pain and suffering are all around us, of course. Every day, we walk through their soldiered fields, seeing instead flowers growing wildly, with blazing color in the blazing sun (the sun is hot these days), and the one thing that separates before and now is my ability to let pain in, to let it just move through me and feel all of it, feel its presence in my throat and in my chest, as it takes up residence (like a residence hotel, so living there, but transient, or moving through rooms and transforming as it goes, ghost to living man, to living woman, to soldier, to ash, to wall, window, glass on a nightstand, because it is in everything and everyone, of course) in the heart, and I feel it there, and hold its hand, as corny as that sounds, as if sitting near a dying man’s bed, looking into the eyes right before death, with death knowing this end of life is coming to enter it, death, like a watch, wound perfectly and telling perfect time, and even more, like a translucent curtain through which only silhouettes are seen but the dying man and the caretaker can make out the shapes of this world passing into the next. Anyway, it seems all of this has released something in me of the truth, of a knowing. I feel it so acutely when something is wrong, or when there are things being hidden, and knowing is better, better than that haunted state of sensing and fear. We are connected through hope and maybe that’s what I feel, that we’re connected. We see beauty in devastating situations and that light is breaking through again. It seems we may have found magic again.

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We grow up with stories of what it is to be men and women. The illustrious goals of humans and sex and masculinity and femininity. I started writing this post the day the story hit about CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville case but couldn’t muster enough hope or light to finish in a way that wouldn’t be a total downer. There is enough evil and apathy (at direct opposition to empathy) in the world to sustain a lifelong despair and depression, so how do we move through this and still have hope? How can people behave this way, with such disregard for another person’s humanity? Why didn’t these boys know this was wrong?

 

 

This is just one of many exercises in how to deal with horror and horrific things that we don’t even understand, much less can incorporate into our worldview. There is balance somewhere in seeing the evil in the world, the ingrained social prejudices and hatreds and rampant misogyny and racism that dictate so many interactions and media and relationships, and living a life of social consciousness, kindness and, yes, hope. We have our own private and lonely despairs and miseries and then, out the window or on TV or at the restaurant, there is the despair and loneliness and alienation of the world. We waver between two poles in the sociogeography of time and place and childhood and adulthood and the stories we’ve been told, we’ve embodied, we’ve carried out—body, sensuality, stories and stories, cultural structures, office buildings, lampposts, subways, dinners, stoves, bathroom mirrors, kitchens, aprons—hope and despair, love and alienation, connection and isolation. The integrity of the needle of the compass attuned to empathy and compassion and the connection of all beings needs to be consciously maintained.

 

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We plummet hard into hell and live there, our own private holocausts and extinctions, not sleeping for years, living in consuming fear and staying there, not seeing a way out of our terror. How do we integrate what terror means, how do we deal with what we know exists in the world, into a life lived in relative peace and fortune? I have always wondered about that—that suspect tension between one life and another, the line that can so easily break, if one were to sneeze. It’s that fragile, the boundary between a free person and an imprisoned one. I have always felt this connection, as painful and debilitating as it sometimes is, where compassion and empathy descend into a hell in the body, something I feel in my bones, a consuming shiver under the skin that haunts the whole body from within, the reaching of the dead and buried and tortured and captive into my life, into my awareness, this awareness being a form of life itself, and it leaves bruises and memories and ghosts that follow me around on bright days and ask me to listen to them and to be with them and to somehow find healing and forgiveness and redemption.

 

There is something—translucent, indefinable, but I long to define it—that always pulls me out of this depression and despair. I am hoping that, in my own healing, I can help heal the world. Thich Nhat Hanh says that our own peace is the world’s peace. But first we have to find our own peace. If we are hopeless and despairing, there is something in us that is not looking at the world as it is. We are living in dark illusion. There is beauty and love and strength and compassion and empathy and kindness in the world. So we look at everything, which is hard to do when faced with horrors and injustices. To deal with our own terror and anguish, our own desolation, to face it with courage and openness, even if we feel it might consume us whole and we’ll never come up to see light again—to feel our hearts as they break, over and over again, and to allow ourselves to feel the connection we have to every living being in the world and universe, this is powerful, this conducts an electricity of change and creates a stronghold for true power to emerge into just and kind and fair actions. It starts with our hearts and our bodies and what we choose to think and say and do in each situation. Even in the midst of our own pain, we can be kind—to ourselves and to those around us. The simple, yet challenging act of noticing how we feel, consciously turning our awareness to our emotions, our body, how it feels, and letting our thoughts just be—not attaching to the stories we tell to both comfort and terrify ourselves—moves mountains. We must teach this and weave it into our social fabric, make it part of our curriculum and narrative.

 

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A note about these photographs—I took these self-portraits while thinking about all of this, so thought I’d post them here. I was thinking about the body and what the body knows and what emotion and empathy and story and moving through pain looks like and feels like.

 

 

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We Create Our Own Shadows

 

We are feral children, living in abandoned tunneled concrete underground. The surface = danger. The bits of garbage, our remaindered archaeologies, are precious to us and we arrange them with care, treat them as artifacts. Suddenly, there’s an unmarked van on the surface come to rescue us. Half of us move half of our fractured crockery, our rusted pipes, our cracked plastic up to the surface. The other half will come the next day. At night the tunnels and rooms collapse while we wait. Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

Lee Ann Roripaugh

 

I had a hard night last night, emotionally, and a difficult conversation with someone I love with all my heart, unconditionally and eternally. A soul mate, someone who has taught me how to love, how to be in the world as myself, living close to my bones, my desires, my truth. Bone, desire, truth are not just words describing these things: bone, desire, truth. They are decoders of the obscure nature of what they denote and create a place and a language that transcend their physicality. They inhabit a place of being to which we both ascend and descend, finding lost things, healing wounds that have been invisible to us, lighting our path. The hard emotions that came up last night put me solidly on my path. Again and again, I return to it.

 

I woke up with a heavy stone in my chest. Things I used to tolerate are becoming intolerable. There is more, seemingly, to fix, to take care of, to handle. What I realized this morning is that this is a healthy thing, there is energy and power there.

 

We determine so much of our lives. We can make tragedy for ourselves and compound our misery or we can look steadily at what is happening around us, in our lives, in the world, and use our power to answer those misfortunes and to thoroughly enjoy our moments of peace. The place where demons dwell—one place that is many places in the physical world, and even more worlds in the soul. Tiredness that weaves around the body, stretching into our thoughts and passions, making longings grow deeper. The truth of where we put our focus and our energy determines how we live. This is a hard topic, as fate intertwines with free will and our own consciousness and self-power. It bears thinking about and honing the skill of being in concert with the world but also in answer to it.

 

Have we entered the poem more deeply than we had imagined? Finding purpose, light and shadow, the crook of a neck, the nape of that same neck, kissing that is like coming home, tragedies that break us open and hold us accountable for our presence.

 

Primo Levi writes, “…the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head…”

 
The sea, its strange shores and incandescent glow of planets low in the sky, close to earth, for hours or minutes, during which we can see them with the naked eye—come together and Opherion, Orpheus, the underworld all become visible. The invisible harnesses we hold ourselves to, the seemingly meaningless things we tolerate on a daily basis, to find, when we become conscious, that they’ve made holes in our shirts, dulled our skin and breath, taken away our breath altogether. This is the point of action, this vulnerability and discomfort. Becoming disenchanted with the illusion of our lives as we would like to see them, letting go of the need to appear perfect or refined or even well-defined, makes us free. Just being with ourselves and our lives the way we are, the way they are lifts a tremendous burden off of us.

 

It allows us to be who we are, to let others see us and be close to us, creating deeper and more fulfilling connections with everyone and everything. These are the connections we long for, and this intimacy is sustainable, because it is true. That which is true sustains.

 

Trust the body, the things the body knows before they happen, the body as an echo of the future, premonitory, live, sensitive, all the organs and blood and nerve endings acute readers of signals the soul sends out, the world bowing and swelling to meet these sounds, knowing it’s time. Almost knocks us down, this feeling of it’s time. What does this mean to us, and how do we stay true to it?

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I was tagged by Susana Gardner, mermaid of Rhode Island.

….SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/batman916/Desktop/EndofSuffering.doc: : : …….

“”Unsolicited blurb:magnetizedfield: “We called ourselves howrse, stars shining velvt poured fourth from hearts aching for sound. I am deliverance —and”””

What is the working title of the book? For the poetry manuscript, The End of Suffering or Autobiography of Love; for the sci-fi/fantasy novel, Bird Diaries, I: Waiting for the Nightjar

Where did the idea come from for the book? Both stories began with the premise that we can all be somewhere else, as someone else, but still ourselves, and that the notion of fated placement in a particular period in history is questionable. Being born at a certain time and place is frighteningly random. Concerns about history and heritage, the blood-knowledge that comes from ancestral experiences play into the narrative of both stories. Also, thinking about relationships and solitude and how the two exist together and communicate, both in intimate relationships and communities, world and universe. Reading a lot about Western Buddhism and the application of Buddhist principles here in the West–and, personally, how Buddhist practices of mindfulness, kindness, compassion and unconditional love transform and deepen my experience. How unconditional love and compassion are ethical mandates–the power of fighting the good fight, knowing our power as citizens of a world and a planet, connected irrevocably to each other, in the face of an ever-present Apocalypse.

What genre does your book fall under? Poetry and speculative/sci-fi/fantasy fiction.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? Tilda Swinton. Jake Gyllenhaal. Vampire Bill. Spike. Mulder. Scully. Buffy.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

fortune smiles,- the obtuse perimeter regards itself to say, “Axel,: patterned, exact cut of cloth that makes us;:who we are is metronomical.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? Five years,…and counting.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? Most of the driving force to write this book came from feeling like a lucky bastard, having wound up in this century, in this country, born in fortuitous circumstances and thinking of the sheer absurdity of that luck. Also, feeling passionate love for several different men over the last ten years, traveling a lot, and then settling in of a sort, here in New York. The various dichotomies that are not really dichotomies between what seem like discrete years and times in my life, and the idea that time is cumulative, not linear. And the thread-blood blessing of every part of it is love. The realization that love underpins all phenomenological being. The crude structures of life, biology, death, physics, chemistry, are intricate spacetime measurements. Thinking about how physics relates to the density and bareness of language.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? Love and sex are interesting. Parallel time and the paradox of random fate are thought-provoking.

Also: from the title poem:

There is no place that is here, ethere in the stomach, heart, lungs”

The end of suffering appears as a glow on the edge of thought-eye, the belief that at the end of the subway ride, there will be coffee and scones waiting.

My Astronomy. falls regal to the side, like a lamb’s leg.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? It’s looking for a home. 🙂

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are: Maria Damon, Kiala Givehand, Ash Smith, Errant Tiger, Michael Newton, David Hadbawnik

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