silence

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Our prompt this week is from 10th century Japanese essayist Sei Shonagon’s Hateful Things, where she lists things that are hateful to her. Large and small. She writes with conviction. She lists what’s hateful, without saying, “I believe it might be hateful, if you look at it this way perhaps…” None of that. IT IS HATEFUL. Period. That’s what writing is about, isn’t it? On the page, we get to make up the rules. I’ve been writing an essay about what is hateful to me. These are some paragraphs from my essay:

You have almost fallen asleep and someone sends you a text message of a smiley face. In fact, receiving a smiley face message with no context is hateful at any time of day. It is hateful when the man you have decided not to date invites you to a show you wish to see and you have to say no so as not to become hateful to yourself. To hear anyone’s inhalations or exhalations is hateful.

When you live in a country where the infant mortality rate of children of poor women is nearly twice that of the wealthy; that is very hateful indeed. When the poverty rates of Blacks and Hispanics is at least twice that of whites in every state, and someone insists that racism is dead, you may wish they would join this version of hypothetical racism and die too, perhaps once every 28 hours.

Some of it comes from the sources linked below. These are facts, we have some real problems, and they are made even more embarrassing and scary by all the people pretending we don’t have them, by all the people unwilling to discuss them.

Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement

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Holiday Shopping Guide!!!

The title above is me trying to fit in with the rest of the Internet. Did it work? Can I eat lunch with Best Buy and Zappos?
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The semester is coming to a close and I’m officially halfway through grad school. I’ve done a lot of writing, some that I feel was successful. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last week which this guy says I shouldn’t brag about. I see his point, but I’m still pretty pleased (and awestruck) that someone likes my writing enough to think that someone else might like it. Which is what the editors at Duende are saying to me with this nomination. I also finished my book. The book I thought I’d never finish. The book that felt like a mountain crumbling beneath me as I climbed it. I feel alternately terrified and ecstatic to be releasing it into the world (in a year, dearies, so let’s all calm down). But the best thing I did this semester was read. I spent the past few days annotating books, which I complain about but actually love.

I began marking up books when I was thirteen and read Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and there was no one around to share in the hilarity and absurd magic so I had to put foil stars and comments in the margins (this was before the cell phone camera phenomenon, so I couldn’t put the hilarious passage on IG), and the habit stuck. But now I spend some time every few months copying all my notes into a semi-coherent mini-essay about each book, linking the marked passages with half-formed sentences so that I can turn them in for credit. I do this all the time, even when I’m not in school. The books I read are as much a record of my life as the things I write—perhaps more so. I love tracing how they arrived in my hands, love realizing how these little labyrinths (thanks, Rebecca Solnit, for giving me that image) entered through chance. The books that changed my life these past few months have been recommended to me by friends, by book reviews I happened upon on-line, by Instagram photos of passages. I have bought them at thrift stores, been mailed books by friends, found them in stacks at the library and checked them out on a whim. I ordered one of the most formative books of the semester—“The Paradox of Love” by J. Pittman McGehee, because the author was giving a lecture I was going to be out of town for and I was bummed. The book completely impacted my understanding of love as a life skill. I delivered a talk in Minnesota that referenced his book the same weekend he was giving his lecture in DC. So here are some quotes from my favorites. If you want to spend money on Cyber Monday (WTF is that, by the way?) buy books.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
“The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist. This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on. We make ourselves and in so doing are the gods of the small universe of self and the large world of repercussions.” (53)

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of Love

“Mermaids seem, in part, to echo the conflict men feel about women in general. They are beautiful, mysterious, idealized creatures whom men long to possess. But they also arouse feelings that make men vulnerable, irrational, and crazed. They can enslave the most powerful men. And they don’t fight fair. The more beautiful they are, the more power they have, and when they know it, and act remote and unconquerable, they can be truly frightening. However weak of limb, they’re strong enough to send a man to his doom.” (238)

Kim Addonizio, What is this thing called love

Fuck
There are people who will tell you
that using the word fuck in a poem
indicates a serious lapse
of taste, or imagination,

or both. It’s vulgar,
indecorous, an obscenity
that crashes down like an anvil
falling through a skylight

Jimmy Santiago Baca, The Lucia Poems

“Young lives are like fire; they can be used to illuminate the night or burn a city to the ground.”

J. Pittman McGehee, The Paradox of Love

“Any person who doesn’t know another, doesn’t know herself, and any person who doesn’t know herself, doesn’t know another.”

Howard Zinn, Artists in Times of War

“I’m not interested in just reproducing class after class of people who will get out, become successful, and take their obedient places in the slots that society has prepared for them. What most of us must be involved in—whether we teach or write, make films, write films, direct films, play music, act, whatever we do—has to not only make people feel good and inspired, and at one with other people around them, but also has to educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.”

This guy…

rock n roll rooster

My father always told us stories about his mother and sister who both died long before I was born. They weren’t just glowing ultra edited eulogies, these stories–he showed their flaws with a touch of humor, alluded to their individual histories of grief. Only when I was writing about it and feeling the sadness of writing about him did I really realize what the gift of sharing his loved ones with me must have cost him–and what, in turn, my listening gave him. It is an important tradition to tell the stories of the people who are gone.

Goodbyes are something folks in my groups struggle with a lot. Last week we did a storytelling prompt, one of my favorites. We used an excerpt from Joel Chasnoff’s brilliant war memoir, The 188th Crybaby Brigade.

I am Israeli soldier number 5481287. I’ve been assigned to Platoon Two, Company B, Battalion 71 of the 188th Armored Brigade. I’m at the Armored School, in the south, halfway between Jordan and Egypt. It’s the 30th day of July, day one of basic training, and I’m in shock that I’m actually here, in uniform, on a military base, a soldier in a foreign country’s army.
I’m dressed like a soldier but I look like a clown. My uniform’s three sizes too big, and it’s stiff, so it looks like I’m wearing a suit of green construction paper; I’d thought I’d look sexy in uniform, but I don’t. I’ve also got a new look–I’m buzz-cut and shaved–and a new name: instead of Joel, I am now my Hebrew name, Yoel, and my last name, according to my dog tags is Shetnitz.
“You misspelled my name,” I said to the guy at the dog tag machine.
“So don’t die,” he said, and shooed me out the door.

The thing about good storytelling is all the stuff that is implicitly communicated. The clues into your life and your experiences that a good listener can pick up. This excerpt is pretty straightforward, but there are layers. Here when he talks about how he expected to look sexy in the uniform, we are told how he feels out of place, what the purpose of this new role (and dog tags) is. Dog tags are serious. An acknowledgment of your vulnerability, of the danger of the world. We know what this young man is wrestling with–ideals of masculinity, fears about reality, and as someone in the group today pointed out, the stripping away of identity central to basic training. I think that happens quite naturally when we write with a focus on being specific, it’s nothing we have to force.  He says it without a hint of poor me. But we think, That must have been difficult.

There’s a section in the book that I really like to use where he does a short sketch of each of the guys in the unit so you know all the players. The people who shaped us are a part of us. When we speak their stories aloud, they rise up and join us in the room, and the people we are sharing them with know us and our experiences a little better. We introduce the people we love through stories all the time. I’m always so glad when I mention a friend from faraway to a local friend and they respond with, “Oh your friend Brian who declared psychological warfare on the neighbors in 9th grade?” (that’s right, Brian, I talk about you).

Your prompt is to sketch out some of the people you know best–dead or alive, near or far, close or estranged. We came up with some questions to get you going:

1. What were they like when they get angry?
2. What always made them mad or always made them laugh?
3. What was your first impression of them/how did you meet?
4. What was their ‘tell’ in poker or pranks? Could they keep a straight face?
5. How do they sleep? (The group assured me this is NOT a creepy question, I think in the realm of deployment it’s not, but if you’re just sneaking around watching people sleep, that’s definitely creepy)
6. What really embarrassing song was their jam?
7. What were some of their unique habits/superstitions?

Tell us about one time when they…

(Bonus points…how would someone close answer the above about you?)

I hope this prompt makes you smile, in spite of what it may cost you. And I hope you tell the story at whatever table you sit at to eat turkey this week, and that when you tell the story, someone you miss will be near for a moment. And someone who is near will understand you a little better.

Happy Thanksgiving, my dears.  I am eternally grateful for you–for trusting me with your stories and for listening to mine.  For all the laughing through tears we do together.  Be well.  Send me poems (or cans of jellied cranberries).



Just for Me

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About a month ago, some really beautiful people in Santa Fe opened their home to me. I was in town for a poetry event, and as supporters of the theater, they often host performers. They bestowed immense kindness upon me, laughed with me, looked out for me and shared their wisdom. They made me feel like family, which had nothing to do with me and everything to do with who they are. I learned a lot from them, and have told many of you some of it. The thing I’d been thinking about before was how I always felt like love exhibited toward me was diminished in value if it wasn’t especially mine. It had to be the result of my own superiority, my own specialness for it to really mean anything. But that’s bullshit. The best people are good people, who are good in lots of settings. Surrounding myself with people who are only good to me is a terrible idea. But there’s something in society that tells us to be jealous, to compete. That in order for us to have something someone else has to not have it.

My children spend a lot of time with my ex-husband’s girlfriend, who lives with him. I am glad (understatement) to no longer be married to him, am grateful for her kindness to them, and genuinely want them to like her.  I want them to be their charming, beautiful selves with her, and I want her to love them and do silly things with them.  Being their mother isn’t something that I’m at risk of losing, it’s who I am.  It’s non-transferable.  But loving those children enough to give them the confidence to endure all the inevitable beat downs that life will send their way is a task that I want lots of people involved in.  I was telling someone this recently, and it was met with disbelief.  But I assure you, it is genuine.

It’s hard even to convince the boys of this–they feel conflicted when they talk about enjoying some time with her, and I have to tell them again and again, I love anyone who loves them and protects them from harm.  Period.  If she was being a monster to them it would be different.  Like I know this one girl, Snow White, who’s dad’s new boo was all about feeding her poisoned apples, and trust, that shit would not fly.

And of course, this non-transferable mother role is special and completely non-threatenable, but there is a version of it that extends to everyone, to all the people I love. I am the only me in your life, and that’s that (and you the only you in my life). I don’t have to be your best friend or your savior or your one and only confidant. If someone is being kind to you, I love them for it.  I’m not kind enough to be the only kind person in your life.  I’m not funny enough to be the only funny person in your life.  I can’t be the only person you tell your feelings to or the only person you laugh with.  I fail some days, don’t have enough time, life isn’t long enough for you to be waiting for one person to be free.  So let’s all find more people.  Be that person in each other’s lives.  Have dinner without me and text me pictures and I’ll text back ‘jealous’ but really I’ll feel your laughter somewhere in my heart and be so glad you are having that.  The more people who are kind to other people, the better the world we live in will be. If other people are making me happy, I’ll bring that happiness to everyone else as well. We need to share what we have to give so that it multiplies (though of course if the thing you’re giving is the D or the V, be choosier–herpes multiplies too).

You might be at a place right now where you can’t quite pinpoint what good you’re bringing to the world and that may make you feel like this prompt isn’t for you. But I promise you, it’s for you–because being kind–smiling at people, complimenting strangers, holding doors, making small talk with the cashier at the coffee shop–requires no previous experience. You can start today and be an expert by tomorrow. Just think about how you want people to feel once they’ve left your presence, and then work toward putting that in the world.

I love the poem below, it was shared during a TLA Council Meeting last night (because I’m a part of an organization that opens and closes conference calls with poems). It makes me wonder if perhaps the reason we have such a hard time just feeling good things has to do with how difficult it is to contain purely positive feelings without parameters or a fence of negativity. F the fence, let happiness run all over the page.

Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
~ Naomi Shahib-Nye

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Ghostliness

 

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“I woke up this morning completely tangled up with a child who snores and sleeps with eyes almost fully open. His bony feet are always kicking mine, he head-butts me in the ribcage half the time, and turns and elbows me the other half.  I got up, granted myself the slow luxury of French press coffee brought back to bed and read until he woke up and began to read too.”

I found the above, with the picture, in my drafts here.  I’ve been working on a post that’s kind of a complicated synthesis of lots of stuff, but I feel bad that there hasn’t been a prompt this week, so I was digging through the archives of unposted half-started almost-thoughts.

Tonight I was at work until pretty late.  And tomorrow I’ll go to work pretty early. I worked hard today.  Cleaned my desk.  Wrote some emails.  Did some poems.  Figured out some technology.  Smiled at some people who didn’t exactly deserve it (you know who you are, haters).   When I stood up to leave work, I thought, “I’m a complete fake.”  I don’t know why I thought that.   But the ghosts of past insecurities can be mad hard to shake, can’t they?  They haunt me sometimes as I walk home in the crisp cold.

I think about ghosts a lot.  Not just because of Halloween, but because I like the idea of ghosts.  I like that so many people who are otherwise devoid of magical thinking sort of believe in them.  And I like that I am as qualified as anyone to define the rules of ghost hood.  I like believing that there are things I can’t see and can’t know.  Even living people can be ghosts in absentia.  Social media can make everyone you’re ‘friends’ with a ghost in your decision making process even when you’re alone, if you let them.  And I can haunt someone if I want, even while being alive (though it’s frowned upon).  Here’s a ghosty poem for you.  Do with it what you will.   (And by ‘what you will’ I obviously mean write a ghostly poem and haunt my inbox with it)

 

by John Philip Johnson

She kept its bones in a glass case
next to the recliner in the living room,
and sometimes thought she heard
him mewing, like a faint background music;
but if she stopped to listen, it disappeared.
Likewise with a nuzzling around her calves,
she’d reach absent-mindedly to scratch him,
but her fingers found nothing but air.
One day, in the corner of her eye,
slinking by the sofa, there was a shadow.
She glanced over, expecting it to vanish.
But this time it remained.
She looked at it full on. She watched it move.
Low and angular, not quite as catlike
as one might suppose, but still, it was him.
She walked to the door, just like in the old days,
and opened it, and met a whoosh of winter air.
She waited. The bones in the glass case rattled.
Then the cat-shadow darted at her,
through her legs, and slipped outside.
It mingled with the shadows of bare branches,
and leapt at the shadow of a bird.
She looked at the tree, but there was no bird.
Then he blended into the shadow of a bush.
She stood in the threshold, her hands on the door,
the sharp breeze ruffling the faded flowers
of her house dress, and she could feel
her own bones rattling in her body,
her own shadow trying to slip out.

Dreams

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“Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.”
Cheryl Strayed

I don’t always remember my dreams, but the ones I remember always seem to be telling me something, and often I believe them in a way that I can’t believe reality.  The other morning I woke in a strange place (I’ve been traveling a little bit) and recalled vividly being in a room with an arched ceiling with nooks in the walls rising all the way up, filled with all these different beautiful glowing blue and gold blown glass bottles.  So many I couldn’t count.  And I felt completely loved when I woke. As I am writing this, I understand that my dream was perhaps telling me that I am surrounded by walls of fragile vessels (I think that’s all of you, my dears), that are providing light for me, but also require my care.  What a gift from my subconscious.

The night before my father died–he died across the world, so I was likely dreaming as he died–I dreamed of storms.  I woke, went back to sleep, fell into the same dream.  After he died, he was in my dreams often–though as soon as I asked him a question, he disappeared.  It was through a dream, months later, that he finally convinced me that he was really gone.  I woke up weeping. Tears had eluded me for the most part up until that point, but on this trip, away from my responsibilities, in the company of someone I felt safe with, my mind finally allowed me to feel his death for the first time.  I trust my dreams, because I trust my unconscious self–the parts of me that aren’t constantly looking for a grounds and justification for my instincts.  In my dreams I just know. There’s a great Carl Jung quote (that I don’t feel like looking up, so I’ll paraphrase) about how it is likely that we are constantly dreaming, but our conscious minds are too loud for us to get the messages from our dreams while we’re awake. I love that idea.

Below is a fantastic poem about dreams. Ask yourself four questions about dreams and answer them with authority. The authority is key, I think. The asserting knowledge. Here are my four questions (which you are welcome to use):

What do you thirst for in that quiet space between wakefulness?

When you dream of the dead do they dream of you too?

What dreams to you wish to press into the sleeping eyes of your children?

What name do you call yourself by in your dreams?

Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals

by Susan Stewart

 

1. Is it true that they dream?

It is true, for the spaces of night surround them with shape and purpose, like a warm hollow below the shoulders, or between the curve of thigh and belly.
The land itself can lie like this. Hence our understanding of giants.
The wind and the grass cry out to the arms of their sleep as the shore cries out, and buries its face in the bruised sea.
We all have heard barns and fences splintering against the dark with a weight that is more than wood.
The stars, too, bear witness. We can read their tails and claws as we would read the signs of our own dreams; a knot of sheets, scratches defining the edges of the body, the position of the legs upon waking.
The cage and the forest are as helpless in the night as a pair of open hands holding rain.

2. Do they dream of the past or of the future?

Think of the way a woman who wanders the roads could step into an empty farmhouse one afternoon and find a basket of eggs, some unopened letters, the pillowcases embroidered with initials that once were hers.
Think of her happiness as she sleeps in the daylilies; the air is always heaviest at the start of dusk.
Cows, for example, find each part of themselves traveling at a different rate of speed. Their bells call back to their burdened hearts the way a sparrow taunts an old hawk.
As far as the badger and the owl are concerned, the past is a silver trout circling in the ice. Each night he swims through their waking and makes his way back to the moon.
Clouds file through the dark like prisoners through an endless yard. Deer are made visible by their hunger.
I could also mention the hopes of common spiders: green thread sailing from an infinite spool, a web, a thin nest, a child dragging a white rope slowly through the sand.

3. Do they dream of this world or of another?

The prairie lies open like a vacant eye, blind to everything but the wind. From the tall grass the sky is an industrious map that bursts with rivers and cities. A black hawk waltzes against his clumsy wings, the buzzards grow bored with the dead.
A screendoor flapping idly on an August afternoon or a woman fanning herself in church; this is how the tails of snakes and cats keep time even in sleep.
There are sudden flashes of light to account for. Alligators, tormented by knots and vines, take these as a sign of grace. Eagles find solace in the far glow of towns, in the small yellow bulb a child keeps by his bed. The lightning that scars the horizon of the meadow is carried in the desperate gaze of foxes.
Have other skies fallen into this sky? All the evidence seems to say so.
Conspiracy of air, conspiracy of ice, the silver trout is thirsty for morning, the prairie dog shivers with sweat. Skeletons of gulls lie scattered on the dunes, their beaks still parted by whispering. These are the languages that fall beyond our hearing.
Imagine the way rain falls around a house at night, invisible to its sleepers. They do not dream of us.

4. How can we learn more?

This is all we will ever know.

The poem linked below is from What is This Thing Called Love by Kim Addonizio (which if you’ve been hanging around me lately you know I’m always carrying around and ordering for other people–I ordered my third copy yesterday). I have had almost exactly the dream she details here, though mine was several pieces of paper, that I was risking everything to catch up to. You could write to that instead, if you like. You know, write whatever you want. You know, just write. And send me your writing if you like. I got four poems in my inbox this week. I was overjoyed. FOUR. If you didn’t send me one of those four, you are on the hook, baby.

In Dreams by Kim Addonizio

Mothers, mothers mothers…

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I’ve been thinking about mothers and motherhood–I mean, sure, we all have–it’s the most important, complicated relationship in our lives, isn’t it? But I’ve been thinking about it more than usual. As a mother, and as a child. You know when there’s a concept that you’re thinking about and everything else you read and see seems to come back to that? I’m there with motherhood, in this really full-body way. We’ve always had a complicated thing, me and my mother, not in a particularly difficult way, but because we are so different and so similar and from two different cultures and from the same culture. I love that lady very, very deeply–my very existence feels so dependent on her. When I was a child I would check her breathing in the night. (There, I told you something super weird about me as a kid, that’s the emotional equivalent of being blood brothers) Even now, when she is so far away and not part of my daily life, the thought of the fact of her mortality can bring tears to my eyes. Yesterday Hurricane was calculating what her age would be when he graduates high school, and I had to go find something else to do.

But as tethered as I am to her, I wonder whether I know her at all. Whether I see her at all. Whether the mask she wears, of mother, of my mother blinds me from actually knowing her. What a shame that would be. A few years agp, I came across the poet Marge Piercy through this 4 part poem, “My Mother’s Body” which destroyed me. I had to read it over several months. Seriously. Had to put the print out down and walk away. Here’s section 3 below. Holy. Shit. Right? Read that last stanza–“My twin, my sister, my lost love,/I carry you in me like an embryo/as once you carried me.” Right? How are you carrying your mother in you? What parts of your personality, your mannerisms, the way you fold socks or scrape a plate or lay out your clothes or navigate the world have been passed down. This is inclusive of men here–so don’t you dudes act like this ain’t a prompt for you.

Send me your poems, I’ll send you my love. Actually even if you don’t send me poems, I’m sending love. It’s the only thing I know to do when the world is constantly repeating its own mistakes. I learned it from my mom.

From “My Mother’s Body,” By Marge Piercy

3.

What is this mask of skin we wear,
what is this dress of flesh,
this coat of few colors and little hair?

This voluptuous seething heap of desires
and fears, squeaking mice turned up
in a steaming haystack with their babies?

This coat has been handed down, an heirloom
this coat of black hair and ample flesh,
this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.

This set of hips and thighs, these buttocks
they provided cushioning for my grandmother
Hannah, for my mother Bert and for me

and we all sat on them in turn, those major
muscles on which we walk and walk and walk
over the earth in search of peace and plenty.

My mother is my mirror and I am hers.
What do we see? Our face grown young again,
our breasts grown firm, legs lean and elegant.

Our arms quivering with fat, eyes
set in the bark of wrinkles, hands puffy,
our belly seamed with childbearing,

Give me your dress that I might try it on.
Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat.
I will not fit you mother.

I will not be the bride you can dress,
the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew,
a dog’s leather bone to sharpen your teeth.

You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound.
Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks
barbed and drawing blood with their caress.

My twin, my sister, my lost love,
I carry you in me like an embryo
as once you carried me.

A Right to a New Voice

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Friends, that picture above is me, in 1981.

Mumia Abu-Jamal has recorded a commencement speech to be played at Goddard College’s graduation this weekend. I don’t know what happened in that incident in Philadelphia three decades ago. I wasn’t there. I’d venture that nobody reading this was.

Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer shot and killed in that incident, is still very sad. Nothing that anyone can say or do (or not say or not do) will change that. Her husband, who she loved when she was a very young woman, is dead. The life they imagined for themselves never came to be. Grief is a solitary conversation. I know a little bit about it, I know that it has no expiration date, there’s a part of you that stays in the moment you lost someone you thought you’d have forever.

I also know that three decades is a long time. Plenty of time to change the course of your life, plenty of time to learn new things, to write books, to contribute to your community, to discover truths that no one else has discovered.

My work, my life–my belief system–hinges on the capacity of a human being to grow and transform. That the entire conversation about a man who has lived an extraordinary life, who has accomplished an extraordinary amount under some of the very worst circumstances any American citizen is forced to live in, is about none of that, but rather about something that he denies doing three decades ago, is terrifying. Do we want to live in a society where we cannot accept the human capacity for transformation? Where voices are silenced?

I witness people changing daily. Sometimes they tell me things that break my heart. Sometimes they tell me the worst things they have done and wait for me to flinch, to turn away from them. They wait for me to confirm their worst suspicion: that they cannot be forgiven. That they have done things that are so awful they have nothing good to give. 22 veterans commit suicide everyday, many of them believing just that. But we have the most to learn from people who have been to the edge of the human experience. People who have suffered and have witnessed suffering, who have overcome violence that originates in themselves and violence from outside of themselves. We have things to learn from Mumia.

Lots has happened since 1981. Let’s talk about some of that.

Congratulations, 2014 Goddard College Graduates. You’ve come a long way too.

Edited to add the link to his address.

Changing Stories

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The amazing Kate Gale ran workshops for us last week. She shared some poems she loves, read us some of her own incredible work and then challenged us to rewrite our own stories. Kate shared this incredible poem by Brynn Saito (linked here at Drunken Boat), and another poem by Saito. Kate’s prompt was about writing a new story so you know where you want this arc to go. But I don’t know if I’m quite ready for that. I might need to go back and rewrite the old ones first. Be sure that I’ve not thrown out the baby with the bath water.
What strikes me so much about the poem below is its sweetness. Dear story, dear lover, you are beautiful and I chose you with my eyes open, but now I must go. You are the one who gave me the courage, ‘told me I was wild’ but that very thing that you awoke in me is what I must honor by leaving. But not without gratitude for your gifts. No blame. A very peaceful thing. It is what every goodbye should be. So before I can write my next story, I have some peace to make, some good to remember, some gifts to reopen and put on the mantle.

What is the thing you must walk away from? What era in your life must you leave behind? You were there for a reason, some good came of it. Hold that. Whether it’s a person, or a time, or a battle, or a job, or even a feeling, write to it as if it can hear you. Write to it with gratitude for lessons learned.

I wish you peace and a capacity for gratitude. Be well, keep writing, keep sending me poems. This world is large, but

The Palace of Contemplating Departure

You wandered through my life like a backwards wish
when I was readying for deliverance.

I was ready for release
like a pinball in God’s mouth
like charanga on Tuesdays
like the summer in Shanghai

when we prayed for a rainstorm
and bartered our shame, then we tore open oranges
with four dirty thumbs.

And the forecast said Super
so we chartered a yacht
and we planted a garden on the unbending prow

but the sea said Surrender
with its arms full of salt, and wind shook the seeds
from our shirt coat pockets

so when we washed up on the shoreline of sunlight
near the city of wind
we were broken and thin, like wraiths at a wake.

But you tilted your head up and told me I was wild
so I lifted my life
and I lifted your life

and we wandered through the gate of radiant days
then we married our splendor
in the hall of bright rule.

And I thank you again: you gave madness a chance
and you lassoed the morning
and we met on a Tuesday
in a dance hall in Shanghai
and I left you in a leap year for the coveted shoreline

and you wept like a book when it’s pulled from a well.

But you were the one who told me I was wild
and you were the one who wrestled the angel

and I knew when I left you
that courage was a choice
and memory, a spear,
and the X of destination is etched on my iris
and shifts with the seasons—

don’t think of the phoenix, think of the mountain.

But where will I go now with my tireless wonder?
And when will I again be brave like that?< />

Monotone

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I’m trying to memorize some of my own poems, which is an interesting and embarassing exercise. Like: not only do I think my words are so important that I have to write them down, but I also think you should read them and now–holy self-importance–I’m repeating them to myself over and over again all day long. I only started to do this with poems that I’m pretty satisfied with and intend to share at readings and such. But as I’ve been spending time with these poems, I’ve been finding little and big changes to make–as big as the ordering of stanzas, as little as changing individual words here and there. I was talking to a group of friends who are performers just before I started this process, and everyone shared a slightly different system for their own memorizing. I came home and tried bits of them all (because I have really smart friends). One suggestion was to attempt to memorize in monotone. While I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why that’s a good idea, I think in terms of editing poetry it might be particularly useful. If we are trying to create pieces of writing that will translate from the page and into the minds of the reader, we must imagine the most apathetic reader and start from there, right (I suppose an alternative is to find a teenager who is chronically bored and have him/her read it aloud).

Below is my mother’s favorite poem, the very first poem I remember memorizing. It is impossible to read this in monotone. The word choice requires you to slow and speed as Frost wants you to. We’ve done an exercise with this poem in writing workshops in the past, passing the poem around the room and having each person read it in turn. It is an exercise inspired by Denise Levertov’s “The Poet in the World.” Participants definitely looked at me like I was nuts, but when we got to about the fourth person, the skepticism began to fade away, and the readings were more and more sincere and simultaneously playful. But the poem withstood the test of accents, gender, reading speed–you name it. Try reading the below in monotone and see what I mean. Or tell me you disagree and that I’m an idiot. I can handle it.

This week I want you to listen to your own poems again and again–one that you’re really happy with, or one that you’ve been struggling with–either way. Repeat, repeat, repeat–read the poem aloud ten times, waiting at least a minute between readings so you’re sure to actually listen through. Get the sounds right, make edits.

Two final points:

1. Glamping (glamorous camping) is made even more glamorous when you get to go hang out with your awesome friends in the woods and then come home and sleep in your own bed. Above picture is from said “glamping” trip, near the power lines. Because these are city woods, people.

2. Why is Trombone Shorty so good? Do any of you care to make an introduction? I bet we’d get along so well, and I know he’s in town…

Now get serious, you slackers.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.