From My Reading This Week: The Joy of Being Awake and Alive

I am currently reading An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. She talks about her awakening and growing awareness of herself as a child this way:

“Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be? it drives you to a life of concentration, it does, a life in which effort draws you down so very deep that when you surface you twist up exhilarated with a yelp and a gasp.
Who could ever tire of this radiant transition—this surfacing to awareness and this deliberate plunging to oblivion—the theater curtain rising and falling? Who could tire of it when the sum of those moments at the edge—the conscious life we so dread losing—is all we have, the gift at the moment of opening it?”

I’ve had a few of these moments lately, moments of yelps and gasps, moments that feel like a gift at the moment of opening it.

Also, I love Annie Dillard’s writing. So beautiful.

Favorite Poem of the Week: “The Weight of What is Thrown” by Joe Wenderoth

I first heard this poem at a writing workshop given by Diane Glancy in Zion National Park last year. It is beautiful, thought-provoking. It is also tender for me, because this experience is one of the last I shared with my friend and mentor, Helen Keith Beaman, before she died.  I also used the comparison of stones and words in a poem I wrote later that year for Helen, not realizing until I re-read this poem that Wenderoth uses that metaphor also, though in a different way.

I love tenderness with which Wenderoth blends the natural world and the world of language in his descriptions of smooth stones and words. I love the call to attention of how stones and words we use as weapons are made, not born, the invitation to awareness, to taking the time to weigh what we say, what we throw into the world.

JOE WENDEROTH

The Weight of What Is Thrown

from American Poetry Review Vol. 36 No. 4

Smooth stones have always appealed to me.
River stones, I guess they’re called,
though the best ones come from ocean shoreline
where cliffs are crumbling and tides are rising
and falling
and perfecting what they have broken.
In Maine, for instance,
there are beaches of big smooth stones—
the stones are piled deep
like those plastic balls in a kids’ carnival attraction.
And each night, and each morning,
in comes the weight of the water,
the weight of the ocean,
under which the stones turn on one another
until they are smooth,
until they demonstrate submission to a kind of rule—
we might call it the rule
of the weight of what is thrown.
The stones are smooth like eggs, sometimes,
or like a palette;
whatever shape they are,
they are evidence of the rule,
evidence of the always diminishing shape of origin.
This is what we mean by decorative.

I say like an egg, but what a strange egg.
Think of a creature of bone—entirely of bone.
Such creatures are not born;
such creatures are made.
I suppose it’s appealing to suggest that something other
than human artifice could be a maker.
That is, it’s satisfying to think
that the weight of the ocean
and the weight of meaning
could be in some way connected.
Perhaps we can’t help but to explore that fantasy.

A smooth stone, like a word,
is artificially refined.
Pick it out of its bed
and take it up into your grasp
and it is strange.
Why is it strange?
It is strange because it is so telling—
because, like a corpse, it so plainly confronts us
with its nonsensical independence.
How could the earth be a heap of smooth stones?
How could speech be a heap of words?

But unlike a corpse, it’s appealing
to take a smooth stone to hand.
A smooth stone is a weapon, and,
assuming it’s the right size, an attractive weapon.
It’s a weapon, moreover, that promises a great event.
The event is great because it alludes to
and calls for a certain talent,
a certain potential in its thrower.

A language, at any given moment, is so many words.
It’s one beach, let’s say, along a world-ocean.
I think of the way they named the portions of beach
on D-Day: Juno, Sword, Omaha, Utah, Gold.
Expand that map and you can picture
all the earth’s language-beaches.
Some are so close to one another that they overlap—
others are quite far apart.
No matter how far apart, however,
their differences are superficial.
Each beach is smooth stones,
and the stones have not been born—
they have been made.
Not made like a bicycle, mind you—
not made intentionally
but made by weight,
made by a great thrown force,
thrown by No One, really,
for who-knows-what reason.
Perhaps this is why, when someone hurls words at us
like they are his own,
like the weight of the words is his own weight,
we are so mistrustful, so appalled.

Only the voice of No One
is really moving.

Raw Journal Passage: On Saying YES!

While visiting cemeteries in New England, I was absolutely taken by the different forms of this winged head on headstones, along with inscriptions like this one: “View here thy transient state / Life is an empty show / See mine how short the date / How soon may yourn be so!”

“Today I have been visiting the Atlantic Ocean on the Connecticut shore. I’ve visited Stonington Borough and Mystic and now I’m on Eastern Point Beach in Groton. I am sitting on a sand dune smelling the salt and chill of the sea, being kept company by dozens of seagulls—white and gray and dappled brown.

This morning we found on the breakfast table at the Tolland Inn, a copy of a Hartford newspaper with Osama Bin Laden’s face and the headline: Osama Bin Laden is Dead.

I listened in the car to a Boston radio show called “Matt and Ray.” Two sports guys stopped their regular broadcast to talk about America’s news. They interviewed an FDNY firefighter who was on the ground when the World Trade Centers fell in 2001. He was very emotional as he talked about that day and the closure that comes with this [Bin Laden’s death] for so many people, particularly military and firefighters. Many called in with the same line and feeling: God Bless America!

I spent a cold morning in a New England cemetery conversing with ghosts who died two centuries before I was born, and wandered into a meadow where I tromped through a carpet of fallen oak leaves and acorn caps.

I smashed an ant by accident outside of Mystic Seaport. Really, I just wanted to flick him away, but my fingernail perished him.

And I just keep thinking. Are we not all the same?

I’ve seen so many loved ones turn to their final homes, their graves this year and life is so fleeting and precious and rare.

The ocean laps the shore. It crash, crash, crashes in and goes back out. The driftwood and sea-glass dot the beach. These scallop and mussel shells lie empty, their house-guests now gone, and some day we all die.

All that’s left to us is to say YES to each moment we are alive.

Yes to:

    • The salt smell of ocean
    • The blaring horn and ding that rings in answer off DuBois Beach on Stonington Borough
    • The woman (0r man) living beneath a bridge in North Boston, the curled form buried under a pink blanket on a lounge chair and a bicycle guarding bags of belongings beside it
    • Free ice cream in Boston Common
    • The gull diving in shallow ocean for black wormy food
    • Black sea ducks skimming the water in flight, less than a wing’s breadth above the waves
    • Driving alone up the coast on Conn 1 and I-95
    • The cold damp of the sea air that freezes the bubbles of my bones and chills the hands that grip this pen
    • YES! to the lighthouses at Groton
    • Yes! Yes! Yes! to climbing the stone spiral steps of Stonington lighthouse and gripping the iron ladder in fear as I climbed through to the top BECAUSE IT SCARED ME!

And oh, the sight I saw as reward! The ocean beckoning me into her arms. The waves curling and calling. The homes on the shore and the V of sea ducks overhead. The embrace of the endless ocean, Old Man Sea, around the finger of the Borough stretching out into the ocean with me, reaching out as if we two touched God today, and climbing back down with fear behind me, flown, burst through the lighthouse glass as a blaring beacon, a signal light to ships in the harbor to say: Come! See what I have seen and do not be afraid to live, or living be afraid to die, but come with me and let your fear burn blue and green as the driftwood it is, and CRACK OPEN WIDER, Welcoming Sorrow and Pain and Anger. Invite it all to burn in the blaze of who you will become. Someone new will fall down these stone steps, the you you thought was you, gone, shed like old skin. Newborn. Like a Phoenix from the flame of your fear.”

From my green journal, Dated May 2, 2011. This is still part of my goal for life. The opening. The welcoming of EVERYTHING inherent in living, the YES! YES! YES! to this life I love.

From My Readings: Jack Kerouac via Natalie Goldberg

Last April I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. In it she quotes Jack Kerouac. I’ve been working on my 35th Year Manifesto, the rules by which I want to live my life in the next year. These ideas are part of it:

  • Accept Loss Forever
  • Be submissive to everything, open, listening
  • No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language and knowledge
  • Be in love with your life!

The Voice

No, not the Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera Voice. Not that one.

Mine.

I’ve heard some writers say you find your voice. Some say that a writer’s voice is a creation, that it changes over time as the writer changes, that we can always choose. The most important advice I’ve received recently, though, is that it’s important to know it when you hear it.

A few weekends ago I attended a Q&A with Ted Kooser, one of my favorite poets, a poet who feels like a mentor whenever I hear his words. This instance was no exception. A few things he said have stuck with me. He encouraged us to read and read and read and read. One hundred poems read for every one written. He said that the more we read, the more we learn to write like ourselves, instead of writing imitations. He told us to listen to our writing until we find a comfortable, authentic way of speaking to the world, until our poetry sounds like us, like the way we would talk to the world.

I think I’m beginning to find that in my poetry. I think I’m beginning to trust it. It surprises me.

It doesn’t sound like my outside voice, like the voice I use to talk in every ordinary day. It is the voice I speak inside my head, the things I want to say to others but always feel too embarrassed and emotional and earnest to say out loud. It is joyful, full of wonder, excited, sometimes childlike. It says things like: “You come too. Let’s borrow Einstein’s bicycle, make it a tandem, and ride a  beam of light.” It is also somber, disappointed, even angry sometimes: “I found a black and white picture of shame.” It tries to play, but always takes itself a bit too seriously.

It’s an interesting thing to read my poems, especially those most intimate and dear to me, especially after it’s been a while. I know I’ve hit on something good when I read my words and it feels like coming home, when I read my words and I feel like I’m standing naked in front of a mirror and smiling because I like myself the way I am.

For those of you who also write, how do you know when you’ve got it right? How do recognize your own voice speaking through your writing?