I’ve been traveling a lot the past month and have gotten completely out of what vestige of creative rhythm I had going in the early spring. And now it’s the season in which my neighborhood turns from a quiet several blocks where I know almost every car that goes by into a frenzy of strangers racing around looking for parking, and people staggering around in the early evening looking for the cars they’d hurriedly parked hours before all the beer they drank. The familiar rhythms of my neighbors are replaced by the comings and goings of strangers they have rented their homes to. This unsettles me deeply. And drives me crazy. Plus I’m hot, which makes me irritable. So, do I force myself back to the page or drawing board, work against this rattled state I’m in? Try to harness this irritated energy, give new meaning to the phrase “scribble furiously”? Or do I give in to it, loll around like an old dog, or wander around the garden desultorily pulling at my brethren the crab grass? Are there times in which earnest effort is just not appropriate, or is it always a good idea to present oneself to the process? My instinct is to give up for a little bit, let myself have a week or two of empty hours. But I can’t wait too long, must try some page-sitting before so much time elapses that I turn into some other kind of creature. I want to write things or make things but can’t seem to approach the page. I go toward it and veer off. I’m going to try not worry about it too much. I think often of that thing we used to do when we played double-dutch jump rope — that gentle rocking to get into the rhythm of the turning ropes. You don’t want to jump in too soon. You don’t want to wait too long. Right now I’m watching those ropes turn. Soon, I’ll start rocking. Don’t stop turning the ropes, world. It’s going to take me a minute.
When Tom Waits sings a ballad I want to weep. Is it the contrast between that hard-lived, pack-a-day, whiskey chaser, broken glass voice and the tenderness of the tune and tone and text? Would it move me as much if I didn’t already know that voice rasping about keeping the devil down in the hole, or how the piano has been drinking? (Can we only know something through its contrast — pleasure/pain, happiness/misery, or is that that duality of thinking we fall prey to? Do I need to know hot to know cold? Nah.) I went to the opera recently and enjoyed how one of the main singers, playing that darling of theater, the prostitute, soared upward in full operatic voice, then burred and hardened it on the way down as the text called for bitterness, regret. We all have a head voice and a chest voice. Our voices can travel up and down between the two, and ideally meld them in the middle. Some of us get our voices stuck in our noses, some of us sound like our voices come from a disembodied throat. The two readers I heard last night both had pleasant voices, just burred enough, and read with just enough emphasis and character, but not too much, not too much flourish or drama. It was easy to listen to them. Their warm tones were invitational. A friend of mine makes fun of her own tendency to let her voice get small and high when she’s uncertain or nervous. It’s wonderfully full-throated when she lets it. I love my mother’s voice, for its chesty tones, for the memory of being read to as a child, and her hint of a Maine accent. My sister and I have an array of funny voices we use. Others find it odd. I took voice lessons for many years and my teacher would speak of how we hide emotions in the body — the throat, shoulders, the diaphragm. Singing can break it all open. Let’s notice our voices today. Let’s unsqueeze our adenoids, open our throats. Let’s make some joyful noise. Let’s laugh out loud. Then get soft and wistful. Let’s whisper. And then, later, let’s open our throats to all our late night laments, our wee hour longings, half-forgotten dreams, and let’s sing a blue valentine.
At a party recently, conversation turned to nudibranchs and sea squirts (I love these people I was with at this party, as they are the kind of people with whom conversation may turn to nudibranchs and sea squirts). Someone pulled out the ubiquitous cell phone and we looked at pictures of the variety of sea squirts, some feathered as a boa, others squashed as mud. At a little research aquarium I visited recently, I was amazed to see a baby starfish. I had never thought about the development of a starfish, that they were tiny and then got all growed up. We turned it over and peered at its porthole of a mouth. We saw anemones and learned that they can move by means of a sticky tubular foot that can tiptoe its way along. We spied on barnacles. Barnacles have the largest penis to body size ratio of the animal kingdom, so as to inject the girl next door, who ain’t moving. It is amazing the variety of ways we move, feed, and fuck. I’m struck though that it seems likely a snail will not find itself midway upon the journey of life in a dark wood, the right road lost. A nudibranch is not likely to cry out from its soul “what is my purpose?” I dealt an ignominious death to many tiny snails as I crunched across the rocks by the sea. They did not, I don’t believe, think me a harsh and uncaring god. In our seemingly infinite variety, we creatures of Earth, few of us wonder, imagine, doubt. We all procreate (well, I mean, I didn’t, but I theoretically could have) but how many of us create? The breaking waves made a visual Morse code across the bay. In days to come I may try to translate it in many ways: words, lines drawn by charcoal; I may cut pieces of paper and paste them together, could sew fabric swatches, record drum beats. I may sing a song of breakers, whistle through my teeth. Beat that, nudibranch. At the cosmetic counter I could paste on eyelashes the envy of any anemone, would anemones envy. But of anemone and I, only I would wonder if you think I’m pretty. How did it come to this, Charles Darwin? What a shitstorm of random selection led to my self-doubt, to the imagination of the person who invented clamato juice, to Dante and his dark wood. And, for god’s sake, why? I don’t know, but may we allow ourselves, we doubters and imaginers, the fullest variety of creative expression, as various as creation itself.
The funny thing about making art with words — literature, that is — is that we’re making art of a man-made thing, a recycled thing, even, as some people make art from plastic, or garbage. There is a spirit in made things that comes not just from the maker but also from the material — the wood and its insistence of grain and knot, the stone and its leanings. But to make a thing of a made thing is one-removed from the integral spirit. I guess a word’s spirit could be found in its etymology. But also in the history of the writer’s relationship with the word. I can never use the word “expedition” without its echo of Pooh’s “expotition,” and my memory of re-re-reading the adventures of that cast of characters, identifying first with one then another, Pooh, then Piglet, then Pooh again. Family legend has it that my first song was the Schmidt’s beer song: “Schmidt’s! One beautiful beer.” “Miffs,” I called it. “Bootifoo,” I said. And the word still rings that way deep inside me. A woodworker turns a piece of wood in her hands, feels the contours, sheers some away to find the soft spots, finds the hard spots against the knife. Words are both more malleable, and less. Of course the word is nonsense without the thought, the thought nonexistent without the self’s encounter with the world, the world, so they say, itself a fragment of my imagination. Then so too is the wood, the knife, the beauty, the word “beauty.” Imagination is the milieu, whatever the material being worked. Maybe imagination is the only real thing. Imagination imagines us. We’re its made thing.
I first read of Labrador in junior high or high school. A book by the wonderful Hammond Inness called, as I have come to appreciate in the past 24 hours, The Land God Gave to Cain. It was an adventure novel of an expedition into the interior of Labrador, and a stray transmission from the long-thought-lost team that was their last communication to the world. Many years late I met a man who told me that the book had been based on a true story, that there was a book about that true story, and that he himself had undertaken a canoe trip tracing the same route, and had also written a book about it. So I arrive in Labrador steeped in stories of the harsh, bug infested, brush-tangled, river-braided interior, hardship, loss, silence. And had in my mind pictured it much like my brief visit to its lower sea edge has revealed it to be — bleak, muted in colors of orange sanded soil and red tinged bushes, dense stands of stubby pines, and a sea draped in fog, sounds muted, dim. The people are short and square and friendly, if amused and rueful about their weather. Their speech is brisk and choppy, with coiled i’s and broad a’s. Beachside barbecue pits, and piles of firewood, and a few colorful kayaks indicate that summer fun is had here, that weather sometimes softens, as well as snow sleds and a tube hill that show some indication of winter life. It’s hard to believe. A white knuckled drive through pothole riddled roads in the deepening fog led us to the tallest lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador, site too of early foghorn technology and an old Marconi station that first brought communication to this edge of the world in 1905. To get to that point we passed a gravesite of a child from 7500 years ago, buried with talismans of her people, communications perhaps to the netherworld, or her ferry toll. The two-blast foghorn was eventually improved in its function so the sound went farther. I think of sailors out in fog like this, listening listening for the sound, as well as the hazardous splash of sea against rocks, the call of gulls signaling shore. The ways in which we communicate with ships at sea to help them to harbor have become incredibly sophisticated (yet still recently two ships collided to loss of lives). (We have not improved our payment for passage into the world of the dead. We are going more and more naked, with less at our sides.) I spend my time trying to make art of communication. And in Labrador I have received yet another rejection from the various milieu in which I try to share my art. I learn this through the mixed blessing of internet technology, of “wifi,” a shortened form of words I can’t remember. The terrain is rubbled, shrub-choked; what seem like rivers soon disappear in thickets or into the waterlogged fen. I feel sorry for myself. Desperate. A hawk swoops low over the brush hunting voles. Up on a hill a waterfall bursts out from a source somewhere back in the interior, hurries to the sea. I’m getting on the next ferry out of here. Labrador, this is my last communication.