Recently I read an article exhorting newly published writers, and the rest of us too, to protect the inner life. It suggested that the outer life of taking in hand the trembling self and promoting the work, giving readings, trying to get reviews can all chip away at the inner life. And I thought yes, this is my problem. I’ve been overly concerned with what my outer life could/should/would be, leaving my inner life to grow wan and undernourished.
But I wonder, as I wonder about all perceived dichotomies and dualities, if I’m missing something with this perspective. Because I have learned that so little of life is dual or dichotomous, so little is always one thing or another, so much is mutable, connected, tricksy.
When I am working well, I am at ease. My outer life can be whatever it happens to be when my inner life is engaged. At least, to some degree. If my outer life is engaged, my inner life is content to travel along. At least, for a while. So the inner and outer lives aren’t quite two things, nor are they a continuum. Are they that thing of light, particle and wave? Are they the Pushmepullyou?
Is it really about the sense of engagement, regardless of the nature of it? A sense that I’m “working,” the brain firing, the mind making leaps, that I’m reaching out and the world is reaching back in some way — is that what I’m looking for, whether it’s to be found in a rich discussion with other people, or a task well done, or a fruitful day at the page? In this way inner and outer are only the gallery of engagement, the engagement itself the goal.
Numero Cinq is shutting down, so I wanted to post in one place the work that has appeared there. Turns out the archive has a single link to The Marilyn McCabe NC Archive Page. I’m so flattered. Here I am, in the Numero Cinq drawers:
Insects at great number fly into our front porch by the front door and then fail to find their way out again, ending up corpses littering the windowsills. They keep coming in and coming in. My 97-year-old mother has outlived her money, her memory, and may be outliving her lifelong good health, but she herself continues to live on and on. It’s been five years since my 9-year-old friend died from the brain tumor that had been pursuing him since he was 2. Earlier this spring I buried a tiny bunny that something had chomped a leg off of. All over the country people of all ages are dying stupid deaths from opioids because they want to get high. People join groups like ISIS because they think they want to die for a cause. People confuse love for hate and vice versa. Every day new babies all over the world are born and born and born into it. My point is that making art seems stupid in the face of this; or making art is the only reasonable response to this unreason. I haven’t decided which yet.
I was castigating a coffee bean for making a run for the back door, trying to evade its fate in the grinder, which got me thinking about consciousness. There’s nothing in existence that doesn’t have skin in the game of existing. We know plants “feel,” have hooked them up to monitors and done things to them. Trees make choices. There is a single-celled organism that makes itself a protective covering from pebbles. Some variations of these organisms choose only clear pebbles. One type of this organism always chooses one pebble with some red on it, the way some people insist on having granite countertops. How is choice-making implemented in a single-celled organism? I quit my job recently and am trying to figure out what to do next, who I am now, what I need to grow. Why does it matter what I do, who I am, or what I need? I’m constantly astonished at what a random act of science I am. Constantly aware of how ephemeral all this is. And yet I am persistently focused on the future, always looking for the back door. Does a pebble accept its fate? Water or wind wear away at its edges in the world and its shape shifts, as my skin is getting thinner and my body bulging oddly here, sinking there. What is “knowing”? What is the difference between the pebble and its single-celled owner? I guess the key difference is this idea of life, of biological function. Pebbles don’t poop, as it were. We could hook it up to a monitor, poke it, and it would flat-line. Wouldn’t it? It has electromagnetic impulses running through it, just as I do. I don’t know that it would ignore the indignity of a prod. I know it was a simple accident of physics that the coffee bean got caught up in the scoop but fell to gravity’s pull to the counter, on which it glanced off, its curvature sending it rightward and, upon its floor landing, skittering it toward the door. Maybe on my demise I’ll be as delicious to the universe’s tongue as this coffee, intransigent bean included. My choices make all the difference, and? or? little difference at all. I’m an organism gathering pebbles. If I insist on pretending there is a future, I guess I’d better pretend my choices matter. Or resist the pretense. Enjoy the cup.
I have a jealous nature. Among other faults. And I’ve long castigated myself for it, talking myself down from agitation toward something more Zen, counseled myself over and over to be grateful for what I have, to be less concerned with what others are up to, to be, generally, different than I am. But recently I’ve come to re-understand my state. I have realized that my jealousy acts as fuel for my fire. After a few moments of intransigent, ill-tempered, frowny-faced, crossed-arm fuming, I find those little needles and pesky twigs ignite my energies. I peruse the awful pages of Awards and Deadlines in Poets & Writers full of winners that are not me. I hear someone gleefully announce an opportunity I want to have, an award I’d like to win, a publisher I’d like to call my own. Russinfrussindagnabit, I’ll mutter. Or words to that effect. Then I find I sit back down to the work required to get such opportunity, win such a win, snag such a publisher. I write more, send more work out, audaciously apply for things I have no reason to believe I’ll get. It’s a boon, this jealousy. A vehicle. Vroom vroom. So go on and achieve, ya bahstids. I’m coming after you.
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.