Coming in from the Storm; or, On Friendship

In keeping with the zeitgeist, I’ve been struggling with enjoying Bay of Spirits by Farley Mowat about his ten years spent sailing around and living in the southeast coast of Newfoundland, the endless storm-ridden weather and wonderful stories of the hard and fun-loving people he met in the tiny settlements in the deep, craggy bays of that coastline, as the whole tale is told against the barely-mentioned backdrop of his having cheated on his wife then abandoned her and his two young sons to take up life with a young woman who joined him for this life at sea and by the sea. The bastard tells a good story.

At any rate, I was struck by this quote by a fisherman in one of these tiny hamlets that foundered for years in the boom then long bust of the fishing industry in Newfoundland. He said: “Stormy times as might make a man wonder could he do better on a different voyage…The truth on it be, me sons…I don’t believe as he could. We shapes our course as we wants to, with them as we wants alongside…”

This struck me, as I read it the day after my latest birthday, and the day after I spent a lovely evening with friends, and anticipated a coming evening with my husband in a second evening of birthday celebrating, and feeling rich with birthday calls and cards and well wishes and the riches that have happened upon me on this voyage whose twists and turns I sometimes had a hand in, but sometimes was driven by winds and tides I could not control.

Ahoy, me mateys. Drop ye an anchor and abide a while. Glad to have ye alongside.

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Oh, No, Know, No; or Creativity and the Beginner’s Mind

Midway in life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood. Well, my mind was the dark wood. I was actually standing in a well-lit dance studio. Here in my middle age, I decided to take an intro ballet class. Unlike many little girls, I had never taken any kind of dance class, although somehow I managed to learn somewhere along the way the ballet foot positions, but that’s about all I’ve got, except for some basic balance and coordination. All gone now, as I’m standing still as everyone else is moving — my limbs and brain simply unable to work together to pursue this series of steps. A point, step, point, step, hoppity hop, kickish thing, tippy-toe hop. Octopus-like, my limbs have minds of their own. My arms have given up and are heading home. My legs keep refusing to hoppity hop, substituting instead some kind of froggish leap, and then my brain forgets what’s supposed to happen next, so the whole lot of us — limbs, arms, torso, head, peter out of movement and just stand there as the wave of classmates roughly pursue the proper motions around us.

Fortunately, I have no interest in preserving my pride here. I’m just interested in having a different mind-body experience than my normal walking about. And I’m glad I had the idea to disrupt my brain and brain-body connection with this class. It makes me experience the world a little differently, to pay attention differently, and to ask different things of my mind and its connection to my body. And it forces my know-it-all-ish mind to be not-knowing.

And I think about this as I peruse Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which is a crazy quilt notebook of the kinds of assignments she gives to her various classes on thinking and paying attention. She uses many kinds of timed assignments for drawing, writing, making notes, listening to passing conversations, telling stories — all in pursuit of maintaining an attentive yet dreaming mind, of being conscious and being conscious of being conscious, without being self-conscious. Many would-be students say to her anxiously, “But I don’t know how to draw.”

But it’s in between the not-knowing and doing-anyway that magic happens. One note from a page of her notebook says this: “How the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination, and intentional thinking–.”

It’s when my mind is alert but a bit flighty, like I’m humming and skating at the same time — I can’t be too distracted from the skating, or I’ll hit a bump in the ice and fall down; and I can’t be too focused on humming, because, well, that would be kind of crazy (Have you seen that weird humming lady at the skating rink? Yeah, obviously wacked) that I come up with some good ideas, and can start to bring them to fruition.

I’m between projects at the moment, so am rattling around the house distractedly, pausing in the kitchen or living room to practice the hoppity hop kickish thing tippy-toe hop (What on earth are you DOING, my husband asks) and trying to notice things and notice what I notice — in the hopes I will at some point force myself to sit DOWN (my ass apparently also has a mind of its own) and start to work on something. hoppity hop tippy-toe no wait crap

 

Ready; On Reading and the Pursuit of Happiness

I just watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. Several things struck me. One was how swiftly Joan Didion’s face lapses back into loss, her large eyes oceans of exactly the darkness that grief is, the slash of her mouth across her lined face, the bizarrely flung movements of her hands toward the interviewer, her nephew, as if they were living another life from her face, as today I look at one window and see a twinkle of snow flurries but through another window a blue sky. But the other thing that struck me was the shots of the book shelves — when the documentary mentions one of Didion’s or her husband’s books, the book itself is often depicted on a shelf with other books, some contemporary with the mentioned book, some older, some classics. A life of reading was depicted here, even more so perhaps than a life of writing.

I’ve also been looking through Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, which is a year in her life of monthly blog/cartoons thinking about the US presidents and the concept of Democracy. Her two drawings of the crowds of fluttering flags on the mall for Obama’s inauguration make me sad. (I think too of, in the documentary, Obama protective and carefully shepherding tiny Didion onto the stage for her medal.) I love Kalman’s picture of a pink chair piled with some of the many books in Jefferson’s library, preserved in the Library of Congress. What incredibly well read and thoughtful people were Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, so many of those old “fathers,” for all their faults and contradictions. (Am I still allowed to say that out loud, or is the zeitgeist overwhelmingly bloody-minded about flawed white men?)

Kalman’s curiosity and drollness and interest in US history reminds me of Sarah Vowell’s dear and hilarious meditations on her various historical obsessions. I would like to have them both over for dinner. Throw Didion into the mix, and I’ll just stay in the kitchen and eavesdrop.

The house of my dreams has a wall of white built-in bookcases surrounding a picture window. In the dream, I’ve read all the books. So it must be a dream. I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion, and of the books mentioned by Kalman in her perusal of the Jefferson library, I’ve read none. I’ve read many of the books in my house on its scattered and unseemly bookcases (no white built-ins, no picture window), but many look at me year after year, their covers fading and dusty. I’ve read few of the classics of Western tradition, and yet I’ve read a lot of all kinds of books. (Perhaps my downfall is that I love to re-read.) (Well, one of my downfalls.) My mother, in the days of library card catalogs, used to, for a while, go into each letter of the alphabet and randomly choose a card and read that book, whatever it was, a biography of an obscure historical figures, a translation of short stories from the Congo, a TV repair how-to book. I appreciate and share that magpie approach to reading.

Whenever anyone asks me how I became a I writer, my reply always begins with the fact that I was always a reader. Reading indeed is fundamental, that is, pertaining to a foundation. I love that our country, as wildly flawed as it is, was founded on principles developed by a well-read group of people, as wildly flawed as they were. May we as a people remain an open book.

My Other, My Self; or Thinking about Other Minds

Multicellular organisms came about, if I’m understanding this correctly, when single celled organisms didn’t divide very well. Then those not-quite divided cells learned to work together, in that way that can happen when two people in a race where people have their legs tied together can learn to move in sync, and tumble over the finish line ahead of everyone else.

So anyway, eventually there were all these multicelled organisms bumbling around. At some point, they bumbled into each other and became aware of each other, and therefore aware of themselves. (I’m hugely simplifying this of course, making scientists gnash their teeth and rend their garments, and apologies to poor Peter Godfrey-Smith, whose fascinating book Other Minds gave me just enough information to make me dangerous.)

And quite quickly the organisms began to alter their behavior around each other in any number of ways — and so it is that try to go to the mailbox when my neighbors are at their daily visit to the bar, so I don’t have to ignore them to their faces as they ignore me to mine.

I’ve talked about this before, but as soon as there is an Other, we come to find it annoying. Or we fall helplessly in love with it. Oh, I suppose there are other attitudes as well, but these two are what has shaped our world. Well, really, the first one. Not so much the second. At any rate, it sounds like we became conscious of ourselves in response to our becoming conscious of others. (And I bet quite quickly we began to define ourselves in comparison or opposition to the others, either trying to find how we fit in or trying ostentatiously to show that not only do we not fit in but we don’t even want to fit in, so there. Or we slink quietly down the hallways and hope to not get too noticed but find a friend or two there along the walls. I have a young friend who is going through just this very thing at the moment, and my heart goes out.)

I guess my only point here is that Godfrey-Smith lets us peek into the murky lives of the Cambrian era, but I can’t see that much has changed. Here’s this: “During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each. Behavior became directed on other animals–watching, seizing, and evading. From early in the Cambrian we see fossils that display the machinery of these interactions: eyes, claws, antennae. These animals also have obvious marks of mobility: legs and fins. Legs and fins don’t necessarily show that one animal was interacting with others. Claws, in contrast, have little ambiguity.”

The bones of our weaponry already litter the landscape. What will the fossil record make of the impression of all our bodies clutching our cellphones? Are they claws or are they antennae? Some might say weapons don’t kill people; people kill people. Indeed they do. Indeed they do.

Anyway, Other Minds is a fascinating book. And I didn’t even tell you about any of the wonderful octopus stories within. Who doesn’t love a good octopus story? (Okay, just this one: A diver who had been frequently visiting a particular area in which a number of octopuses had dens found himself one day approached directly by an octopus who reached out an arm, seized the diver by the hand, and led him around, showing him the sights, for about ten minutes, whereupon they returned to the octopus’s den. I presume a cup of tea was offered, but am not sure. No one is. Could have been whiskey.)

 

Know When to Run; or, When Work in Progress is Not Making Progress; or, Giving Up as Part of the Poem Editing Process

I have been stuck on a couple of poems. They didn’t do what I wanted them to do, resisted even doing something different, resisted any effectiveness in coming together in a way that made me satisfied. I think I pulled out my entire arsenal of editing ideas. Here were my editing efforts:

– Walked away from them for a couple of weeks.

– Rewrote them backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Broke them apart and put them back together differently.

– Took out entire sections.

– Plotted the logic of my arguments/analogies to make sure they were solid.

– Asked a poet friend to take a look at them and I did the edits she suggested.

– Tried combining the two poems into one.

– Did a writing exercise starting with the prompt: What I’m really trying to say is…

Nothing worked. And so it goes. So I add them to my pages and pages of abandoned poems.

Sometimes whatever the impulse was to speak just does not lead to something worth hearing. It’s sad to abandon an effort. I keep the pages of abandoned poems around and revisit them occasionally, hoping some new insight will enable me to save them. I cannot recall a single instance of this working.

Part of working toward being a good writer is knowing when to walk away. Part of working toward being a good writer is asking enough of your poems that some of them just can’t make the bar.

 

Once Upon a Time; or Telling New Stories to Save the World

As Yuval Noah Hariri indicated in both of his books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, homo sapiens came to dominate all homo species as well as many other species because of its ability to cooperate. Homo sapiens developed that ability to cooperate across many individuals, time, and space, according to Hariri, because of its ability to tell and believe stories. And oh what stories we have come to believe — gods and monsters, gods and monsters. (And democracy. And the free market. And justice systems. And the importance of putting details of our life on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, with the corollary that people give a shit about the details of our life enough to view them.) So we excelled at creating vast networks of behavior that enhanced our ability to survive and thrive (often at the expense of whatever was in our way — large animals, other people who believe somewhat different things, the Earth).

Although I haven’t read the book yet, I believe Kurt Andersen argues in Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire that it was Americans’ particular impulse to believe all kinds of stories that led us to this fake-news moment in American history. He says our individualistic national culture was based on “epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies….” He claims that we began to believe that truth itself is individual and relative. Now in the face of scientific facts — that is, provable, verifiable — people still feel free to believe the opposite. Story is stronger than fact, and has sunk us deep into fantasyland, to the peril of our institutions and our world.

But maybe story can save us too. I keep thinking about the energy crisis in the ’70s. People actually changed their behavior, temporarily anyway — drove cars with better mileage and drove them more slowly, turned their heat down, recycled. Sure, there were plenty of gas-guzzling cars still on the road, plenty of speeders, plenty of people strolling around their homes in shorts when it was 0 degrees. But a lot of people changed their behavior based on ongoing stories of what will happen if we don’t. We heard tell of a crisis, we heard about what we could do, we did it — I mean, with the help of some economic incentives and disincentives. I think too about littering. In spite of all the litter I see on the street, I suspect the anti-littering campaigns, particularly those that target kids, have created what amounts to a widespread habit of not throwing stuff on the ground. We believed in that crying Indian in that TV ad from the ’70s. Don’t cry, man, I’ll put this hamburger wrapper in this trash can, okay? Geesh.

So come on, storytellers. We need a new story to believe to bring us to the next level of development as a species. We need us some fresh gods and monsters to save us from ourselves.