Last month I wrote a poem for a funeral reading. The deceased wasn’t a friend — he was my sister’s dear friend’s brother. So writing the poem took some time, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Of course, all poems — most writing of any kind — takes time. But writing a poem you know you’re going to read in public, for a man you didn’t know, is a little more than myy usual difficult.
Still, writing is, as I repeated many times when thanked for the poem, what I do. In many ways, it’s what I am. After retiring, I had a moment (actually several weeks) of wondering what I would say when people asked what I do. I’m not currently employed FT — isn’t that what we mean when we say retired? Writers, however, don’t really ‘retire.’ Only the teacher I was is retired. And I’m still teaching, just not at my earlier position.
Buddhists are big on how nothing is static. Nothing is permanent. It’s all change, Grasshopper…I know this intellectually. I even know it on a bone-deep level in some contexts. Adult orphans get it: we have watched our childhoods slide into darkness with the last glimmer of recognition from a parent’s eye. What writing does for many of us — certainly for me — is allow us to reframe things. Quite literally, I change my past when I write, if I want to. In a story the wonderful Rachel Naomi Remen tells, she is relating to a friend how she has suffered terrible illness, great grief, and much tragedy. When she confides in the friend how victimised she felt, he responds: ‘What an amazing survivor you are!’ Remen is totally floored: it’s not what she had seen at all, but at that moment, it becomes her new frame for the past. That’s what writing does for me.
Earlier this past week I was on a panel looking at why writers write. One of the questions asked — and it pops up in most serious conversations about writing — is whether writers are trying to fight mortality — achieve immortality — through their writing. One of the three of us on the panel said yes, he thought quite clearly about his legacy, about living on through his words. The other was more ambiguous, but I’d guess he also felt more that way than do I.
I answered no, that immortality and my own death really don’t figure much into my writing. Or at least not in the sense that I want to live through my work afterwards. But I do want to ‘live through my work.’ I just mean something very different by that statement.
Writing is a conversation I hold w/ myself, not the dead. An essay about my father’s death isn’t a visit w/ Daddy, but a way for me to explore how I feel about him, what his death means to me. How our relationship has shaped me. Putting it ‘out there’ in the form of publication? That’s sometimes sheer vanity (now you know…): I’m an old journalist; I like seeing my name in print. What can I say?
If I have conversations w/ anyone other than myself, it’s with the imagined reader. The writer Margaret Atwood says that we each have an ideal reader in our heads. The poet Ted Kooser agrees: his poem ‘Selecting a Reader‘ has his imagined reader actually putting Kooser’s book of poetry back on the shelf, more practical than poetic. He wants her to be autonomous, not to need him. I absolutely get it.
My imagined reader might be dead — to that extent, I’m speaking to the dead, if not with them. S/he might not even understand English. How do I know? Writing is always — for me, at least — a message in a bottle. Perhaps even an experiment, as the bottle message found 97 years after it was written. Sending writing into the world is a bit like breathing for someone else’s grief, the practice of tonglen. Both strangers — the imagined reader and the imagined sufferer — are the recipients of your attention. And perhaps writing is, ultimately, an act of compassion. An act that affirms transience and impermanence, the shifting nature of both attention & reflection. A meditation and a practice, for the writer even more than the reader. Or so say all of us ~
This is the season of the story. Because at the heart of every faith — within the faith of every heart, nestled like a growing bird — is story. Sometimes one (an empty tomb, the vengeful hand of a god who passes over the houses marked with blood), sometimes many (when light & dark are equal, when the bad luck of the past year is washed clean). But always story.
Human beings love stories. We remember best, new research shows, when we learn through narrative. We may learn through doing, but we are caught & touched & transformed through our sharing of stories.
Once upon a time it was winter. And it was dark, and cold, and we were far too young a people to know if light would ever warm us again. There was fire sometimes. Not often enough. And there was never enough food, it seemed. Yet still we found lambs to bleed, and goats to sacrifice. Because the nights were long & full of fear, and it seemed that sunlight would never again warm us. And then, slowly — almost imperceptibly — the days began to lengthen. Until spring was vivid in the grass and air and sky, and our stories were no longer dark tales of death, but brighter, full of hope & redemption.
What I love best about learning is the many new stories knowledge gives us. Today I saw a picture of a long-maned wolf — a canid left over from prehistoric times, possibly. Neither fox nor wolf, not dog or related closely to any of the above. Now, this previously unknown animal is chasing its stories through my thoughts.
Doesn’t everyone love stories? The escape from time, the suspense, the magic of entering another world… They needn’t even be fantastic, the stories that captivate us. A tale of a cranky customer in front of a friend, told with an ear for accent and detail. The adventure we had on vacation, tackling an unplucked chicken from the market. Even the ordinary — transformed into story — charms.
To charm: a kind of magic, from the same root as ‘incantation.’ This is what good stories do to us — transform us, perform a kind of magic. Religions teach with stories: fable & parable & midrash & koan. We teach our children with stories — examples & moral tales & even fairy ballads. And on Palm Sunday, and the Eve of Passover, the stories of what we believe in — our deepest faiths — shine brightly for me.
They are transcendent, the best stories. Some of them are even poems. Here’s one I read this weekend, that a friend then sent me. Somehow — although we do not share the same religious beliefs — we do share the religion of poetry. She is as deep a believer in the stories poetry feeds us as I am. Sometimes I even beg the question (contentious in Oklahoma) of what my religion is, answering, ‘My religion is poetry.’ And in many ways it is. Like God in the poem, I am always thinking about poetry ~
Fishing in the Keep of Silence by Linda Gregg
There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the egrets
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: there are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.
In this beginning of spring, when we once again begin our return to light and warmth, I wish for you stories. Tales that feed you, nurture you, and perhaps provide a bit of transcendence to light your darker hours. Tales that take wing. And if you’d like to share them, I’d love to listen ~
Today my state House of Representatives passed two bills that will cause only grief & pain for as many as 1,000 young Oklahoma women. The state House has seen fit to make judicial bypass — the avenue by which minor women may petition to have an abortion w/out notifying their parents — far more difficult, even in cases of incest.
A young Oklahoma woman — and yes, I think a ‘girl’ of, say, 17, who has been raped, qualifies as a woman — who has been sexually assaulted now has to have the permission of a judge from her county. And only from her county.
Perhaps you live in a large city, where there are many judges, and you have the protection of anonymity. But in, say, Perkins, Oklahoma, there are only two municipal judges. And there are three district judges in Payne County, where Perkins is located. Around 2,300 people live in Perkins. The chance of someone NOT having a family, church, school, or professional connection to the judges is remote.
Let me tell you a story about one of my sister’s childhood friends. Let’s call her Audrey (I know no one named Audrey, so that’s safe). As an adult, Audrey revealed that her father — an elder of a large Tulsa church — had sexually molested her for years. She didn’t want him to have access to her child. He sued for grandparent rights. His church supported him, insisting she was ‘on drugs’ or the victim of an unscrupulous therapist.
We’ve known this woman since she was young, as well as her sister. Both show symptoms of sexual abuse, and have since childhood. But the church refused to even consider that this man might, indeed, be a child abuser. Had Audrey been pregnant, as a minor, to whom would she have turned in a small town? Her father was a pillar of the church in a large city — she almost lost custody of her child because of her father’s connections. Would one of a small town’s two judges have given her a judicial bypass so she would NOT have to notify her parents she was pregnant by her father?
Please note: of Oklahoma’s 6,000 or so annual abortions, only about 17% of them are underage. For these fewer than 1,000 young women, we have passed laws that will make ALL choices the property of the state. But our (primarily male) legislators are acting, they say, as Christians. Their private religion has become highly political.
In a piece of related news, Oklahoma also passed an income tax cut. The lack of revenue expected — millions of dollars — will heavily impact education and the public safety net. This is what makes me flinch when I hear the words ‘pro-life.’ A friend refuses to use the term, citing ersatz ‘pro-lifers’ as ‘pro-birthers.’ Great love for the unborn, no help at all for the living. She notes that all the financial support for a single mother trying to raise the child that legislation required her to bear & raise is being cut. I agree. It doesn’t seem that there are many ‘choices’ to me.
We’re against birth control being available (Remember the huge political ruckus over that?? It continues…), which significantly impacts the rate of unplanned pregnancies & abortions (a study of almost 10,000 women, over a four-year period — not magic dust). And we don’t want ‘free lunch’ (or breakfast, or early childhood programs) for the children born as a result of these antediluvian policies. I’m not sure what denying children food & medical services, or women access to prenatal care has to do with the Christian faith of the Oklahoma legislature. That part wasn’t in my Bible, where I seem to recall ‘feed the hungry.’
So tell me: your 16-year-old niece is raped. By her mother’s boyfriend.
I’m sadly short on patience. I kept thinking that age & maturity would make it bloom in the totally inhospitable garden of my now! now! now! personality… Well, I’m older, but NOT a lot more patient. Sigh…
There are certain to be great benefits to being patient. If you are one of those wonderfully patient people, let me know what they are. I’ve been IMpatiently awaiting the advent of patience, to see what it will change in my life, but so far? Zilch. No patience. No changes.
But I’m not giving up. Like the cartoon, I’m just working harder on being patient NOW. Somehow, that makes sense. Maybe it’s a mindfulness exercise…?