A small, good thing

The other night, after I received bad news–the kind of news that confirms to your weakest self that the thing you really badly wanted to be good at you aren’t, or at least you aren’t good enough, which amounts to the same thing; the kind of news that comes on the heels of other events also seeming to confirm this basic unworthiness about you; the kind of news that worms its way into the weak heart of you and makes you feel stupid for even hoping that you might be good enough for something wonderful to happen (and I know the specific kind of news that does this to each of us is different, depending on our own circumstances, and that what exposes my rottenest core wouldn’t be so huge to you, and vice versa)–after I received this news, the miraculous happened and I actually took my own advice to take a walk.

I snuck into the garage with my socks and sneakers and sat on the steps to put them on, because walking with my three not-very-bright aging spaniels is more about picking up poop in plastic bags using a flashlight and trying vainly to untangle leashes than about mindfulness and equanimity. And then I half-slid down my steep driveway and turned onto the sidewalk, blindly trying to think about nothing while the various parts of my mind shouted or whispered or screamed in a conversation that went something like this:

Part A: You should change everything about yourself, and then you’ll get what you want.
Part B: Someone else will be happy because of this; someone else will feel blessed. That’s a good thing.
Part D: I want my mommy.
Part E: Stop being such a baby.
Part F: Give up.
Part G: If you let anyone else know how how upset you are, it will make them sad. So just shut up.

I could go on. Every letter of the alphabet had something to say. But you know how those old tracks go.

And then–the neighbor’s orange cat saw me and came running over to me. He’s a very friendly cat (and I call him a “he” though I don’t know the cat’s real gender because I love him, and even a possibly inaccurate “him” is more of an endearment than an accurate “it”) so he immediately twined around my legs, and I, of course, squatted down to pat him.

He rubbed his head against my hand and I patted his back, feeling his fur soft and still thick from winter under my fingers. Usually when I see him, I pat him until my knees start to hurt and then stand up. But that night, I couldn’t stop. I patted him obsessively. I spoke to him the way I do to animals, saying hey-pretty-one and aren’t-you-a-sweetie and who’s-a-pretty-kitty in low, soothing tones. My knees ached and my thighs hurt and I didn’t want to stop, so I just sat down on the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s house. It was after 10pm, and no one was around, or looking out the windows. Though I didn’t care. I patted that cat like he was a life raft. He pushed his head against my stomach, rubbed his cheek on the edge of my sneaker. He purred and purred.

Finally I stood up and told him I had to go for my walk, and he should go home. But he didn’t. He followed me, walking with me like a dog. I took about 20 steps and he didn’t stop. I bent down and picked him up, and he pushed his soft head against my chin and cheeks; he held my face with his paws and pressed his nose to mine. I smelled that he was an outside cat, but I could feel that he was fed well. He was not desperate, a creature I had to worry about; he just wanted to be patted.

Eventually I put him down, and eventually he stopped following me, turning back towards his own house. And I went on the rest of the walk, knowing I had been given a gift: my need and his matched up at just the right time, each of us getting something we craved from an undemanding stranger.

The conversation in my head didn’t stop. I wish I could say it did, that this encounter was so magical it knocked me out of my pitiful self.

Here’s the thing: it was still magical. It was still a gift. It didn’t solve anything or fix anything, but I was grateful anyway. The good and the bad aren’t about balancing each other out, any more than a strawberry balances out a flat tire.

It’s just: there is the strawberry. There was the cat. As Raymond Carver would say, it was a small, good thing.

Only Blue Body by Rosalynde Vas Dias

I’m not sure how to talk about this mysterious and beautiful book without sounding like a blurb, because it’s one of those books that, like Jean Valentine’s work, I love but couldn’t explicate even if you had a gun to my head. The thing is, you should just read it. Read with your mind open to transformations–human to animal and animal to animal–and to yearning. Read in readiness to be transported to worlds part dream, part fantasy, part this very strange “real” one. Expect the secrets curled up inside you to be fleshed out in ways you never expected.

Read this poem, my favorite from the book (though “Origin” was a close 2nd) with an amazing ending, and then read my students’ centos, poems created using lines from Only Blue Body, in the comments to this post. Also get to know a bit of the quirky, funny, amazing mind of Rosalynde Vas Dias by “liking” her Facebook page.

Only Sweetness

Though I play the white noise
tape of the zebra finches
circling the aviary
often enough, I never dream
of flying, David.

I wonder how
they miked all 27
of those little birds–
catching each wing
beat and braiding

the beats into this sound
of heavy breathing over
a drum circle, but on finch
scale (think 4 oz. each). I did
once sort of hand feed this

oriole of some kind–
they like oranges and I
knew that. Have you ever held
a halved orange out
to a black and orange creature

waiting for him to understand
you mean no harm, you offer
only sweetness? And sometimes
you think that’s no oriole,
it’s some kind of dog or even

a rail rider too weak to hop
a train out of here and after
you are not too sure what
to believe, he hops or crawls
or drags himself to you, your

hand, the orange-half offering
and plunges his beak into
the fruit, gulping the flesh
into his own flesh, taking
greedy mouthfuls in a way

we associate with desperation,
but this oriole, this creature
is neither desperate nor grateful.
So you wait, almost blank, gazing
at the lay of feathers against

his skull, the pips stuck to his beak.
You step up into the white noise.
He’ll fly, you think, if he finishes
the orange. Only half an orange
really. But he never does, just stabs

or sips or laps and you keep holding
it out, your offering, feeling the percussive
strikes of the beak through the peel.
What could I do then, David,
once I saw so clearly there was nothing
else I wanted to do instead?

If you write, you’re a writer

As a teacher of creative writing–mostly poetry–I wrestle with the issues of what makes “good writing” frequently, and the secondary issue of why we should try to write “well” even more often. Many people, including my students’ parents, wonder what the point of a creative writing major is. In the difficult economic situation of these days (and by that I mean the shrinking middle class, the fact that it really is harder, in 2013, to make a living, as the wealth is concentrated with the super-rich), people are understandably worried about what kinds of jobs they might get after graduating from college with a degree in creative writing.

My response is that every job avenue is largely about luck and chance, so why shouldn’t students choose to put their time and energies into studying something they love while they can?

I also try to be realistic with my students: it’s very difficult to get a paying job that has anything to do with your skills and knowledge as a writer. Having said that, I follow with my favorite advice: If you write, you’re a writer. It doesn’t matter whether you get published, win awards, teach at a university; it doesn’t matter if you end up making a living as a dental hygienist or a dog-sled driver. If writing is what you’re drawn to, what you do despite your better sense, then what that means is you understand the world and yourself through words. The far bigger “job” you have in your life is to try to make meaning of it, to continually ask questions and try to puzzle them out. Writers do this through writing. Painters through painting. Musicians through music.

But if publishing isn’t important–and I don’t think it’s as important as writing–then why should writers strive to write “better”? Why should they avoid cliche, try new strategies, read even the things they don’t “like” on first reading? Why should they take classes?

I think I’m coming to an answer for that. I think it has to do with the mind-numbing effects of cliche and shallow thinking. If writers get lazy and rely on cliches, then they’re missing opportunities to say things in fresh ways, in ways _only they_ can possibly say them. And that means they’re missing opportunities to push their own minds and understanding farther. Is the world hurt by a cliched, abstract poem, especially if it’s not published? No. But the writer is. Only through grappling with complexity can we begin to make sense of this chaotic, kaleidoscopic world. If we turn away from what’s difficult to understand and express–if we only watch television and shop like popular culture would have us do–then we can never rise to those elusive moments of insight. A poem–any work of art–is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is, essentially, something that cannot be expressed in any other way. (For more on this, read Donald Hall’s essay “The Unsayable Said.“)

Because of that, as writers we MUST hold ourselves to our own high standards; we must keep trying to write better, write more precisely, write more boldly. We may define “good writing” differently–our aesthetic tastes will vary from writer to writer–but the more we learn, the more we read, the better chance we have of grasping the ungraspable. What else are we doing, any of us, besides trying to touch the edges of the great mysteries?

Fairness and Unfairness

I’m sneaking in a post when I should be doing a host of other things because I’m thinking about this now, but I don’t have a lot of time, so forgive any ineloquence.

So: fairness and unfairness. I think about this issue a lot. My zodiac sign is Libra, the scales, so my excuse for an obsession with fairness/justice is that I was born to have it. Or maybe it’s that I’m still and always a kid, youngest of four children and no kids of my own (don’t worry–I never wanted them), and kids are also obsessed with fairness. What kid doesn’t claim, “That’s not fair!” or “He cheated!” on a regular basis? And don’t parents try to teach children the concept of fairness, that if they behave in certain ways then they will be justly rewarded, and if they behave in other ways they will be punished? When you share with your sister, you get praised. When you lie, you get grounded. There is a structure, and though parents are fallible, most try to provide this framework for their kids.

I think this is a good approach to child-rearing, but it also presents a number of philosophical problems later on. When we grow up, we realize the “be good, receive good” and “be bad, receive bad” ideas are simplistic and, often, wrong. Many good, kind people we know suffer unjustly: they get cancer, lose their jobs, get their hearts broken, have tree limbs fall on their cars. They don’t get published, don’t get good jobs, do get audited. And sometimes those people are us. And inside, deep down where the children still live, we think, “It isn’t fair!” The world of cause-and-effect that we would like to believe in is revealed as a partial truth, at best.

The reason I turn towards Buddhist and Yogic thought when I consider the issue of fairness–which is tied, of course, to our desire to have some kind of control in an unpredictable world–is that it doesn’t seem to lie to me. These Eastern philosophies admit to the basic unfairness of the world. For me, this is a blessing and a balm; when I read that people have understood this element of life for thousands of years, I stop listing my own faults and mistakes as “reasons” for what, essentially, boils down to my own luck.

I’m not suggesting we should stop trying to be good, working hard at what we love, reaching out to other people, valuing the things we do. I’m not suggesting we should stop trying. I think, basically, what I’m suggesting is that sometimes we need a break from the old “cause-and-effect” thinking, the belief that, “I did this, which is why that happened.” We do things. We try to live as meaningfully as we can. And then we put ourselves out into the world, and see what happens. We are like dandelion seeds floating on our own wispy parasols, hoping for the right combination of wind and sun and soil and rain to help us grow.

Which is terrifying, of course. But also wonderful. We’re flying. We’re floating. I want to look at the world while that’s happening.