It’s crazy how these old worries keep coming back. In my mind I’m in a poorly lit room. I look down at my own work and think, pouting, “But my work doesn’t sound like other people’s work. My work doesn’t sound like what’s in the literary journals and magazines.” It’s true, but why I automatically jump to the conclusion that this is a bad thing is beyond me. I may have trouble finding a home, but when I do, it will be the right home, the Goldilocks home. Maybe I’ll find several.
The only thing I must absolutely not do is write what I think I should sound like rather than writing what I actually sound like. My poetry and essays look and sound how it looks and sounds in my mind. That’s a good thing because I’m the only one who has my mind. For the world’s sake, that’s an excellent thing.
I just saw a post that my Vanderbilt U. cancelled classes because of the snow. Bunch of pansies. When I went there they ne-e-ver closed for snow. Never. They didn’t even close when, in my freshman year, everything was covered in so much ice, we could have ice skated to class. We never got any Mondays off for anything either. Ne-e-ver. I remember the rumor was that the only time Vandy had ever cancelled class was in the 1870’s when a bull broke through a fence and was chasing students around campus, (which I’m sure was awful, but sounds hilarious, especially because I’m imagining really old-timey students wearing black robes, running around like headless chickens, going “Eek! Eek! as their robes flap in the wind).
They didn’t even cancel class when a tornado hit downtown Nashville and ricocheted off the corner of campus. I remember I was in “Great Works of the Wester Tradition” at the time, in which we had been reading some very atheism-heavy books. A girl was giving her presentation on Thus Spoke Zarathustra while outside it went black, then green. “Man is Superman,” she said.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!” from outside.
“Man is the measure,” she said.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!” the tornado said.
The lights flickered and went out. My professor raised his hands to the heavens and exclaimed, “God forgive me for making them read these heathen novels!”
State of emergency nothin’. Go to class!
(That tornado story is one of my all-time favorites to tell—and every word of it true. No joke, yo.)
Watering the plants yesterday, I learned a lesson about patience—a lesson my plants have been desperately trying to teach me for some time. They must be as frustrated with me by now as I have been with them.
When I started taking care of them, they were all nearly dying of heat and drought prostration. I started watering them and feeding them and, at first, they got a bit worse. It showed especially in the hibiscus. The blooms they had all dropped off. I was extremely disturbed and couldn’t understand why the attention I was giving them wasn’t immediately paying off. I kept taking care of them though, because it did me good to get a little sun and a little peace outside and not lock myself in, being righteously productive with writing projects, (read: dinking around on the Internet and taking naps).
It has been about six weeks or so since I started taking care of them. I went out yesterday to water and feed and noticed all the hibiscus that had initially dropped their blossoms were now thick with leaves and blooming like gangbangers with huge, bright flowers, more luscious than the previous ones had ever been. The top branches of the plants, once charred by the sun, had greened up and proudly reached for the sky.
I smiled at myself and shook my head. Oh, yes… patience. Delayed gratification. Hard work paying off, surely, but SLOWLY. All those things we learn but discard in the now, now, now.
I used to consider myself a black thumb when it came to plants, and now I realize maybe I just never hung around long enough to see the results of what I put into them.
I used to consider myself a black thumb with some of my seedling writing projects. Maybe I just never hung around long enough to see the luscious blossoms come in.
I have indulged too much in black cigarettes. I have indulged too much in telling the story of how they remind me of a happier time.
Me, smoking them in autumn outside my favorite place on Earth, Cafe Coco in Nashville; cold wrought iron table; purple scarf from Thailand wrapped around my head; black and white herringbone wool coat wrapped around my body; one, fitted O. J. Simpson black leather glove on my left, non-smoking hand; my red, hard-shell computer case glowing with its white apple on the back, the white keyboard dingy with use. I wrote some good stuff out there. I made even better plans for the even better stuff I would write if I took the time I was taking smoking black cigarettes to lay words on screen.
I’ve remade my Cafe Coco the best I can in my California backyard—the only independent coffee joint I know of around here. I have an outdoor table that gets cold in the pre-dawn hour. I have little house wrens that dive-bomb the seeds I leave for them the way fat sparrows would dive-bomb Tater Tot debris at the Cafe. I have cold, over-sweet coffee. I have my computer, now hard shell purple, but with the same dingy keyboard and glowing apple. It’s too hot for the herringbone wool, but in the cold mornings I still sometimes lay the Thai scarf over my hair.
I have my black cigarettes as much as I want now, no making a trip to the special smoke shop next to the underground club with the seedy mulletted man behind the glass counter. The cigs sit easy on the shelf at the local 7-Eleven. There’s less glass in them, I can feel it in my throat. There’s less clove too. I lick the tips as ritual before I smoke and they are less sweet. Like a love affair resurrected out of necessity, some of the fire is gone. There is too much and too little. There is longing for something new with the same cold heat there once was.
I have indulged too much in my black cigarettes. I have indulged too much in telling the story of how they remind me of a happier time.
I have wanderlust and I have agoraphobia. I have the life of the party and I have extreme shyness. I have beauty and I have ugliness. I have back-breaking kindness and pitiful hate. I have a tongue for healing and a tongue for tearing apart. I have the darkness of smirking devils and the light of smug angels with halos bolted to their goddamn exalted heads.
I am a lover of the sun but a creature of the dark. I am built for it, physically, but I will pain myself with the sun in the morning on purpose because it’s good for me and I have an unholy love affair with it. My eyes reject it. My skin rejects it. But oh, my stupid heart.
I have gone for days before without saying a thing. I was training in high school and early college to be an opera singer. A bitch of a teacher in those college years once told me, “I think you think you sound better than you actually do.” Later that night, I crumpled on the floor in the music room and cried in front of the mirror. I walked home in the rain on narrow streets where the cars couldn’t help but splash mud up over my shoulders. I got quieter that day. The canary I held in my heart singing died in the mine, hung stiff, upside down on her perch, her feathers black with coal dust.
I can be happy. I can, out of the blue, say, “Weee!” when we turn the car sharply. I can take a friend’s hand and run in a random direction in the middle of a walk, and whisper, “That’s not us. Let’s go!” I can curl up in my bed in the heat, sweat in my blankets until they become stiff with it, blame my friends for abandoning me when I haven’t called them in weeks.
I’m always ending on a bad foot when I’ve got two good feet to dance on, when I’m alone. When I’m alone, I’m a freakin’ rockstar, baby. And sometimes, when the moon is right, with you.
Like that time in Ojai when we watched the sunset from the overlook in the park all full of blooming cacti and bird of paradise and new agers taking themselves way too seriously. And you joked I was one of them knowing out of my bare brain the moon was waxing near full in watery cancer. And I did a little dance for you in the parking lot—the dance of the groovy water moon while the sun set and the park was closing and god spit great gobs of splashy spit on us from above and you smiled and smiled and smiled.
I want to be a poet and in general a writer of things, but I don’t want to be in academia.
This is my confession:
I don’t want any part of academia. It seems like becoming a nun, cloistered unto myself and married to analysis and rancor over other people’s work. It doesn’t seem like it gives one the opportunity to gush and flow and live and move. I know it does for some people, but not for me.
I want to be Indiana Jones of the writerly wilds, dammit. I want to be out in the world experiencing and tasting and taking in air and breathing life deep into my lungs. I don’t believe this involves necessarily getting back to nature or primal man or whatever Thoreau was blathering about. I do believe it means getting back to the world in all her splendors, realizing that the human, the created, and the creators are as much a part of nature as birds and trees and famous ponds.
It is scary admitting outright that I don’t want to be a part of academia because how else is a writer supposed to make her living? The world knows that this is what poets and creative writers, (who don’t write pop fiction) do with themselves. This is the only thing they do with themselves. This is how they survive—this insular world of poets breeding poets.
I’m too hard on academics and I don’t mean to be. There are plenty, (I think of my teachers for example), who love what they do and the community in which they do it. Teachers are incredibly important. I wouldn’t be anything without the marvelous ones I have had. I acknowledge all of this and I praise them from my bones. I also acknowledge that although I do wish to teach, being solidly and solely a part of academia is not what I want at all.
This morning, as I watered the plants, I noticed some green leaves on a plant that, previous to me making a routine of watering, looked entirely dead and brown. I am grateful for this. I am grateful for life in brown places.
There is another plant, the day lily my dog Oliver likes to eat, that is also greener than it has been. There are mysterious bushes around the columns of the pergola that are green on the bottoms and just bare branches on the top. The bare branches wind around the columns as if clinging to life itself. I suppose I must have faith the green and growing foundation I am helping build for them will help them be able to stand on their own one day.
There is a metaphor here.
There is a metaphor for writing and life. Something about giving your writing sustenance and trusting the ground it is planted in will become rich and fertile again, even after long periods of drought. It’s like that with me. I suffered a terrible writing drought lately, but once I started giving it the lifeline of daily practice and play, of getting out in the light and the air and the gentle morning sun, my drought has come to an end. The trick is, like the plants, that because I know I am in a drought-prone area, (I go through periods of barren writing times fairly regularly), I must hand-water. That is, I must not wait for inspiration to fall from the sky like rain. I must give myself the life saving element and, when rain does come, let it come, but not to be dependent on the fickle clouds.
I am grateful for this metaphor and for the real plants that have inspired it. Who knew I would find so much inspiration in “all that nature stuff”? I am beginning to feel what other poets and writers have felt. Weird.
My third thing is the bright orange blossom I found unexpectedly on the hibiscus bush with all the brown, dead leaves. She was lying low next to the planter box wall. She shook and shivered in the stream of water I bathed her with. Her face turned down then up again, grateful for the rain even if it came from a human hand rather than the divine sky.
My third thing is the beautiful blossom I took a picture of yesterday. It was beautiful because it was near wilting but still retained its dignity, just as my town attempts to do. Her petals were curled at the edges, but her stamen was strong, bright yellow, three furry tips and a feathered shaft, open, ready. Today I found her completely wilted, not brown yet but closed and drooping. I wondered what had happened overnight to cause her such sadness. Perhaps she had lived her life quietly and, but for the brief moment I snapped the photograph, mostly in anonymity as one small part of the bush by the pool that we very rarely notice. Even splashing by it, she looked on, maybe lonely, and we never saw her until I decided it was finally too hot to ignore the plants altogether and gave her a bath, too late.
My third thing is the plant over by the wilted blossom which bears clusters of flowers I can’t identify. I thought it was mock orange at first, but a bank of mock orange, that I know for sure is mock orange, stands stoically next to it, shading the side of the house, and this plant is certainly not one of their grim yet sweet-smelling council. She is the only plant of her kind in the yard. Her leaves are brown too and her buds are barely surviving. Perhaps one day she’ll tell me her name as I shower her and sing to her the way I do the other plants. Cosmically the singing and love-talk is supposed to get them all going. Un-cosmically I think it’s the life-saving water in the blaring heat.
I have even encouraged the volunteer grass in the empty planter bed to grow. i noticed it was almost dead this morning, with just a few leaves sticking out. It reminded me of that poem about rats wanting to survive more savagely than the narrator. It’s like that with volunteer grass, so I rewarded it for its trouble.
I did a bit of digging about what it takes to be a travel writer last night and learned that supplying your own photographs is often a part of it. Now, I’m legally blind, so this is somewhat of a challenge. The upshot is that I do love to take pictures, (weird I ended up with the bad eyes and the urge toward visual art at the same time).
So to begin my photography adventure with the beginning of my photography adventure, I started with my phone, my backyard, and the few flowers that have survived the unbearable heat snap we’ve had the last few days.
If you don’t mind me saying so, I think I did a pretty decent job for being new, near-blind, and equipped with an elderly iPhone. There is something wrong with the color in the closeup of the hibiscus. It appears the burst of color is distorting the detail of the flower. I’m sure I’ll learn how to deal with that in time.
I found a travel writing class today from a reputable online source, Writers.com. I am scared to death to take it. I keep looking at other classes on more familiar subjects thinking I will take this and that because I am guaranteed to be better at something I’ve already done. But then, who needs more classes for that?
I feel such an urge to be a travel writer, only recently having openly admitted to myself, my sister, and you readers that it is something I have secretly wanted to do for a long time. To paraphrase Sera Beak from her wonderful memoir, Red Hot and Holy, nothing scares me more than doing what I am supposed to be doing.
When I was a kid, my mom told me that the more I hated a teacher, the better that teacher ended up being for me. My hope is it will be the same with this class: The more I fear it, the more I should know it is absolutely the right thing for me to do.