Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crow's Song

by Mary Oliver

    a black bear
      has just risen from sleep
         and is staring

down the mountain.
    All night
      in the brisk and shallow restlessness
         of early spring

I think of her,
    her four black fists
      flicking the gravel,
         her tongue

like a red fire
    touching the grass,
      the cold water.
         There is only one question:

how to love this world.
    I think of her
         like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
    the silence
      of the trees.
         Whatever else

my life is
    with its poems
      and its music
         and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
      down the mountain,
         breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
    her white teeth,
      her wordlessness,
         her perfect love.

Why hello there robin, and flicker, and talkative crows.  Actually, crows are always pretty talkative, are they not?  But they are especially present these days, as are the sweet little birds hopping around the lawn.  We had a wonderful spell of warm weather here in Colorado recently, and while it has snapped back to colder temperatures, that dose of roasting sunshine was like a taste of the apple.  There is no going back to the confines of winter.  We have tasted the fruit and now know what is out there.

I will miss chilly mornings the most perhaps, and running through them, my insides coffee-hot, the air outside waking me like a bucket of cold water.  I have lately been leaving the dog at home to go running, because he is old and - believe it or not - tires before I do.  When I told my friend this, she could not believe there was ever a dog who tired of running.  But there is, and mine tires of kind attention and doting, too.  He's a little grouch sometimes, and if you are tall and male and reach to his ears too late at night after he has settled into his bed, he will remind you of this quickly.  This is all to say, it is nice to go out of the house and into the waking world alone some mornings.  Doing so feels like breaking into wilderness, like snowshoeing through trees near a sleeping bear's home, though I run through a city street lined with homes, Suburus asleep in their garage.  

I almost titled this post Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Treadmill, but that would have been misleading. I would love to buy a treadmill - love nothing more than home treadmills, in fact.  But I wanted, for some reason, to nod to Wendell Berry (who wrote this beautiful poem my friend sent me). I wanted to mimic an essay Berry wrote called Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, but then I realized, I didn't care much about the essay. In fact, I remember it most for the professor who assigned it to my Sociology class in college. This man had a terrific mane of frizzy Bob Ross hair and played squash in 70s gym shorts, the hair pinned back by a white sweatband.  I mean, who could argue with a man like that? I tell you, I could not. (I got an A.)

I had treadmills on the brain because I've been thinking about the one in my parent's basement - the one I ran on when I was growing up in a Northern climate and sometimes needed more exercise when it was too cold and dark to be outside. The treadmill was stashed on the other side of the basement's divide, among towering boxes of tax papers and my parents college correspondence.  I used to run before bed on winter nights, playing mix tapes of horrible country songs made by my boyfriend who grew up to be a priest. 

I sort of love the memory of those nights, and it is an admittedly modest dream of mine to one day buy my own treadmill, to install it in a safe corner of my home, some place secret where I can cocoon myself away, and run and dream early, before bed.

When I visited my parents in North Carolina in January, I ran an old route that I hadn't taken in some time - across the golf course, down the easy-to-get-a-speeding-ticket-on hill, around the high school and gigantic church, past our cousin's house, past the park where my mom and I once got honked at and where she waved to a carload of men in an El Camino, thinking we must know someone inside. 

It is not a long route, but it is full of hellos, and rich in long breaths.

When I got back, my dad asked how it went and I replied, "I made it!" because we both knew that this is the best part of striking out every morning: making it home alive.

I am not a fast runner.  I am not really fast at anything I do.  But I run to find the rhythm inside, to clear my lungs and let my core gather its heat.  I run because it helps me listen and hear all my thoughts, and this kind of attention is where confidence comes from, I believe.  I wish I had the particular quote right now, but I once read a monk's definition of confidence, which he or she said comes from authenticity.  Not from accomplishment.  And a bell went off inside.

I often joke with my husband that I never win anything.  Growing up, my friends won the awards, were the valedictorians, are the lawyers and doctors now.  I've always been a little on the outskirts - perhaps because I hold myself there, afraid of the fall from the top.  My husband won awards for his work in graduate school, while I extended my degree and tried like hell just to finish it.  I am becoming aware of this tendency of mine to draw out accomplishment and dissipate it, but I think it is more a lesson I've been trying to learn - to be happy where I am, in the middle of things, feeling my way along, defining accomplishment for myself.  And this is why I run - to say hello to my however-fast-they-are legs, hello to my jangling or ecstatic or reflective thoughts, hello to the world outside - and all it offers.  I run to explore.

And so, I write today to salute your own way of exploring, and to greet all the bears waking, stirring, stretching - inside and out.
With love,

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday Morning

That Little Something
for Li-Young Lee
by Charles Simic

The likelihood of ever finding it is small.
It's like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.

She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself,
As you search under your feet,
Thinking, Not in a million years...

It's one of those summer afternoons
When one needs a good excuse
To step out of a cool shade.
In the meantime, what ever became of her?

And why, years later, do you still,
Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late?

Hi!  It is Saturday morning and I am listening to the super dramatic music of the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James.  I haven't seen the movie but I am reminded of my high school years when I used to lock myself in my parent's beautiful living room (sinky leather couches, deep red walls, shelves lined with old classics untouched for years, and cupboards stuffed with rotating family trinkets - an old gavel, pewter steins, someone's old corduroy bunny) and watch broody movies like Legends of the Fall or The Ice Storm, my limbs lifeless under a heavy blanket, icy Connecticut snow outside, and whole afternoons left to my moody, melancholic disposition. 

On the subject of melancholy, I really want to talk about The Enneagram here!  But I won't because I have other things to say.  My friend Amelia thinks the Enneagram is a comically made-up word.  So is the word psychobiography, I think.  I discovered this word on Wednesday when I started reading An Emergency In Slow Motion, by William Todd Schultz, about the work and psychology of Diane Arbus.

Any word that forces one to pronounce the long o in psycho is just scary, no?  At least the word psychology lets that sound slip into a soft o, and ellipses the frightening term, psycho.  Somehow the long o in the word psychobiography sounds just awful to me, and makes me think of a murderer's tool chest.

This not what Emergency in Slow Motion is about, thank goodness.  I won't go into the author's definition of the phrase psychobiography, but I have been curious about Diane Arbus and her work ever since Tim's brother bought us a cast-off copy of the movie Fur, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey, Jr., from the Blockbuster sale bin one time that he visited us in grad school.  My friend Corinne found the movie comically gratuitous, in terms of its portrait of desire.  I sort of loved it for this factor, and still feel a little guilty that I like the movie, but I will honestly watch Robert Downey, Jr. in just about anything - perhaps because of the fact that Zadie Smith declares in her collection of essays, Changing My Mind.  Smith declares RDJ one of the biggest screen hogs of our generation. 

I have been thinking about Diane Arbus, in general however, because of conversations with Amelia about artistic figures who commit suicide.  When I was younger and somewhat confused about what I wanted out of life, I could not read the literary work of people who had eventually killed themselves.  It seemed too dangerous, like I could catch their thoughts through the page and one day find myself more lost than I already felt. 

Lynda Barry says this in a much funnier way on her awesomely goofy cd, The Lynda Barry Experience, which pretty much sounds like a seventh grader in a closet recording skits on the B-side of a mix tape.  In "Naked Ladies" (Track 3 for those of you following along at home) she says: "Around then, you had to be very careful about looking at Playboys, because, you just might be a lesbo by accident!  It was like, when you sit by a high window, and you’re scared you just might throw yourself out."

I once confessed my squeamishness about getting too close to the material of people who commit suicide to another friend who responded, "But they weren't sick when they made their art." This may or may not be true, but it worked for me, and I can now appreciate what an artist is trying to say, regardless of how sordid their personal life may or may not be.  In short, I don't know if personal lives say anything about a person's work or not, and I now find myself able to mourn someone like Arbus' suffering, and learn about it, without judging or fearing it. 

Emergency In Slow Motion makes the great point that art is not "intrinsically therapeutic."  Instead, Schultz says, "it can be an immersion in products of self-expression that mirror our troubles back at us so that we see them metaphorically, but still glaringly. Then it's a matter of what we do with this information, what we make of it. We can turn away again, re-repress what we've inadvertently discovered, or try some means of assimilation." 

I wanted to write about this, because I felt profound sadness reading an email Amelia sent, responding to my question, "Did Virginia Woolfe kill herself?" (Obviously, I have not seen or read The Hours, and I doodled through too many lectures in high school and college.)  Upon my learning that Woolfe did, indeed, drown herself, Amelia wrote, "It's a difficult thing to accept: she seems so NORMAL in her letters. But she never really wrote during her spells of mental illness. That seems weird to type, but that's kind of how they describe it in the the book I'm reading."

At a conference panel, the writer Richard Bausch once said, "I don't always love writing, but I love
having written.  To write is to be healthy."  This is true for me.  Sometimes I think of writing as floss for my brain.  Without that sort of artistic hygiene, darkness can build.  I don't mean to suggest that not creating art will lead to bad things, or that not creating is a sign of bad things already happening.  I just mean, these things are mysterious, and complex, and I hope that we all pass through them in tact, or as in tact as we are meant to be.

I have posted before what I love about writing - how it returns the world to me in new light.  It helps me to see things more purely, un-fogged by the screens of my own psycho-spiritual judgements.  At the same time, it helps me to accept more mystery, to fall in love with people, and events, and places in deepening recognition that what I thought was, may not be.  This is a gift to me - a great humbling of my mind and expansion of my heart's eye in the face of everyday, unstoppable miracles.

A New York Times article about Lynda Barry says, "Narrative, Barry believes, is so hard-wired into human beings that creativity can come as naturally to adults as it does to children. They need only to access the deep part of the brain that controls that storytelling instinct. Barry calls that state of mind 'the image world' and feels it’s as central to a person’s well-being as the immune system."  

I leapt out of my chair when I read this articulation of "the image world," because I am always looking for different ways to talk about this fact of healing, a fact that feels as clear as day to me. 

Several years ago, when my friend Dhara introduced me to her guru, Neem Karoli Baba, I latched on to his loving message quickly, because his big thing was feeding people.  He said, "God comes to hungry people in the form of food.  Feed people, love people, remember God." 

Sweet, huh? 

Last night, I skipped Kirtan to go out with my husband's Fed Ex friends, and eat at a silly, beach-themed restaurant in the middle of town.  This choice makes me think of my friend Rachael Crawford-Goolsby's definition of freedom, a combination of her own philosophy and that of Douglas Brooks:  "Freedom is choosing to bind to what is meaningful."

I love this so much, because what is meaningful to us personally is so diverse, and only we can define it for ourselves.  It is empowering to think of life in this way, and this is one of yoga's - or any practice's - gifts: a return to the sanctum of the heart, and the riches there which can never be disturbed, which can only be distracted from or covered over.  The definition also paints freedom so accessibly - in the present life - instead of the
idea of freedom; a dusty, high-way traveling way of being.

I do love highways, though.  Don't you? 

Finally, I want to share a fantastic interview that my friend's boyfriend did a while ago with the musician Jesse Sykes.  In it Sykes says, "I am an artist and music is my medium."  I guess I believe that we are all artists, in our own way, and we all just need the courage, excuse, or self-granted permission to find our medium.  This is my prayer, anyway.  That everyone finds the medium to bridge their confusion to clarity, their suffering to peace, and their heart's natural hopes for brilliance to the fulfillment of those hopes.

My stereo has switched from the sonic ocean of Nick Drake's soundtrack to the upbeat tempo of Justin Townes Earle's boot slapping on the floor.  Tim and I saw this formidable artist in January, on a local stage, turning and sliding around the little oriental rug with his guitar, his slinky back-up singers flanking his intense concentration.  It positively looked like a man dancing with his woman in the privacy of their living room, like the audience was an after-thought, a privileged set of onlookers witnessing this man's intense ballad to, and dance with, his love.  I held my breath through a lot of the performance, afraid that he would suddenly remember he was not alone and stop his awe-striking activity.

We all have the capacity for this devotion to our gifts, I believe.  People like Earle who bring it out of themselves so ferociously take my breath away, and this, I believe, is the gift that artists bestow upon the world.

With this, I say Happy Saturday, beloveds.  Go forth and bestow!