Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Good Friends

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 herons
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.

When I first graduated from college, I moved to Denver, Colorado for a year and lived in an apartment by myself.  I often met my good friend who had her own place a short distance away, and we drank coffee, took walks, and watched movies together.  That year was a little piece of heaven, although I was confused as hell.  In the middle of all our coffee dates, grocery shopping, hikes in mountain lion country, my friend and I helped each other through the absolute cluster-fudge that is one's first year after school, and together we survived. 

Maybe that first year isn't so hard for everyone.  Maybe some people know exactly what they want.  Maybe they line up real jobs and have real relationships.  Maybe they move to sensible, medium-sized cities where they know someone with genuine laundry skills, someone who makes a decent pie crust. 

That would have been a good way to go, but I took a different route.  Many different routes, in fact.  My twenties were full of newness: new apartments, new relationships, new cities, new jobs.  On some level, I was probably searching for a home.  My parents had recently moved away from the town where I had grown up, and I no longer knew who my community was, much less where they were.  On another level, I was simply uninterested in anything I was supposed to be doing.  It wasn't that I was stubborn - though I was.  And it wasn't that I was driven - because I certainly wasn't.  I guess I was just hungry for a place that felt right, hungry for a piece of my own self which, because I couldn't always see where others ended and I started, I kept unwittingly slipping out of.  I wandered many streets, exploring, hunting, sniffing.  I wasn't sure what I was looking for and sometimes when I found it - in sun-drenched writing hours, in kind, smart friends - I did not always recognize that I had.

Living in Denver, my friend and I came up with a saying: It could be worse, we could be in Cheyenne.  For some reason, Cheyenne, Wyoming, a short drive north, represented to us the most desperate place in the world.  However we came up with it, our saying stuck.  We wrote it in letters we mailed to each other over the years, occasionally across the same town.  We said it on the phone, drinking coffee in our kitchens states apart.  Occasionally we got to say it in person, tipsy on our bar stools in New York, or driving mountain roads in North Carolina.

Many years after that first one in Denver, I moved back to Colorado, this time with Tim, to whom I was engaged.  We lived that first year in poverty, self-appointed but grueling nonetheless, for as Jeanette Walls writes in her astounding memoir The Glass Castle:  "Too much hard luck can create a permanent meanness of spirit in any creature."

Tim and I were lucky.  Our dip into poverty was short-lived, and not character-forming.  But it was a glimpse into a meanness I had not ever imagined.  Resentment formed a crust over many areas of my life.  It took months, even years, to thaw them. 

I don't regret it.  In fact, in many ways, the bleakness I felt was a doorway to strength. At the bottom of my sadness, I found something that couldn't be taken away from me, and that was creativity.  Making things.  Stories, blog posts, stationary for friends.  A life with Tim.  A home together.  Creating things built me.  I got to know myself, piece by piece, one humble revolution at a time. 

That first year, Tim and I drove to Cheyenne, tongues permanently in-cheek, and celebrated Valentine's Day at a restaurant chain.  I wrote my old friend from Denver and confirmed it: I had hit rock bottom.  I was celebrating a romantic milestone in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Worse yet, I liked it. 

The restaurant was a sea of cowboy hats.  We waited a long time for a table but didn't care.  We watched people: the sprayed hair, the tasseled boots, the belt buckles.  Cheyenne's slogan is Live the Legend, something that cannot be said without a humongous HA! afterwards.  But part of that slogan is also true. 

Wyoming, like all things I love, is a little rough around the edges.  Okay, a lot rough.  It has dirt in its teeth.  It has time to kill. The land itself reminds me of what the American frontier might have looked like at one time.  But the towns have bookstores and craft breweries and generally are not as scary as they might at first appear.
This past weekend, I was in Cheyenne again, this time to see Alan Jackson perform.  Tim sat next to me on the grandstand overlooking a rodeo pit.  An elderly woman in front of us wore ear muffs. In July.  She was there to see Alan: I didn't judge.  Besides, it was chilly.  Tim lent me his hoodie and we huddled under a near-full moon. 

In short: it was heaven.  Big, redneck, irony-rich heaven.

And now, for the hard part. Last Friday, we put down our beloved dog, Bear.  We estimate that he was 13, a noble (and notable?) old dignitary.  He probably had cancer, but honestly, who the heck doesn't these days?  He was tired and had gotten finicky about eating.  He had lost mobility in his back legs, a surprise to us all, especially regal, independent Bear himself.  He made the best of it, succumbing finally to our help with the stairs, but, well, it was just time

It absolutely broke my heart.  That dog was one of the finest friends I've ever had.  I don't know why, but I was surprised, too, by the tenderness that rushed within me after he was gone.  I felt myself totally raw and open.  It reminded me of the oft-quoted, golden Leonard Cohen lyric:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there’s a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in”

I never would have guessed that such a devastating event could hold so many kernels of sweetness inside it.  I felt myself grateful, so grateful, to have loved so completely, to have opened myself in spite of loss and all its risks.

May we all love so bravely, without remorse.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Not Even Close to Famous

The Country
by Billy Collins

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time—

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

From Nine Horses: Poems. © Random House, 2003

Summer speeds by with handfuls of cilantro and spritzes of lime.  The weather has been blissfully varied, with afternoon rain storms, cool mornings, and very few mosquitoes here in northern Colorado.  I tack this summer's weather onto my gratitude list every day, along with my lima bean-shaped dog, and my husband, who has my back in so many ways I cannot begin to count them. 

Mentally preparing for warm weather this past winter, after getting blasted by heat and wildfire despair last summer, I told myself: I will go swimming.  I will crash kiddie pools if I have to.  I will wear slippery tank tops and jeweled sandals.  I will drink fruity drinks. 

I have done all these things, except the kiddie pool.  Is it embarrassing that I am only now reaping the benefits of grounding, of following the seasons, when I am thirty-five?  Don't answer that!

I caught myself listening to The Strokes this morning, remembering years when I lived in New York after college.  Those years were a somewhat grave miscalculation of what I need in an environment, to say the least, but there was some good mixed in with the confusion. 

One of the good things was a brief internship at Interview magazine, where I was working when The Strokes album Is This It? crashed onto the scene.  For two weeks, I transcribed interviews between famous people and other not-so-famous people while The Strokes bounced around the cultural zeitgeist.  The magazine's offices were incredibly dark, arranged with important desks near windows and others, well, let's just say the room I transcribed in could have doubled as a broom closet.  But I loved the work, though I was completely intimidated by everyone around me.  I eventually had to leave because I had also applied for an internship at Rolling Stone, and when you get a call from Rolling Stone magazine, you answer that sh*t, you know? 

I had the great fortune of being a music intern there for the greater part of a year while I explored New York and various phases of my life.  At first I lived in catatonic disbelief that I reported to work on Sixth Avenue, and salivated nervously every time I was asked to do something cool.  On my first day, Roger Waters called to be patched through to one of my bosses, one of the kindest people I had ever worked for.  I met my brother down the street for coffee some days for lunch, and others grabbed a sandwich and walked to Central Park with another intern, a gorgeous young woman who went on to work in Bollywood and write a book about it. 

What is my point?  I'm not sure, except sometimes when wandering in a thicket of questions about my life, I try to remember other times I've felt lost.  What I recall is that, not only were good things happening during those times, but I was being cared for - by myself, by my friends, and possibly by some great, all-knowing love that I can't even guess at. 

Has anyone seen the movie Smashed?  I don't recommend it.  Like, at all.  But there is a scene in it, in which two recovering alcoholics piece through the journey of the younger alcoholic, who is newly sober.  Her sponsor, played by Octavia Spencer, says, "It's hard to live an honest life."  I think about this all the time now, and think, That's right.  That's what I'm getting at when I catch myself thinking that life is hard.

Because maybe life itself isn't so hard, but keeping your heart open for all it's trying to teach you is. 

Sometimes I think I could have embraced the opportunities I had in New York more, but other times, I see that I was slip and sliding all over the place spiritually.  I was doing the best I could, at the time.  Isn't that all we're doing anyway?

In honor of environment and culture, I give you:

1) The above poem from Billy Collins, which makes me ridiculously happy with its mice mouths and matches between tiny teeth. 

2) Some quotes from one of the greatest interviews I've read in my adult life, from the June 2012 issue of The Sun.  The interview takes place between interviewer Ariane Conrad and painter Ran Ortner, who said that thing we all loved about supporting your art instead of asking it to support you. 

* A culture is made by those who have a willingness to encounter life fully, to feel the storm of it and bring it back to us, so that we can put on Mozart's Requiem and listen to the fullness of the human heart...

* Awakening is a collective effort.  The more we can awaken individually, the more we will awaken collectively...

* ...I think that making art is profoundly and fundamentally life affirming.  To make art is to give, to pour yourself into life, so you don't die with the music still inside you.  You give it to your culture. 

Did you hear that?  Get your fine selves out there and give to your culture, please! 

Sending love,

P.S.  Completely coincidentally, Lukis and I posted an episode on our podcast this week about the movie Almost Famous, in which a young character gets assigned to write a story for, yup, Rolling Stone.  I never followed a Zeppelin-like band, or even a Skynyrd-like band, for weeks to write about them.  I barely left the office.  But the movie is fun, and discussing its merits and demerits was even more fun.  Hop on over to listen, if you're curious! 

P.P.S. I am now changing my blog's name to, Kara Reads The Sun.