That’s why they call it a practice (NaPoWriMo Day 29)

malaThreads

Meditation pisses me off. All that non-striving
time on the floor, therapist-prescribed, noticing
the rope of my breath swinging up and down,
ringing me like a shivered bell, adds up to another
chore I must perform and I have a lot of them—
twisted muscles to lengthen, children who need
the brushed-hand of a long-distance text or a note
for school, packed with the peanut-butter sandwich.
And after I unwind the trail with my spouse and find
clean trousers and deliver the visiting poet to campus—
why is every poem I write a list?—my students face me
with skeptical looks and I know I must hand over every
spool in my basket, every kindness and needle and tangle
of literary lore. I unwind sentences with them
and we watch them catch light, catch shadow, too.
Later, caught in the net of a computer screen, an email
reminds me to be mindful, to mind the mindfulness
competition beginning now: log-in to record for my employer
the minutes I turned off the phone to follow my breath.
Complete two weeks and earn an emotional wellness token.
Turns out meditation capitalized also pisses me off.
Instead I resolve to scatter any mystical currency my clean
trousers pick up accidentally. Spirit-lint. This is my log-in.
Breathe. What is the thread-count of anger? How soft,
how durable? Can I knot rages into a ladder and escape
myself? A chime sounds. List and day unravel but the bright
skein of breathing keeps slipping along, connecting me
to feeling, to tomorrow, to you, whether or not I mind it.

That was Day 24 of National Poetry Writing Month. I haven’t drafted a poem every single day, but I’ve still done a fair amount of work, some of which might last, all of which did me good anyway. Meditation isn’t going as well–a kind friend sent me the mala pictured above, but I tried so hard to race through the beads and get on with my day that I kept hyperventilating. I notice I like writing poems about failed meditation better than I like meditating about failed poems…

Intertidal zone

Robinson_NewYork2140_HCI’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s flood of a novel, New York 2140, at the edges of the work day. Sea levels have risen fifty feet but stubborn New Yorkers are trying to redefine their big moldy apple as SuperVenice, navigating the street-canals via vaporettos and hydrofoils. When you read a long book slowly, it seeps into your consciousness, so my metaphors have become watery. Not that I’m composing lots of new stuff–it’s mostly revisions, submissions, and correspondence this month, as well as a few blogs and reviews, squeezed in between meetings and other end-of-year chores–but every hour I’ve stolen for poetry has oozed with damp.

I’m especially preoccupied by the book’s dominant setting and metaphor, the intertidal zone. This whole month has been liminal. I’m in between the intensities of the teaching year and the writing summer, not quite free of one nor immersed in the other. I’m also waiting on the outcomes of queries, but trying to use suspenseful hours usefully–to not act like I’m waiting. Sometimes I’m optimistic and grateful, but often I’m down and worried. Rough seas this year, on a national and personal scale.

So, first, let me stress gratitude, which lately I’ve beaming out at the editors, agents, and other literary people who remind me that even when I feel stranded on a deserted isle, some of my bottled messages reach people.

  • I just brushed up an essay called “Women Stay Put” for Crab Orchard Reviewa piece about Claudia Emerson’s first book and her years adjuncting at W&L. It also concerns friendship, ambition, the toxic mess of university teaching hierarchies, and other topics I find REALLY hard. Thank you, Jon Tribble, for liking it enough to grant it space in the final print issue!
  • In this week’s intertidal zone, I also recorded a poem called “American Incognitum” accepted by Cold Mountain ReviewI’ve received a zillion rejections this spring but also had poems taken by the CMRBarrow Street, Water~Stone Review, Ocean State Review, Notre Dame Reviewand SalamanderSome of those acceptances brimmed with praise. How nice is that?
  • I’m looking forward to picking up my daughter from Wesleyan this weekend. It’s a long, hard drive, but we get quick visits with family on the way, and Madeleine is brilliant and hilarious company. We get home Sunday and I head right back to CT Tuesday morning, by plane, for Poetry by the Sea, where I’ll listen to poems and participate in panels alongside the shoreline, sharing lunch and dinner and conversation with literary friends. Bound to be lovely.

I’m going to skip the part where I tell you what I’m not grateful for, unless you take me out for a beverage and an earful, but I can redefine even that mildewy mess á la SuperVenice by observing: maybe the self-enriching tyrant will actually get impeached. And summer’s nearly here. I’ll get to work, at least part of the time, on what I personally find good and important. What’s tough about my workplace will recede to the background. And then in September I get to teach again, and my small classes are full of gifted students to whom I can offer real help, for a respectable salary. I appreciate this luck even at the lowest tide.

There’s a minor character in Robinson’s novel, a government finance guy, who describes his meditation practice: he lies down on the roof of his building and lists all the crap he cannot fix or change, and somehow feels relieved by the exercise. I’ve been trying an inland Virginia version: I cannot make the president obey the law. I cannot make colleagues treat me, or each other, with kindness and respect. I cannot make the world perfectly safe for my children, or other people’s children. I cannot force myself to go back to sleep at 2 a.m. or be productive or cheerful all the time. My metabolism will never obey me, nor will my cats.

I can practice compassion and diligence, but it’s really practice–trying, with no guaranteed results, ever. Thrum, swish, say the tides of my body. Even when you feel stuck, life is never static.034.jpg