COVID-19, Home, Writing

Writing feels distant these days

I open the computer with the intention to write but my restless mind interferes and soon I’m out the door where I pace up and down the street or do laps around my yard. My body appreciates the exercise but writing stagnates. I wish I had the cat’s ability to focus. He can sit for long stretches of time staring intently into the shrubbery, not even a whisker twitching as he waits for a chipmunk or vole to emerge. 

Eventually, renewing my resolve to sit with the blank page until words emerge, I go back inside, settle into my comfortable chair, and open the computer. I poke at a piece of writing for a while but then slide over to look at email or social media.

This past week has been especially difficult as the election nears and threats, fear, and anger escalate. Writing about my daily life seems frivolous, and yet it’s what I know. I’m angry and weary–as are most people I know–but I don’t have anything to add to the conversation about current events except to note how overwhelming it can all be. 

I talked about this with some writing friends and felt reassured that writing about my day to day is just fine. It might even be an antidote to the gathering angst. So, throughout the week I’m going to post quick word snapshots, glimpses of moments from my day to day. 

For example, yesterday I was in the front yard looking for the cat who I’d just seen disappearing into the depths of one of my gardens when I noticed the next door neighbors were out in the street taking pictures of their two boys.

I wandered over to see what was up. The three-year-old was just learning to ride a two-wheeled bike. He had such glee on his face as he wobbled along finding his balance point for seconds at a time before needing to plop his feet on the ground. Not to be outdone, the five-year-old demonstrated his ability to ride with just one hand on the handlebars.

He was just about to try riding with no hands when my phone rang. I needed to take the call and the family wandered off down the street. But I was left with the younger child’s broad smile and his joy in the trying and then trying again. 

Poetry, Writing

Back again

My apologies for a long absence from the blog. I have been writing short pieces that would make good blog posts but some kind of strange inertia has kept me from taking that next step of doing a little editing and then posting. I hear from a lot of friends and from writers I follow on social media that this creative lethargy is a common experience these days. For me, it’s a combination of the disruptions caused by the pandemic we’re all enduring; the onslaught of other news, much of it deeply disturbing; and simply summer vacation mind (even though I haven’t gone farther afield than fifteen miles away). 

Most of my writing has happened in groups, both in-person groups (via Zoom these days, rather than someone’s living room) and online in a private FaceBook group. I’ve written before in this blog about both the pleasures and the challenges of writing in a group but the camaraderie of these groups has been more important than ever during the past months. 

One of my first experiences with writing in a group setting, back in the late 1980s, was in an Amherst Writers and Artists group led by Pat Schneider, a writer and teacher who along with her husband Peter developed a gentle, nurturing, supportive approach to writing in a group. Twelve of us gathered each week in the Schneider’s living room, notebooks and pens at the ready, mugs of tea or coffee by our sides. Pat would give a prompt, we’d write for 20 minutes or so, and Pat would then issue an invitation to read our words aloud. I remember how my voice shook the first few times I read but with time I came to trust the process and know that the listeners’ positive responses—what they heard, noticed, appreciated—would help me revise and strengthen the piece. 

Pat died in early August. On Saturday I attended a virtual memorial service for her and heard person after person talk about the impact she had on their lives and I think about the way those evenings in her living room helped me believe in myself as a writer and commit to making writing a serious part of my life. 

One of Pat’s core beliefs is that we are all writers, we each have a unique voice and a story to tell, and we all need safe spaces in which to develop our voice and craft. Here are links to two safe spaces whose offerings I’ve benefited from:

https://www.jenaschwartz.com/

Writers in Progress

And finally, a poem of Pat’s.

Going Home the Longest Way Around

we tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
We make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
diminishing returns.

Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.

And they were silent, the children
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.

It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.

From Another River: New and Selected Poems
Amherst Writers and Artists Press

Garden, Grief, Meditation, Writing

Remembering

I haven’t posted recently—haven’t spent much time doing any kind of writing. That happens sometimes. I’ve cleaned closets, organized shelves, clipped back dead foliage in the garden, raked up leaves that I left down for winter mulch, read some good books (I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo), spent more time than I should scrolling through social media, walked in the woods—but the only writing has occurred in my Monday writing group (which is where I am right now). 

I’m not worried—I’ve had these lulls before. To give myself a nudge—a gentle invitation—I enrolled in an online group led by Jena Schwartz titled Dive Into Poetry. Three days a week for the month of March we receive a poem in our inbox. We can simply read and appreciate or we can respond with a poem of our own. 

I wrote a poem this morning about a garden cart that a friend gave me as a housewarming present twenty-five years ago. The cart has trundled across my yard thousands of times since that long ago August day, hauling leaves and grass clippings and potted plants, empty pots that need storing at the end of the season, bags of mulch and topsoil, rakes and hoes, and seedlings in green plastic pots ready to put in the ground. 

The poem was a distilled, focused memory of the gift of the cart, my friend helping me put it together, his death months later, my memories of him when I use the cart. My last lines said:

“I think of him now as I push the cart over a winter rutted lawn.
Not a heavy grief, but a remembrance
a nod to his thumbprint on my day to day.”

I was aware as I wrote about my friend and the cart and the gentle nostalgic memory that the cart evokes that I was not writing about the more poignant, stabbing memories that surface sometimes when I look at the print hanging on my living room wall—red tulips spilling out of their vase—or feel the nubbly texture of the yellow blanket folded on my office daybed, these relicts from my sister’s house, evocations of her and her home, many-roomed memories that swim in front of me of a place I can never return to, a person I can never touch again. 

None of this is surprising—griefs exist in diverse dimensions, deaths leave holes of differing sizes—the death of a friend lands differently than the death of a sister. 

Although I haven’t put words to paper much in recent weeks, I’ve been writing a lot in my head. I wrote an entire poem in my mind yesterday morning as I sat in my meditation group listening to Tara Brach and trying with great difficulty to keep my attention focused on my breath. I’ll remember this poem, I told myself, write it down when I get home. But it’s mostly gone. I got home, stroked the cat, ate lunch, and ventured out to the garden to rake and clip and tidy, the poem forgotten until this morning when I tried to recapture it with no success. Something about being the silence that is listening, being the stillness. 

Being the stillness. Things feel chaotic these days, all the hoopla and angst about the virus that creeps ever nearer, dominates the media, seeps into our thoughts, our conversations. I try to resist the anxiety, stay centered, fight the feeling that I’m swimming through germs every time I go out in the world. I spent a long time at the grocery store on Saturday stocking up on canned goods just in case I need to self isolate at some point and then got home and realized I’d been so focused on that hypothetical crisis that I hadn’t bought items that I’d actually need for the coming week. 

Breathe. Be the stillness. Relish moments like this, sitting in a bright room, surrounded by windows, looking out at sun and blue sky, feeling the sun on my neck, the back of my head, hearing the creak of chairs from the other room, an occasional sigh, knowing that we’re all engaged in creating, putting words out into the world, a community of writers. And being here, now, fingers on keyboard I enter a sort of stillness, a place of calm. 

Meditation, Writing

Finding focus

I begin my days most winter mornings sitting in my living room next to a south facing window. My back is to the window; I look across the room and out of the north-facing window at rhododendrons and behind them tall evergreens that mark my back boundary. On a clear morning, the sun, sitting now in the southern sky, warms the room and cascades over my shoulder and arm. But today is cloudy and I’m warmed only by the heat blowing through a nearby floor vent. 

Snow sifts down. The shrubs and trees are pocked with clumps of snow from a recent storm. It’s a gray, green, and white world. I took a picture yesterday of the snowy view out my front door. I’m struck by how muted the colors are—the faintest hint of green on shrubs, a brown house down the street. 

Winter. Part of me wants to hibernate, avoiding the cold, the low light, the snow-constricted, icy walkways; another part feels a deep restlessness. I’m like the cat who sleeps for long hours and then wakes to scrabble at the front window—let me out, let me out.

This restlessness interrupts my writing and editing. I told myself that yesterday would be a day to sit at my desk and focus—my own writing in the morning and then some editing in the afternoon. But the online crossword puzzle beckoned, and then scrolling through social media, which led to a couple of interesting articles. Some phone calls. A load of laundry. I finally settled enough to work on an essay about my mother. But after lunch procrastination once again took hold. 

I made a grocery list and headed to Trader Joe’s. When I was checking out, the cashier asked how my day was going. I said something about restlessness, about difficulty sitting down at my desk and getting to work. “I know how that feels,” he said. He scanned a couple of items, then looked at me and asked, “So, what would help you focus?”

“A cup of tea,” I said. “Tea is good,” he responded. 

“And then I need to just do it, don’t I?” 

“Good luck,” he said as he plopped the filled grocery bag into the cart. 

I’ve been watching videos posted by a British woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this year—one video a day as we follow her through water-starved desert terrains, treacherous snowy passes, dripping rain forests, sometimes with companions but often alone for days on end. She’s charming, likable, ordinary and extraordinary.

Yesterday was the last video, marking her completion of the six-month long trek. And this got me thinking about how we applaud people who take on these big challenges—hike the PCT or the Appalachian Trail, write a book, solo travel around the world, run an ultra-marathon, etc.—enduring hardships, reveling in small triumphs and joys, countering fears to reach the big goal.

But doesn’t the real challenge lie in how we live our day-to-day lives? Staying in the here and now even when the weather is cold, the world is icy, the cat refuses his medicine, our work feels bumpy, and our sinuses ache? Isn’t the real challenge waking up to our lives, moment after moment? Finding our center, point of focus, passion, our guiding star, and returning to it again and again, no matter how strongly we’re pulled away?

What will help me focus, keep me grounded and awake? The answer changes moment to moment. This morning I picked up my laptop and started writing about my here and now. I’m now at my desk in late afternoon light, one lamp on, a clock ticking, the cat curled up in a corner of the room. On the desk is a rock with the word Breathe printed on it. And so I breathe and I write. 

Nature, Writing

Wildness brushes close

Over the years I’ve been a member of or led in-person writing groups in which the goal is to generate new writing. In all of these groups, I’ve relished the synergy of sitting with other writers, each of us deep in our creative worlds. On a good day, the generative hum can be almost palpable, a shared electric current.

Writing group time doesn’t always flow smoothly though. There are days when I’m distracted by the click of keys or scratch of pens on paper, days when I’m restless, the prompts don’t speak to me, words don’t come, and I just want the writing time to end. But my commitment to the group and to the process helps me sit through this edginess; I make false starts but eventually words become sentences that become a paragraph or two. And I am often surprised when I read aloud, hear what resonates with listeners, and discover a thread to develop, an idea to pursue. 

I wrote the following on one of those restless days. I’m sharing it here mostly unedited—I corrected typos, cleaned up verb tenses and punctuation, put in paragraph breaks but didn’t “fix” anything else. The prompt was to choose a word, write a sentence, pause, and continue with “What I mean to say is…” I chose two words—owl and brush—and this is where those words gradually led me.

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I haven’t seen the barred owl since sometime in January. What I mean to say is my life hasn’t been brushed by a glimpse of that still presence, that beautiful bird of prey that sits and observes, warming its feathers in winter sun. 

What is it about birds of prey that fascinates me? The owl, the peregrine falcons that swoop on their target at 200 miles per hour?

I first spotted the owl a few years ago on a cold winter morning. I saw it fly across the yard and land on a branch of the yellow pine. Every morning it appeared and then just as suddenly disappeared. The clamoring, cawing crows let me know when it arrived—I’d look where they were gathering and yelling and there, through the branches, still but for its swiveling head was the owl. 

I’ve only heard it a few times, the distinctive “who cooks for me” call echoing at night. But all too often outside sounds are muted by the sound of the furnace or the air conditioner, the house living and breathing around me. 

One year I heard the distinctive call of a great horned owl, the deep call and then an answering call. I was glad the cat was inside. I saw a great horned owl one late summer day. Two friends and I were walking on a path in a wooded park outside of Chicago. We heard the whoosh of wings and looked up to see this large creature eyeing us as we scurried past. 

Wildness brushes close. Wildness which so many people fear and destroy.

A few years ago, in response to the disappearance of nature words from a children’s dictionary, English author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris collaborated on The Lost Words: A Spell Book, a book of acrostic poems and art that conjures these words and keeps these bits of nature alive in our hearts and minds—dandelion, raven, lark, thistle, owl, conker, hare—the list goes on. 

If we lose these words, they say, we no longer see and value the species they name. The book has become a best-seller in England, curricula have developed around it, crowdfunding campaigns have thrived with an aim of getting it into schools throughout the country, a group of musicians created a song cycle based on it, other composers have used it as inspiration. I listen to the CD of the song cycle and my heart aches for the disappearing species. 

So I revel in the wildness that trots and soars and lumbers through my suburban yard. The family of raccoons that loll in the crook of the pine on hot summer days; the possum that noses at the cat door and on occasion takes up residence in the garage; the skunk with its plumed tail that ambles through early in the morning; the coyotes I’ve seen in late winter when lingering snow cover shrinks their hunting grounds; the bobcat that posed in the back corner of the garden one summer; the hummingbirds and wrens and orioles and cardinals and jays and crows; the butterflies and moths and bees and wasps; the tree frogs and crickets that fill the summer nights with music. 

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Listen to “The Lost Words Blessing”

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