Laureate

Last night I went to a reading by California’s current Poet Laureate, Dana Giola. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had such a long and varied career–he’s a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, with an MBA and a PhD in literature. He has taught and promoted poetry education all over the state for years.

The contrast between seeing his poetry-as-my-career persona and the more intimate experience of hearing his poetry was fascinating. He, like many poets, writes of love, grief, communion with nature, and all of his human experiences. However polished and goal-oriented he may be in his endeavors, when it comes to his poems he is naked. And thank the gods for it–how else could I feel connected to him and keep any feelings of envy and inadequacy to a minimum?

Because (and this will be no shock to those who have read any of my writing) I do have these feelings. A career such as his is not achievable for me unless I invent a time machine and manage to get started writing well before my late forties. I must focus on what I can do in the time I have, and I must keep my eye on that which makes me want to write whether it leads anywhere or not.

Strolling With Sewage

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2015)

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with my personal God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked my God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.

Pain We Obey

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2014)

Even at its worst, the pain from my cracked vertebra was not that bad compared to what some endure. But when it’s your pain, and you have it all the time, it feels consuming. I know what it’s like to plan my days around pain; to decline activities I used to enjoy. Not to be fully present in the moment because I’m counting the minutes until I can lie down and take painkillers. My addiction clouded the issue as time went on, making it more difficult to judge the true level of my pain and causing me to neglect the things that might help it.

I’m glad that many in pain are still able to use painkillers to take the edge off, even though I know the side effects can suck. I’d still be doing it if it worked. I’d still be doing it if my body and brain had not developed ever-increasing levels of physical tolerance and psychological need. Why not? We’re wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s not wrong, it’s human.

When it became clear that I was an addict with a capital A, rather than simply being physically addicted to the meds, I felt so sorry for myself. My black-and-white thinking painted the future as an infinite desert of unrelieved pain and bleak depression. It felt so unfair. I had to change my attitude a lot to have a chance of staying clean, as I mention in Compassion With A Twist.

When I became willing to live, and went to rehab, I was told that for every year I had used opiates it would take about a month clean to figure out my true pain level. I’d used them for eleven years. Didn’t sound like much fun. Rehab, with its constant classes and groups, was very physically challenging for me. I’d sit on pillows, rocking and fidgeting often, feeling as if someone had jammed a screwdriver into the base of my spine. I must have dried ten thousand dishes, because it was the only one of all the chores that I could do without triggering my back too intensely.

Today, I can say with gratitude that it appears the doctors at rehab were right. My pain level is far lower than it was before I got clean. I still have occasional episodes of bad back pain, but I pause and remember that I used to feel that way all of the time. Recovery has also brought me other improvements in health that lower my pain, such as weight loss and the ability to exercise more. That’s only my story about recovery, and I know that not all pain is the same.

Living with chronic pain, like living with mental illness or being in recovery, opens us to trying things that might not have been on our agenda. Spiritual exploration. Meditation. Trying to find and do small things that give pleasure in the moment. Examining our ideas about what we are if we’re not our jobs or our productivity. All of you who make this necessity into a quest for growth inspire me: how amazing it is that we perform, however imperfectly, this mysterious alchemy that turns pain and despair into something beautiful.

“To goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.”
–-Marcel Proust

Oak Tree Debate

Have you ever written a story specifically to help you with a poem? I have a poem that’s been incubating for a couple of months now. Like many, it started from an image and a thought, but it will not coalesce into a phrase that serves as a “hook” for the poem I want. So, as I talked about recently, I’ll write about this as prose and see if that begins to help the process.

The time: May, 2011. The place: a residential drug rehab center in Northern California.

The center was set in a lovely area, surrounded with picturesque roads (and, ironically enough, wineries.) The buildings of the center housed about forty addicts in various stages of detox and early recovery.

Once you were deemed past the worst early detox symptoms, you were allowed to leave the house and walk about the grounds. There was an open area, away from the main compound, with a single bench. The bench faced the largest oak tree I had ever seen in person. It was the only tree in the field, and seemed sentient when you looked at it long enough.

People were encouraged to spend time there, thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t need encouragement; it was a pleasure to get away from people for a little while.

So that’s the image: a huge oak tree, spreading its old and complex branch systems against the sky. The pattern of branches seen against morning sky, and midday sky, and evening sky.

Some people might have used the place for meditation, and some for prayer. I sucked at meditation, and while I had nothing against prayer I couldn’t concentrate on that either. My mind was occupied, more often than not, with what I later came to call the Oak Tree Debate.

The subject of the debate was simple: Did I want to live? And, even if I did, did I deserve to live?

The oak tree, it seemed to me, was my judge. It was the embodiment of all that was natural and true, while my drug-tainted, mentally ill and self-destructive presence felt like the embodiment of all that was not.

Even the bench I sat on felt soaked with pain and toxicity. I thought about all the addicts who had sat there for decades before me. Ashamed, grieving, belligerent or hopeless. I thought about how many came back to the bench more than once, having relapsed after weeks or months or years. I thought about what the oak tree might think of them, and of me.

The trouble with presenting a case to my arboreal judge was twofold: I was not competent to be the best advocate for myself at the time, and I did not speak the oak’s language. My case was inconsistent at best, and even if the oak did render a verdict I could not be certain of what it was.

In the end, I had to go from that place without a clear conclusion to the debate. It has continued, off and on, through years of recovery and treatment for my mental health issues. Perhaps it will never end–but when I can, I choose to imagine a verdict that tells me to keep going.

Just As I Am

Today I’m wrestling with a common question: go to a poetry reading or not? One of my favorite monthly ones is happening this afternoon, and I want to go–but I’m not having a good day.

Not having a good day, in this case, refers to my bipolar symptoms. The depression and disorientation are up for me right now, and it is hard to focus. When I am like this, I feel a bit alien and more socially awkward than usual. How much of this is my perception and how much actually affects others is hard to determine.

Would going to the reading do me good? Yes, almost certainly. It’s an opportunity to connect with the poet I am and disconnect from mundane worries.

So what’s trying to keep me away? Ego, of course. Not wanting to show my vulnerability. Wanting people to like me.

Let’s break it down, however. Some of my poems that touch people the most are my most unguarded ones; the ones that expose me. One of my favorite things to say to myself when I am blocked is “When all else fails, tell the truth.”

I’ve written it before, but for me it bears writing again: my best qualities come forth when I offer myself to the world, just as I am, and let others decide what to make of it.

Are We Disposable?

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2014)

It’s a selfish question that hovers around the edges of my mind when I think about the state of our world. I’m not involved in politics, and I tend to be ignorant of many topics that speak of important developments–I don’t like that about myself, but it is my truth. As my readers know, there are times when my main contribution to society involves working on ways not to be an active drain on it.

Those who share some of my issues are often seen as an impediment to the prosperity of others, and certain voices try to shame us when we use the services our governments may provide to care for those who have trouble caring for themselves. I’d like that to be different, but I don’t imagine it will ever be uncomplicated.

In the end, we are all still animals competing for resources, and only the trappings of civilization introduce the idea of giving any resources to the helpless. Some have said that the measure of a civilization’s advancement is related to how much, and how well, they care for their children, their sick and their elderly.

Whatever one thinks about the world situation, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation will continue to be a problem. Resources will be at more of a premium, and there will begin to be more sorting of which kinds of sick or disabled are worthy of help. Mental health may not be highest on the list. Addiction-related issues are likely to be even lower, since addicts are usually seen as deserving their suffering.

This, from a Darwinistic point of view, may be a regrettable but unavoidable thing. But how much should we resist its progress? How much should we fight to be seen as something besides a liability? Is there a place for us in the future?

Sometimes, when my mind is spinning its catastrophic phantasies, I go postapocalyptic and imagine how long I, and many I care about, would last. I always imagine myself as a liability to whatever group I’m with, unable to function very well without my meds, or unable to see because my glasses got broken. I see myself as useless, without a lot of physical strength or swiftness to build or get things the group needs. I see myself as the first to fall behind and become lunch for zombies–unless a friend gives me a helping hand.

And why should they?

Why should they, unless we have some kind of value that isn’t strictly practical?

Why should they, unless those crowded barracks or underground warrens need us? Unless humanity is incomplete without us? Unless there’s a spark that’s worth maintaining, a spark worth a bit of food or a place near the fire?

Why should any society help its disabled, even when a cold equation might say the help isn’t bringing a sufficient return?

I got on this subject with my therapist during one of my dark and hopeless spirals recently, and we talked about the idea that humanity, by nature, will always need its shamans, its poets and its weird people in general, as well as the wisdom of its elders. “That may be true,” I said, “but you can’t deny that in a crisis state the strong and able will be valued most. The women who can bear healthy children, the physically strong, the mentally stable: these are the ones who can outrun the zombies or will get rescued first. You can’t deny that I’ll be one of the first to go.”

Then he told me that, although it might be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean I deserve it. Then he said something that cheered me up: he told me that if it does happen, maybe I’ll discover that the zombies are in need of poets too. Feeling better, I began to imagine my new dream job as Poet Laureate of a zombie city.

I don’t know if we are disposable. I don’t know, not for sure, whether our existence has intrinsic value. But I do exist, and I am grateful for it, and I have a daughter for whom I want to model values of love and not shame. I want her to see me doing my best, and believing I have something to give the world, so that she might learn to believe the same thing.

So I send love to all my peers, and invite us to go down swinging if the time comes, and hold our heads up until then. As a token of my affection, I enclose the opening poem from my potential future body of work:

Brains

Arrrgh brains brains
Brains gurgle thud howl
Brains brains crunch splat
Brains brains brains.

Shapeshifting

What form does the piece of creative writing you’re incubating want to take?

I’m beginning to understand why so many poetry exercises want you to tear apart a poem and experiment with writing it in different forms.

I already knew that changing the voice of a poem can be a powerful tool–if it feels awkward in the first person, try third or second, etc. I already knew that trying out a specific form like a pantoum or sonnet can be a fun way to experiment with one.

What’s really making me see it, however, is comparing works of mine that deal with the same idea or image in prose versus poetry. As I go through old essays, some of them cry out to be used in a poem. At least one of them already has been.

I realize that when an idea or image is potent enough for me, it could give birth to several pieces, each in a different form, each powerful in a unique way.

Knowing this helps me feel more cheerful about revision…the old saying that “a poem is never done” brings a sense of hope and mystery rather than paralysis.