Fear Not?

I chose today’s piece because fear has been clamping down on my creativity lately. Just like any other emotional state, fear comes in both useful and useless varieties when it comes to writing–with the useless kind, my brain freezes or flees into escapist behaviors. So…

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

How much does fear rule your life?

Those who do some kind of deep self-examination are often surprised to see how deeply, widely, and diversely fear is imbedded in their psyche. I don’t think I was surprised to find its presence in some deep places, but it was enlightening to see how much of my daily behavior is fueled by it on some level.

It’s hard to admit how afraid I am. It’s easy to buy into the idea of courage and strength being incompatible with the presence of great fear. It’s easy to forget how different we are from one another sometimes; that something only mildly frightening to one person may be a source of utter terror to someone else.

There’s an old story about two soldiers in a trench during World War I, waiting through the tense hours before a charge. One sits calmly, while the other paces incessantly, chain-smoking and talking nonstop. The calm one makes a disparaging remark about his nervous comrade, and the other replies: “My friend, if you were as afraid as I am, you would have run away a long time ago.”

I am afraid the way that soldier is. Too afraid to pretend not to be, too afraid to carry things off with style. I need to comfort myself with stories like this, becasue when I scratch the surface of my skin hard enough to penetrate the thin layers of maturity and faith I find a sea of fear. I think I need a hundred words for the many different varieties of fear, with their subtle shadings of meaning and manifestation.

If you’ve ever been afraid the way I am, you know that it doesn’t respond to logic. Oh, some fears do, or they can be soothed with emotional support, or by questioning them with cognitive-behavioral techniques. But there are kinds of fear so primitive, so nonverbal, so far beyond any mental construct that our attempts to soothe them feel like trying to send a T-rex to therapy.

One kind is what psychologists call “annihilation anxiety.” It’s what it sounds like: fear of utter destruction, unmaking, nothingness. Its roots lie very early in life–in the stage of complete dependence of an adult figure and the terror that losing said figure’s love would mean destruction–and it’s nonverbal and primal enough that sometimes I don’t even realize it’s come up until I’ve been reacting to it for days.

Primal fear comes up in our old baggage and in new baggage that got influenced by the old. It’s what is operating when we do things in our relationships that just don’t make sense; when our therapist and friends and whoever have a clear, obvious idea what should be done, who should be confronted, who should be left, but the thought of actually doing it is–well–unthinkable.

What to do about it? Oh, you already know what I’m going to say. There is no swift and logical cure for this kind of fear. There’s no cure at all–only the chance to go into remission. To fight the fear to a standstill and wait for it to get tired and take a break. But how to fight something you can’t see, or speak to, or argue with? Can a sword cut darkness?

No, it can’t. Nor can clever words convince it to retreat. There are only two things I can do: first, stop acting out in a futile attempt to drown the fear under more familiar pain. Then huddle close to the fire. Feed the fire, watch the fire, and don’t let it go out, and try not to think too hard about what will happen if it does. Feed the fire of my Self; yes, and the Self, whatever mystic force that is. Everything I am that is not nothingness. Everything I am, and was, and will be, that is the opposite of nothingness.

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.

Mentioned

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My first poetry award! I received a Second Honorable Mention in an annual Bay Area poetry contest. At their monthly get-together, I read my poem along with many other winners (there were four categories) and got to hear theirs.

The little kid in me is very excited about this. When I enter a contest or send off a submission, I look at it as gathering experience. I’m still so new to sharing my poetry that I need experience to become comfortable with the process. But I’d be lying if I said getting some recognition isn’t fun. This comes on the heels of doing that small feature, which was also an honor.

Here’s what I want to say to poets who haven’t yet read their work in public: TRY IT!

I first read poems in public on June 4, 2016. That’s less than nine months ago.

What Do We Want?

“What do we want?
Immortality!
When do we want it?
Now!”

—from “The Poets March on Washington” by James Cummins

But seriously…what do we want for our poetry? What do we want it to do? Not that it has to do anything, of course. It can be only for ourselves if that’s what we want—Emily Dickinson ordered that all of her poems be destroyed after her death. We only have them because someone ignored her wishes.

I’m running into this question more and more since I’ve begun sharing my work at readings and preparing actual submissions. I find that my process of revision feels different when I am anticipating reading the poem out loud to a group, as opposed to thinking only about submitting it in written form.

Beyond this, I want to think about how I’d like my poetry to affect other people. Do I want it to help someone understand something? Do I want to make someone feel less alone? Or do I want, in the end, just to give others bits of the oh-yes-I-don’t-know-why-but-yes feeling I get when a poem speaks to me?

If I am sharing my poetry only to get fortune (ha!) or fame (slightly less vehement ha!) or even just to get appreciation and positive ego stroking, I’ll set myself up for disappointment.

What is your fantasy about your poetry’s role?

Sudden Ease

Two days ago, over a bowl of oatmeal, I was ambushed by a poem. The seed of it had appeared the day before, and was suddenly mushrooming into near-draft form. Obediently, my half-awake self reached for a pen and wrote things down. In half an hour flat, I had something better than the things I’d been staring at sporadically for two weeks.

“You will find that you may write and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second.”
—Richard Hugo, from The Triggering Town

If I were reading this in a church, this would be the time to shout “Amen!”

I have thought about abandoning a poem when it feels awkward or stuck…and sometimes I do put it aside for a while. This passage affirms what I think I already knew: working on a poem is never wasted time, even if that version of that poem isn’t destined to become a star. The work of the past two weeks bore an unexpected fruit, that’s all.

Winning Formula

There’s no one way to stimulate creativity. For me, the seeds of a new poem can come at the oddest times. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is the role played by boredom, fatigue, or concentrating on a task like driving or dishes. A mental state in which thoughts drift randomly and hook up in unexpected ways.

Recently, I had the most glaring example of this…it was the night before my father-in-law died, and I was up at the family’s home being with them in their vigil. We were all catching bits of sleep where we could, in between listening to his breathing. I lay in a trundle bed, stupidly tired, and could not fall asleep. I listened to some music on my headphones, tried again; still no dice.

My mind began to wander, and BAM! the seed of a new poem appeared. Was it a poem about death, or grief, or what it’s like waiting for it this way? No. The poem is (as far as I can tell at this stage) completely unrelated to what was going on. The trigger appears to have been a phrase in a poem I’d read the day before, linked to a different poem I’d been working on, linked to a song I had heard…you get the idea. These things drifted through my fatigue-drugged mind and collided.

And it wasn’t just an idea, it was an idea. One of those juicy ones that gives you a little shiver when it clicks into place.

Those who speak of the drawbacks of technology, or those who caution against the overscheduling of children’s lives, understand that we all need time to daydream. Boredom and random mental drifting are vital to imagination. I know that I interfere with my creativity when I distract myself from insomnia with my iPad instead of just letting myself drift, although I forgive myself because it’s the least of evils at times.