Entries in energy (2)

Tuesday
Jan222019

Part 3: The fertility of the senses

I hope you take time to feel all there is that’s offered because the fertility of the senses RIGHT NOW will not return. It’s precious. It asks for nothing but your presence. I have the sense that’s why we feel so tired when someone we love deeply dies—so we’ll float in the deep end for awhile and forget about exerting ourselves.

                                                    --Gail Baker(1)

Thanks to my friend for the reminder that with death comes some kind of opening—cracks through which we glimpse our inner life, or the hearts of our loved ones, or different dimensions of awareness.

I keep feeling that I am ready to return to my usual life, but one thing after another interferes. Most recently, I got sick enough to stay in bed for several days. Though I felt terrible, I also knew I was longing for time to reflect and write, and honestly just time to do nothing. It felt so good to just lie in bed and allow. To let everything flow through me. To just feel everything that has happened.

*******

My brother asked me the other day what would I have been writing in my blog if I hadn’t been worried about what Dad would think? At first I don’t know how to answer the question. There is a little girl inside me squirming and stubbing her toe and mumbling, “Oh…just stuff…

Good grief! I think. Get a grip on who you are, lovely one!  This is an important question he is asking you! And maybe he really wants to know. Maybe your Dad wanted to know, too, and didn’t know how to ask. And, besides, whether anyone wants to know or not isn’t even the point. You know who you are. Speak up!

When I was young, my subjective inner world was hard to talk about. I lived it inside myself in my life with books, but my emotions, my personal will, my creativity, and my spirituality were all things that I felt cut off from in the outside world. It’s no wonder, when I think about it, that I became a therapist who could help people value those things in themselves. Our greatest gifts often begin with a wounding.

Now I treasure my subjectivity. This is how I know who I am and what matters to me. It is the root of my unique contribution to the world. It is the rich variability between people we need as a species. And it is those subjective experiences I am wanting to talk about here today.

*******

Five days after Dad died, my sister sent me a text with the quote from H.D. that ends the last post I wrote before Dad’s death.

            …last night

      was the first night that it came,
      the distant summons, the muted cry, the call,

      and my bones melted and my heart was flame,
      and all I wished was freedom and to follow…

                          --H.D.(2)

And she brought tears to my eyes by writing, out of the blue: This quote from your blog sounds like Dad saying goodbye.

*******

The night before Dad passed, I lay awake unable to sleep. As I lay there I could feel my body quivering and shaking slightly with the anxiety of knowing he was in the hospital, of my rush to make travel arrangements for the next day, of trying in vain to relax and get some rest. At some point—late, and very unexpectedly— there was a feeling as though a tremendous wing of joy had passed over me in the dark. Then just as quickly as it came, it was gone, leaving me with my own anxious restlessness again.

I have no idea what this was. All I can say is what it felt like. And I say this knowing that it may only hold meaning for me. But it felt to me like some kind of presence. It felt like Mom waiting for Dad. Like the energy of all our loved ones out there waiting for us. Like Dad recognizing this was there for him.

If you knew my Dad, you would know how big a leap this is to make. If you knew how much of his life he spent arguing against the offenses of religion, the way that it has historically separated us from each other, the violence done in the service of specific beliefs. Yet Dad always believed in love, and knew that there is power in love. He didn’t often talk about it, and his love was often obscured by his strong personality, but it was always there at the center of who he was.

*******

When I would visit for a weekend when we were caring for Mom at the rehab center, Dad would spend the night with her and I would drive in from the farm house in the morning to replace him for the day. One day as I was leaving the house, I noticed that he had left a lawn sprinkler on overnight. I thought he might have forgotten about it, so I shut it off when I left, not realizing that if the pump was still on without any sprinklers running it could ruin the motor. When I met Dad that morning and told him about the sprinkler he got mad at me and hollered at me in the hallway of the rehab center, “You have to trust me!” This startled me and hurt—especially because I was trying so hard to do the right thing—and though I could understand why he was short-tempered, his reaction upset me for the rest of the weekend.

At first when I thought about it, the idea of me trusting him seemed ridiculous. We were all stressed, and he was 90 years old and had been forgetting all kinds of things—I would find the stove on hours after breakfast or the water running after he had left the bathroom. And he wants me to TRUST him? On what grounds? I felt like shouting back at him.

But that statement stuck in my head, and over time I got curious about it. Did I trust Dad? What does it mean to trust someone? Was he talking about something deeper than his lawn sprinkler? I started using that as a kind of barometer for my actions in the last years that Dad was alive. What would I do right now if I did trust him?

One day last summer I happened to hear Dad throwing up. When I came to the bathroom door and asked him how he was doing he admitted that he wasn’t that keen at the moment. He had taken some old supplement that had been open for awhile and he thought that had disturbed his digestion. But when I asked him if he needed any help, he said that he didn’t. Just let me suffer on my own, was the gist of his response. Ok, Dad. I will trust you. And I went off to bed.

Or when I took over moving his lawn sprinklers this summer when he got too unsteady on his feet, I thought I would just go figure it out on my own, but Dad had all the details down to the inch—where to place the sprinklers, how large to make the hose coil when I was finished, what order to move the sprinklers in. Everything had its place and its purpose. In the past I would have felt constrained and offended, but pretty soon I realized that I could just trust him. And as obsessive as his system was, it did actually work. All the lawns got watered in a short amount of time. His hose never had those annoying kinks in it. And after I started trusting him I could relax and follow him around as he showed me exactly where to place the sprinklers, and just enjoy doing something together with him.

I am finding that his request to trust him doesn’t end with death. As we are cleaning out the house and I am deciding what to keep and what to throw away, I start hearing those words again in my mind. Only this time they aren’t angry. Now they are kind. Warm. Comforting. Trust me, I hear. Which now translates into: It’s ok to let go of things. What needs to be done will get done. I have taken care of the things that were important to me…save what you want and get on with your own life.

*******

Virginia Woolf’s father died tragically and early, when she was in her 20’s, and though she was devastated at the time, she reflects in her diary much later that if her father had lived it would have been the end of her literary life. "No writing, no books;--inconceivable." (3) I have to say that I recognize her feelings. I am thankful for the years I had with my parents—that they got to know my husband, and saw me become part of my community in Seattle and find work that I loved. But I am also grateful to be so young when they died. I feel like there is possibility for me to focus on my own life and my own calling—and perhaps specifically on writing. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have written so much since Dad died. There's room for books now that there may not have been room for before—at least not inside my own head.

But the expansion I am feeling isn’t only about not having the extra duties of caring for an elderly parent, or the loosening of old identity. I have also had the sense—first after Mom died, and now also after Dad’s passing—that when someone close to us in our family dies, it makes something available to us. It feels like there are “family resources” created by the lives of my ancestors that are stored up for me to use, and that when a person passes, the key to those resources is passed on to the next generation.

I don’t even really know what I mean when I say this, or how to put it into words. Anything I say is certainly meant as the finger pointing at the moon. But it feels like there is some kind of reservoir of love, patience, kindness, wisdom—certainly way more than any person showed in their actual life—that is available to me now to draw from, and that I will pass on when I die.

So their passing gives me this gift. Not only the gift of time and space, and the perspective to see myself more accurately in relation to them, but the gift of support. As I am quiet and listen, I can feel energies coalescing around me in new ways. I am surprised today to realize that what I feel, even in the midst of sadness and grief and uncertainty, is power. The power of knowing who I am. And the power to create from that.

*******

I open one of the books of poetry that I bought recently in Fruita and read:

      In the depth of the ground
      my soul glides
      silent as a comet (4)

Yes, I think. That is how it would be for Dad.

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(1) www.gailbakerartmaker.com
(2) p. 61, H.D., (1972). From "Sagesse" in Hermetic Definition. New York: New Directions.
(3) p. 17, Virginia Woolf, quoted in Tillie Olsen, (2003). Silences. New York: Feminist Press.
(4) p. 217, Tomas Tranströmer, (2006). the great enigma: new collected poems. Translated by Robin Fulton. New York: New Directions.

Sunday
Nov112018

Poetry is energy

     What dies before me is myself alone:
     What lives again? Only a man of straw—
     Yet straw can feed a fire to melt down stone.

               --Theodore Roethke (1)

When the poet Theodore Roethke died, he left 277 notebooks to be archived at the University of Washington's manuscript library, which along with 8,306 loose sheets, takes up twelve horizontal-feet of library shelf-space. In those notebooks are the fuel for poems—fragments, ideas, observations, jokes, quotes, aphorisms, lists, philosophical commentary, bits of dialogue, false starts, unfinished projects, partial drafts—all in Roethke’s “favorite forms of disorganization.”

Roethke’s student and colleague at the UW, the poet David Wagoner, selected twelve of the notebooks at random from the collection and created the book Straw for the Fire by arranging selected fragments. In his introduction he says of Roethke’s process:

Roethke apparently let his mind rove freely, moment by moment in the early stages of composition, from the practical to the transcendental, from the lame and halting to the beautiful, from the comic to the terrible, from the literal to the surreal, seizing whatever he might from the language, but mulling over and taking soundings of every syllable. (2)

**********

In my own writing practice I make an attempt at some kind of order. I have kept a written journal most of my life, but with the advent of smart phones, in the past few years I have started a digital poetry notebook where I can keep poem ideas and fragments in chronological order in one place. If I think of something during the day I make a note on my phone in a note-taking app and download it later to its final resting place into a document where it “belongs”—meaning that there is some hope of finding it later. Is it a journal entry? A dream? A poem? A bird list? The start of a blog post? A letter? A book I want to read? A place to go to? All of these get recorded in separate files on my computer.

This seems like a good idea, but I find recently, especially if I have written a lot of notes, that this cataloguing makes me irritable. I have begun to feel that there is something artificial and forced about this organization. That “putting things in their place” constrains something essential.

**********

I have discovered in our travels that many small towns don’t have poetry stores. I don’t really know why; there is nothing about small towns and poetry that is incompatible. I still remember an uncle of mine—who was a farmer his whole life—reciting Milton’s sonnet on blindness to me at the dinner table before going back out to the tractor for the afternoon.

Last week we stayed in Fruita, Colorado, a small town just west of Grand Junction with a population of around 13,000. The town has a small historical main street, the usual houses and shops, the usual nimbus of small green pastures dotted with black cows. It is close to spectacular red cliffs and canyons and vast swaths of juniper and pinion pine and sage and is a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers. Based on past experience, I would not expect to find a poetry store in Fruita.

So when I walked into town from the state park to buy a new bike tube, I thought I was just checking off a task on my to-do list. But about a block from my destination I noticed a small sandwich-board sign for Lithic Bookstore. The sign pointed toward an older building divided into offices, and once inside, another arrow pointed upstairs. This did not seem like the usual bookstore arrangement, so—intrigued—up I went.

On the second floor at the end of the hall was the doorway into the bookstore. On entering, I could feel immediately I was someplace unusual. Rocks lurked everywhere—tucked into bookshelves, hanging from the ceiling—and an array of found wood hung in graduated sizes across half the room like an oversized percussion instrument. There was also an eclectic array of art and many other artifacts—shells, mala beads, fossils. But though the room was full, it wasn’t cluttered. The bookcases were beautifully constructed and arranged spaciously in small islands. Couches and easy chairs were gathered in corners for reading or conversation.

And as I turned my attention to the books themselves, I found that the bulk of them were poetry—and a very wide-ranging collection. Sappho, Swenson, Snyder, Stafford, Stevens, Yeats, and Zukofsky.  Donald Hall. Anne Carson. Gertrude Stein. Robert Duncan. Robert Bly. Adrienne Rich. Rita Dove. H.D.

Over the next few days I returned several times and heard more about the store’s origins. What came first was actually Lithic Press—the bookstore was an add-on, a way to use some extra space when the press upgraded to a larger office, and a place where they could host events.

But what really struck me was how the press was started. Its owner, Danny Rosen, began as a geologist, then moved into education, teaching geology and astronomy. Somewhere along the way he started writing poems. And somewhere along the way he met Jack Mueller.

Jack was a central figure in the post-Beat poetry scene in the Bay Area in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. He knew everyone. And everyone knew him. He wrote prolifically, read his work, created thousands of events, connected people, and in general was a firecracker in a haybarn.

Eventually Jack moved to the western front of Colorado, and that is where he met Danny. He and Danny got along great, Danny having some of that firecracker gene as well.

Danny admired Jack’s work so much that he began Lithic Press as a way to publish it. Kyle soon joined as the graphic artist. When they talk about Jack you can hear how deeply he affected them both. They have created several books of Jack’s work (as well as publishing other poets) and Kyle has created a documentary film about Jack, who passed away from cancer in the spring of 2017. Right now they are working on laying out a long sequence of Jack’s poems (they waved a stack of paper at me that was about six-inches tall) that they hope to have finished next year.

Danny walks over to the crowded desk and comes back with a large plastic container. “This is what Jack did all the time,” he says, opening the box to show me that it is stuffed full with a conglomeration of 3x5 notecards, scraps of paper, coasters, cocktail napkins—whatever was available to write on—each one with a few words on it, or a little pen sketch, or both. Evidently there are thousands of these, and this is just one box of many. “He would just be there at the table writing these things and giving them away to people. Even at the end of his life, in the hospital, up until a few days before he died, he kept doing this.” I ask if they kept the ones from the end of his life separate, and he looks at me a little sideways, like maybe I wasn’t listening. “No,” Danny says, “people just took them—people who were there with him a lot at the end. I have some. Other people have some.”

He picks up a scrap at random and reads to me. I look at the wild drawings, listen to these words reaching out to me. Even languishing in this Tupperware box they seem so alive. It feels like a box of matches—that any of them struck at the right angle and the right time could warm you for a night; or perhaps burn down the house of your life. I think of the power of his poetry (coming through his person) to start this place I am standing—press, bookstore, gallery, meeting space. Reliquary. Incendiary torch. Seed bank. Munitions depot. School of phosphorescent fish. Oasis.

And this is just one effect. How many countless others have there been? And will be?

Poetry is energy. And Jack knew this—allowed it to flow like electricity or sparks or the life in our bodies. Roethke knew this—and kept writing and writing even though he could never hope to “use” even a fraction of what he wrote. This energy could not be contained or organized (though by necessity, perhaps, we try). The best of it flowed through them, flowed out of them, and is gone, starting a few fires in its passing.

I leave Fruita with a stack of books, but most importantly with new inspiration, feeling electrified myself.

Before poetry is sound or sense, it is energy.

Let it flow.

            …last night

      was the first night that it came,
      the distant summons, the muted cry, the call,

      and my bones melted and my heart was flame,
      and all I wished was freedom and to follow…

                          --H.D. (3)

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(1) p. 9, T. Roethke, (2006) Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke (1943-63), Edited by D. Wagoner. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.

(2) p. 3, Ibid.

(3) p. 61, H.D., (1972) From "Sagesse" in Hermetic Definition. New York: New Directions.