Here we are, day one of a new year. I’ve walked the dogs through gently falling snow flakes. The children slept till 10AM. We have this one last day of our unusually relaxing holiday to do as we please, each of us, before the new year’s schedule clocks in tomorrow morning.
Of course I am thinking about what I’d like to do this year, in addition to what I’m already doing; what would I like to try, what experiment shall I undertake, what challenge, what adventure, what’s calling? And I have a small idea, a possibility I’ve been mulling for awhile that seemed affirmed yesterday by the conflating coincidences of driving across town on an unexpected errand while listening to an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was talking about the creative impulse. The creative impulse is not benign, she said (and I paraphrase). If it isn’t put to use, if it isn’t acknowledged and fed, if it isn’t set free, it will find its own damaging purpose.
I began thinking about rage, just under the surface.
I was driving along a street I don’t very often take anymore, and it triggered a memory: that I’d stopped for gas, at a gas station that no longer exists, in fact, with two toddlers strapped into car seats in the back of our old red truck. I was enormously pregnant with my third child, and it was hot, a summer’s day, and we’d just gotten a load of groceries. I filled up the truck with gas, and as I was walking around the hood of the truck to climb back in to the driver’s seat, a man approached me. He looked, if not homeless, then close to homeless, and with a rough voice he asked if he could bum a cigarette.
My response shocked even me.
Rage. It was rage that poured out, with no warning, no pre-emptive interlude. “Do I look like I would have a cigarette?” I snapped at him, almost shaking with my fury, indicating my pregnant belly.
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
I got into the truck and slammed the driver’s side door, vibrating with rage.
I didn’t know what had come over me. I didn’t know why I was so very angry. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be feeling what I was feeling in that moment.
But now, I think maybe I understand. Like raging people all over this earth, my wider, deeper emotions were not accessible to me at that time in my life. I was repressing a great deal: disappointment about my career, the sense of boredom and aimlessness as I struggled to be a stay-at-home mom, exhaustion from the drudgery of the day-to-day. There were many things I was not telling myself, or allowing myself to feel, because I couldn’t have borne it. So when tapped or triggered, there was only one emotion on offer: rage. Rage is a defensive emotion. It lashes out so as to prevent us from feeling anything else.
I’ll never know exactly why the man’s question set me off, but I think I was afraid of him, and did not want him near me. I felt vulnerable. I also felt morally righteous. Whatever it was, I was feeling something for which rage was a cover. I was ambushed by my own inexplicable fury.
I think unless we allow ourselves to experience a full range of emotions, including those emotions that indict us for our own failings — jealousy, envy, disappointment, humiliation, fear, uncertainty, grief — we will be at the mercy of that one emotion that is always on tap, always available, a defence against what the world may think of us, and what we may think of ourselves deep inside. Rage rage against the dying of the light. Yes. But rage rage against the accusations that we know to be true, and the terror of being fragile, and the admission of loneliness and failure, and the misery of not knowing everything best.
Rage rage against being human and fallible.
Rage rage against culpability.
Rage rage against knowing thyself, because to know thyself truly is to know some awfully dark truths, is to acknowledge enormous imperfections, and ugly vanities, and moral failings.
Yet I maintain that it is better to know thyself than to remain lodged in clotted rage, railing against the world, and spewing harm and hurt. The hurt your rage will cause to your own self is far greater than any hurt you could bring upon yourself by knowing yourself truly. It is only when we see ourselves as vulnerable and weak and wrong (rather than wronged) that we can see others with compassion, and love too.
And the rage will diminish.
It really will. It will not shock you with its sudden emergence, or hurt those you love most dearly. You will feel its potential, yes, but you will know what it means, and hear what it’s saying: you will feel behind the rage to the emotion that rage is trying to protect you from feeling, and you will be able to name it, and to access it, and to experience it. It is only through experiencing the deeper emotion that you can understand yourself, and get through that emotion.
I am alert now to my own rage. I know it’s trying to tell me something more profound. Why am I so angry? Is this moment deserving of my anger? So rarely it is. Almost never, in truth. And pouring out my rage, pouring it onto to someone else, is unacceptable, always. I believe that. So if it happens, when it happens, I try to name that too. To apologize immediately. Never to let myself off the hook. To reflect. There is always more work to do. Because it is easy to mistake rage for purpose, for fuel. At least it’s better to feel something than nothing, maybe? But the opposite of rage is not emptiness, it’s not nothing, it’s not depression, it’s not powerlessness, it’s not silence. The opposite of rage is connection.
Here is my idea. This coming year, I would like to host writing adventures in my home. It will be an experiment, I confess. The point will be to use the physical act of writing — writing by hand onto the page — to bring us into a meditative state of focus, in which we can access memories, draw them forth. We’ll leap from the intensive imaginative images we’re experiencing in our minds into the adventure of fiction. The exercises will be guided, the space will be safe, and none of us will be able to guess in advance where we might travel to on any given evening. Being or becoming a writer is not the point. The process is the point. Play is the point. Adventure is the point. Discovering and mapping our own inner imaginative space is the point. Anyone can participate. Everyone has a creative impulse. This is just one of a myriad of ways to express it, but it’s the method I can offer, if you’re looking for an opening, if you’re looking for a way in. Or out. Or deep down.
Please send me a message if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop as the idea becomes a plan.
Happy New Year!
PS The title of this post is the first line of a poem by Rumi called “The diver’s clothes lying empty.” Look it up if you don’t already know it. Read it out loud. It will tell you everything I’ve written here, and much more.
Part One, Sonnet IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
— By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Joanna Macy
(To hear Joanna Macy read some of her translations of Rilke’s poems, visit the On Being website, where there is also an episode featuring Joanna Macy in conversation with Krista Tippett. On Being is one of my favourite Sunday afternoon kitchen accompaniments, on those rare Sunday afternoons when the house is quiet, and I’m actually at home.)
In my previous post, I published a list poem detailing some of the things in our downstairs bathroom (because, why not?). It included the description of a painting that hangs there, and I was amused to notice while brushing my teeth the other day that my description, written from memory, bears little resemblance to the actual painting.
I remembered horses, for example. There are no horses. I remembered the scene being of a marketplace. The scene is clearly of a busy city street.
I like that there are differences between what I remembered and what exists in actual fact, because I think it’s instructive of how memory fictionalizes reality all the time. At least, that’s my theory. And I like that my memory invented horses in the painting. Horses are a touchstone for me. They symbolize the freedom of childhood, but also some of the confusion of childhood too; I think of going to an auction of wild mustangs with my grandpa, in Tennessee, when I was a kid, and realizing it wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Wild mustangs! We were going to see wild mustangs! But the horses were skinny and dusty and untamed and seemed frightened, being herded through chutes and into pens. And I just felt … sad to see them like that. A sadness I couldn’t express.
At least, that’s what I remember now, thirty years removed from the experience.
I could write a poem about it, probably. Perhaps I should.
A friend wondered why I’d specified, in the previous post, that the line poem exercise be written by hand, rather than typed — it’s a good question, and here are my reasons. For practical purposes, it keeps laptops off desks in the classroom. But for even more practical purposes, writing by hand forces you to pour out your ideas less automatically, more deliberately. You can’t help but slow down, as pen tries to keep up with train of thought. The exercises we do call for a lot of scribbling, scrawled point form or almost shapeless idea-noting, and even some doodling: this happens best on paper. Finally, writing is a craft and there is something tangible about words written on a page. You can see that words are building blocks, you can move them around, remove them, play with them. So that’s why. (She says, as she types this post via keyboard onto screen.)
In other news, I’ve been working on a ridiculously long post that may or may not actually come into being. It’s really too long to be posted here, but I don’t have a better forum on which to share it. If and when I post it, I’ll give you a heads-up so that if you don’t want delve into a long-form manifesto on art, you can’t skip it! I think it’s an important subject, but I also don’t want to lose readers.
Happy Friday. (Spain next week, here I come!)
I like to write along with my students during our writing exercises. In class last night, our last exercise was a list poem created by imagining ourselves into a familiar room, and writing down details about the room, each detail making up a new line in the poem. The order was simply the order in which the detail occurred to us; we did not rearrange lines for this exercise. I’m breaking one of the class rules by re-reading the piece just one day after writing it; but I’m keeping the most important rule, which is not to edit or attempt revision for at least five days after writing it. This is as it was.
Here is my poem, for the record.
bathroom downstairs at our house
my face in the mirror
CJ’s face in the mirror, jumping and jumping and jumping but not seeing himself
my face with blemishes, frown lines of bafflement or pain stuck there now, un-erasable
the window out of which we cannot see
the blue stool that CJ is jumping from, jumping from
the window open and a light breeze, hot not cool
“what do you think of yourself? do you like it? can you see?”
the shower with the faint blue mould in the corners, faint grey scum on the tiles, a bar of soap melting in the corner
the towels hanging from a hook, one striped, one white and slightly mottled from years of use
the cupboard, paint peeling at the edges
the red door, open
debris in the corners, fuzz on the floor, fragments of hair and nails and dust and us
the toilet and the painting above it of a marketplace in Nicaragua, stick people almost, pinks & purples yellows & blues powder & light oxen & people churches & horses
and my face in the mirror
In other, but perhaps related news: I gave CJ a hair cut on Saturday. He spent a lot of time staring at himself in various mirrors, saying “Who is this strange guy in the mirror?” in a faux-shocked voice. He seems to like the change, very much. (While I miss the crazy curls more than I thought I would, somehow.)
Want to write your own list poem? Choose the first room that pops to mind, set a timer for seven minutes, and get writing (use paper and a pen or pencil; do not type).
PS My siblings (aka Kidstreet) have just released a new single. It’s called Daydream. Listen here!
For our final “fun” event of March break, we rented a third of an indoor soccer field, and played soccer together as a family. My brother Karl joined us, too. It was a fun event, not merely a “fun” event, so much so that we’ve booked more family field time, and are going to play hooky this afternoon — hooky, and soccer. My brother Christian is planning to come along too this time. I predict a decimation of the oldsters by the fit and skilled youngsters.
In honour of the occasion, here is a poem I wrote while watching my 12-year-old at a soccer practice this winter.
Girl at soccer practice
I only ask to be more or less still as I fall under the spell of a girl lifting into flight a ball with knee, foot, foot, knee, body, foot, foot, the ball never striking the ground, air-bound circle, and I only ask to fall to watching, to trust the meaning of what is here and shows itself and asks only to be seen, to be watched
I only ask for a moment and another, air-bound circle, to restore what seems lost from me; what there is no need to find when I focus on such focus that it seems it might never
Soccer, soccer, and more soccer. It’s a theme!
Right now, I’m debating whether to play soccer again this summer. I’ve signed up to coach or assistant coach the two younger kids’ teams. And my #FridayReads is Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, an odd little memoir (and quite possibly his first published book), in which he details his soccer/football obsession as an Arsenal fan through the 1970s and 1980s. He paints a disturbing picture of the dark underbelly of football culture in the UK (has it changed? I’m not sure), with its tribalism and violence, misogyny, and racism. Hornby looks around the stadium and observes that he and his fellow fans are utterly outraged at almost all times, filled with fury and disappointment as they watch their team play; and it seems such a strange misery to devote oneself to so fully, like one’s ordinary life can’t bear the burden of strangled rage, and so one becomes a football fan in order to let loose, in the company of others, this vast current of dissatisfied energy. Of course, there are the communal highs, too, when one’s team wins. Culturally, we devote a vast amount of news coverage and personal energy to sports, particularly professional sports, and that interests me. Why? What need is it filling?
Although I enjoy sports, I read Hornby’s memoir with the detached curiosity of someone who is not involved and cannot fully understand. I like to play more than I like to watch, in all honesty. (Unless I’m watching my kids play. See poem above).