Scratch

What do you do when the thing you’ve been doing doesn’t work for you anymore? If it ever worked at all. This is what I’m wondering.

I like the word “scratch.” It’s a noun: what the cat will give you when you annoy her. It’s a verb: what you do to get relief from an itch. It’s a slang term for money. It connotes beginnings and basics, as in starting from scratch, and baking from scratch.

I was making up a little recipe book the other day, a gift for a friend. A couple of the recipes I included require a food processor, and it occurred to me to wonder, does she have one of those? Another one calls for an immersion blender. Hello?

Even in recipes there is privilege, there are assumptions.

I have a food processor, an immersion blender. So I’m not starting from scratch, per sé. But I am leaving a work situation that has pulled me for the past two years down a path of depletion. The predictable end is less a bang than a whimper. My finances are exhausted, my energy is spent.

That’s another word that resonates: spent.

There is, in economics, a concept known as the fallacy of sunk costs.  Also called throwing good money after bad, and, in gambling circles, chasing your losses. It refers to the often-inexplicable human tendency to keep on keeping on, even when every indicator says you really need to not do this anymore.

(cf. climate change; also, bad romance.)

So I’m not going to do it anymore, that job that doesn’t work, that never really worked except in my Palace of Magical Thinking.

Now I’m in the other part of the castle, the less lovely part, where it’s a bit damp and full of shadow and uncomfortably close to starting from scratch, and I’m not liking it so much.

Still, I have two books that are approaching completion. One is a new poetry collection, tentatively titled The Breakup Poems and Other Attempts to Address This Ridiculously Dysfunctional Life (jk, sort of). The other is a book about my coffeehouse, the one I started when I first moved to the Midwest. I’m calling that one Mud River, which is the name of my publishing company, which was itself named after the little newsletter I used to print (on paper! c’est vrai!) when I ran that coffeehouse.

All my life’s a circle. Harry Chapin said that.

If you’d like to help me get these books across the finish line, you can make a donation to the Fund to Keep the Poet Fed, for which I will be most grateful. You can also leave a comment on this post, which is nourishing in its own right.

Thank you.

That Does Not Make You Brilliant; It Makes You a Sociopath

In her essay, “A Thousand Rivers,award-winning film director Carol Black writes of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher and author of the groundbreaking book, The Master and his Emissary

[The book] argues that the narrowly focused, mechanical, analytic part of the brain so dominant in modern societies actually evolved as a limited tool to be guided and restrained by the more broadly focused, holistic, relationship-based part of the brain.

Modern western civilization, McGilchrist maintains, is not more “advanced” than other human societies, but rather has become dangerously unbalanced in the direction of a kind of cold, abstracted, mechanical analysis at the expense of a more interconnected, compassionate, holistic understanding of the world. That kind of imbalance, as McGilchrist points out, does not make you more “brilliant” than other people; it makes you a sociopath.

From “A Thousand Rivers,” by Carol Black
via Schooling the World

No Hard Feelings

I.

It’s the water that carries us, after all,
like mermaids astride the glistening shell
of the giant sea turtle, we are slippery wet,
slick as newborns.

We are filled with the oceans, we are alive.

All my friends are anemones, supple, pliable,
bendy beneath the waves,
the salt and the sea that softens the flesh
and even the hardest of feelings.

All my friends are fluid.

II.

When John was twelve he came upon his father
golden in the early morning light, hanging
by a noose from a rafter in the barn.

When Tim was twelve he followed his mother
to the Belgium Bridge and watched as she threw
what remained of herself into the Seneca River.

When Mark was twelve he watched his father
give himself up to the tumors that stole the hard,
dry breath from his lungs.

III.

We did not kiss or hold each other close
one last time, we did not wish each other well.

IV.

When the edges get ragged, you can turn
a new seam. Again and again, you turn,
until the garment that once covered you
is a collar buttoned at your throat, a bib to catch
what crumbs may fall.

But this is not the edge.
This is the center, this is the heart,
where the rend is new
and the soft fray has only just begun,
there is still time to lay a patch,
still time to stitch things
back together.
If only I had a needle.
If only I could find some thread.

V.

All along the shores of Lake Ontario
I gather the pieces of beach glass,
frosted blue and green, bits of vessels once
whole and transparent, now fractured into
fragments, small and opaque as moonstone,
buffed and lustrous, the product of time
spent tumbling, of turbulence, of friction,
of abrasion, bruised like knees for years and years.
I fill my pockets to overflow with the beautiful
battered bits and carry them all back home.

If You’re Weary, Too

“Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t feel the same,
that you’re not weary, too, of waging war in heaven’s name.

I wish I could give you a link to that song, but it’s one of mine, and I haven’t recorded it yet, tho I surely will, one day. The last time I sang it in public was over a year ago. How the days go by.

So I have this new gig, and it’s exactly the sort of thing I love/hate: getting a project off the ground, developing goals, objectives, a strategy, not knowing what I’m doing half the time, fumbling in the dark (too long), dealing with other people, merging our disparate desires and visions and ambitions and, yes, agendas. The organization has been around for five or six years and it’s never had much structure or a sustaining revenue base. My task is to develop both. They call me Executive Director. I like the title, even if it comes with no salary and a fuzzy mission.

Yes, people say, it sounds lovely, but what is it you do?

I do this: I sway like a poplar in a spring storm, tipping from optimism to something not quite its opposite, something akin to futility. I lean into blog posts and newsletters to escape the weariness of moral outrage over all the awfulness in the world. I swear off Facebook, I stop reading Salon, I curse my porous soul.

Then I go outside and wander in the tiny woodland sanctuary that is my back yard, noticing the new growth, the robin’s nest built in the crook of the rain gutter, its young already fledged and off to live their feathery new bird lives.

I go back inside and try again.

Scratch a woman, find a rage. That’s what Marilyn French wrote, all those years ago, and I’m still raging, still wondering why the wars in heaven’s name get all the money and the messes are left for someone else to clean up.

At my new gig we work on local food issues. Access, infrastructure, supply, demand. We don’t have many organic farms in our area, so choosing local often means choosing conventionally raised products. (Poisoned butterflies, collapsed bee colonies.) It also means inefficient markets. (Higher costs, limited supplies.) And it means buying what’s in season. (No tomatoes in January, no asparagus in July.) That last one is a hard sell to people who are used to the year-round plethora available at every supermarket in town.

Sometimes I think the greatest force in the universe is not nuclear or electromagnetic or even gravitational, it’s habit. The force of habit. it takes a lot of energy to overcome it, a lot of fuel to propel change.

Outrage is certainly one sort of fuel. It burns hot, it stokes your engines. Outrage made public brings things to the attention of an otherwise indifferent world. And in the face of awfulness, it’s awesome. I remember a slogan from my youth, something to the effect that if you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention. So I guess I’m paying attention.

At least there’s that.

I just need to remember that not all things worthy of my attention have to be the stuff of outrage. My new gig, for one. That song in need of recording, for another. And for the sake of my stupid, porous soul, let’s include that empty nest where only weeks ago there were eggs, then baby birds, now just downy feathers and twigs and grass. At least there’s that, too.

Stitching

We traveled south to be with friends, people we no longer see as frequently as we would like. It was a last minute decision. “Do you want to go? Yes? Okay, then, we’re going.”

Death rends the fabric, then invites us to come together to stitch it back up.

We are all a mess. Our stitches are clumsy. We poke our thumbs on the needle points, and our blood dots the pretty pink napkins on the table.

Whose suffering is relieved by death? Surely not that of the dead; to feel relief, one must still be capable of feeling.

Must still be alive. Must still be feeling.

We are still alive. We are alive. We are stitching, stitching.

Not Everything is a Metaphor

Last night I played a little gig at a local club.  Midway through my third song, my voice vanished. Disappeared. Poof. Gone.

It came back, intermittently, just long enough for me to finish out the short set and whisper my thanks into the mic.

After I sat down I said to my companion, “I lost my voice.”

She was sympathetic. “Nobody noticed,” she said.

Indeed.

Not everything is a metaphor. Sometimes, it’s two metaphors.

Blue

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” writes author Rebecca Solnit in her essay, The Blue of Distance. “This blue is the light that got lost.”

“Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water, the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance.” […]

The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

My favorite Christmas songs are not really Christmas songs at all: Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” and Joni Mitchell’s “River, from her 1971 album Blue. There is an entire blog devoted to Blue, which is one more reason to love the internet. On it I found a link to a list of some of the best covers of Mitchell’s songs, including a personal favorite, Beth Orton’s recording of “River.”

I’ve been dreaming of returning to Colorado, of finding a place to nestle within the arms of those mountains. For all kinds of practical reasons I have held the dream at bay. Maybe for reasons not so practical, as well.

Once more to “The Blue of Distance”:

“We treat desire as a problem to be solved […] though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. […] The mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them, and the blue instead tints the next beyond.”

Excerpts are from Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guild to Getting Lost, 2005. For something a little less melancholy, you can read her year-end essay, “Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart” on Tomdispatch.com.

Peace.