There’s a Crack in Everything

Must the world always break our hearts?

Maybe it must.

Maybe it is the function of the world to break our hearts. To break us open, again and again. To expose us and keep us exposed.

We are so adept at forming scar tissue, so eager to heal. Perhaps the function of the world is to keep us from healing too quickly, to hold us in a state of receptivity for as long as we can bear it.

Brokenness may be less a wound from which we must recover than an invitation to be with our pain, our confusion, our not-knowing, to feel it all without the overlay of narrative and story, without explanation or assignment of agency. Without closure.

It’s hard to do. We want the narrative.

I want the narrative.

I told my meditation teacher that I began my practice with the thought that it would help me deal with my shit so I could get on with my life.

I’m beginning to suspect that dealing with my shit is my life, insofar as dealing with my shit means staying in that state of receptivity.

It’s a vast space. There is room for so much.

The world breaks my heart on a daily basis. That’s how the light gets in.

 

Writing as a Practice

In my last post, the one where I discussed re-conceptualizing my writing practice in the wake of a long dry spell, I shared with you a little about how I’m learning to play the piano.

I described my process, which, as you may recall, consists of noodling around within the framework of a few chord patterns. I began, this past April, with three chords. I’ve added a few more, majors and minors, mostly, which I tend to play in a basic 1-4-5 progression. Nothing complicated.

I wasn’t intending to write more about learning to play the piano. But in fairness to the practice, I thought I might clarify a couple of points.

When I wrote that my studio friend, the one who showed me those first three chords, had unlocked the mystery of the keyboard for me, I was not implying that I somehow gained an instant understanding of that mystery. I haven’t. What my friend gave me was a decoder ring. It’s up to me to put it to use at the keyboard.

That is the practice.

I am, as I wrote, a rank beginner, which means I know almost nothing about this instrument. I’m delighted just to be playing with two hands, clumsy as they are. This is a thing! I sit down and play my few chords and I am blown away that I can do this. That I can play those chords with my left hand while I figure out a little melody with my right hand pleases the hell out of me.

That I can’t yet do the reverse, play chords with the right hand, and melody with the left, is just a function of how unskilled I am. How unpracticed. But I’m learning.

In that post I also wrote, with respect to learning the piano, that my goal was not to get better, but to play. I should clarify. It’s not that I don’t I want to get better. Of course I want to get better. I want to play melodies and chords with both hands, for pete’s sake. I want to improve.

It’s just not a goal.

In learning to play piano, I have no goal. What I have is a practice, a fluid and ongoing process. Unlike a goal, which is a fixed thing, an endpoint, something we can measure and measure ourselves against, a practice is simply what we do with intention. A practice is a path.

There is a time for goals, there are circumstances in which making goals makes sense. This is not that time for me. The only goal I want to embrace with any of my art, be it the music or the work on canvas or, yes, the writing, is the goal of maintaining a practice.

Paradox!

If you’re a regular visitor here, or intend to drop by again, please know that you can expect to see a few more of these process posts in the days and weeks to come, as I work out what it means to approach my writing as art. If reading about my writing journey interests you, I encourage you to return. If you’re bored by it and prefer the poetry or the cultural critiques, I encourage you to return, as well, since I suspect those are themes to which I will return, sooner or later, within the practice.

For now, I invite you to join me as I sit with this writing, noodle with it, maintain a connection to it, so that the words can begin to please the hell out of me — and perhaps you — once more.

Writing as Art

In a conversation with my meditation teacher this week I shared with him my concern that my meditation practice had somehow disrupted my writing practice, and it was pretty damned disconcerting.

It’s the words, I told him. They’re too hard. Not difficult, but fixed and certain and inflexible. I type them and they become lies right before my eyes. Nothing is as it seems. Especially words.

Perhaps I’d over-invested in the concept of impermanence to the detriment of my work. Or perhaps there was nothing more to say beyond, “Everything is changing, always.”

In early spring, when I was a couple months into my meditation practice and hadn’t written anything for weeks, I thought, It’s spring. All the fruit is hard right now. Nothing is ripe. Just abide. Then the weeks became months and spring became summer.

That’s a long time to wait for fruit to ripen.

My teacher sat with my concern for a moment. Then he said, “I’m not an artist, so I have no experience with this phenomenon. Let me consider it, and we can talk again.”

We parted, and I went off to ponder our conversation. Specifically, I went off to ponder his characterizing of writing as art. More specific still, to ponder the idea of my writing as art.

I don’t consider my writing to be art. The stuff I make on my easel is art, the music I play is art, but my writing is… something else. Oddly enough, the stuff I think of as my art hasn’t suffered from my meditation practice. It has, in curious fact, flourished.

Which led me to wonder what would happen if I considered the writing to be art.

Would I approach it differently? Would I experience it differently?

And if so, what would that approach, that experience, look like?  Feel like?

There’s a chance it would look and feel like this: Back in April, I was at a friend’s music studio, and there was a piano there. I mentioned I’d always wanted to learn to play, and she sat me down and showed me a few chords and how to find them up and down the keyboard. In a matter of minutes she had unlocked the mystery of the piano for me.

In the weeks since then I’ve spent long, uninterrupted stretches noodling around on my daughter’s old Casio keyboard, making piano music because now I can.

I have no piano agenda. There is no goal except to play. Which is to say, beyond the fact that the hands on the keys are mine, and the pleasure is mine, there is not a lot of “me” at stake in my piano-playing. I’m a rank beginner and I love it. I may be doing it all wrong and I don’t care. I can tell I’ve gotten better over time, but I’m not playing for the purpose of getting better. I’m just playing.

Suffice it to say, I don’t usually come at my writing from this perspective. My writing seldom feels like play. It almost always has a goal, a raison d’ etre that supersedes the simple act of writing, and that goal is usually serious. I write for some purpose.

Maybe the lesson here is that I don’t need to. Maybe that’s what’s getting in the way.

Can you relate to this idea? Even if you’re not an artist, can you relate to the concept of playing just to play? My meditation teacher may not be an artist, but I know he goes on long bicycle rides on the weekends. When he’s out on his bike, I suspect he isn’t riding to get to the end of the ride. He’s riding to ride.

Can we write for the same reason, for the joy of wading deep into the clear, cold river of words?

It’s the infinite game, is it not?

Anyway, I don’t know if this attempt to reconsider my writing as art will help me to do the work. I do know that I never think about my sessions at the piano or in the studio in terms of getting the work done, whereas I often think of my writing in exactly those terms. Maybe as a first step, I can stop doing that, and see what happens.

Death Toll

When the snow comes we stay in the house
with mugs of strong tea and honey,
fleece and flannel, buffalo plaid and log-cabin quilts,

The fire burns steady, kettle set to simmer,
it mists the air like hot breath against a pane of glass
jackfrosted opaque.

We press our fingers to the frozen edge, co-mingle
our heat with the last light of the day.

In the quiet golden corner El Tio sits before his ledgers,
turning a pale green page to scan the names
of all who asked for one last solstice,

one last feast of Epiphany, scheduling payment,
sending invoices, tallying his bottom line by candlelight,
he calculates the weight of souls and payroll

for the psychopomp, holding out his cup to us
that we might fill it from the kettle one more time.

Holiday

After a week of grey skies and near-constant drizzle, the first of January is bright and blue, the air so crisp it snaps.

In a little while I’m going downtown to a church, where a handful of us will spend a few hours brining vast amounts of locally-grown garlic in the big kitchen, and bringing home jars of it to grace our pantries and flavor our cooking for the next little while.

Brining is simple and straightforward and inexpensive — salt + water + herbs if you want to get fancy — and the end product looks nice in its mason jar and keeps for months. It’s a nice project for the first day of the new year.

It’s a holiday in these parts, New Year’s Day, and so I get to suspend my job hunt for the next few days, as the holiday and the weekend combine for one last pause before we make our official launch into 2016.

I’ve been looking for work since leaving my ill-fated job at a local Montessori school in November, which doesn’t seem like that long ago, does it, though it feels like a lifetime.

It was a bad fit, that job, and it paid poorly, and made me so terribly sad, all those children trying to get through the day, most of them wanting nothing more than to be reunited with their parents. Three weeks in I came down with some sort of respiratory thing that I suspect was pneumonia, though I was too broke to go to a clinic for a diagnosis. Also too broke to take more than a single sick day, since we weren’t paid for those, and one day’s pay was all I could afford to lose. So I never really got better, just less worse, recouping some of my energy over the weekend only to see it dissipate midway through the following week. Three months of this was all I could take.

It’s scary to leave a job without another job lined up, but I had three part-time gigs to keep me afloat, and once I was no longer spending my days amid the biohazard of preschool culture, my good health returned, along with my energy.

Then one-two-three, the part-time gigs all fell apart.

Right before Christmas, which I don’t really celebrate, but still.

Suffice it to say, it’s been a somewhat anxious stretch.

Which is one reason I found myself this past Monday sitting on a little round zafu in the spare office of a lawyer friend who offers meditation practice three times a week. “Lawyering is such a head game,” he told me, his fingers tapping his temples. “This brings me back down into my heart.”

There were three of us in attendance that day. We sat, we focused on our breath. We called our minds back from their inevitable wandering. Called them back again.

I went into the room preoccupied, and in all honesty I was back to feeling preoccupied within an hour of leaving. But the time in between was a holiday. It wasn’t exactly free from anxiety, but it was a respite.

Holiday. Holy day. Sanctuary.

During our meditation my lawyer friend suggested we count ten breaths, slowly, staying with the breath, staying focused. “If you lose track, just start again,” he said, and I wondered how one could lose track counting from one to ten.

I followed my breath, I counted. And somewhere between six and seven, my mind wandered. I lost track.

I started again.

This week I have an interview with a small local company, doing a job for which I’m well-suited and would probably enjoy quite a lot. Meanwhile there is garlic to brine, and a blue sky above. One day at a time.

Happy new year.

Home Maintenance

I’ve been putting off changing the furnace filter.

In home maintenance canon, that’s like skipping oil changes for your car. Not smart, but in my defense, the furnace is in the cellar, and the cellar is pretty much just a deep dark hole scooped from red dirt, full of shadowy edges and cobwebby corners and assorted mouse bones and other unpleasantness. It’s an old house. They didn’t do poured concrete basements in 1860.

Alas, cold weather has arrived, and with it the memories of the winter the furnace went out not once but repeatedly, until it was properly repaired by a proper repair person who schooled me in the importance of good furnace maintenance. I’m not saying the schooling was particularly effective, but this morning there were heavy grey skies outside and visions in my head of space heaters and thermal underwear and heavy socks and standing in front of the open oven door to get warm, and no, no, I can’t put if off any longer. The furnace depends on me.

It depends on me.

I wear rubber shoes to do the job. The cellar used to flood with some regularity, especially after a sustained rain, and it’s been raining here most of the past week, a persistent cold rain that will seep into your bones, not to mention your cellar, and draw off all warm thoughts of pumpkin spice and sugarplum fairies. Even though there hasn’t been any cellar flooding since I had the house’s gutters replaced 18 months ago, I long ago habituated to a puddled floor. Plus, I don’t like surprises, especially in places all dark and cobwebby. So: rubber shoes.

Surprise: the dirt floor is dry, but there is something over there next to the furnace, a suspicious dark mound that looks a lot like scat. Rather large scat, as a matter of fact, considerably more than what might be left by, say, your average Midwestern house-invading raccoon.

It is disconcerting.

I lean in to take a closer look.

Relief: it is not scat. It is a small dead creature, dark and furry and desiccated. A vole, perhaps, curled into a ball, rigid in death. I nudge it with the toe of my rubber shoe and it topples sideways. I can see its front feet now, the tiny finger-like digits, and a tail not quite furry but not bare like a mouse tail. Definitely a vole. I direct it with my shoe into a shadowy corner, behind a piece of rotting plank, next to a dirt-crusted cinder block, where it can continue to decompose in peace.

At the furnace I pull out the old, dusty filter and replace it with the sparkly clean new one. I carry the old filter upstairs and out the back door to the trash bin, where I fold it in half and stuff it down into the bin. On the way back inside I leave my rubber shoes on the porch.

Point of fact: the entire enterprise has taken about four minutes, including the time needed to inspect the mysterious mound and toe it aside. It’s taken longer to describe it to you, and far, far longer to consider doing it and deciding not to, again and again, for weeks on end.

Procrastination is irrational. I am irrational. Q.E.D.

That winter when the furnace wouldn’t work properly, the technician who came to repair the thing (properly) showed me a carpet of animal hair he’d extracted from it.

“Change the filter every month,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I will. Every month.”

But I don’t. Instead I buy three-month filters (“Doesn’t matter,” the tech said when I told him this. “You have cats. Change it every month.”) He told me to mark it on my calendar, so I do. I choose a date, make a notation: “Δff.” Then the date comes and goes and I don’t “Δff.”

I’m a little slow with the oil changes, too.

It’s a common failing, this habit of postponing the small stuff until it threatens to become bigger stuff. I don’t even know why I’m telling you, except that I felt so triumphant when I came back upstairs with that dirty furnace filter in hand, and triumphs have been so few these past several months that I wanted to share that feeling with you, embedded though it may be in something bigger, something about the cellar where I’d rather not go, and the small creatures who dwell there completely unbeknownst to me, who appear unexpectedly, creatures I can (sometimes) nudge back into the shadows with the toe of my shoe, in order that I might get on with my life.

Dust II

We walked across this desert once,
red dirt rising to meet us,
the impressions made by our bared soles
no more lasting than the thin light of dawn
unzipping earth from sky. I remember
standing with you on this spot, do you
remember this spot, where we met the ones
we might have been and the ones we never could be,
and the shadows grew long behind us
and rose tall to meet us
and we looked beneath this small red rock
and saw our dust there, gathering.