Hard as That

I’m reading Timothy Egan’s stark and unsettling story of the Dust Bowl years, The Worst Hard Timean uneasy feeling keeping me company as I go. “A powerful cautionary tale,” reads the back cover of my paperback edition, and it is, though one has to wonder if any caution is ever heeded when there is still profit to be made by clinging to willful ignorance.

If nothing else, the history of the dust storms of the High Plains throughout the 1930s provides ample evidence — as if we needed more — of the capacity of human activity to radically alter weather cycles. And the basic difference between weather and climate is time. But time is measured differently in Washington, D.C., where nobody reads, and the only cycle that matters is electoral in nature, while taking risks on rising sea levels and drawn-down aquifers is part and parcel of our casino economy, to which we all must pay tribute, sometimes in ashes, sometimes in dust.

So it goes.

 

All of the Past is Present

A couple years ago I carried a big bin of my journals out to a friend’s farm. We built a bonfire of fallen limbs in a wide dirt pit, and one by one I tore the pages from my journals and threw them in the fire.

A dozen years of journals, burnt to lovely motes and pale grey ash. I came home with a bin of tangled spiral bindings that I thought I might put to some artful use.

I still might. There’s no rush.

I expected to feel some kind of release in the aftermath, a liberation, a new lightness of being. I didn’t feel any of those things. Tho later, when I read Marie Kondo, I smiled at the notion of sparking joy, at the memory of burning pages to embers and tiny sparks. I know it’s not what she meant. But maybe it is.

Meditating with the Body

One of the somatic meditations I recently introduced into my practice makes me weep uncontrollably, and because of this I don’t often attempt it, even though it’s so cathartic and leaves me feeling weightless and liberated. It also exhausts me, and that’s something to consider when going into a session, since afterward there is still the day to be lived. Chores to do, and obligations to attend to, a body to be moved through space, energy required for all of this.

Sometimes I have to choose a path less fraught.

The other day I spoke with my facilitator and described how frantic I sometimes feel, how hard it is to not know what it is I’m moving through, moving toward, moving from, how panicked I sometimes get in the midst of all this not-knowing.

I am not a person prone to panic. And yet.

“Let’s just sit for thirty minutes,” he said. “How does that sound?”

It sounded hard, and I wanted to say so, but I didn’t want to be disagreeable, especially after he’d been kind enough to listen to me rant, so I arranged myself on my cushion, and we sat. Five minutes. Ten minutes.

The point beneath my left shoulder blade began to ache.

The body remembers everything.

The body is the subconscious. This is what I’m learning.

It’s painful to come back into the body, to awaken sleeping limbs gone numb with disuse, painful to stand, painful to walk. But what is the alternative? To remain asleep. Quiescent. Unfeeling. Unmoving. Unmoved.

I don’t want to be any of those things.

Fifteen minutes. Twenty.

To come back into the body, to listen to the body, is a radical act. The body as clear-cut, the body as strip mine. The body as resource, utility. The body as rock and dirt and sand and soil and veins of copper and veins of gold.

The body as womb, the body as nutrient, the body as home.

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.