Archive for January, 2015
Working one day, alone in my tower—er, office—I listened to Loreena McKennett singing “The Lady of Shallot” (lyrics from Tennyson’s poem) and it struck me how the good Lady and I have more than a few things in common. We even share a first name— she’s based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine.
Modern technology is often blamed as the cause of our loss of connection with life and each other, but maybe it’s not just computers and phones that distance people from life. The Lady of Shallot had the same problem, really, and ages before Apple Stores appeared on the scene. She stared into a mirror, not a computer, but the mirror was not to blame for her isolation. It was just a symptom.
I think fear was—and is—the problem.
Fear of engaging the unknown. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of the messy realities of life. Fear of feeling scared, or lonely, or even bored. Lady Elaine had a curse that scared her. Modern Elaine has the 6 o’clock news and endless posts and messages screaming that life “out there” is frightening. Thus she, and I, kept busy, kept our noses firmly to grindstones (or keyboards or looms, depending on the century).
Gazing at life from a safe remove seems less scary. But that safety is an illusion, a lie—isn’t it?
There is always some danger in living fully. Touching and tasting and experiencing can and often do lead to pain or anger. Yet they also lead to great joy. I used to be so careful to stay safe, like that other Elaine— and my fear snared me. It still does, sometimes. (Often. Old habits die hard!)
In the poem, the Lady cannot gaze out her window directly because of the curse; she looks instead at life reflected in a mirror, and so:
She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
Reflecting tower’d Camelot.
And as the mazy web she whirls,
She sees the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
Pass onward from Shalott.
This is about living in fear. About watching life but not being all in. About not taking risks.
Like many women, I was raised from infancy to be cautious, to not risk too much, to avoid showing myself. To not walk alone, or in the dark, to not wear certain clothes. To not call attention to myself. To not venture opinions without testing the waters to be sure the opinion is acceptable. To not laugh too loud or say anything stupid—or too smart, either. In other words, to fade.
Think about the word “ladylike.” Merriam-webster says it means to be “polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman.” Another listed definition is even more telling: “lacking in strength, force, or virility.”
The most impregnable towers are those you build yourself, one ladylike brick at a time.
The Lady of Shallot is the ultimate fear-tale. When the Lady is finally stirred by lust and dares to leave the tower and venture into life, she’s struck stone-cold dead! She floats downstream where her pale, dead beauty is admired but her life is not much mourned. Maybe because her life was so pale and weak and confined, as she’d been taught it should be.
It’s better to weave by night and day and catch silvery glimpses of life, to keep safe in your tower, to avoid risking strong feelings of any kind. Life represents danger— strong emotions, good or bad, are to be feared.
“She lives with little joy or fear.”
Sad, the quelling message of this.
I recently heard Pauletta Hansel, a wonderful Cincinnati poet, read some of her work. A series she read introduced me to a form I’d never heard of before: the 7 x 7, also known as a “49-er” by some. The form is simple, 7 syllables per line, 7 lines. I really loved how her 7x7s packed so much in a small package.
Playing with a very concise form is challenging. I’ve started a series using scientific words that I have been collecting for a while in my interesting-word junk drawer. (I knew I’d find a use for them.)
there’s a word for everything
that one means “grow toward light”
plants tend to keep life simple—
born with a mission, they sprout,
burst from their seeds knowing how
they might blossom, but not why—
no questions asked, they just grow
To the churning of the world
How my brain flares as I dream of you, electric spark
illuminating songbirds fast asleep, hidden in branches dark
a single egg met a particular sperm in warm depths and became you
a miracle like every seed sprouting green from the loam
now your eyes widen at the whispered ocean inside a conch
your laughter, how it spreads, fanning like spores on the wind
oh, see: the perfect geometry of magnified snowflakes? Look closely.
what is more beautiful than the curve of a femur or a rib or your smile?
I’m in love with the snaky way freshwater travels to the sea, undulating
mystery like my fingers knowing my thoughts before my mouth can say
how patterns repeat: rivers and streams forking, ever narrower, ever finer
just like the web of arteries and veins inside my body, your body, every body
the churning of the world, the tides turning to and fro, to and fro, endless
impulses firing, boom-pump, boom-pump inside your heart,
and my own steady drumbeats, echoing yours, beating together—hearts
thrumming together, together, together, that pulsing soundtrack: life
“Feeling emotional upheaval is not a spiritual faux pas; it’s the place where the warrior learns compassion.”
–Pema Chödrön, From The Places That Scare You
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Heard a story on NPR today about exposure therapy—a guy who had paralyzing anxiety of rejection set out to GET rejected, over and over, until it no longer frightened him— and it worked for him. It made so much sense. He faced his fears until they stopped scaring him silly.
I guess that is what I am doing, though I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Exposure therapy. I have been delving into dark places lately (no, no—not all the time, that would be crazy!) and the more I look at things inside that are scary and just ‘be’ with them, the more I appreciate their beautiful powerful forces and the less scared I feel. Rejecting part of yourself takes a lot of energy. It makes you worn down. I wonder if the denial of dark things inside is what creates some cases of chronic anxiety? My overall anxiety level certainly is ebbing as I dig. (But also: spiking like mad as I hit uncharted tunnels.)
Digging it all up is a messy process. I’m not all that great at it, a lot of times. I get stuck sometimes. A lot of times. I thrash and make it needlessly worse. I grasp. But I’m hoping I’ll get better at being with it when it comes, unexpectedly. Because it’s the fear you have to fear. Like the guy who was afraid of rejection. He wrapped his brain in a new direction. Away from fear, into acceptance of something that scared him. So hopeful, stories like his.
Like anything else, it takes practice. All any of us can do is keep trudging!
Per aspera ad astra. (A rough road leads to the stars).
Wednesday night is writing circle night for me. I write with some amazing, inspiring women, and look forward to it all week. In tonight’s fastwrite, we were invited to take a line from the poem, “Hunger” by Gunilla Norris, and write for 12 minutes to see where the line might lead us.
The title is the line I chose from the poem, and here’s what came up for me:
Light a light so we see the emptiness
Oh, please light a light, I’m so scared and alone down here where I live all by myself, defective and lost. I have no navigational equipment. No radar. Did you know you can be born lost? I was. Lost. A baby never meant to be, stillborn in spirit and left like a foundling, to search the earth endlessly, fumbling in the darkness—oh, please, please—light a light so I can see, really see, the emptiness.
Perhaps the emptiness is very small? Perhaps it is not so frightening, perhaps nothing bad will happen in this tiny or possibly endless darkness?
Perhaps I will just curl up in it, the way that lost bat, hunted by the cats, crawled into the folds of an umbrella overnight. How in the morning, I saw the cats staked out there, by the umbrella stand, and I knew: that was where the bat was hiding.
Imagining the bat flying around my head again, I summoned my courage and picked up the whole damned umbrella stand, big ugly ceramic thing, heavy, containing Totes folding umbrellas, Lydia’s old rice-paper parasol and also an umbrella that belonged to my Swedish grandmother, my farmor, an umbrella that has outlived dozens of cheaper ones. I dumped the mess of it out on the front lawn.
There was nothing there but umbrellas, no bat at all. As I put the umbrellas back in the stand, I peered down into the navy blue tunnel of farmor’s umbrella, and I saw something deep in the shadowy depths. I shook it out, and the poor bat, pathetic and frail, tumbled out, as threatening as a burnt marshmallow. Poor thing. Poor scared, dead thing. I left the bat carcass and the umbrella on the lawn, and headed for my walk. I couldn’t bear to pick it up yet.
Later, as the afternoon sun was shining, I stopped to study the creature. Such delicate wings, such fine fur, almost like brown velvet. A marvel of nature, this flying mammal. As I stared, a wing seemed to shudder, but the grass quivered, too. Just the wind.
I leaned closer. All at once the bat reanimated, surged to back to life like the killer everyone thinks is finally dead in one of those creepy movies that used to scare me. “It’s alive!” I cried out, couldn’t stop myself. But I wasn’t afraid. It was a miracle, this resurrection. A cause for joy.
The bat flew away fast and fearless, into a completely unknown world, no longer contained by an umbrella or a house or frozen up in fear. Off into the blue, alone.
As I’m thinking about a different kind of darkness, and my own ancient fears, I think of that bat, curled in the dark of the umbrella, not knowing when or if she would find her way.
Perhaps I will learn to fly like that, someday.
Yes, I’m boiling over
I’m stirring the pot,
I walk, listening
for the howler monkeys
their silence echoes
across the silver sky
A red-tailed hawk and a flock of sparrows
whisper in my muffled ears:
to the pond, to the pond, to the pond
words skipping like stones across water
like a needle, stuck
on vinyl that shines like black ice
To the pond, to the pond: insistent
like a tic, like the pot, stirring me
to the pond, to the pond where
three bubblers describe three circles,
liquid centers with white-lipped borders
ice edging dark water
A man is on the ice
walking slowly along the radius
as if walking to an altar
as if on a pilgrimage
he’s tracing an invisible labyrinth
trusting the ice to hold him, or not—
but I see only fearlessness
as I watch, breathing cold air
on the frozen edge
under the silver sky
Alive like a stream
When I was Lainey
I played with iron shavings—
scattered them all across
the Formica countertop
Mama handed me the big magnet,
I gasped as the slivers danced,
alive like a stream, drawn to me
I felt magical
Delighted, oh so
powerful, but then:
I developed a tiny crack
my power faded
my magic leaked out, powdery, invisible:
on my bureau, my bed, my scarred desktop—
I was scattered.
No magnet in this world
powerful enough to
pull me together.
I drank poems to survive
dug up feelings sweet as
winter carrots, strong as
hurricane winds stirring up
suddenly magnetic, moving fast
in torrents, laughing
the way running water laughs,
the way Lainey laughed, magnet in hand,
so long ago