I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
I lumber back through time unrooted
over boulders gap-eyed water glinting pink sunset
unrooted I slide through mud
into sand into lake
stone wash hillsides caving in
I am caving in
all I have to hold onto
all I can carry
this basket, sweet-grass woven
Inside is my pacifer
rubbery round I sucked hard to make the world
go away, and a half-empty pack of Marlboro Lights
that got me through the night
and my mother’s dark gaze, and the way I waited and waited
but she died when I left
In the sweet, sweet basket, a satin ribbon, blue of my father’s
wave and smile from the hospital bed in Kettering
I want, I think, to keep that?
I want to keep the window seat and the slanting roof top
on Cornell Place, keep it in the basket so I can climb back
lie, watch the sky with handfuls of clouds sliding by
I want to keep the way you said “why do you think you’re crazy?”
I want to keep the puzzlement of that
sweet belief sparkling
floating like golden moats in the sunset
I want belief, a thin film of it like magic dust
I want to carry my children’s laughter, and every single hug
and the brick of anger I lobbed through the glass window of us
I want to keep that, too, to remind me
broken is something to keep, too
But mostly I want to keep those giggles that skipped like stones
across the mirror lake
that shone like a string of lights in a summer garden
I want to keep every purring swirl I ever held
and even the ghost who stood there
watching me heartbeating fast, pretending sleep
It’s my basket. I can keep what I want.
The above was written in a twelve-minute fastwrite from a prompt developed by one of my classmates at Amherst Writers & Artist’s Workshop Leader training in Chicago this September. Along with my fellow students, I delved into the AWA method, which you can read more about here. I was drawn to the method, based on the work of Pat Schneider, because of her bedrock belief that every single one of us is born with creative genius, that EVERYONE is a writer/storyteller (regardless of educational level, age, or socio-economic status). Writing that moves us, inspires us, makes us feel, makes us laugh, makes us cry—such writing is the result of connecting to our deepest voices. Our true selves.
I already knew this to be true—that everyone has within them a unique and creative voice. I learned it from the skilled leaders and community at Cincinnati’s Women Writing for (a) Change, where I found my voice (which I had all but lost) in core classes, workshops, and retreats.
This summer it became clear to me that what I most wanted is to learn ways to unlock that magic for others. All kinds of others. People who aspire to write books, people who have written many books, people who want to write poems, people who don’t think anyone wants to hear their stories, people who think no one is listening, or that no one cares. The act of expression—genuine, authentic expression—is an act of liberation. For me, it is transcendent.
Writing is when I connect to my soul-self.
At AWA training, my classmates and I learned about taking creative risks, about creating an environment that welcomes the seeds of new ideas and allows craft to bloom. It was a transformational week.
I’m happy to say I’m a certified AWA Workshop Leader now!
Tonight I led my first small-but-mighty AWA-method workshop at Clifton Cultural Arts Center.
I think I will put tonight in my basket, and keep that, too.
Another day, another prompt. Today I let my worry stone do the writing. Find something or choose someone, and let them write to you. See what happens.
Finally. I get to tell you my worries. About damn time. Our relationship, up until now, has been entirely one way.
From that moment on the chilly October morning when you stooped down and plucked me from my place in Mississauga, on the shore of mighty Lake Ontario, and tucked me into the tight pocket of your skinny jearns — I have been your captive. I have worried, too, even though I know it’s futile. Worried I’ll never see the sky again.
I long for another sight of that last sky, low clouds backlit by the sun, turning it and the shining water to silver. Silver sky, silver lake, and that smudge of Toronto on the horizon. You think I don’t know about the things of man? (or in your case, woman?) — Oh, E, I’ve been soaking you up for months now. I know everything and now you’ve let me speak. I may never stop.
You picked me, palmed me, smiling. I do fit perfectly in your hand, and your happiness that morning filled me with excitement. So at first I was swept up, pleased to be going somewhere new. You were in love, blushing love, your core worries blotted out in the gush of that. It was a little dull, absorbing your petty insecurities. Mostly I sat on your dresser, alone. You only held me when you felt lonely, and how tiresome that was.
I fell in love with you a little, though. The way you do when someone trusts you to hear their deepest fears. Still, after nearly two years, I miss sprawling in all weathers with the others who were born with me from the crumbling bluffs when winter ice thawed one spring and we all slid free to the lake shore.
Sometimes you worry about the ice melting, which makes me recall the cold years I spent, inching along, swept up in the belly of that glacier, like Jonah in the belly of a great fish.
Your pocket, though warmer, reminded me of that time.
I guess it is my fate, being swallowed and carried. I have stories of my own to tell, beyond your worries of — oh, what don’t you find to worry about? As you hold me in your left hand I soak up your troubles like the earth soaks up rain.
Yesterday, you thought back to the windy morning we met, to your spinning thoughts, to the way you couldn’t believe how beautiful the world was, the water, you thought, looked like a great silver tray polished by the cloudy sun, and the geese flew low over the calm surface. You remembered that feeling, and wondered if you could ever feel just that way again.
And I try to emit an answer into your palm. I try to tell you, no. You will never feel that way again. The woman of that day, elated, heart bursting with love and hand sweaty with worry over losing love, she is gone now.
She had to get swallowed into the darkness, like the glacier, like the belly of the whale, to discover that no matter how dark, you must stay and let the darkness be your home, accept it, know it. And trust that in three days, three months, three years, three eons — sometime, somehow, the silvery light will return. Because it never really leaves.
So you can go back, looking. You can even retrace your steps on the shore of Lake Ontario. If you do, please put me back near the crook of that inlet, the place the geese gather at dawn and sunset. Take me back, even though I cannot revisit that day, either. It is gone. All my old loves will have sunk down or washed out into the lake. But it would feel so good, to tell new friends old tales. To laugh together about worrying over flesh and blood and human failings.
Perhaps I will lie under the sky, let your many worries loose in the breeze. Do not fret, E, about growing old. Let that one go. Only worry about not growing. Your fear of infirmity is comical to a stone like me, dependent on nature to move me at all. And still — I have, over millions of years, seen much of the world. Seen beauty you cannot even imagine. Do you understand?
The world will hold you, if you just let go.
Surrender. Let go of me, of controlling things, of fearfulness. I think you are figuring it out, just a little. From the darkness, you will emerge, you already are — to find the next world you are meant to explore.
Name a fear you have. Breathe again. Now, write about where it lives in your body. 10 minutes, go:
My fear is not being understood by the people I love.
This fear lives in the dungeon of my throat. It is the murky water at the bottom of a bottomless well. There is no light here, and so I have to imagine how it looks: like a midnight mirror on a starless forever after. Nothing shines back at me, there are no glimmers of recognition, no waves of love, only swells of anger, churning the black water.
There are military ships crisscrossing the water, painted with lead-based gunmetal gray, their decks studded with heavy guns and heat-seeking missiles in evil-looking launchers.
My fear holds me hostage below decks on the largest of the battleships. I’m in a metal-caged brig in the deepest hold. The light is yellow and blurry and the air tastes stale.
A row of judges sit, dark-robed, heavy browed, convicting me of the crime of being myself. The primary judge is a white-wigged woman with a sharp nose. She addresses me, in a bored tone. “How could you expect to be understood,” she asks rhetorically. “You are not understandable, not acceptable.” She looks at me as if I’m a used tissue someone has dropped. She shakes her head in disgust. “Not understandable,” she repeats.
Like the queen in Alice in Wonderland, she only wants me to lose: my head, my heart, my voice, my confidence. But most especially, my heart.
My heart lies beneath this dark sea, at the bottom of the bottomlessness of this well in the dungeon of my throat. In my panic at being alone and not understood, I’d forgotten where I was. Here, in my body. I remember suddenly to breathe in, and when I do, I turn my gaze away from the judges. I listen to my steady inhale instead of their scornful murmurs. And I hear it. My heart. It is beating, far, far below the prison ship.
Steady dear heart. The dark water glows green. I know this even with my eyes closed, even in the prison of my fears, even as the judges cough and scritchy-scratch their pens across banishment decrees.
My heart swells, filling me with hope. A rising tide lifts all boats, even heart-sinking gunmetal battleships. The fleet of war ships circling my throat dissolves like sugar candy in the warmth welling up.
I think I’m ready to go deeper.
I think about fear a lot. I read about it, too. Fear can literally get stuck in your body. Fear tends to incubate rather than dissipate over time, according to Joseph Le Doux, researcher/expert on the amygdala. Naming your fears and feeling them in your body can help you move past fear.
My phone case is shiny plastic, scarred now from use. It is the color of a cartoon character’s eyes, the mischievous female sidekick with a heart of gold’s eyes, eyes that sparkle and pop out from the screen a bright teal-y blue not found in nature.
The edges surrounding the black glass face of the phone are a matte-rubbery black, shaped like the buffering edges of the old Carrom pool table in the basement growing up. It’s a sturdy enough case, chosen entirely because it was on sale at Meijers and I did not want to wait for one to come via Amazon. I just bought what was on sale, in an okay color I didn’t hate, so I could stop worrying about dropping it.
I didn’t notice that on the back, in raised black emboss, the phone case sports a logo composed of a black asterisk set within the hug of two parenthesis.
I think of Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Galapagos, where he told readers up front he was going to kill off a lot of people in the story, and to lessen the shock, he would add an asterisk before the character’s name in the chapter preceding their untimely demise.
Vonnegut had a thing about asterisks. In Breakfast of Champions, he includes an illustration of an asterisk and explains it is a drawing of his asshole. Or an asshole, anyway. I don’t quite remember the specifics, just that, ever after, I cannot look at an asterisk without thinking of a puckered anus.
I think of this every damn time I drive past a Walmart.
I imagine a group of designers coming up with the 205th round of logos.
One of the designer is maybe was a big reader.
Maybe she threw in the asterisk, as a joke.
This is how things go. You’re joking, and they take you seriously.
You are serious and they think you are joking.
I think of the little towns, in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, all across the country, hollowing out in their pretty centers, ringed with ugly box stores that you cannot walk to without risking your life.
I wonder if anyone’s ever watched me talking on my phone and thought, “Oh hey! Asshole!”
I wonder if I will ever be able to think of asterisks as I did as a girl, when I read in a book I can no longer summon to memory that aster means star, and that makes me think of skies and night air and falling in love and not finding the book you were looking for, but finding something else entirely.
Of driving as the sun sets and the stars come out, but you are driving too fast to see them until you stop like you did last night, and open the back door for the cat. The house is pitch dark and the sky is covered with stars and the nearer glows of the fireflies.
Note: this was a fast write from a prompt in Pat Schneider’s “Writing Alone and With Others,” in which she suggests that if you find yourself blocked, to stop trying to write that novel or poem or whatever it is that won’t come, and instead, choose an object and begin describing it. You can jump from one object to another. What is important is that you choose something concrete, and just go! See what comes up. I picked my phone case and was surprised at where it went and what it brought up. It was fun. I forgot to worry about my novel which isn’t going anywhere!
(after Ocean Vuong/after Frank O’Hara/after Roger Reeves)
Someday I’ll smile every time
I bump into myself.
Even when that self is a mess,
an ooze, tears and unwashed hair
and regrets that smell like
Marlboro Lights and malt liquor
And I’ll smile even when that self has
a pulsing nose zit and writes terrible poems
— I mean, why not? —
might as well plan for the worst-case.
That someday is
seemingly so near and
sometimes so far
like a wet glimmer always ahead on the highway
an illusion of cool
place I can dive into
dripping wet and laughing
it’s like that
I find myself and lose myself and find myself
again and again
in the stomach-churn backseat of the hot station wagon
sweaty and skinned-knees
appear and disappear as Pennsylvania miles
turn to New York miles
turn to Massachusetts miles
hot sun turns to clouds and clouds
turn to rain
And someday, Elaine, I’ll love the sound of your name
the way I love the sound of the rain
Someday I’ll love even your inconvenient needs
the ones that turn green and churn when interstate
turns to twisty backroads, dark night
you have to pee
not yet Mama says
in a little while
Someday I’ll love you — you used to be called something else,
remember? Lainey the baby who couldn’t wait
Lainey peeing on the side of the road,
hot urine a glowing stream
the one who can’t wait
the one needing
Someday Lainey will reappear
dressed for Halloween in the body of a middle-aged woman
(someday she’ll have to grow up, won’t she?)
— even though oh, she needs
still, even now, she needs and needs — damn it
at the very next exit or 268 miles ahead —
some sweet day that will maybe smell just like the bread my mother
took to baking when she was widowed, just for herself,
just because she wanted to
I will rise up, a miracle, like the punched-down dough
swelling up in a bowl in an avocado-green long-lost kitchen
I will be full, I will be home
I will look at myself and melt
melt like butter on
chewy warm grainy bread, fresh from the oven
I will love every last crumb of myself.
Notes: I’ve been thinking about self-love a lot, how hard it is. How essential and impossible in moments (which is why we need our friends).
I really am drawn to Ocean Vuong’s amazing work.
My piece (not really a poem yet, maybe someday?) is from a fast-write from a prompt based on Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” — a poem he notes is “after Frank O’Hara and after Roger Reeves”… which made me curious and google revealed Roger Reeves’ intro to his poem: We can’t stay in poetry world forever. It’s a poem that I kind of wrote to myself. It’s a love poem, again. I read this poem for my MFA compatriots struggling in the muck of all types of criticism and self-doubt. It doesn’t stop. It will keep going. No, actually I was struggling in my MFA a lot. I don’t know if you guys are the type of poets that are trying to write poems that last beyond your life, which is what I’m always trying to do. I’m always trying to make something that can outlast me, because why else would we make something? Frank O’Hara is a guy I always turn to. He had this one line in his poem — I can’t find the poem again because you know Frank O’Hara has a lot of poems — and it’s a poem where he says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara.” I thought, that is the best thing to say in the middle of a poem — someday you’ll love yourself. So I said, I’m going to title a poem “Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves.”
Try it yourself — read Vuong’s poem and then take a deep slow breath and write for 10 minutes beginning with “Someday I’ll love (your name here)” …see what happens.
Notes: this is from a Natalie Goldberg prompt in her wonderful book, Writing Down the Bones;
1. write 10 nouns as a list. (I wrote ten things I could see/hear in the room)
2. write ten active verbs (she suggests thinking of verb relating to an occupation; I used “artist” as the verb-source)—sketches, inscribes, erases, observes, blots, outlines, paints, plays, swishes, deckles…
3. combine the nouns with the verbs and see what emerges
Have fun, see what happens. Why not?
On my wedding day, I was filled with anxiety, mine and my mother’s.
I was wild and green in the ways of the world, though I thought a ceremony in Butler’s green garden would transform me into a more peaceful creature. I stood with my mother, waiting for my intended to arrive. I was there and not there: I firmly remember the carillons that sang and the placid old canal that drifted by, the buzzing droopy-headed zinnias and black-eyed Susans, the old-world rose bushes—all beautiful, contained, tranquil.
Carefree, not wild.
That day I’d turn into a wife, half of a unit, domestic, safe and saved.
On the outside I was transformed already, placid as the canal, sure of myself as the bees were sure of their buzzing industry. Yet I was wild inside, standing there next to my mama, a roiling mass of ancient fears.
Wild like a frightened doe, tired from running, running. Heart beating hard, danger clanging so constantly that mostly I was not even aware of it. Danger simply ran in my veins, and had for as long as I could remember.
Danger was wild in the rivers of my blood. Danger splashed in the waterfall of my heart.
I had no business getting married, but to be wild is, after all, dangerous. Plus, I was tired of being hunted. Somewhere inside I thought being caught would save me.
– – –
Deer were always an obsession for me. As a very small child, I drew deer after deer. I painted pictures of deer, read books about deer. I loved deer and wanted to be a ballerina so I could gracefully move like a deer. And disappear, like a deer.
But deer are wild things. Peaceful, except when under attack. Always wary, though. If a deer is cornered, and cannot run away, if a deer is outmatched and at the mercy of a terrible predator, she cannot hope to win by fighting. In cases like that, she will freeze.
I froze once, like a deer
I froze, like a river
I thawed and ran fast again,
like a deer
Like a rushing stream, like snowmelt
down a mountain
even when perhaps I should have paused to think
I was wild and green all my young self seemed to know
was freezing and rushing.
– – –
On my wedding day, I was young.
Younger even than my 23 years. Being frozen keeps you from growing up. So does running.
I was green. The lushness of the garden, the safe feeling I had next to my intended—gave me a sense that I was on a path. A path that might lead me out of my wildness. My scary, uncontainable wildness.
The path would rescue me from myself.
This was a sweet green notion, a kiwi of a belief, juicy and promising and bursting with seeds of hope.
What I did not know, in my greenness, was that you cannot shed your wildness like a snake sheds her skin. The wildness is inside, part of you.
I was right about the path, though.
It did lead me out, and then, decades later, landed me back in the thicket of myself, heart beating wildly, learning at last to savor the moments of life that stretch across the bones of time like supple muscles. Stretching, tightening, strengthening, and finally, letting go.
I’m still wild and green.
Older now, I have learned to listen to the wind, smell danger, believe the things my own heart tells me, and to love the wild frozen little girl-deer I carry inside. I learned that love does not rescue. Love merely holds your hand, then pushes you to grow. Self-love and every other kind of deep love pushes you to the edges of your self.
And when you grow, you risk.
One person’s sunshine is another person’s scorch.
One person’s neat-cornered bed is another person’s prison.
Sometimes you have to grow alone, in the wildness, where the deer appear and disappear to keep you company, silently.
(I wrote this from a prompt by Natalie Goldberg, “Write about when you were wild and green.”)