Old? Outta Here. New? Come On In.

A little while ago, someone asked me what my year had been like.  I said, “It was the worst year of my life, but it was pretty good.”

And that’s about right.  2013 was, if not the worst year of my life, the most difficult year of my life.  I faced my greatest fears, my hardest decisions; I found myself in unimaginable circumstances.  At the same time, though, I did face my greatest fear.  I did make my hardest decisions.  And I did make it through all of the circumstances that 2013 brought my way – and I survived.

Though this year was unimaginably difficult, I made it, with the help of friends and family.  And I’m a far better person for it, and far better at appreciating my friends and family – and the smallest, most routine, everyday things.  That’s why I can say this was a pretty good year – and really, I should say it was a really good year.  I faced my greatest fears, but I also faced my greatest dreams, with the publication of my first full-length book.  I made my hardest decisions, but I had friends and family there to help, and I was a stronger person for it.  I found myself in unimaginable circumstances, but sometimes they were unimaginably good circumstances – from having the honor of teaching brilliant, hard-working students to reaching some of my biggest writing-related goals.

I usually do a wrap-up entry at the end/beginning of every year, but I’m finding it difficult to approach 2013 in any of my usual ways.  A list of achievements seems like the wrong way to go about things, because the year wasn’t really about those achievements – and the same thing goes for the defeats, or just the negative things that happened.  I thought about some kind of itemized list, but that didn’t seem right, either – this was the kind of year that went beyond the number of Cipro tablets I took or the number of hospitals I visited or the number of words I wrote.  Then I thought that I’d write a little bit about what I learned this year, and that seemed just about right – if there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that learning is the most important thing.

Gather Ye Rosebuds Every Day: Listen.  I’m a poet.  I’m moody and angsty.  Most of my clothes are black and I wear a lot of scarves.  Obviously, I’m not one who typically goes for happy-happy-positivity supposedly-life-changing things.  That being said, I totally started doing this happy-happy-positivity thing this year and it was life-changing.  Every day, no matter how moody and angsty and black and scarved the day was, I made myself write down three positive things.  Sometimes they were very small positive things, like “managed to eat mashed potatoes,” “didn’t get stopped at that one red light,” and “realized sweater was on backwards before class.”  But I learned that even the smallest positives mattered, and I learned how easy it is to turn my attention away from the bad and towards the good.

Learn How To Do New Things: This year was the year that I got serious about crochet, and though this basically makes me a grandmother, it was still a great thing for me.  I’m not the most co-ordinated person in the world, so it took me a while to figure out what the instructions and crochet maps (no, seriously – there are these weird little MAPS that show you how to make things with yarn and a hook — I’m not making this up) were telling me to do.  But I kept working until I figured it out, and I learned how to solve problems and that even if I have to undo all of my stitches, I still learned something.

Learn New Ways of Doing Things:  I spent a lot of this year in bed, either because I was told to stay there or because I was nasty sick.  Sometimes I had my laptop or a notebook by my bed.  Sometimes I didn’t.  I learned to write on different surfaces – paper, iPhone, Kindle, receipts, my own hand — and in different ways – jotting down notes, typing, writing it all out long-hand.  That probably sounds like it isn’t a big thing, but it was major for me.  I have a lot of trouble with fine motor skills some days, and this helped me to figure out ways around that.  It also introduced new possibilities into my writing – in fact, Kindle’s predictive text feature helped me to write the poem that became my second full-length collection.

Sometimes Rest Is The Most Important Thing To Do, And Also Quiet Is Very Important: I’m usually doing something all of the time I’m awake, from writing to Swiffering to crocheting to grading, and this year, I learned that sometimes resting is every bit as important as – if not more important than – doing.  Some ideas need incubation, and some things need a lot of still and quiet time.

No Is Sometimes A Better Answer Than Yes: I realized this year that I’m kind of bad at saying no, or at least not saying yes.  I try to do everything all of the time for everyone forever, and a lot of times, I just run myself into the ground and sometimes, I make a mess.  I realized that saying no to doing all of the things means that I do a better job with some of the things.

Never Underestimate The Power Of Beyoncé: She sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.

Be A Little Kinder Than You Need To Be: I know, I know.  That’s a total cliché.  It is such a total cliché that it was actually painful to type.  My scarf tried to stop it.  But it’s true, and especially true of the Internet: as the year progressed, the online world seemed to become an angrier and angrier place to me.  Then I realized that I was the biggest part of that problem, because I kept looking at things that made me angry and reacting in an angry way.  I realized that if I just shut down the computer, I felt better.  So much better that I started limiting my time online and stopped responding angrily.  I started asking myself how I would feel if I was the other person in the situation.  And I realized that this life thing is very difficult, and we are all doing our best with it.  We are all, all the time, fighting so very much that the last thing we (I’m saying “we” but including – actually, mostly meaning – “I” here) need to do is fight each other, especially over something as small as a Facebook post.  Kindness is the only thing we owe each other.

And that seemed right – so right that I’ll end this entry with that thought, and with the hope that it’ll carry me through 2014.

Topping the Top Ten (Part One)

So, I keep getting tagged to do these top-ten things on The Book of Face, and I haven’t gotten to any of them yet.  That’s because this semester has been a vortex of insanity and I haven’t gotten to a lot of things yet, including removing the polish I put on my toe nails this summer and purchasing actual groceries.  Now that the semester is over and all of its accessories (third-year review materials, grades, manuscripts, FLEX receipts, book orders, vet visits, stationary purchases, bill payments, tiny Post-Its with even tinier To Do lists) have found their homes, I can finally return to the rest of my life and to very important things, like taking photographs of my cats and figuring out why everyone is so very mad at everyone else on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.*  And, of course, Facebook memes.

I was going to post these on Facebook, but then remembered that the statute of limitations has pretty much run out on them.  Also, I remembered that I have this blog, mostly because one of the tiny Post-Its’ tinier To Do list featured these two items:

  1. HEY DON’T FORGET THAT YOU HAVE A BLOG
  2. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY START WRITING ON THAT BLOG AGAIN YOU KNOW

First:

Top Ten Random Things About Myself

This very terrifying illustration of very sad children is the best possible preface for this list.

This very terrifying illustration of very sad children is the best possible preface for this list.

  1. When I was very little, I wanted to be an astronomer.  But not an astronaut, since that would involve actually going into space and space seemed really creepy.
  2. I somehow got my hands on a grown-up astronomy book when I was very little, and said book totally confirmed that space is really creepy.  Said book also introduced me to the concept of a black hole.  This was so not a positive moment in my childhood development.
  3. The thing that made the above-mentioned moment so not positive is that I somehow came to the conclusion that black holes could be anywhere.  I mean, anywhere.  I mean, like, in the very hallway of my very home anywhere.
  4. Once I came to this conclusion, I came to the next obvious and logical conclusion, which really just seemed like an actual fact, it was so obvious and logical: THERE WERE VERY CLEARLY BLACK HOLES IN THE VERY HALLWAY OF MY VERY HOME.
  5. I spent the next month or so running down the hallway at top speed EverySingleTime, because apparently this was the most obvious and logical way to escape black holes.
  6. I also had this book of Grimm’s fairy tales that were, like, the actual fairy tales, meaning the versions in which people are maimed and broken and bleeding or, worse, the victims of bizarre psychological torture.  I was both too terrified to read it and compelled to constantly read it, over and over, as if one of the witches in the illustrations had cast upon me some really messed up spell.  The illustrations in this book all looked like this:

    WHAT ARE YOU THINKING ILLUSTRATOR AND PUBLISHER? How is this appropriate for anyone, much less a child?

    WHAT ARE YOU THINKING ILLUSTRATOR AND PUBLISHER? How is this appropriate for anyone, much less a child?

  7. I soon realized it was totally possible for me to be under the influence of some really messed up spell because it also occurred to me that if evil strangers could come for your firstborn and birds could peck out your eyes, there was no reason to doubt that
    1.  the witch in the book was obviously real
    2.  the witch in the book, who was now obviously real, had the power to cast some really messed up spells, and
    3. the witch in the book was now obviously real and obviously, at any and every moment, prepared to cast some really messed up real spells.
  8. The same logic that led me to realize there were very clearly black holes in the very hallway of my very home also led me to realize that the witch was outside of my very home, waiting.  Specifically, she was outside of the window to my very bedroom in my very home.  Waiting.  With very bad intentions.
  9. The same logic that led me to realize that I could escape the black holes by running down the hallway at top speed EverySingleTime also led me to realize that I could escape the witch by never, ever sleeping in a position that faced the window, EverySingleNight.  And if I turned during the night to face the window and woke up that way, it was basically like every scene in Apocalypse Now, where it’s very creepily clear that something really terrible is about to happen, and even if it doesn’t happen, the panic is enough.  And I knew exactly what my personal Kurtz looked like:

    photo 4

    I mean SERIOUSLY. Seriously? SERIOUSLY.

  10. I still can’t fall asleep if I’m facing a window.

* That last thing isn’t really so much a thing, as I already know the reason why everyone is so very mad at everyone else on all regional varieties of The Real Housewives, and that reason is: no.  As in, there is no reason.  So the last thing is more like a Zen koan, like an unanswerable question meant to occupy the mind while the body rests and meditates.

Revisionings

I’m at this weird moment with my writing.  I am, on one hand, working on very very very (to borrow Anne Lamott’s absolutely perfect term) sh*tty rough drafts.  They’re the kind of drafts that are necessary for the kind of work I’m doing, which is very difficult and very personal and therefore means that I need to write faster than my brain can run, because my brain will just be like, stop stop STOPSTOPSTOP, and nothing will ever get done.  On the other hand, I’m working on almost-to-the-very-end-of-revising-and-beginning-of-submitting revisions.  In other words:

  • I’m cutting large parts of poems out and yelling things like stop trying to make fetch happen at them and then re-writing from the few lines that remain.
  • I’m spending most of a day (well, okay, a week) working on a poem, trying to coax it out of the form I at first forced it into (because it
    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    seemed like it wanted to be a pantoum, it really did) and into the form in which (hopefully) it’ll do something close to working.

  • I’m taking three hours to get two lines right.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters.
  • I’m changing “the Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls” to “that Alabama Shakes album” and realizing that that tiny change revealed exactly what the essay meant all along, and what I needed to do to make it mean that.
  • I’m trying to translate and expand cryptic notes I leave myself on my phone, on my laptop, on my Kindle, on my Post-Its, on the skin beneath my thumb, on a receipt for a McDonald’s smoothie.
  • I’m remembering what I meant by FUNERAL WHAT’S SAID STOPPED WRITING ESP ABOUT BC ALSO THIS ISN’T THE CLIMAX END TO TENSION THAT CHANGES THINGS CATS.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters — except for two commas and one capital letter, which finally, finally makes the poem work.

It’s an interesting in-between place.  It’s a good place to be — bringing work into the world, preparing to send work out of the world — but it’s also an uncomfortable place.  And it’s that, that discomfort, exactly, that makes it such a good place.  When the writing gets too comfortable, I start worrying.  I start thinking, this is not good.  Because writing — good writing — requires risk, and that’s far from comfortable.

This has also made me think a lot about my students, who are all in a very similar place.  I’ve often thought that learning how to write is a kind of apprenticeship: you learn the craft from reading and watching someone work, from listening to them talk about how they approach their work, and you learn the art from practicing the craft, from being willing to take risks and sharpen your skills and to work and work and work.  Sometimes, I’ll think of the writing teacher as the leader of the apprenticeship, but more and more, I feel like that isn’t true.  I feel like it can’t be true, because no one can really be a master.  I feel like perhaps the real apprenticeship is to the art itself, to all of its mysteries and wonders, all of its moments of despair and whimsy and confusion.  We’re all in the same boat, in a creative writing classroom, wherever we sit, and I often think that the teacher’s job is to start conversations, to nudge students towards risk, to give them a vocabulary to talk about their work and a way to apply those terms and techniques to their own pieces.  I think it’s also a teacher’s job to learn — both through one’s own work and reading and from one’s teachers.

Every day, I walk to my office with my folder and grade-book and Diet Coke and Altoids and I feel — excited.  Thrilled.  Nervous.  Lucky.  Most of all, lucky.  I’d say that this has been an exceptional semester in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach some exceptional students, but really, there’s nothing exceptional about it.  Instead, it’s been the rule.  I’m continuously grateful to be surrounded by such minds and such energy, such unfailing appetites for learning.  I’m grateful to my students for being willing to talk through the routes they’re taking in this strange landscape language makes for us — and I’m grateful to them for the daily reminder that though we are all making our own way in this landscape, we are, none of us, ever truly alone.

“Back in black / I hit the sack / I been too long / I’m glad to be back.”

Hey.

Are you still here?

Okay.  I hope so.  And I’m glad if you are.

When I first sat down to write this, I thought, I am going to write about how all of a sudden we are halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.  And then I realized that I’d been writing “7” for the month for, like, oh, thirty-one days now.  And then I mathed and realized that half of twelve is six, not seven, which means we are over halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.  Or, I guess, I’ve been trying to blog, but I haven’t been able to put much of my energy into a post.  For a while I told myself, Self, you are totally experimenting.  You’re just micro-blogging.  You’re a revolution and that revolution is CUTTING EDGE.  Then I remembered that I am not a revolution, nor am I particularly cutting-edge at anything, and that illusion lay shattered, like the shards in the Delicate Vase Aisle at Hobby Lobby after being visited by a mob of grammar school kids who have just eaten too many M&Ms.

Like I mentioned in my revolutionary and cutting-edge micro-blogging entries, there have been Circumstances, and these were the kinds of Circumstances that require most-and-I-mean-most, if not all, of one’s energies.  These were the kinds of Circumstances that require a re-routing of one’s life and how one lives it, the kinds of Circumstances that — very, very literally — stop one in one’s tracks and require one to Think.  A lot.  And then to Adjust.

That is all very vague, you are probably thinking.  Why are we talking in such vague terms and using David Foster Wallace capital letters to try to make up for it, you are probably also thinking.  Those are both perfectly legitimate things to be thinking, and I guess the thing is that I have, after Thinking and then a lot more Thinking and then Adjusting, come to the place where I am ready to say that there have been Circumstances but not to talk about what they were/are.  I mean, I have been writing about Circumstances, sure, but in the Let’s Put This In Creative Nonfiction Form So I Can Go As Slowly And Carefully As I Need To And Then Use A Couple Of Metaphors About Christmas Lights To Help Me Out Kind Of Way, not the Very Public As In Immediately Very Public Blogging Kind Of Way.

And that’s the strange and spectacular thing about writing, I think, and, really, reading — there’s something terrifying about the blank page, and that’s the thing we tend to talk about.  But there’s also something amazing and transformative and meditative about the blank page, and then about the way one puts words onto it.  The blank page gives a person the space — and the safety — that they need to think things through.  And I mean really think things through.  When I write poetry, I’m often prisming off of my personal experience, but in very extreme and sometimes even absurd ways.  I’m taking myself to the edges of language and seeing what’s there.  I’m taking each situation to its extreme, and then every angle of each situation, to see how it looks.  I’m turning it over and over again in my mind, and with each turn it becomes something new.  I’m speaking about things in a way I can’t speak about them with everyday language, which also means that I’m speaking about things I can’t speak about in everyday language.  That’s because everyday language belongs to everyday life, and there are things that I just can’t spend a lot of everyday time with.  There are things that will shut you down, will stop you from moving inside of everyday life, where there are things that have to keep moving.  There are groceries to buy and student papers to grade and cats to feed.

The everyday world keeps moving, and one must move with it.  Everyday life must be lived.  And so, in these Circumstances, I’ve been grateful for that blank page.  I’ve been grateful for the moments of respite it provides, for the sacramental space it creates, for the place where I can take a break from moving and just be still for a while with my words and the realities they represent, so that I can keep moving, keep doing, keep living.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Alice B. Toklas*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and my writing, it’s that major breakthroughs and advances — well, they don’t come easy.  Sure, from time to time a breakthrough will come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page, but I know that I can’t depend upon that.  I also know that these breakthroughs only come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page if I’m there at my laptop or notebook page.  In other words, I do sometimes have breakthroughs out of the clear blue sky that make everything very much easier,

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today's story.

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today’s story.

but said out-of-the-clear-blue-sky everything-easier-making breakthroughs only come from hard work.

And when I say hard work, I mean hard work.  I mean hard, frustrating work.  I mean minutes and hours and days and years of hard, hard, hard frustrating work.  And sometimes it takes a very long time, and always it takes being honest with myself in a way that isn’t exactly comfortable.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer — often, when I finally figure out how to do something and do something well, it’s exactly the point when I know I shouldn’t get comfortable.  If I get comfortable, I do the same thing over and over again, kind of like my treat addict of a cat, Alice B. Toklas — she’s figured out that if she goes in the kitchen and meows and looks up at me in this certain unbelievably pitiful way, she will receive two treats.  But writing isn’t like that, no matter how pitiful the look I give my laptop.  Eventually, the treats stop coming.  Or else the treats do keep coming, but they’re increasingly stale.  Like, moldy stale.  Yes, I’m doing something I figured out how to do, and sometimes even to do well, but I’m not growing.  I’m not moving to the next level.  I’m not taking risks and challenging myself and thinking, really thinking, about what I’m doing.  I’m not engaging with language and the way it’s built.  I’m not doing myself or my work any favors.

And so I keep pushing myself to push myself, even if I don’t get the treats.  And usually, when I’m moving towards a breakthrough, there are no treats anywhere to be found (apparently, I have decided to stay with this metaphor and stretch it beyond its capacity.  Which is, incidentally, one of the things that I do when I’m not pushing myself the way I need to push myself as a writer.  Harumph).  There are just — pardon me, but Anne Lamott’s phrase is too perfect not to borrow — shitty first drafts.  And shitty second and third and fourth drafts.  There are hours of staring at a screen, putting a line in one place and then moving it and then deleting it completely, only to put it exactly where it was the next day.

See?  Frustrating.  Like, beyond.

And that’s the state I was in a while ago, when I realized that I had no idea where Alice B. Toklas was (the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course; it’s pretty clear where the actual Alice B. Toklas is, or was).  This is generally bad news because it could mean that she’s eaten a couch or gotten arrested for spying on my neighbors.  I started walking around the house very slowly and saying Alice very softly, both because I didn’t want to scare her and

This is the ball and the corner in question.  I'm posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

This is the ball and the corner in question. I’m posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

because a disappeared cat is a generally terrifying situation.  When I found her, she was in the corner of my bathroom, trying to wedge her let’s-call-it-big-boned-and-just-very-furry body between the toilet and the bathtub.  At first I thought this was just another thing that Alice B. Toklas likes to do, like licking the windows or hiding under things by only putting her head under them and closing her eyes.  Then I started hearing a bell, and I realized that there was a reason for her hiding behind the toilet, besides, you know, hiding behind the toilet: she was trying to get her ball out of the corner, and with the kind of complete and total focus my cats usually only give their food bowls or my feet when they want to bite them.  I decided to help her out and picked up the ball and threw it, expecting her to jump joyfully after it.  Instead, she just looked up at me in great confusion — or, at least, more confusion than usual, which I admit is quite a bit of confusion.  I said what and she just sat there, staring with great confusion until, finally, she walked off in defeat to chew on a sofa or something.

That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the ball itself that Alice B. Toklas wanted; it was the challenge of getting to the ball.  She enjoyed the struggle, the fight.  She loved the work itself — and then the bell went off in my mind.  I realized that’s what I needed to do, too — to let myself relax, to allow myself the shitty first, second, third, fourth, and nth drafts, and to just enjoy playing with language, finding new ways into words.  I may get the ball.  I may not.  In the end, really, I think it’s not about the product but the process — not the solution, but the struggle — and learning to be happy with both.

* That is, the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course.  Everything I learned from the human Alice B. Toklas is only legal in Amsterdam, Washington, and Colorado.