Notes on doubt

notes from a session on Doubt, at Justen Ahren’s Devotion to Writing workshop,
Noepe, Edgartown, 2015

Ring the bells that you must ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen

Doubt is:
every day
a good worker

not just feeling, emotion, but exploring structure, meter, music, tension is structure, structure is tension

doubt signals that we’re at the edge, increasing the boundaries of our craft

doubt creates a chance to pause, slow down, deepen our resolve

train your doubt: e.g., “why do you think this is ugly?”
demand proof

doubt is attentive, persistent, potentially one of your best workers. ask it, “why shouldn’t I be writing that?”

we do not doubt what is mundane and casual

we doubt what is new

how can we not have doubt about something new? new to the world, new to ourselves

what doors are we opening?

pink paper clip, blue-purple wooden top, grabbing brass ring

coming back to a work: getting quiet, listening, because sometimes we mishear the universe during a first draft

What is the cost of writing — your whole life, but it is not a life that is lost, it is a life that is gained. — Joseph Stroud






a little fragment while drinking a latte at a cafe in Edgartown, summer 2015

Oh, I want to say to that beautiful young couple, life is happening, get off your devices. Your beautiful children are making memories of learning how to work the water spigot, your son with his platinum blond head, your beaming daughter, delighted, entranced by making the water pour into the cup with her own tiny hands. She holds up one hand, damp fingers spread in joy. You keep typing.

I know you are tired and working hard, not just raising children but doing your part to keep the wheels of commerce turning in their oiled grooves. I know you need a break, but, oh, please, see how beautiful she is, this passing moment of learning how to work things, how to get what she needs from the world — it’s already happening, she’s already growing, 10 feet from the table and she’s already walking away into the world.


I write to stop myself from telling the beautiful blonde mother to put down her iPhone and look at her daughter toddling toward her, beaming with the joy of filling her own cup from the water spigot.

I write to keep my heart open, because I don’t see everything, because I don’t see the moments when the mother pulls her daughter close and holds her tight, holds her in her lap in her tiny pink hoodie, eyes closing, curls drooping, mouth dropping open, safe bird in the nest of her mother who loves her more than anything in the world, more than her lovely husband, so much that sometimes she can’t bear to feel it, her heart walking around in the world in a tiny pink hoodie.

Divination (Borrowing) (Stealing)

A little thing that used a line from Jane Kenyon’s Let Evening Come as a starting point. 

Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid.

Let the trees rise up before you, their shadows and the secrets they hold. Let them hold their secrets, let the wind carry away the secrets, let bird turn the secrets into colored string, the let the birds weave the string into their nests, let them lay their eggs in nests of secret.

Let the pine needles prick your feet, their rusty warmth perfuming the forest floor.

Let the sand, soft and silken, powder your toes.

Let yourself stop, look up, breathe the air.

Even in August you can feel the edge of winter.

You will come through winter.

Let yourself drift in lazy circles over the reservoir, the square boulders of the dam, the splashing in the lake, the whistling life guards, distracted mothers glistening in tight bathing suits.

Circle back and gaze down at the red and white plastic floats. Far off, under the tree boughs, beyond the shouting, an otter paddles at the edge of the lake.

Let yourself remember what you remember. The heat of the stones, the quiet of the reservoir. The litter — empty bag of Cheetos, a pink and white coffee stirrer, an unopened Handi-Wipe, its ammonia scent still intact.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid.




In the same house as Billy Collins

Another memory from summer 2015

At first I see his basket of dry goods on the counter of the communal kitchen. Raisin Bran, Cape Cod Potato Chips, Nature Valley Granola Bars. A bottle of Pellegrino is as fancy as it gets. I contemplate writing a poem called “Eating Billy Collins’s Potato Chips.”

In the late afternoon, heading out for a bike ride, my mind full of my own writing from the morning, I encounter the man himself in the dimness of the living room. He says hello. I try to see the title of the book in his hands. His female companion bounces in from an adjacent room — a fluffy guard dog — introduces herself, then him. I laugh. I like the order. She looks at me expectantly, waiting for my name. Then she begins to explain who he is.

“Oh, I know. He was the freaking Poet Laureate. Twice.” I say, cutting her off.

She asks me if I write poetry.

“Yeah,” I respond, sheepishly. Like that’s a question I want to answer in front of Billy Collins. I look at him, then her. “Yes, yes, I do,” in the voice of someone who’s found Jesus as her personal savior. “Here,” I say, reaching for my notebook, “let me read some of it to you!” They both laugh.

She’s reading Pushkin, he, Randall Jarrell. He waves me over into the dimness. I sit on the edge of a sagging armchair upholstered in botanicals. I can barely speak. Such is my fortitude in the face of celebrity. Perhaps noticing my state, Billy fills in the silence, talking about Jarrell and how he’s supposed to be such a big deal but he doesn’t see why. I nod dumbly, hoping that I appear intelligent, interested.

Somewhere in the spinning inside my head, I remember a poem that I think Billy might have written. Pulling my dry tongue from the roof of my mouth, I say, “Um, I’m going to ask you about a poem and I really hope you wrote it…The one about the sparrow in the Christmas tree.”

He nods, says something about the bird being brought into the house by the cat.

My relief is immense. “Oh, thank god. I would have felt awful if it hadn’t been yours.” I pause. “I love that poem.” Somehow it feels remarkable to be able to say that to the man himself.

He smiles. “Yeah, it awkward when someone comes up to you and says, ‘I love that poem about the computer.’ And you never wrote a poem about a computer.”

The next night, Billy gives an impromptu reading in the back yard. Before and after the reading I pass him on the lawn a few times, he says hello, remembers my name. I am awkward again, self-conscious, make a poor job of returning his basic civility. He reads a poem called After the Funeral, which pokes fun at our tendency to emphasize meaning by doubling words: drink-drink, elegant-elegant, bar-bar.

On the final afternoon of my workshop, I run into the pair again in the living room. Billy says something teasing about whether the “sharing” is over. Something has either possessed me or released me from my shyness; I am suddenly bold. I say, “You know, for someone in your position, you could afford to be a bit more generous.” I am stunned. The air around me feels thin and my head is pounding. He seems not to notice and asks me where I’m headed.

“I’m meeting a friend over in Oak Bluffs. We’re going to ride the Flying Horses.”

Billy doesn’t know what that is.

“Oh, it’s a merry-go-round, a calliope, you know,” I lean in meaningfully, “… a real carousel-carousel.” I am delighted with myself as his eyes pop and he looks at me, reconsidering who I seemed to be. I point my index fingers and waggle them at him. “See what I did there?” We laugh.

I coast out of the house on the wave of victory.

Thank you for today

Wrote this in a summer 2015 workshop led by the wonderful Justen Ahren, in an exercise that was inviting us to see how gratitude can lead us into our writing.


Thank you for Crofter’s Super Fruit, thank you for Rudi’s Gluten Free Cinnamon Raisin bread. Really. Thank you, the people who made this bread, the people — who were you? where were you? — who picked the grapes…where did you grow, sweet grapes — what sunny hillside made your home, what lovely leaves waving in the sun, shading you, blessing you, where was your home, your vines in crumbling earth, brown hands caressing you? I hope, I hope those hands were loved, not for me, not for my need, not for the need of my stomach to receive grapes that grew under the touch of hands that were loved, but for those hands, I hope they were loved and blessed.

Thank you for my bread. Thank you for the job that pays me more than a living wage that allows me to buy the bread. Thank you for the people who order the bread, for the people who drive the trucks that deliver the bread to the market. Thank you to the people who stock the shelves, the people who make the freezers that store the bread. And while I’m at it, thank you to the clever people who invented the freezers whose lights turn on as I walk past, those good souls who, in their place in this technology obsessed capitalist society, are at least trying to do something to conserve energy. God bless you, supermarket frozen food inventors.

Thank you for this house, these cushions Thank you for this time. Thank you, invisible spirits and forgotten teachers and remembered teachers for getting me to this moment, this place, this today. Morse, I am still here, still writing, still reading. I wish you were here to talk about Henry James.

Thank you for today. Thank you for the Grapevine. The one in the Santa Monica mountains. Thank you for sunshine, and hope and the scent of scrub pines and the path by Great Pond.

Thank you for letting me ride this wave of beauty, this flight from supermarket aisles to mountains. Thank you for bicycles and baskets on bicycles that hold groceries. Thank you bare legs and flip flops and friendly tourists who ask me for directions because, “You look like you live here.”

Thank you for a living body that knows how to heal. Thank you for every freedom I’ve ever received. Thank you for today. Thank you for 1st grade and learning to read and learning to write. Thank you for getting me past the fear of learning cursive. Thank you for getting me past the fear of learning to tie my shoes. Thank you for the concrete step from the garage to the laundry.

Thank you for time, for breath, for memory, for the pine tree in the front yard.

Thank you for letting go. Thank you for swimming lessons. Thank you for the very beginning of getting out of my own way, for the very beginning of dropping the burden of the Big I. For the beginning of laughter, for the slight, not so slight awe of letting everything pour through me.

Thank you for starting again.

Thank you for ink and graphite and books and ideas.

Thank you for birdsong.

Coming Around Again

I am sitting at my desk (a heavy oak door that my father, decades ago, turned into a coffee table and end table, in the early, poor years), looking out the window. What led me back to the blog was sighting the adult boy and his mother walking along the sidewalk that fronts the stores in this little commercial complex where I rent space. After seeing them weekly last year, I hadn’t seen them in several months. As usual, the mother watched as her grown son, with his cane in hand, at the end of which is a ball that I imagine both steadies and propels him along as he moves, took a detour to move up and down the concrete ramp. She lets him lead as they move along. His movements seem full of joy. His left arm swings out and up, maybe for balance, but also, I think, expressing the sheer pleasure of movement. Moving through the muggy air under the gray June sky. The pleasure of being alive in a body. Sometimes he’ll circle the little green island in the center of which grows a large, healthy birch, a rhododendron, a couple of boxwoods. He circles and waves his arm and his mother waits and watches. I think with patience. I think with love. Their movements and postures are familiar and when I saw them again today I felt a rush of warmth and gladness, to know that they are still alive and moving in the world, this pair bonded by love and struggle.


My practice is writing. My practice is paying attention, observing, noticing what changes within in response to what changes without. My practice is sending love to the natural world. Is that true? I think so. Feeling kinship with trees.

I like to observe the small details: the light on the plants that thrive on the edge of the woods. The water stains from years of rain on the nail heads on the side of the shed. The quiet signs of life.

Of course the usual doubts arise: Is this practice enough? How does it compare to others’? Does it look magical enough? It doesn’t involve scrying into a crystal ball. I don’t adorn myself in special clothes. My practice isn’t tipping Donald Trump off the public stage.

But my practice does involve ritual, and when I think about it, I do use a magic wand (a BIC Round Stick, blue, medium point).

Even though those thoughts arise, I have enough curiosity to combat the habitual doubt. I have enough experience, enough time with good teachers to recognize the habitual doubt as little more than a well established reflex, real but not true, to quote Tara Brach.

Part of my practice, therefore, is practicing trust, practicing imagination — trusting and imagining that my presence and intention and loving observation and even my restraint make a difference. That my showing up wherever I show up — at work, at the printing press, waiting in line with a crowd of restless fellow humans — makes a difference.

Part of my practice is abiding with uncertainty and an absence of proof.

Some of my practice these days is discernment. Listening and feeling for the words and thoughts that most want to take form. Listening. Staying present for the sometimes long spaces of quiet between impulses to write or speak.

Part of my practice is recognizing the power of written and spoken words to open new possibilities, new worlds, and therefore to respect the necessary silence and to choose with care.

Part of my practice is noticing how doubt can be an unintentional ally. How it spurs me to articulation.

Part of my practice is noticing how I tumble into another world as I move the pen across the page.

Part of my practice is letting go and allowing something else like comfort or spaciousness to arise when I cease needing to know my impact.

Part of my practice is recognizing my practice.


coda: As I feel myself propelled into another world by these words, I notice how confident it sounds, more confident than I actually usually feel. And that is part of the power of word making, spell casting. The process of writing is a building, a forming, a casting. And that’s probably why I love to write, why it is my practice. As I discover what words lie in wait, and write them, I am filled with whole sentences of clarity and purpose.