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.

Practice

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.

“Tell me if I finally did something right”

I originally wrote this in response to an invitation to reflect on spending time with kids. A post on Facebook today reminded me of it, so I decided to post here. Enjoy.

***

Not having kids of my own, nor being a teacher, I don’t spend a lot of time around children. But this past year I had the opportunity to go into schools and lead a couple of poetry workshops to middle school students. The faces and spirits of some are with me still. A few of the boys, tender and vulnerable as they teeter on the threshold of adolescence, continue to teach me.

There were the boys at Carver Middle School who could barely contain their astonishment when I prefaced a poem by telling them that I’d spent 10 days being silent on purpose. Their questions came thick and fast. “Whaaa?? I couldn’t do that for five minutes!!” “Would you get in trouble if you talked?” “Did anyone get kicked out?” “How did you eat?” “Why did you do that???” For a moment I thought we would spend our entire hour together talking about meditation. Their open amazement at encountering something so weird and new was a delight to behold.

And there was the 6th-grade boy at the School Day of Poetry in Fall River. Small for his age, he appeared even smaller next to the 8th grade girls who chattered happily before class about make-up, hair, and “pre-nups.” Feeling my own fear of these brash sophisticates, my heart went out to that small boy at the next table shrinking into invisibility and I wondered if he’d remain silent the entire class.

So I was stunned and thrilled when, at a particularly chaotic, boisterous moment, as all the students were supposed to be writing, he raised his skinny little arm and waved me over. Looking up from under his Patriots ski hat, he thrust his paper at me and asked, “Would you look at this and tell me if I finally did something right?”

In response to the prompt to write about a special place, he’d written a simple, wobbly, hopeful, naive, beautiful poem about a world of justice, freedom, and peace. A world that we would surely have one day if we worked hard enough.

I leaned down, gently patted his back, and said, “You did something really right. This is beautiful.” And he nodded and mumbled his thanks.

When I asked for volunteers to read their work aloud, he was the first one on his feet, sharing his tender vision, putting his small voice out into that rambunctious classroom.

Later, I thanked God for giving that boy the courage to ask me to read his work, for letting me be the one who got to say, “Yes, this is beautiful. Keep going.” What a privilege. I don’t know what kind of sorrows or frustrations made him feel like he usually got things wrong. I just know that he taught me something about courage and perseverance. And that we were both given a few moments of grace.

The gift of summer traffic

Driving to the office today, I got stuck in a traffic jam on 28. This is a fairly typical occurrence in the summer here. You learn to live with it, or stay home. The slowdown often begins around St. Anthony’s, continues past the pond, then up the rise past Dunkin Donuts to the new big traffic light at Davisville and Old Meeting House Roads. After that, it’s usually smooth sailing into Mashpee. Today was unusual for the persistence of the jam. And I was unusually patient…perhaps because I’ve been meditating the last few days and listening to podcasts of Tara Brach.

The jam did start somewhere around Dunkies, where I found myself more than willing to pause and allow cars in and out of the portals to and from the drive-thru. Did I imagine the relief on drivers’ faces when they saw a car stop to let them pass? Did I imagine the throb of pleasure I felt in having the spaciousness to offer generosity? Offering kindness rather than gripping the steering wheel, hellbent on getting where I was going, a bittersweet pulse rippled through me.

Beyond the traffic light, down in the dip just past Rocky’s Gym, beside the cranberry bog, I noticed a dirt road I’d never seen before. A few feet further, stopped again, I had moments to look right and discover a river opening out toward the Sound, green marsh grass growing in soft curves banking the water.

Up by the entrance to Green Pond Fish Market, I let more cars in and out, met their waves of thanks with my own. I felt that throb once more, a wild throb of sadness for all the times of rushing and rigidity, a quiet throb of gratitude for this moment of grace, in which generosity came easily. Stuck by some unknown cause further down the road (an accident? road work?), anything but patience would have been absurd.

I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness lately. How it can feel so small and worthless in this current political and social moment. How easy it is for doubt and fear to trump kindness. Whether kindness actually does anything, has any life past its initial moment between two beings.

I can’t measure the impact of those waves, can’t research the energy exchange between two humans in their cars on a summer Tuesday morning and determine whether giving way to another person made a difference in their day. I can, though, feel the gorgeous opening of my spirit, the slightly fearful but also sweet wash of energy when I fulfill what my best self always longs to do. I can hope that, as when kindness is sent my way, the recipient feels a moment of lightening, a sense that all is not lost, a renewed capacity to believe that we human animals can still act beyond our own interests.

 

 

 

Appreciating the gift of one’s work

Sometime this summer one of my poems will appear in Salamander Magazine. This is, I think, the fifth poem of mine to be published, and feels very different from other times. Actually, it may be the sixth, if I count that one that was published in the high school newspaper. And one of those other poems I initially published by taping a hand-written copy to the door of the dining hall at Indralaya (anonymously).

At any rate, I’m noticing how different this time around publication feels. The overriding feeling is an increasing sense of detachment and at the same time a feeling of the poem coming back to me as a gift from the creative ether. Somehow seeing it go out into the world, I’m now able (or encouraged) to step back and see what was given me in the process of writing the poem. (This may also be feeling different because it is the culmination of a decade of writing, a decade of working through layers of thought and feeling all called into consciousness by a moment in a hospital. Then taken through several workshops, where it was held and palpated with varying degrees of attention and care.) Now that it has been accepted, with one final edit, and now that I have seen it arranged on the page by other hands, I can begin to enjoy it in a way that I enjoy the writing of others. I can see in it parallels and images and connections I hadn’t seen before.

Most of all, I can relax into the truth of its birth through creative collaboration — that yes, the initial impulse came from my encounter with a very different kind of poetry in an oncology waiting room, and it was my continuing awakening to that encounter, my choice to make time and room for the chemical reaction that ensued, and to continue working the irritations that arose. At the same time, I see the support and input and guidance of various teachers and readers, and the faint impression of something I cannot name but know that it comes from the creative energy we are always surrounded by and too often don’t see or mistake for our own ego’s brilliance and invention.

Speaking of ego, news of this poem’s publication initially sent me into a flurry of shoulds — you should publish more, you should write more, you should send more out — but when I felt into what I really wanted, beyond the ego’s constant itching for validation, into a playful, excited energy of desire and curiosity, it was to spend more time with this poem, to fully receive what had been given to me and to more fully appreciate the gifts of this partnership with…whatever it is out there. So for now I’m learning how to do letterpress so that I can create a broadside of the poem, and that process is leading to its own series of creative gifts and new ideas and humorous blunders and healing learnings. And the space created by moving into a different creative endeavor is, perhaps, refreshing me for a later dive back into depths that will yield more poetry.