Poetry Doesn’t Pay, and Prayer Doesn’t Either

Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins has a poem called “Poetry Doesn’t Pay.”  I began the decade living for poetry.   I end the 2000s with one half remembered line and a focus on payment rather than poetics.

I’m still working on imagining my way out of my day job and into being an at home mom.  Oh what a passel of worries (“gremlins” as Magpie Girl calls them) have been stirred up as I imagine stepping into the void that is life without guaranteed salary and benefits!  One of the more bizarre worries that has emerged is how I’ll find spiritual nourishment in this new venture.

The role of spirituality in my life is not a bizarre concern, of course, but it’s generally considered rather superfluous to one’s career choices.  My current job certainly does not have a spiritual dimension.  Why would I expect the new home business I hope to pull together to have any direct connection to the way I talk to God?

I am coming to realize all the pressure I am putting on myself, on how I expect that earning money in a new way will change everything that motherhood has not already rearranged.  As much as I have liked the general direction of my life, Moira’s birth began the seismic quake I was waiting for.  Now I am looking for everything to shift; I am impatient for all of the random puzzle pieces of me to fall into place.

Some who know me in the “real world” might laugh to hear this, but my ideal job would be to be a priest.  There are several impediments, of course, seeing that I am female, and even if I could become an Episcopalian or something, I still cannot commit to Christianity solely enough to convince a congregation of my piety.  Since I don’t think I am quite ready to start holding revivals in my backyard and no established religions will have me (or I won’t have them…), it seems that prayer isn’t going to bring in a paycheck.  At least not directly…

I am overwhelmed by the weight of my dreams, my burdensome need for poetry and and a life that is purely mine from waking ’til sleep.  The love of my child, my husband, my home is a crippling curse and an incessant blessing and the only thing that matters at the end of the day.  This love is the stuff my prayers are made of.

May this love be strong enough.

May I be strong enough.

But nothing,
you can’t pay me in poems or prayers,
or your husband’s jokes,
or with photographs of your children
in lucky lemon sweaters hand made by your dead Great Aunt
who had amnesia and the croup

Rita Ann Higgins, “Poetry Doesn’t Pay”

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Happy Families Shovel Snow All Alike

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

first snow

Our first snow in the new house!

An adventure as we debated exactly where the driveway was under eight or more inches of gorgeous powder. A disappointment when we realized the plows all dumped the heavy stuff from the road across the street right in our driveway. A blessing in that our endurance was just enough to accomplish the whole job in one marathon session.

Visions of Russian peasants who probably spent a fair part of their difficult lives wielding snow shovels flashed through my mind. After a two and a half month literary slog that was much tougher than today’s shoveling, I finally finished Anna Karenina last weekend.

With more spite than I intended, when I finished, I asked my husband if he was insane to count this epic of whining and jealousy and navel gazing among his favorite books.

I cannot remember having a more extreme love/hate relationship with a book. Few novels take up so much time, so I guess I had more time than usual to consider how Tolstoy was a genius, but a genius with a deeply disconcerting perspective on human nature.

Did Tolstoy hate humanity so much that he chose to expose only the pettiest, most deluded aspects of human nature? Or (and this is what I really fear), was he a master who brilliantly shed light on the private, claustrophobic confines of the unquiet mind?

Anna Karenina’s first line is so iconic, but what does it mean when a book that is an essential part of the Western canon takes such a dim view of happiness and contentment?

Of course, how would eight hundred pages of pleasure actually read? Tolstoy was definitely on to something when he operated under the belief that angst and intrigue were much better fodder for fiction than fulfillment and requited love.

dsc01497What is it that is so boring about happiness that we don’t much care to read about it and so many of us chase it out of our own lives in exchange for a bit of drama and excitement?

We don’t have to live out our lives like novels or movies, seeking out painful plot twists just to keep the audience interested. Pursuing and savoring simple old contentment can be the most fascinating occupations of all.

Happiness takes a trillion different disguises. Sweating and working and achieving something with your honey. Making dinner. Making love. Making up. Making out. How quickly would you lose count of ways to find your bliss?

There is something decidedly out of joint in a world whose headlines are all about the bad stuff in life. There’s real tragedy in the fact that entertainment so often relies on the voyeuristic impulse, the need to watch other people’s failures and heartbreaks.

Maybe it’s true, and there really is a great diversity in the ways that unhappiness can settle upon families and individuals. It certainly seems that such stuff sells and I know I love a good tear jerker every now and then. But that doesn’t mean that there are not myriad ways to be happy or that every narrative has to focus on disappointment and the denial of joy.

On Writing and Not Writing

I’m sure I have been away from writing in this space for many reasons.  I’ve been consumed by a general need not to communicate what seems an inner process of becoming.  It was clear to me that I was focusing so much on all of the personal growth that was fit to print that I started ignoring all of the oh-so-important darker places that don’t need the spotlight of a public forum.  Also, I have been experiencing a sense of freedom, several new verandas opening in my mind, when I do not have need to wonder whether anyone read me today, understood me today, was shocked by me today.

At the same time, I have missed the near daily practice of sharing all of my epiphanies because the need to write fed my spiritual reading and meditation.  Without the need to churn out a few hundred words each night I have not necessarily been seeking ways to meet and describe the divine.  Instead, I have allowed a handful of “real world” concerns to draw my attention.  It is only becoming clear to me now that some of my struggles could be filled with a lot less, well, struggle if I could remember my ideals of surrender and belief.

Also a renewed interest in fiction has drawn me away from all of this navel gazing – I mean soul searching.  I have been invited to join a wonderful writing group and am in the process of dusting off some old stories I had left to languish just about a year ago when I found myself drawn to the quest for mysticism and mantra.  At this point, I can hope that I can unify these two loves – to find a way that spirit can enliven story, and vice versa.  Driving to the Cape last weekend I listened to this amazing lecture by Sue Monk Kidd.  It’s clear how her own spiritual quest for the divine feminine after year in traditional Christianity inform her novels.

Two other recommendations: The Maytrees by Annie Dillard (such brilliantly poetic writing to describe mid-twentieth century bohemian Provincetown) and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong (such a compelling glimpse into the now-theologian’s journey from the convent through late 1960s Oxford).

The Universe of Illusions

I have been away from writing in this space for more reasons than I really understand. Imminent plans to pack up and more back to Cape Cod are not amongst them, despite my last post, but I still have faith that such eventualities will be revealed in their time if it is meant to be. It is not that I have been off on a crusade against global warming either, despite all of my fiery rhetoric from a few weeks ago. Neither of these things are any less important to me; I was not speaking anything other than the truth when I bathed the topics of climate change and the desire to return home in such urgent tones. It’s just that I fell back into the rhythm of living life rather than talking about it for a little while.

Across the Universe* * *

I spent yesterday reading David Edwards’s Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom and then we watched Across the Universe, that movie about the sixties with the beautifully Beatles-laden soundtrack. They complemented one another in a stirring way.

The basic premise of Edwards’s book is one that reverberates in my core, even as I yearn desperately to push such insights as far from me as possible. He describes the commodified, profit obsessed “reality” of modern life, the inescapable pursuit of property and status that marks Western life (so often at the expense of the rest of the world) and leaves us all empty, devoid of purpose of our own. To him, being caught in this trivialized culture is exactly the opposite of freedom. Though it seems as if we have limitless options, our paths are all predetermined because they function to support the ever expanding financial markets. We stand in a place where it is impossible to discern the truth because it is filtered through the media machine that is just as much in thrall with conformity and the bottom line as the corporations. Success is counted in dollars and pounds; happiness becomes an elusive, undefinable destination often only understood in monetary terms.

I know, I know, maddened lefty rhetoric from a guy who probably couldn’t hold a real job, right? He quotes Chomsky and asserts that Shakespeare is not actually a very good writer (he was just someone who eloquently dressed up themes that the elites have continued to approve of), so he must be an irrelevant wacko, right? I mean, we can all list our myriad liberties and successful instances of insightful, investigative reporting, right?

The problem is, what if he isn’t nuts? What if there is real truth in these ideas that our society demands we reject? I know I am susceptible to his message since I have been plagued with my own questions about what to do with my future (dreams of being a healer and a writer and a yoga instructor with the ocean not far from my door) and am constantly confronted with “but how are you going to pay the bills, kid?” and “don’t you worry about not having benefits?” And these comments come from those I love and respect, those who only want the best for me! But I am certainly not the only one to have woken up to realize that the layers of schooling and networking and financial obligations should not lead to a life sentence in a sensible job that leaves one feeling soulless – despite the health insurance and the fact that there are plenty worse places to be. Since the picture of society that Edwards creates seems accurate enough, clearly most people who wake up in such a crisis listen to those concerned friends and worried family members and continue to do the job and make the sacrifices because that is the only “realistic” way to go.

This unusual (bizarre?) perspective is difficult to express since I am far from comfortable with them myself and fear my readers who will shake their heads at another of my flights of fancy, another of my quaint hypocrisies (how easy would it be for me to forget this Sunday morning ramble and go shopping this afternoon and watch brainless television tonight?). The film Across the Universe at least can function to illustrate some of these ideas.

The movie, of course, is steeped in all of the idealism of the sixties, the nascent radicalism of (most of) a generation. Though it includes some cringe worthy musical theater style dance moves, it really was a beautiful kaleidoscope of an era. What really struck me was the contrast between the emergent, rebellious youth culture and the American war machine. In that case, movement and dance and song made the argument so much more compelling than tradition storytelling. Perhaps I am soaked in my own idealism of my parents’ college years, but it seemed as if a truly independent spirit still inspired the young people of that decade. Maybe it was because music was not yet a completely corrupt industry. Or maybe it was because the war affected so many people so much more intimately than the current conflicts that rage across the globe. Maybe it was just because the military industrial complex was just not as sophisticated as it is now. Back then, the unholy marriage of big business and the “defense” industry was not yet so powerful that it became invisible as it has now.

Of course, in the intervening years, what sounds have become more part of the general culture than the music of the Beatles? It is hard to believe sometimes that their music was once strange and revolutionary, rather than a set of familiar anthems of a now quaint time rife with free love and heavy drug use.

This is not a post that really goes anywhere in particular, except for halfway through a book that just might urge me to analyze some of my own perceptions of the world, but I think that is ok for now. At any rate, check out the movie – it offers an entertaining couple of hours that will make it so you’ll never look at the Statue of Liberty in the same way again. And I think I would recommend Edwards’s book too – I think…

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.

But let me tell you what I think!: Interactive Readership

Over at The Website of Unknowing this morning Carl McColman wrote about the joyful immediacy of the blog world compared to the less “fun” act of book writing and the way that the conversations that mark this electronic realm force one to constantly think and question in new ways. After just over two months writing in this space, I have come to realize how a new appreciation for immediacy has altered my perspective, even the way I read the still beloved printed page.

Today I started a Christmas gift, Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me. I have been in a pitiable fiction rut lately, but after only 35 pages, this book reminded what it is I love about literature. The flow of language, the cleverness of the author’s connections, my immediate yearning to understand the “why” of everything that unfolds in this depressed Scottish town that so seem to hate its Catholic priest. All I wanted was to stop and thank O’Hagan for transporting me, for inspiring me again. While I have always been moved by storytelling, this new impulse to drop a book so that I could celebrate how it has touched me is quite new. I am left to wonder how it enhances my ability to interact with a text – to articulate exactly what it is I love (or despise); I also must consider how it might detract from what has always been a meditative, solitary pursuit – breaking the flow of reading another’s work with the need to interject.

Again I am thinking of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous that I mentioned yesterday: it’s about the way our global culture, which has been created in part through the propagation of the written word, has detracted from our true connection to nature. At the risk of pulling his argument too far from its original course, I believe in some ways it is this new medium that actually can return us, if not to the direct experience of nature itself, then at least to a new ability to be present and responsive to experience.

Perhaps I am bending logic to make sense of this new blog habit that drinks up so much of my time. Certainly I am not considering all that we lose in face-to-face interpersonal experiences by constantly interacting with “virtual” folk. Responding to what we read used to be the stuff of coffee shops and book clubs after all. Maybe I just feel the need to draw connections between narratives that flow through ink on paper with this new form so that I can believe there will be such a think as the spine of a book upon which my name might appear some day. It just might be that the rules really are not written yet and we still have to negotiate what reading and responding will mean in the future. We risk such fragmentation as skip between mediums, always looking to speak rather than listen and contemplate. At the same time, there is beauty in this alternative to reading in a vacuum in which reactions might simply settle to create a thicker mental hummus of vicarious experiences, largely inaccessible and unexamined.

That debate will rage on, but for now I suppose I will have to fall back on that line from Yeats: “Words alone are certain good.” Well, words may not be the only source of good, but they are an excellent rock to cling to.