Saturday, February 2, 2013

Green Children and Tea Mugs

A couple of times a year, I go insane. I am smart enough to do so in the presence of others—often but not always exclusively women—who agree to go insane at the same time. In other words, I sign on to write a poem every day for a month. The first such month this year is February—a wise choice, since it only has 28 days, and if you think that writing 28 poems in a row is not significantly easier than writing 30 poems in a row, I am here to tell you that you are wrong, wrong, wrong. I'll probably do it again in April, for National Poetry Writing Month, and I will feel the difference, believe you me.

I'm excited about this month's poems because I haven't been writing a lot lately. Since by "a lot," I mean "pretty much at all," and by "lately," I mean "since Turquoise died," and by "since Turquoise died," I mean "since May," this is a pretty big deal. It's not that losing Turquoise shot me into a depression in which words lost their meaning or I lost my hope. There were moments of that, of course, as there are in all times of grief. But mostly, I was exhausted. I'd written a huge series of poems for and about her during the last few weeks of her life—sometimes drafting several different poems in a day. I think, although I'd have to look it up to be sure, that I was probably participating in a NaPoWriMo that April, and they started there and continued into May. But the point is that I was empty, poetry-wise. I had no subject matter and no drive. I needed sleep and processing time and more sleep.

This morning, while I was making coffee, I caught myself thinking that I was already a day late in posting the February 1 poem to the private blog that my friends and I set up to keep ourselves accountable when we do these kinds of things. I thought that maybe I wouldn't be able to do it at all, this 28 days of poetry that I signed on for largely because I've been feeling the need to shake myself loose again. I thought that it was possible that I didn't know how to write poems anymore, or at least that I didn’t know how to write poems that were not for Turquoise. Most of the precious few poems I've written since the end of May are Turquoise poems, even though I didn’t always realize it when I wrote them. And I consciously did not want to write any more poems for her, not now. I'd said what I had in me, and it was time to move on. This kind of gear-shifting after a series can be incredibly difficult for me. It's happened before, and I'm sure it'll happen again. I had written myself into silence with her poems, and while I was hopeful that writing a poem every day in February would knock some words back into me (or out of me, I suppose), I was very deeply afraid that it would not. Or, I should say, that I would not allow it to.

Maybe I'm just not a poet anymore, I thought.

And let me tell you right now, that is possibly one of the most patently ridiculous thoughts I've ever had. And I think about a lot of ridiculous things. I am a poet the same way that I'm a cancer or a person whose birth stone is ruby, the same way I am my parents' child, the same way that I am a being who breathes. It isn't something I can leave. It isn't a hobby. It isn't a profession. It isn't even a calling.

I always feel kind of douchey when I talk about this sort of thing, possibly because there are writers I don't respect who talk this way. Talking this way is part of the writer's persona ("I write because I have to." "I write the same way I breathe." Blah blah blah). And lots of people who write purely as a form of self-expression but who aren't interested in what any other writers have to say? Writers who don't revise, who don't read, who don't want to hear anything but how fabulous they are? They all tend to talk this way. The thing is, so does pretty much every serious writer I know. So I'm over-thinking again. It comes, I fear, with the territory. When you spend most of your time paying attention to other people and trying to figure out how they think, it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that they are doing the same about you. Unless they are writers, they probably aren't. Doesn't that make you feel better? Of course, if you're friends with a writer, or married to one, or have one in your family, you're now on notice: we are watching you. You probably figured that out on your own, though.

In any event, my favorite tea mug is hanging in the kitchen, unused. My sister-in-law sent it to me from Italy one year as part of a birthday present. It's orange on the outside and golden on the inside (where it's not terribly stained with the tea I drink so dark it could probably be used as paint stripper). It's thick-walled and feels good in my hand. And it is breaking. There's a long crack running down its side. I felt it with my lower lip before I saw it. I haven't figured out how to fix it, so I'm not using it right now. If I can't fix it, I need to let it go, but I don't want to let it go unless I have to. It is the perfect tea mug. These things cannot be taken lightly. There used to be two of them, but one cracked in my hand while I was pouring water into it. Boiling water. This happens to me often enough that I should know better than to hold the mug while I'm filling it. And yet.

So, I carried my coffee (in a different, equally-revered mug) into the living room, sat down, and started to write a poem about fragility. And it was, dare I say, terrible. God-awful, even. I write a lot of god-awful stuff. All good writers do. (So do bad writers—they just don't recognize it as such, I suspect.) And while I'm fine with putting rough drafts up on the blog for my poet friends to see (we all post first drafts and scraps of drafts and whatever else we have time to post and we all know it and there's precious little judging there), I'm generally not fine with putting God-awful drafts up there. Not at the beginning of the month, anyway. All bets are off once the 20th or so rolls around and we have to declare martial law or something. By the way, some of my best poems come out right about then—when I think the well is completely dry and I have to lower myself down there and start digging in the hopes of hitting a deeper spring…or whatever the well-digging metaphor is. I know nothing about wells except that we once had a dry one in our house that we didn't discover until a cat somehow figured out how to get under the floorboards and we pulled him out days after we thought he had gone off to die. But that's another story, one that involves bologna and Easter baskets on ropes and…where was I? Oh, yeah, God-awful drafts.

It was awful. And, I should add, it was. About. Turquoise. Not much I could do about that—a poem becomes what it becomes—but  I didn't want to post it like that, and ended up cutting it down into a cinquain which, while still basically terrible, and still, despite myself, about Turquoise, was at least mercifully short. Then, I settled in to draft a poem about the green children of Woolpit for today's poem. That poem is better, and not just because it's about fictional people. Tomorrow's poem will be whatever it will be.

It's all related to what I was saying the other day about allowing perfectionism to ruin our goals. Or allowing it to protect us from our goals when we don't feel we can handle the task. Yes, I started late, but I'm on track again. Yes, it's only Day 2 and there are myriad ways that my plans for February can fall apart between now and March 1. My Day 2 is my Day 1 this month. So be it. All we can do is what we've got in us. And that's plenty.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Eavesdropping Edition

1. I always wear a hat indoors in the winter--it's like slippers for my head
2. My ex-girlfriend made me eat any time she was eating because she didn't want me watching her
3. Lady Antebellum is a group? (This was followed by a totally disgusted head shake, which also did not suck)
4. He smells like a unicorn
5. WIDE ruled? You're using WIDE ruled? You're in college now. COLLEGE ruled.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, February 1 Edition

1. it is not snowing
2. it is not sleeting
3. the ground and roads are not covered with ice
4. it is not raining some sort of super-refrigerated rain that somehow manages not to freeze into snow despite the fact that you think you're going to die from misery
5. February is only 28 days long

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Out for Breakfast Edition

1. that man who brings his elderly father out for breakfast pretty much every day (apparently, since no matter what day I'm there, so are they)
2. the fact that the elderly gentleman gets more whipped cream on his waffle than I eat in six months
3. apples on breakfast foods: pancakes, french toast, waffles
4. drinking too much coffee
5. getting called "hon."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Irish Morning Edition*

1. rain
2. steel-cut oatmeal
3. mist
4. The Burren
5. The Dingle Peninsula

*I'm not actually in Ireland. But I could be, and that wouldn't suck, either.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bonus: The Next Big Thing

Hi all,

I tagged my friend 'Becca Longster to answer questions for The Next Big Thing. Her answers appear on her blog, Renaissance Woman Ink. My answers can be found under The Next Big Thing over there in the list to the right.

Check her out.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Random Edition

1. grainy mustard
2. Dove deodorant
3. anyone who wears deodorant, really, regardless of brand
4. the word "varmint"
5. Gnip Gnop

Monday, January 28, 2013

Monday Bonus--The Next Big Thing and a Couple of Poems

Two little pieces of bonus for you this afternoon. First off, I tagged Mary Harwood for the Next Big Thing, and she's answering those same questions at her blog On Writing And Life. (You can see my answers by clicking on the Next Big Thing link in the list to the right, or by clicking here.)

Also, if you want to hear me read a little bit of poetry, you can do that today at the Extract(s) site where they've been good enough to post a sample from the reading I gave at Crackskull's in Newmarket, NH last Thursday. It was a lot of fun, and a good crowd in a very cool venue. Poets and those crazy enough to love them gather at 7 on the last Thursday of the month for an open mic and a feature. If you're anywhere nearby, you should go. Get yourself a mocha, eat a cookie, maybe buy a book or an album (my husband picked up Johnny Cash Live from Folsom Prison on vinyl for three bucks), and even read a poem or two if you're up for it. You won't regret it.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Mostly Zen Edition

1. gratitude
2. mindfulness
3. feeling centered
4. focus
5. really bad movies where lots of things blow up

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Too Many Tyrannosauruses Spoil the...Oh, Never Mind.

This morning, I am finally getting around to making the bread I told myself I would make on Thursday. Yes, it's Sunday. Yes, I am off-campus on Thursdays, and while I did have to travel to a reading in New Hampshire for Thursday night, it's not like baking a loaf of bread is an all-day ordeal. It takes a few hours, during most of which I am free to do other things as long as I keep an eye on the clock. I just didn't have it in me to schedule it.

On Friday, I skipped yoga so that I could have dinner with a former student who will be returning to China in a week or so—I've known her and worked with her since she was a freshman. She's come to my house for Thanksgiving twice. I don't know when I'll see her again and I am well aware that life often circumvents even the best of intentions. By the time I had gotten around to my walk, I realized I would only have time for either yoga or a shower. I think we're both happy that I chose the shower, although my quads and hamstrings are looking forward to some serious stretching during tomorrow's session. I also skipped a standing Friday night date with my friends—an informal weekly gathering that we call FND: Friday Night Dinner. Basically, those of us who are available on Friday get together and have dinner (usually at a restaurant, but sometimes at one of our houses). This past Friday, I made myself unavailable.

The point is, I am regularly ducking out on something or other in order to do something else. Sometimes, like with the bread, the something else doesn't look like much—I'm reading poems or hanging out with my husband or just staying bundled up on the couch during a cold snap. In other words, sometimes I'm just lazy. On the other hand, sometimes I have scheduled myself so tightly for so long that something has to give—I need a day where I do next to nothing, where I'm happy if I manage to pull together leftovers for dinner.

As it is, I think my life probably seems pretty slow to a lot of people. We don't have children. Most people dismiss a good deal of my job—I'm an English professor—as not really working. The time I get to spend doing things I love like reading and writing and looking things up? That doesn't count for some reason. Even though I kinda need to do it to stay employed. I can't blame other people for this too much—it can be hard for me to believe that I'm getting paid for doing this. The other thing is that as a poet, I need a lot of down time. If I don't have time for contemplation, I can't write a poem (or at least, not a very good poem). It can often seem like I'm doing nothing when in fact I'm just spending some time trying to process. In that sense, I, like most writers, am always working.

But also, I do slow stuff—I compost, which means separating compostable waste from what goes in the trash. I use reusable products like cloth napkins and dish cloths and towels and rags instead of paper towels or napkins, which means doing more laundry. I despise paper plates, which means spending time loading and unloading the dishwasher (or washing by hand). I bake all of our bread (including my husband's daily English muffin and other bread products like pitas and pizza dough) and baked goods. I cook real food from real food. That takes time—time that I enjoy, yes, but time. It's a lot faster, I grant you, to pick up a rotisserie chicken and a side of mashed potatoes. Swinging through the drive-thru is faster than that, assuming the line isn't too long. But I can roast a chicken like nobody's business, and I can use every ounce of that chicken for something else along the way. And I like it. It works for me—that's the key here, by the way. It works for me. I don't pretend that my life is the right way or the only way. It's just my way.

Because of all this, there are times when something just has to give. When I am baking cookies and bread and making other treats for thirty people, like I did this past Christmas, I might buy a loaf of bread for us to use for sandwiches. Or my husband might have to deal with Thomas' English muffins for a week. The world doesn't end if I have to open a can of tomato soup instead of pulling a container of my own soup out of the fridge. But more importantly, on the days when one (or more) of these things happens, I have not failed. I have simply acknowledged that my priorities, for whatever reason, had to shift in this instance.

A lot of us are terrible perfectionists. And I mean that in the not-very-good-at-it sense of the word, not in the Tyrannosaurus Rex sense (he wasn't, after all, bad at being king of the lizards. He was super-scary). I mean that we are really, really bad at being perfectionists. But that doesn't stop us from trying. Maybe it should.

I see it all the time. A poet signs up to write a poem every day for the month of April (NaPoWriMo), makes it through the first 10 days, skips a poem on April 11, and then quits. A friend lays out six months of his exercise plan—marking it on a calendar, copying it carefully from a book or a website—takes Day 4 (or day 34 or day 74) off because of a pulled muscle, and doesn't exercise seriously again for months or years. I do it, too, set enormous long-terms goals for myself with no short-term plan for seeing them through. If I can't do it perfectly, I often don't want to do it at all. I am a terrible, terrible perfectionist. But I'm working on it. Yes, I skipped yoga on Friday, but I did my long run yesterday, and I'll do my hill workout today. I blew off bread-making for a few days, but there's pizza dough on a slow rise in the fridge for tonight and bread dough on a faster rise on the nice warm pellet stove in the dining room.

At the end of last year, I set a running goal for myself: 750 miles in 2013. That works out to about 15 miles a week, with a couple of weeks in there for slacking off/sickness/emergencies/injuries/what have you. Since I was averaging 12 or so miles a week at that point, it was a step up but not, I thought, a huge one. I was, if we're being totally honest here, looking for a goal that was high enough to be a little challenging but small enough so that I might just be able to smash it into tiny little pieces. I added a goal of 1,000 miles on my feet (walking and running combined) because I knew I could make that one happen—I was already on track for that. Then my husband and I went to Florida to visit my parents right after Christmas. We drove, which meant spending two days in the car on either end of the trip. We both brought running clothes but barely used them. In the first half of January, I logged an impressive five miles of running and totally forgot to track my walking miles (we walked pretty much every day, I'll give us that much). Did I mention that I had already skipped my runs over most of the week before Christmas because I was on my feet all day doing all that baking I told you about? Yeah. There was that, too. Together, it all meant that when I got home, I needed to start out slowly again—short runs, time to recover—so that I wouldn't get injured after so much time away. In short (too late!), February begins next week and I have yet to log a 15-mile week. This past week, I ran 14.

But next week, I'll hit 16, and I'll run 17 miles the week after that. I'll be building mileage most weeks over the next couple of months as I train for my possibly-mythical half-marathon. In other words, next week, I start catching up. I am, at this point, way off-track, but I think that would be a really, really stupid (never mind self-defeating) reason to quit. So maybe I'm not a Tyrannoperfectionist Rex after all. Maybe I'm finally getting to the point where I can just be, I don't know. A stegoperfectionist. Or a triceraperfectionist. Or one of those flying perfectionists—a pterfectionist, maybe (as long as I'm neither wooly nor mammoth, I'm OK with any long-extinct animal you want to come up with. Just don't tell me. Also, in case you're wondering—and why wouldn't you be?—spell check really hates it when you make up dinosaur names. I suggest adding them to your dictionary for ease of future use). Taking it easy on myself isn't easy—I have to keep remembering to be as kind to myself as I would be to someone else. But very little worth doing is easy, after all. Right?

Five Things that Don't Suck Already Regretting Naming the Editions Edition

1. applesauce
2. kindling
3. seeing a two-digit temperature that starts with a "5" in the 5-day forecast
4. whatever that crazy-happy bird is in the rhododendron outside the living room window
5. movie night