To the finches that dart
among the bare branches of the plum tree,
ravaging the pale pink blossoms
for the nectar inside them;
to the trio of deer
that move across my lawn at night,
and with their silent muzzles
nip the tender buds from my agapanthus;
to the honey bees coated
with golden pollen
from surfing the dahlia flowers,
I only want to say:
I am sorry for what we’ve taken.
You are blameless, beautiful,
so good at being alive.
The two of us sitting on a sun-warmed rock,
my back against your chest,
your arms around my waist,
waves spilling over the sand,
bits of shell and glistening stones,
two white gulls sailing past,
a fishing boat in the distance.
Each piece of the day
I remember it still,
thirty-eight years later,
an instant of happiness
eclipsing all else,
as if love is born in a rush,
new each time,
altering the world,
then sending us back
to live like the mortals we are.
I recently wrote a post called “Tough Love—A Few Words on Rejection” in which I compared submitting manuscripts to raising children. There is the pride we feel, the apprehension, the shared pain, the lengths we go to in our abiding love.
But that’s just the beginning. Once our children find homes—whether through our efforts or a publisher’s—we must function as literary soccer moms: organizing the launch, attending the readings, trolling for reviews, reaching out to libraries and local bookstores, paying for incidentals. And don’t even get me started on the time spent creating what is referred to as an author platform. I’m not certain what this is, but it seems to involve thousands of social media followers as well as marketing expertise, previous sales, a robust readership and throngs of industry contacts.
Remember when publishers arranged and paid for everything? Me neither. But it must have been something to be a writer in the 50s, when authors like Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, E.B. White and Kurt Vonnegut were wined and dined and generally treated like royalty. Of course they were unarguably gifted, but even lesser known talents could depend on their publishers to procure an audience and offer fair compensation for the hard work of writing.
Book promotion is never finished, I’ve been assured, and who would disagree that books, especially sidelined genres like literary fiction, don’t fly off the shelves and doubtless benefit from regular cheerleading. Unfortunately, it takes a certain type of personality—optimistic, buoyant, outgoing—to succeed at marketing, and most writers are not comfortable in that arena. I know I’m not. I get clammy just posting a story link on my Facebook author page, afraid that readers are tired of hearing from me, or worse, not listening at all.
I’ll admit it: I’m weary of the circuit. I’ve written one novel, two story collections and a book of nature essays, and while I don’t begrudge the years I’ve spent on their welfare, I’m ready for some time to myself. You can find my four children on Amazon, in paperback or digital form, just a keystroke away from ownership (the same technology that has devalued our work has made it instantly available). My books have not changed the world, but they do represent my greatest effort. I think we earn our lives by giving the world whatever gifts we have, regardless of how they’re received.
I spent my childhood looking at bugs, trees, clouds, stars, frogs. I want to go there again. I want to break away from the tyranny of this computer and collect fall leaves, make a miniature diorama, hunt for fossils. My books are leading quiet lives of their own and can carry on without me; indeed I’ve not been much help to them. Maybe, freed of my worry and angst, they will make their own connections, surprise me yet. In any case, they could never disappoint me.
We have an abundance of book clubs and writing groups. Maybe there should be support groups for weary book parents. Comrades, you are not alone.
Thomas Mann wrote that a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Could there be a better definition? While others use words to communicate, writers understand that words hold greater magic, that when pieced together in just the right combination, words give us passage into our deepest selves. We write to discover what we know. We write to set ourselves free.
I often think of words as blackbirds wheeling above a wire. I know I can coax them down; I’ve done it before. I know they will settle into a tidy line, and that this line, while not perfect, will at least be coherent. As I am no Shakespeare, this process will take an absurd amount of time, and some of the birds will have to be shifted around many times. Eventually I’ll recognize that I have exhausted my potential, which is when I stop and click save. One more idea wrested into words, one more swipe at the great mystery. Tom Stoppard wrote: “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
Others might pity writers, might call it tyranny, this compulsion to hunt down the meaning of our experiences. Why isn’t living enough for us? I don’t know. I need to write about that.
How peaceful it must be to be done with each day when the day is done. All this sifting and sieving, this endless analyzing—I can’t say I’m any happier for the effort I’ve expended (nor a penny richer, but that’s another blog). And many times I wind up with nothing. Words are tools and sometimes they come up short, sometimes they fail me. Or I fail them.
Scant recognition. Slight compensation. Dubious value. Impossible odds.
Life is short. Mine will be over long before I’ve learned how to live it. You’d think I’d just stop this mad chase. Go play. Have fun.
Maybe I will. After.
Spooky, isn’t it,
when you pull into your driveway
and realize you don’t remember the trip,
not one light or turn or stop sign.
While you argued with yourself, heedless to hazards,
your mind, loyal as a dog, brought you home.
For something we carry around every day,
we don’t know much about the brain.
How can a wad of lumpy grey tissue
run the show?
Do our fears and memories live in its folds?
When we sleep,
how can that cold blackness inside our skulls
create the smell of bacon,
a sun-spangled lake,
How are we fooled night after night,
dropped inside a carnival world,
made to do unspeakable things?
For whose amusement do we perform?
“Where are my glasses?” we say to ourselves,
as if we are speaking to someone else,
a steadfast companion forged at birth.
Just a little bigger
than two clenched fists,
the brain is a riot of neurons:
100 billion twitchy cells,
each one connected
to thousands of others
in a tireless bombardment
of electricity and chemicals.
I picture it as a city.
A crisscross of streets
with lights and signs
controlling the traffic,
some roads well worn,
one ways that limit us,
dead ends that stop us.
There are places we frequent,
shadowy neighborhoods we avoid,
here and there
a rousing new enterprise.
Aim for the horizon
or stay on the tracks—
it’s your life,
at least for a while,
until all the streets
begin to look strange,
one after another
going dark and quiet,
leaving you stranded
in perfect stillness.
Home at last.
Who am I to voice your grief?
I who lost nothing in the fires but sleep,
eight days of work.
You were left without a home.
Four bedrooms, two baths, the kitchen
you remodeled with cherry cabinets
and black granite counters.
It was like being in a jewelry box, you said.
There was your grandfather’s writing desk,
with its curved legs and tiny hidden drawers.
The long dining room table,
born from trees in Finland.
I could never resist running my hand
over its smooth hollows.
Paintings, small sculptures, photos from your travels.
That leopard in the tree, a red sun behind him.
You won an award for that.
That gorgeous mantle your daughter carved.
A year of her life went into it.
Not just burned up—swallowed, mangled,
the fire an immense maw,
roaring down the mountain
faster than a man could run.
They had to paint street names on what was left
so that people could find where their homes had been.
First a roof, then the rest: food, plates, cups, clothes, soap.
Your needs are savage, you see that now.
You cannot live on art, books, a priceless mantle,
though a part of you still knows they matter.
What shall I buy you?
A coat? A set of dishes? A Safeway giftcard?
Or something else,
some beautiful useless thing
you will turn to again and again.
Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see the earth from space. One astronaut was fascinated by the way he could raise a thumb to the window and block out his home—the oceans, the rain forests, the Sahara, the Alps. Seven continents and eight billion people: there, gone, there again.
I could never do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space. I can trust my body to freeways, airplanes, certain medications and surgeries, but no way am I leaving the atmosphere. I thought it was odd that none of the astronauts used the word “panic” in describing the sight of earth through a porthole. A single glitch and their space ship could become space junk. They must not reflect on that; their minds, like their bodies, must be in excellent shape.
What they did mention was how organic the world appears, a blue ball of ever-flowing energy, with swirling storms and flashes of lightning. They spoke of the planet’s stunning fragility, the “paper thin” layer of atmosphere barely hugging the surface—our only protection from cosmic destruction. There was footage of the damage we’ve done, the scars and erosions and clear-cutting so evident from the clarity of space.
Out there, the sun is not the sun as we know it, not the dependable orb that gloriously rises and sets, but just a star, one of billions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, is an imponderable bit of luck.
The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be out there, in that black forever, is to see infinity. And to see the earth from this other-worldly place is to see its plight. There it somehow is, the blue planet, our only home in the universe. One of the astronauts used the term “Spaceship Earth,” because that is how he sees us, a vast crew with one destiny. Scientists call this perception of oneness the “overview effect.” It does not dawn on you gradually, the astronauts attest. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One. And unless we start acting like it, unless we pull together and work as one, we will wreck the only ship we have.
When these travelers return from space, the transition cannot be easy. Finding themselves back on earth, their first reaction is probably relief—the shuttle held together. They must stumble around a bit, trying to get their land legs back after floating in a vacuum. Gravity must feel like a weight. Some astronauts spend half a year above the earth; what happens to their bodies when they land—do six months of wrinkles appear all at once? Do they feel the pull of the planet when they walk?
But what I really want to know is how they manage later, when they are fully restored and back in their Nikes and Nissans. What do they think of war, the stock market, hair loss, teeth whitening, reality TV? When they look up into the night sky, are they homesick? And when they walk among us, having seen the big picture, are they lonely?