I love Orion Magazine, and one of my favorite features is The Place Where You Live project, which provides readers with space to record their ideas about “place.”
Anyone can submit an entry, which I love. You don’t need to identify as a “real” writer, and–whoever you are–I highly encourage you to give it a go if you should feel so inclined.
“What connects you to your place? What history does it hold for you? What are your hopes and fears for it?”
When I wrote for it (quite a few years ago now), I liked the challenge of being limited to 350 words or less. I tend towards long-form writing (which is why it’s taking me a little longer to publish that “bigger” post I talked about last week), so I love the challenge of working within more constrained parameters.
Occasionally, some entries are selected for inclusion in future editions of Orion’s print magazine. Needless to say, I was delighted when my little piece was chosen to appear in their September/October 2014 issue, but today when I went searching for it to include in a copywriting job application, I discovered that there’s no longer a link for it online, which makes sense after so many years.
I have a print copy, but our scanner is on the blink. Luckily, I came across a website with a PDF of that issue. I include it here for no other reason than to make sure it doesn’t disappear again!
I hadn’t thought much about this essay in years. Six months after it was published, Ian and I found a few acres of woodland with a gentle creek and a wood stove, I learned how to plant snow peas and lots of other vegetables, and his parents brought their beehives to live with us when they moved from their home on the Oregon coast to the same condo in the city that we used to live in!
I love this memory of a time when a home just like ours was nothing but wishes and shapes in a concrete ceiling. But, after four years in the Willamette Valley, it’s high time I try to capture this (not so) new place where I live. Right this moment, I can’t imagine how I’ll manage it in such few words, but that’s the great puzzle of writing. This place has changed my life in so many unimaginable ways; it’s been my greatest joy and my greatest challenge. I’m not quite the same person who moved here, but I’m still the person who lies on the floor looking for patterns and things that look like other things.
More than two years have passed since I wrote my last post. I have always been an inconsistent and ambivalent blogger, in no small part because “blogger” is an inelegant, philistine, and silly-sounding word, and I will come up with the most trivial and haughty of excuses to not write.
Other excuses are less snobbish and more tender to the touch. Like many people, I have an acute case of imposter syndrome. When the internet is teeming with people more knowledgeable, more experienced, more original, more talented, and more authoritative than me, it’s hard to rationalize time spent scratching and poking at the keyboard with my witchy pointer fingers.
What do I have to offer? What do I have to say? So and so is already doing it better. I don’t really know anything that I didn’t learn from somebody else. Why would anyone care about or take the time out of their already saturated and over-stimulated life to listen to my thoughts and perspectives?
Etcetera, etcetera. Ad nauseam. Retch.
Still. In the past few weeks, I’ve felt the need to create some rituals and regular practices for myself. Nothing too Satanic, at least not yet. It’s just, I’ve been feeling (as I recurringly do) a little lost and directionless and, though it’s not very sexy, I’ve come to see that I thrive within routine and structure, do best with a list of doable things to be done on any given day.
A return to “blogging” may be unwise, uncouth, uncharacteristic, and largely unjustifiable from a “good use of one’s time” perspective, but it’s certainly doable, and in various ways that’s the criteria I’m working with right now.
A year ago this month, the company I worked for went out of business and I was suddenly, though not surprisingly, laid off from the pays-the-bills job I’d been whining about (while increasingly thankful for) for the previous five years.
Since then, I’ve been proofreading, copywriting, and (bizarrely) ghostwriting from home and, while I wouldn’t describe it as meaningful or creatively stimulating writing, I have learned a lot about writing and feel…not so much as though I’m moving forward professionally…but that I’m not moving backward or away from where I want to be, which I have done for so many of my thirty-eight years on this planet.
One of the more difficult lessons I’m (still) learning is around discipline and time-management. The client that I’m working for is flexible and doesn’t impose super strict deadlines. In the absence of a traditional boss or manager, I fall into periods of procrastination about the best way to proceed with a chapter, or find myself nitpicking over straightforward paragraphs, the work expanding to fill the available time for its completion and all that. It’s not that I lack a work ethic. It’s more that I’m allowing work to seep into my life and take up more time than it really needs to.
In short, though I feel I’m making significant strides in other ways, in the past few weeks I’ve fallen into an all-too-familiar pattern of working, eating, sleeping, and watching the occasional movie or TV show, and I need some things to do outside of freelancing (and gardening now that spring is finally here) that feel focused and purposeful. And yet, while there are so many many higher things that I want to do, or say I want to do, for some reason I don’t or can’t or simply shan’t do them.
This is, literally, the story of my life and the next thing that I’m going to set my sights on changing. Returning to my chronically neglected novel, and looking for more fulfilling work, will be the most significant change that I make; and returning to this blog will, I hope, also be a smaller part of that change.
And yet (surprise, surprise), I’ve been procrastinating about what to post for my first post. Or, to be more accurate, while I know, vaguely, what I want to write about, I’ve been procrastinating about the best way to do it, and am somewhat questioning why I feel the need to write about what I want to write about in the first place.
Two years is a long time. I feel as though some explanation is owed: a reason for my absence, or an account of what I’ve been up to, something to bridge the gap between then and now, and create a semblance of continuity. For some reason, I feel that nothing I will write or say in the future will make any sense unless you have an idea of what’s been going on with me the past two years. Which is an insufferably narcissistic, self-indulgent sentiment, salvaged only by the fact that there’s a good chance nobody will actually ever read this or any other post.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s best to postpone the “bigger” post I’ve been procrastinating on, and pause before diving headlong into details of my life or expanding, this second, on particular thoughts and topics. For now, I guess it’s enough to say that the last four (and especially the last two) years has been a period of challenge and great change. In some ways, nothing or very little is all that different; yet in other ways, everything has changed and I am not the person that I was four or even two years ago; and yet in still other ways, I feel as though I have never been more myself or that I’m finally, actually, the person that I’ve always been, this entire time.
Weird stuff. Contradictory. Dissonant. Tough to put into words and, no doubt, when I finally do get around to sharing the particular story I have in mind, it will be very anticlimactic and unremarkable to most readers.
For me, however, the transformation (for want of a better word) has been the most important of my life and opened up my world in the most marvelous and demanding ways. For maybe the first time in my life, I feel passionate and purposeful and, in spite of my previously mentioned misgivings, that not only do I have something to say but that I have a responsibility to use and raise my voice, regardless of whether others are doing it similarly and better or, indeed, whether anybody out there is listening or not.
For maybe the first time in my life, I feel passionate and purposeful and, in spite of my previously mentioned misgivings, that not only do I have something to say but that I have a responsibility to use and raise my voice, regardless of whether others are doing it similarly and better or, indeed, whether anybody out there is listening or not.
Perhaps that’s a good place to end this “begin again” post. I promise I won’t always write so obliquely. I’m not trying to be mysterious or confusing or evasive…at least not on purpose. It’s just hard for me to know quite where to begin when it’s been so long since I’ve written anything here, and when I’m conscious that I’m largely communicating with myself right now! In my next post, I’ll try to speak more plainly. But for now, after weeks and weeks of procrastinating about this post, I’m going to stop over-thinking it and simply press Publish.
On Sunday afternoon, I joined a hundred or so women in Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland. What began as an invitation to a small gathering in a friend’s living-room had expanded, within a week, into this bigger, sprawling, holy-seeming space with a stage and a ballroom, a balcony and curtained side-rooms, where we broke out into smaller groups to talk and listen and think and feel and share and organize.
A common cause connected us but, within that cause, our various and differing concerns and motivations nested like so many matryoshka dolls within the single, steeple-roofed space and, indeed, within our very selves. I helped at the check-in table and explained that, for logistical reasons, and to facilitate focused and meaningful conversation, everyone would have to select a single topic to participate in that day: Education, Gun Control, Immigration, LGBTQ rights, Healthcare and Reproductive Rights, and Energy and the Environment.
Their faces said it all as their pens hovered over the sign-up sheets. How to choose? Where to begin? How to prioritize when there is so much at stake and everything, everything, is so vital and urgent and cannot, cannot, wait?
Those who know me know that, these past couple of years, I have been grappling with Time: the ways in which I squander it and how, knowing those ways, will I live my days from here? Few would argue that ‘activism’ is a poor use of one’s time but, accepting that we cannot do everything there is to do, how do we decide what our activism will be and look like, how do we choose what to do, where do we place our time and energy, to which people, and in which place?
In which place?
I am not from here.
I am a Permanent Resident of the United States, though the cynic or Buddhist in me smiles whenever I hear the word ‘permanent’ or ‘united’. I sometimes think of myself as an Alien, feeling, as I often do, as though I am living on a strange planet, trying in vain and in pain and in anger and frustration to understand.
I was born and raised in Dublin. I am Irish. European. I am white. A few weeks ago, an older white woman engaged me on the bus. She was planning on voting for Trump and spoke at length about “those immigrants” and “those people”. I didn’t say much. I live in a progressive, tolerant, loving, echo chamber and was, frankly, fascinated to be talking to one of “those people,” but eventually I must have said something because she noticed my accent and asked me where I’m from. “I’m Irish,” I said. “Ohhhhh!” she said, her face lighting up the way people often do here when they hear that. “Yes,” I said, “I’m an immigrant.”
The woman’s smile faded and her eyes flickered in recognition at the trap I’d laid for her, a trap she stammered and stuttered her way out of, or tried to. A Latino man to our left smiled. It was a sweetish moment, in the moment, but I wonder now what he was smiling at. The old white woman and her racism and inconsistent thinking. Or the younger white woman and her cleverness and privilege. Both he and I know that I am not and never will be an ‘Immigrant’, and all that word implies.
In the days following the election results, unlike so many citizens, so many Americans, this pale alien could walk freely down the street and nobody was telling me to go home or that my time here was up. Unlike so many Americans, I was not harassed or intimidated or violently assaulted. Nobody looks at my face, my skin, my body and wants to end it, wills or wishes me out of existence. I get to make wry comments about permanence and the phrasing of my status but my status remains unquestioned and intact. I can play at being E.T., pointing my finger and saying, “America. Beeeee goooooood,” and pretend that I’m outside it all when, in fact, I am terribly within it and blend in all too well.
I get to say who and what I am. I have at least a dozen identities at my disposal. We all contain multitudes, but I get to live them and can be this thing before breakfast and this other thing after lunch and who will I be tomorrow and what will I do and where will I go?
I thought about it. I hunted out my Irish passport, put it in a safe spot.
It is an option, and it comforts me to know I have a place to run away to but then I think of Virginia Woolf and her words in the essay, Three Guineas.
“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Woolf was writing about the connection between patriarchy, war and fascism, and a patriotism that fights and kills for rights and freedoms that she, as a women, had not shared and probably would never share. But when I read it now in this globalized, highly interconnected world, it takes on another meaning and I see that there is no place to run to: that there is a link between America and that little Syrian boy and his face in the sand on a beach in Turkey; that there is a farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland who is under threat of being forcibly removed from his land to make way for the Orange Man’s luxury golf resort; that rising seas and famine and drought will come for all of us; that there is no place on earth that is untouched by the same forces of hatred and injustice and denial that we face in this place.
So, no. No going home. Going home is not an option because wherever I am, I am already there. And there is work to do inside of myself and right outside my front door.
I have a new story in The Stinging Fly. It’s about woodturners, sort of.
I haven’t done too much woodworking lately, not since last Spring when I finished my blanket chest. Our place is so small, there’s only so much room for another box, bowl, or coffee table. But some things from the past few years filtered into my story.
Like the woodpile at Ian’s parents’ home on the Oregon coast; the chalky cedary smell of woodshops; time spent in slow and patient purpose; bark, burl, rings; a little bowl I turned from some sweet-smelling apple; a tin helmet I saw when wandering around Portland one day; and this fog that won’t lift and makes me wonder is the world out there at all.
The Spring issue of The Stinging Fly looks beautiful, as ever, is available to order online, and will be in (Irish) bookshops very soon.
(My dream was that I was a sardine in a bait ball and you were a hammerhead, a great one.)
(My dream was that I was the last hermit crab and you were an old marmalade jar.)
(My dream was I was wandering in a narrow gorge with so very high cliff walls. Other people were also wandering in the gorge, but we did not speak to one another. I stood on the edge of a thin and silvery stream as a large iceberg sailed quietly by then stopped, stuck. Unable to pass, the once shallow water rose and rose and rose around the iceberg, still quiet, all was quiet. We, all of us, stood there and watched (the rising water, the so very high cliff walls). I don’t know what the other people were thinking or, if like me, they were both frightened and composed, patient, accepting. We did not speak to one another.)
(I woke up to pee and couldn’t get back into this one great dream.)
(My dream was just me roaring and shouting at her. At him. At them.)
(My dream is often a vast, silent wave. Nothing can prevent it.)
(My dream was my cat had a British accent.)
(My dream was I was a girl, dancing on my daddy’s shoes, holding on to the loops where his belt should go but when I looked up it was our old friend, Dave Franklin. He looked down surprised but happy to see me, said “Hi!”)
(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated on the www of late).
This Conversation between Dan Gunn and Lydia Davis at the wonderful Music & Literature.
This 1929 Soviet-era silent movie by Dziga Vertov, who once said: “I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”
Published a couple of years ago, but still – and maybe more so – relevant, Rebecca Solnit’s Diary in the London Review of Books meditates on the influence of technology and the quality of the time we spend in today’s day and age.
“A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing…. It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone.”
Solnit’s sentiments echo my own of late (though more beautifully and with considerably more clarity and conviction – I tend to vacillate between her perspective and one of the commenters who persuasively argues that Solnit is not the first in history to romanticize and misremember the reality of the past). Still, food for thought, and it nudged me into action concerning the way I do, and want to, spend my time. Day 2 of being Facebook-free and it feels okay!
Based on a couple of short stories I’ve read, I’m very excited about Irish writer Sara Baume’s forthcoming debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, from Tramp Press. Will certainly gush more about her another time. For now, though, I lately loved her little blog post documenting some artwork she made, and an installation of post-its titled All The Days I Did and Didn’t, while writing the novel.
I’ve also been seriously dreamy over the work of Mister Finch, a self-taught artist who sews delightful flora and fauna from vintage textiles. I want to fall down this lacy, threadbare rabbit hole and live in a world that looks like this:
There were other things, too, but these are the things I thought to share with you, whatever share means, whoever you are.
Forgive me, I am someone who seeks out synchronicity—that is, confirmation that I am where I am meant to be, in this exact moment in life and time.
It’s silly (is it?), but I need it (why?).
Last night, driving away from Portland, Ian turned the radio to a local station playing jazz. “Do you like jazz?” he asked. Almost ten years we have known each other, yet still some things to know and remain unknown. He told me about a college class he signed up for with this very radio station, a sort of internship where he’d learn the radio ropes and how to present a show, how he didn’t know anything about jazz and stayed up late at Powell’s reading and researching. But (alas, alack) it was one of those harsh winters and (oh, poor student) he didn’t have a car and wound up missing some classes and thus ended his career in local jazz radio before it had even begun. “Oh baby,” I laughed, “you could have been somebody.”
I was teasing, but it’s true—I think about it all the time: all the roads not taken or only half taken, all the somebodies we could have been and might still be. I can (and have) spend hours tracing back all the things that had to happen in order to find myself, here, now, in this place. And, though I am happy in this place, I am one of those people who can’t help seeking confirmation that all is as it should be, that there isn’t another place I’m supposed to be. Even the smallest of ‘signs’ can set me at ease for, oh, whole hours.
Last night, when we arrived back at the house we are watching for friends this month, the sky away from the city was clear and crisp. It has been so foggy lately and, so, we took a stroll up the back fields, in search of shooting stars. He saw three and I saw one and a bit. He deserved it. He gets up earlier than I do, works harder and longer, lights the fire before he leaves, leaves a teabag in a mug for me…
These things are important and real and good. And yet, I wake this morning thinking, Are we doing enough with our lives, should we be traveling or building or making, we should see more live music, we should write more, I should really learn an instrument—or to drive—I thought we’d have our Christmas shopping done by now, why do we procrastinate, are we wasting it, missing it, why did we just sit by the fire half the day?
And then, as it seems to go, I stumble across some words that still me, that seem to have been written in the stars for me, today, this morning, when thoughts and anxieties shoot and fire and fizzle across the fearful, doubtful spaces of my mind. A small synchronicity, a poem by Galway Kinnell, makes me forget the creeping daytime thoughts and focus on last night, and all those times in which we are great, and happy, as long as we are arm in arm and looking up.
On the Frozen Field
We walk across the snow,
The stars can be faint,
The moon can be eating itself out,
There can be meteors flaring to death on earth,
The Northern Lights can bloom and seethe
And be tearing themselves apart all night,
We walk arm in arm, and we are happy.
You in whose ultimate madness we live,
You flinging yourself out into the emptiness,
You—like us—great for an instant,
His was among the first American poetry I read as a teenage girl (apart from the obligatory Robert Frost of my childhood schooling). I was looking for Answers and Alternatives and poetry often pointed the way into and out of myself.
In true teenage fashion, I especially sought those words I could appropriate for my own emotionally exaggerated ends. My seventeen year old self got some good melancholy mileage out of poems like Keeping Things Whole:
KEEPING THINGS WHOLE
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
I remember Strand’s Elegy For My Father was particularly impactful too, especially this second section of the long poem. It rendered the complexities and contradictions of truth—the truth of truth—which my sixteen year old self intuited but could not yet articulate (still often can’t).
Why did you travel? Because the house was cold.
Why did you travel? Because it is what I have always done between sunset and sunrise.
What did you wear? I wore a blue suit, a white shirt, yellow tie, and yellow socks.
What did you wear? I wore nothing. A scarf of pain kept me warm.
Who did you sleep with? I slept with a different woman each night.
Who did you sleep with? I slept alone. I have always slept alone.
Why did you lie to me? I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me? Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.
Why are you going? Because nothing means much to me anymore.
Why are you going? I don’t know. I have never known.
How long shall I wait for you? Do not wait for me. I am tired and I want to lie down.
Are you tired and do you want to lie down? Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down.
Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down. Wherever I am I am what is missing.
Who was that teenage girl? I can barely remember. But I know those words were my truth, that I found a mirror and comfort in them. I needed them then in a way that I can barely feel or fathom anymore. And perhaps they are the reason I no longer need them with such intensity, if that makes sense. They got me to a different place, a place where they wouldn’t be needed so much, or needed for other reasons. Those lines mean something different to me now and their meaning will change again and again, though they remain the same.
Thanks be to poetry. Thanks be to words and the writers who write them, knowing we might yet still need them long after they are gone. Thank you Mr. Strand.
LINES FOR WINTER
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.