In the Gym

It all started when I met Walt Whitman in the gym. I was stretching my legs and had been for some time when he spoke. “Looks as though those legs of yours could do just about anything, now.” He was right. I’d been stretching like I was going to run a marathon, but here I was, all alone in this gym, with an old man watching me and making comments. “Why aren’t you out doing a poetry reading or something?” I asked him, and he said he was tired of people complaining when he put pauses where they didn’t want them. He said it was his poetry, so he could read it like sweaters falling off of hangers if he wanted, right? Then he looked around with an air of resignation and said that maybe he wasn’t in the right business. Maybe he should be a guidance counselor instead.

<!–My middle school gym, in fact. The very worst possible gym.–>

This was a dream I had after transcribing everything I’d ever written (that I still had) into what turned out to be a 500-page Word document.  The transcribing was actually a very good exercise: it taught me that even though I thought I quit writing I actually had been writing all along–only in the form of letters, dreams, papers (for the English degree), and fits and starts, constipated-but-earnest bits in many notebooks over the years. I was no George Eliot, but I was a writer.

These were good things to learn. The problem was, I started to think that this 500-page monster in a box (<3) was actually a book. A publishable book. It’s a dear document to me, and has many seeds and even flowerings, but god help the person who delves there alone and unaided by my memories and personal interest.

Besides letting me know he was a bit exasperated with me, what ol’ Walt was saying was, I had long been ready to go out and actually write. On purpose. In the open. Making time for it and not letting anyone or anything interfere with that time. Not bitchy (unless necessary)–just protective. I kept stretching my legs though, thinking about writing but not doing it. Immersing myself in snippets but never making them into anything.

And you know, that’s OK. I could enjoy my writing as a little hobby I dabble in but never get too serious about, and the absence of my voice would not make the Universe cease. Living life well and having loving interactions with people: cooking good food, drinking wine, enjoying a movie or a play or a concert, taking care of business, and going on this way day after day, year after year–these are all very good things and a life thus lived is a good life. But I’ve fought  through isolation that was some times impenetrable by humans, most times no human wanted to penetrate. Time spent unable to connect in a meaningful way with anyone in my life. Luckily, I found connection through other aspects of life: nature, animals, stories, poems, music, movies, art…

The marks left by others have saved me, and because I desire to communicate my experiences and see how they fit in with the larger picture –into life and humanity and what we’re doing here– I feel the responsibility to leave marks, too. Just in case these words bring even one person succor or light or direction or any of the numberless ways we humans make meaning to sustain ourselves on the journey.

∞ ∞ ∞

Walt Whitman saved me, right at the point where all the work I’d been doing underground was ready to come out and show its pale green face to the sun.

I was a 22-year-old mother, grocery cashier, wife of a warehouse worker barely getting by in a cheap, cat-piss smelling apartment when I saw Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams was funny–a lovably and even adorably clueless Mork–but in DPS he became this teacher who had honey on his tongue and made you want to truly find out what it is to live your life. I believed him, and every bit of that movie. Afterward, I thought I remembered we had a book of Whitman on the shelf, went to look and found it. When I took it out the binding opened to “On the Beach at Night Alone,” and I stood there reading it, transfixed. It is very difficult to tell you what that did to me, reading it the first time, without telling you a whole lot of other things too. So I’ll have to suffice with…it validated a view of the world I’d experienced, but before that moment almost nowhere else had I found evidence others had also experienced it that way. I’d lucked across a paragraph or so in a Carl Jung book, but other than that, I knew nothing yet of the vast and rich conversation that has been going on for 30,000 years give or take a few.

Whitman was my constant companion from then on, for at least six months. I took him everywhere–even in my pocket at work, to be pulled out for every ten-minute break. My fear–the ever-present social phobia–subsided for the time. This all started in April, and the following January I was registering for classes at Broome Community College–standing on that gym floor covered in blue-taped lines and arrows, a voice in my head telling me the fuck up, me the mental patient, me the ragamuffin delinquent daughter I should leave before I throw up. Then one of my soon-to-be professors came up to me and looked at the classes I wanted.

Transformations of Myth Through Time

The class he thought he was teaching.

He said, “I think I’m teaching that one,” pointing to a class listed on the paper, which was just weird enough to jolt me out of my fear, and then he showed me the line I needed. I got through, got my classes, and didn’t throw up even once. Turns out literature, not psychology, was what I needed. Stories and poems, myths, and my professors up there, leading the conversation. I loved the conversation, hungered for it, and semester by semester came back to humanity–my own and the human spirit that contains all.

So Whitman, and Robin Williams, saved my life. Along with a whole lot of others who decided to tell their stories when they could easily have kept them to themselves.

Now, since October or so, I’ve shyly been voyaging out, writing in the open. Put something out there, then run and hide. Put something out there again, run and hide. But it’s OK. It’s OK to take it slow, I tell myself, stretching some more. I’m figuring this out.

For now…

I had a forceful intuition this morning that came on with all the common sense of a parent making the decision to change her child’s poopy diapers–they’re dirty, change ’em–or put her child to bed–he’s really freaking tired and needs to go to sleep so I’ll put him to bed, even if he’s screaming. What prompted this forceful intuition (wait for it…) was a questionnaire sent to me by the Democratic Party. This questionnaire, among other things, wanted to know whether I agreed with several of President Obama’s plans, including:

  • a plan to take executive action on issues that Republicans refuse to bring to a vote, such as immigration,
  • a plan to increase the minimum wage,
  • a plan to make it possible for more American workers to earn sick time and family leave,
  • a plan to close the wage gap and ensure women receive equal pay,
  • a plan to close tax loopholes and to simplify the tax code so that corporations and the ultra-wealthy will pay their fair share,
  • a plan that will allow American workers to gain the modern job skills necessary to compete in the global economy,
  • a plan to reduce carbon pollution, accelerate the development of clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and invest in sustainable and resilient infrastructure projects to prepare for the effects of climate change, and
  • a plan to provide a community college education to any American who is willing to work for it.

Well, sure, I said to myself. I agree with all of these things–except maybe the one to prepare for the effects of climate change, because I’d damned well rather reverse the effects of climate change instead. But it is good to be prudent and prepare for all eventualities I suppose, and our infrastructure is in any case in dire need of attention. So yes, I agree in theory with all of these things, but what exactly are these plans–what do they really say and how does Obama propose to carry them out? I was discussing this with my dear mate when the intuition bubbled up out of me: What actually needs to happen is to call a complete halt to anything but the absolute necessary functions of human life on this planet. Call a halt to production of unnecessary goods, call a halt to polluting, call a halt to everything but the bare minimum necessary to sustain humanity–then figure this the fuck out.

First, help Nepal get back on its feet, clean up the war zones, feed all the people and make sure everyone has clean water and adequate shelter. Get everyone–everyone— to the point of level two at least of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. That gives everyone at least the level of safety to work from.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Source: WikiPedia (Yes, I know, I really should donate. I will donate.)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Source: WikiPedia (Yes, I know, I really should donate. I will donate.)

Then we can figure out what to do about the massive mess we have made on Planet Earth, the only home we have in the vast reaches of space. It’s time to change the poopy diapers. It’s time to put overtired children to bed and be the adults.

Because otherwise this is all too slow. It’s too damned slow and government is made up of people who are in the business of trying to maintain the status quo as much as possible so as not to ruffle the feathers of those who keep them in office by giving them campaign contributions. In this state of affairs change is glacial, and we end up watching a bad, neverending football game in which the Republicans gain ground, then lose it to the Dems, who lose it to the Republicans, and back and forth ad nauseum. If indeed Obama has plans for these things, which I hope he does, he will never realize them in this system as it stands. All it is is more talk, when what we need is positive action.

Action that can be taken only by the people. If we wait around for government or, god forbid, corporations, to do what is necessary and right, we and our children and grandchildren will be living in a much more severe nightmare than the current one, and it will be our own fault. But it is so easy to be lulled into doing nothing, for we have been raised, like cattle on a CAFO, to be corn-fed, docile, unthinking, and powerless. Twelve years sitting in school, preparing to “earn a living” in a society that dispenses ever-decreasing returns to those who support it. We are conditioned to be afraid and conformist, and most of us are too tired at the end of each day for much more than a highball (or choose your poison) and a televised something or other.

But this isn’t what we are alive to do and be. The other night, on my way to see Night of the Iguana at the Albany Civic Theater with my two grown sons, I drove by a community garden in the middle of the city. It was a lovely, warm evening and people of all ages were out, talking to each other and digging in the earth. It felt so right to be with my funny, intelligent sons on our way to community theater, passing by community gardeners. It felt true and right, and nourishing.

It is this I put forth: not that we should take it upon ourselves to do a great something and change the world, but to do many and sustained small participatory somethings and thereby, seemingly without effort, through the actions of all of us, change the world. Feed those in your reach, be kind, think about whether your actions–what you eat, what you buy, what you do for a living–participate in the harm of other living beings. Change what you can, simplify your life, find out what is essential to you and stay close to that, leaving the rest. What is essential won’t be the same for everyone, and that is good…that helps keep the balance.

If we all, or even a majority, or even 50 percent of us did this, we could stop the runaway train we are on, and give ourselves time to come up with solutions. If we did this, the solutions would likely come about naturally and inevitably, like spring after a long, cold winter.

La Llorona

Deep in the black velvet ooze
At the bottom of the saltwater cavern,
I found her weeping for her children.

Her weeping makes her monstrous.

Mothers warn their young ones away
And secretly worry
about where choices have led them–
About the salt in their blood.

I see her

Raw fingers raking the sludge,
so long from giving love.
My hands ache and sweat;
I taste my death but cannot look away.

Her hollow eyes focus on me and the time is fulfilled.

I kneel in front of her,
Take her hands to my breast,
And kiss her wide mouth long and full.

8.21.02

I Stop

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.
~Walt Whitman

[Context: I had run away from home (for a week. yes I did set a time limit. mother of two after all–maybe not the best, but the only one.) because pretty much everything I had built my world on–my belief in what was the right way, who were the right people…the right according to everything I’d been fed and swallowed (or rebelled against and paid for dearly)–had fallen in rubble to the ground. Bad scene but also a chance to pick and choose what you’ll build with this time. If you can survive. (Which you can.)]

 

∞ ∞ ∞

Brand-new, clean notebook. All possibilities exist here. I love paper, and it hardly costs a thing. This 70-page, spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook cost 25¢ at Wal-Mart. It is one of the best-kept secrets of our time.

My feet are speckled with gray, the rim around my toenails black. I have a black smudge on my calf, just below a freckle, which is itself below the scar that is a reminder to me of Albert…nope–can’t remember his last name. Italian. Started with a C. These marks on my calf form a constellation–an anchor, perhaps. Here I sit, on my eldest son’s camp chair, up in the North Country. Sharp Bridge Campground, 40 sites and the cleanest bathroom I’ve ever had the pleasure of using while camping.

I wanted to write a little before doing the dishes, even though it will get dark soon. So much of my life is spent going, doing, or planning on going and doing that I almost never get the chance to just sit and daydream, or notice the activities of the little ones–worms, ants. A giant bug flew into my campsite this afternoon–I heard it rather than saw it at first–a dark humming, more bass than bee, and when I caught the movement that went with the sound I was prepared to get nervous if this creature did not go soon. But then it stopped moving and hovered in the air for a moment; it looked at me and I smiled and said, “Ahh! a hummingbird. Thank you.”

Ugly Duckling

Now I float upon the cool water,
My webbed feet gently keeping me true
As I breathe and come to.

Here I am upon the calm water~
The ungraceful dance,
Frantic footwork to be what I am not,
Is over.

In the distance swans take flight:
Recognition leaps in my heart
And my wings give a sympathetic shake.

Now, here, I am what I am.
My webbed feet paddle the cool water,
Moving me forward, swift and sure

Until yearning meets with knowing,
And I unfold large, beautiful wings
That carry the drumming of my heart
Across the years and vast deserts I have traveled.

In a moment,
Through a flurry of sun-kissed water,
I am airborne,
Flying to meet my mates.

Sharp Bridge Campsite, August 2002

It dawns on me that I have a tendency to expect too much from people. More specifically, I expect them to be “better” than I am–more enlightened, more understanding, more generous. I don’t expect this from everybody, but I do tend to expect this from those I admire, and often from those whom I love.

Sharp Bridge Campground

Sharp Bridge Campground in North Hudson, NY. Photo by Michael Lechasseur.

It is the morning after an afternoon and evening of rain. Every patch of sky I see supplies a crisp blue outline for the pine needles way up there. Long streams of sunlight lay upon the ground, flowing and shimmering when a breeze moves the trees. The white pines grow cathedrallike here–columns shooting straight up to the fronds at top. Steam rises from the ground and the trunks. We are all glad for the rain. We all need it deep down and often. And it does make the sunshine so sweet.

Thought

I hope that the raggedness can be overlooked as one would overlook dirt on a child or wrinkles on a beloved grandmother. It is life I want to see here, to communicate. It is messy and beautiful.

People

My kryptonite and my lifeline. What I think people think I should be or am, and fighting against it. Meeting people and exchanging various forms of love, nourishing each another, often in the most ordinary places (passing a stranger on the sidewalk and sharing a smile). I’m lucky to tread a balance, but often stray into hopeless entanglement with my need to label everything and tell myself what it means. To grab hold of it and make it something instead of letting it be whatever it is.

The trick is to always stand on your own two feet–to always know where you are and engage from there, instead of trying to figure out where the other person is and act from that imagined place.

The trick is doing it not just writing about it.

My two feet.

My two feet.