Thursday, March 25, 2010

A wild night.

These are Mary Oliver’s words from The Journey:

It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

These are mine:

It was October, 1987, the evening was dark and dense with rain and wind. What had started as a gentle breeze was now the Great Storm that dragged dustbins across gardens, uprooted trees and sent branches flying. Roof tiles littered the air. Across an ocean my dear father-in-law was rushed off to hospital with a stroke, destruction lingered in our house as a bad smell. That is when I felt the pain. It started somewhere in my lower back and continued full circle. Soon I set off for hospital myself.

But my pain was a good one. After some hours of pushing, pressing, sweating and breathing a boy lay peacefully in my arms, sucking.

I have often wondered about this: When you are surrounded by darkness, are you allowed to laugh? And whilst giggling and having fun, can you stop for a moment to feel the pain?

And yes, he was fine. My father-in-law I mean. We are off tomorrow, across an ocean, to visit him and his dear, dear wife.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Though the wind pried with its stiff fingers.

Is there comfort in company?

These are lines from Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey:

though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

So I gather Mary Oliver knows something about struggling at fundamental levels.

As I have repeated the words over and over, I have asked myself this - does my basic need for company and mutual sharing stretch into the area of suffering? If I am in pain, am I comforted by yours?

Hard questions to answer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The whole house began to tremble.

I wrote yesterday that I know Mary Oliver’s The Journey by heart.

Well, I don’t.

I sat down on the edge of the bath this morning, reciting the poem aloud. My husband was shaving, I was rolling on those black tights, ready for an hour's walk in the rain.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,

Did I? Do I know what I have to do? At least I didn’t remember the next sentence. There is something about reciting in public, though the audience could be just a single man. A man, I must add, whom I have know for years. And years.

There is something about bringing words into the public space. They might sound just perfect when held in the privacy of your own mind. But once they slip past the threshold of your lips, you don’t always trust them.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Round and Round. Over and Over. Again and Again.

This morning I didn’t need my usual little cheat sheet with Mary Oliver’s The Journey. As I walked through the park, my feet careful to keep their balance in the sludgy snow turned ice, I recited the whole poem without a single stop. I have read the lines over and over, I have whispered them, visualized them, walked them, talked them. By now I know them by heart.

There is something about repetition. It makes for a more frictionless thinking and doing. For better or worse. I know all about bad habits.

But good habits are also the product of repetition. For how many times can you say “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began”, before you start taking notice? Imagine a poetic washing machine. You throw in a slightly stained idea, and give it the the full cycle: soap, water, rinse and spin. Round and round and round. Till it is tumbled dry and ready to wear again.

I am probably somewhere in the soap cycle, stains still there, but One Day I Finally Knew What I Had to Do. The more I repeat the words, the more I understand what they mean. Practice has a voice of its own.

In the book “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talents and IQ Is Wrong”, David Shenk talks about genes and talent and nature and nurture. The old story. Yet with a twist. “It turns out that the genetic instructions themselves are influenced by other inputs,” Shenk writes. “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.”

So what is pure genes, and what counts for the effort you put into developing whatever you want to develop? Shenk tells the story of baseball legend Ted Williams who was “one in a million, widely considered the most “gifted” hitter of his time.” Yet it turns out he practiced hitting that ball morning, midday and evening till his hands were bleeding. "His whole life was hitting a ball," recalls a boyhood friend. "He always had that bat in his hand.”

I have kept a poem in my hand and my mind for some time now. Does it change anything? Is it like hitting that ball? Will practice help me reach the target?

“Ted just had that natural ability,” said a fellow sportsman. “Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive,” said another. Williams himself insisted otherwise. “Nothing except practice, practice, practice will bring out that ability,” he explained. “The reason I saw things was that I was so intense....It was (super) discipline, not super eyesight.”

The mystery still exists though, for where did all that determination come from, the dedication, the discipline?

I will keep walking. I will keep breathing Mary Oliver’s lines. I will practice, practice, practice.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

About habits. And beginnings.

There is something about habits.

I have just resurrected an old habit of stepping into my blue walking shoes first thing in the morning. No slumber (well....), no shower, no breakfast. Out you go, girl! This is March, the mornings have opened their eyes again. When I stopped my healthy morning habit last autumn, the sun was far more lazy than me. It was just too dark.

There is something about habits. They make you do it, whatever the “it” is. This morning rain tapped on the roof, the air was gray and misty. I still tied my shoe laces. The habit told me to.

Inside my coat pockets, together with tissues and old cinema tickets are little scraps of paper, crinkled and creased from wear and tear. They are my walking poems, my dialogue partners and company, and speak with me through layers of cloth, skin and bone. Some whisper with intensity, others shout with gentle sounds.

I am reading Mary Oliver’s The Journey these days. When I say days, I mean the plural. The words speak wonder, but they need time to penetrate my skull and that brain bark that surrounds my mind.

There is something about habits. I have bad habits as well, and one in particular called anxiety. It runs as a darkened river through the landscape of my existence. In times yonder the reason for acquiring it was real enough. But as habits go, I internalized the experience and turned it into automatic thinking. It sounds simple. It is not. I could write libraries about it.

This blog is about poetry and how to let words speak their power by introducing new voices into my life. Voices, I might add, that I also recognize as my own. We all come from the same waters.

“One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,...”, writes Mary Oliver. I have repeated the line over and over. One day. I finally knew. What I had to do. And began.

This blog is also a beginning.