I had thought myself frail

Nuhlimkilaka – Koskimo (likely in Quatsino Sound, Island of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada). Kwakiutl person wearing an oversize mask and hands representing a forest spirit, Nuhlimkilaka (“bringer of confusion”). Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, ca. 13 November 1914. (via)

15 March 2017
06:02 PM
Manila, Philippines

Dear M. —

1.
I remember my grandfather and the day he died. Seeing his last breath leave his body was one of the most excruciating moments of my life. Seeing my father howl with pain rendered me helpless and powerless.

The days that followed were surreal: accepting the absence of a person you loved is a difficult task, but one we must all do. I not only felt weak in the knees—I felt it all the way to my soul. That hollowness.

2.
I am thirty-one today. It’s nothing extraordinary—more like a quiet settling, inside myself. Knowing I’m older. Thinking I’m beginning another decade, which will hopefully see myself grow more into the person I hoped to be. I’m melancholy but also anxious, and I’ve yet to get to the bottom of these feelings.

Have you ever wondered about the self you leave behind as you age? Do you ever revisit your past dreams and concerns? And what do you make of them?

3.
I think of my grandfather and the life he’s lived. If I’m being honest, his death, no matter how shattering, was his greatest lesson to me. He taught me how to find the thread of grace amidst the grief. I got to know the recesses of sorrow, but I also wrote through that, and what a gift.

4.
Here is a poem, one of the many that I’ve read during hard times:

from Fragment Forty
H.D.

I had thought myself frail;
a petal,
with light equal
on leaf and under-leaf.

I had thought myself frail;
a lamp,
shell, ivory or crust of pearl,
about to fall shattered,
with flame spent.

I cried:
“I must perish,
I am deserted,
an outcast, desperate
in this darkness,”
(such fire rent me with Hesperus,)
then the day broke

5.
I wonder what tomorrow brings. What this new year has in store for me. Do I feel nervous? Yes. But I’m hoping I have enough grit, I have enough grace. The thing about weakness is that it’s energy, too. That it can be transformed into something useful, into a thing that belongs to you.

Yours,
T.

Advertisements

Again, Isolated


12th November 2016

T. —

Question two: What’s one thing that’s happened to you in your life that has made you feel weak?

I have to put this out there: I hate the interview question about weaknesses. “What’s your biggest weakness?” I hate it mostly for the sake of the way we have to contort our answers to make us look somewhat positive in spite of talking about perceived weaknesses. Which means that our weaknesses are never actually honest.

“Oh, you know. I care too much.”

“I work too hard.”

*

Just like the only thing we fear is fear itself, the only things that can make me feel weak are not acknowledging the honesty of my perceived weaknesses. 

When I tend towards stress, I forget to eat. That’s a carryover from my relationship with food in high school. Every time stress approaches, I forget. I honestly don’t see it coming. Until I’m in the middle of the situation, and eating consistent meals takes tremendous effort and attention.

I see a lot of patterns that others don’t see. Which means that I often anticipate work that needs to get done, or things that need to be picked up, assignments that need to be completed. Trends between things that need to be stitched together. I always end up thinking: Because I’m the one who sees it, I’m the one who will have to do it.

I do other people’s work before my own.

I have a weakness in my own awareness of my body. I forget I am a physical being. I am a thinking being, always. Sometimes it eclipses my physical experience.

I get distracted by my own interests. I want to grow skills in so many areas that it can be an immense challenge to rein myself in. To focus.

I get impatient and frustrated when people don’t listen properly. To myself, to other people, to things they’re saying. That all-too-easily moves over into judgment, and I don’t want to do that. I just want to encourage and teach people how to have better conversations. Which means I often have to bypass the frustration and impatience.

I lose myself in books. I sell my heart to books. I escape the world through books. This is often my greatest strength, but the balance of life is in its shadow side. And this absolutely, hands down, has a shadow side. A removal. A denial. An isolation. 

I forget that weaknesses eventually strengthen, that new cracks form, that growth begets entirely different obstacles. I forget to stay vigilant. I forget to change the style of my observations and self-reflections. I forget. I forget the patterns. I forget to recognise things, and I forget to question. 

Which sounds insane to anyone who knows me. Because clearly I pattern, I reflect, and I question during most waking hours of my life.

I have a weakness for creative partnerships. Feeling like I don’t have an active participation in that kind of partnership makes me feel… antsy. Jealous. 

Again, isolated. When alone, that kind of lonely, my mind runs circles around me. And it’s not good for anyone.

I have a strong weakness that tends towards isolation and independence. It has taken me decades to work out how to befriend, how to develop relationships, how to deepen them, how to grow them, how to give them space and let them live.

The juggling of all of these weaknesses, predilections, desires — over the years, these have grown into the roots of all paths I take.

More soon,

M

Seeing and Retelling

New art at HoliCOW, Cebu

New art at HoliCOW, Cebu

2 May 2016
11:50 PM
Cebu, Philippines

M.–

Hopped on a plane again, and now I am here in Cebu. It’s a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Manila, and another place which has charmed me ever since I visited it for the first time last year. K. and M. live here, too. We all went to the same university together.

The first thing I did after checking in at the hotel was to get a cab that would take me to HoliCOW. A portmanteau for Holistic Coalition of the Willing, it is a group of furniture designers concerned with sustainability and innovation. Their art gallery/pop-up furniture store is one of my favourite spaces to date. K., my darling friend, is one of the founders. I was so excited to see new art; I just felt so warm inside. It’s about discovery, yes, but also that lovely feeling you have when you see creativity at work. There’s so much talent here in Cebu, and I guess you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I have thought about moving here, too. I wanted to be surrounded by this kind of energy; it makes your blood sing.

I told them all about my trip to Hanoi, but we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. Then there’s the weaving of our stories and ideas, which somehow always end up about poetry and life and furniture design and art and the universe—you know how it is. K. is a poet, too, and M. is a graphic designer/illustrator. We were part of the same literary organisation back in college, that’s how we came to know one another. How fantastic that I am able to hold on to this friendship, after nearly destroying and/or abandoning everything else? I feel extremely lucky.

I brought a few books with me on this trip. It’s alright, I’m laughing along with you—fat chance of me being able to read them all, right? But it’s what we do! Ha.

One of them I’m rereading, which is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s North to the Orient. (I think I’m on a travel-book-kind of bent for the next few months.) She talks about the act of writing about our lives, and it resonates so much with me at the moment:

There is, of course, always the personal satisfaction of writing down one’s own experiences so they may be saved, caught and pinned under glass, hoarded against the winter of forgetfulness. Time has been cheated a little, at least in one’s own life, and a personal, trivial immortality of an old self assured. And there is another personal satisfaction: that of the people who like to recount their adventures, the diary-keepers, the story-tellers, the letter-writers, a strange race of people who feel half cheated of an experience unless it is retold. It does not really exist until it is put into words. As though a little doubting or dull, they could not see it until it is repeated. For, paradoxically enough, the more unreal an experience becomes—translated from real action into unreal words, dead symbols for life itself—the more vivid it grows. Not only does it seem more vivid, but its essential core becomes clearer. One says excitedly to an audience, “Do you see—I can’t tell you how strange it was—we all of us felt…” although actually, at the time of the incident, one was not conscious of such feeling, and only become so in the retelling. It is an inexplicable as looking all afternoon at a gray stone on a beach, and not realizing, until one tries to put it on canvas, that is in reality bright blue.

And perhaps that is how it is with me—with us, and why we do this. I myself had been thinking these past two weeks: I feel split somehow. Not splintered, but more like I have strayed away from the center one too many times, in separate directions. Just thinking and feeling. Moving to keep things whole, says Mark Strand. But also writing to piece it all back together.

Love,
T.

To Be Of Use

IMG_2184

30 October 2014
21:05
Edinburgh

My dear T.–

A few months ago, you asked me: “How do you go about your writing, or your PhD? I sometimes imagine you standing in front of a labyrinthian master plan, your very own Ariadne.”

God. That question was so intimidating. How do I go about my writing? These days, I don’t so much go about writing. At least not as much as I go around it. Or as much as I go on ignoring it. How do I go about my writing? I have no idea. I don’t: is the short answer. If there is a labyrinth involved, it is not my master plan. If anyone’s a labyrinth, I’m standing lost within one.

I didn’t ever want to get to this place: this place where I rarely write. Years ago, I would have been appalled at the idea that days could pass — weeks, months — without writing. Not writing to you, not writing here, not writing poems, not writing research. Not journalling. Not taking personal notes. Not carrying around notebooks. Not waking up in the middle of the night to write things down.

I have been notating some of my dreams. I was writing bits and pieces in the morning, first thoughts upon waking. But I couldn’t really stretch them out. I couldn’t encourage them to carry themselves over into making sentences, into building paragraphs, pages. They were just disjointed ideas with no limbs. I have notes on my phone of dreams on dreams, but I can’t even bring myself to copy them into my notebook.

I asked Andrew about my notebooks today. The question didn’t start off with notebooks. It started off with a problem (which is Andrew’s favorite part of problem-solving. Let’s look at the problem from all angles. If you can’t find a solution, you haven’t properly defined the problem). I said, “I’ve been going through all my things before we move.”

“I know,” he said, “You’ve done a great job.”

“I’m not finished,” I said.

“I know, but you’ve done well so far.”

“No,” I said, “I mean: I’m not finished. But I’ve stopped. I’ve come to an impasse.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I want to have half of what is left now.” I said. “I only want to have half of these things. But I’ve already done the culling, and now I can’t find the means to keep getting rid of things.”

I told him the story of the school photographer who would help you narrow down the eight shots to the final photograph. He would hold up two photos: 1 and 2. Choose one, he would say. Which is your favorite? Your favorite would become number 1, and the reject would be replaced by another number 2. The process would go on. A 50-50 narrowing of options.

But I could never choose that way. I said to Andrew, I can’t just hold two books side by side and make myself choose one. It’s not even the books that are the problem area. Where I get really stuck is in the drawers: my notebooks, my papers, my stationary.

He said, “Working at Paperchase is the best thing for you. It’s a great exercise about restraint, and patience.”

It’s true. My 50% staff discount doesn’t kick in until after Christmas. And so, buoyed with the knowledge that I can have all of these papers and notebooks and pens for 50% less if I wait, I am happy to wait. I get to know all of the products on a daily basis. I help other people find what they are looking for. I help other people choose between papers, between folders and scrapbooks and wrapping paper and tissue. Decorations. Gifts. Cards. And in the meantime, I keep my eye on a few things that I like.

With three months on my hands, I have so much time to consult with these items before I buy them. I have time to know them on a deeper level. It’s not just about instinct or impulse anymore. I’m not going to run off and buy them off the shelf. I am not this store’s perfect clientele. I am a considered, considering, reflective buyer. And the longer I sit and hold these things in my awareness, the more I can tell that they are just things. A notebook I thought would make me so happy doesn’t hold the same resonance the next time I come in to work.

A few things do keep me. Obviously. There is a line of £3 notebooks that I do love. I can tell, because I have been courting them with a slow, respectful, quiet attention, and that attention has been sustained for weeks. I love them. I do. And all of the notebooks in my house have been brought here because of that reason. At some point, I fell for them. I knew when I picked them up that they might be something magical. I was captivated by the potential in their blank pages.

I even told Andrew: “T. and I talk about this all the time. We’re writers. We keep notebooks for all sorts of reasons. List notebooks, idea notebooks, draft notebooks, journals, letter books, endless categories.”

He said, “Are you using all of them?”

The answer is: no. I have a backlog of notebooks. I don’t know what they are yet, or why I wanted them, or what drew me to them in the first place. I don’t know why I need them. I don’t know why they’re still here. But I’m not ready to let them go yet. The same is true of old papers, of essays, letters, stationary, notecards, flyers. But paper weighs heavy. And it’s weighing heavy on me as a writer to be swimming in a sea of all of these pages. They don’t feel inspiring anymore. They feel overwhelming.

Andrew said, “And seeing them there, on a shelf, empty, sitting, waiting… does that ever hurt you to know they’re not being used as they should be used? To know that their utility is at a standstill?”

It does hurt.

It does hurt because I know that I’m not even using the tools I am using. There are notebooks I am writing in. Sometimes. But I’m not writing in them right now.

There is a whole backlog of letters here that we have written to each other. But I haven’t even been writing the letters I’m writing. My hands have been writing them. But my heart hasn’t. My computer uploads this text, but my voice hasn’t been in it.

I don’t know what’s different. Maybe the willingness to look at it now, to see this deflection and watch the urge to turn away. Maybe I know I don’t want to be left with handfuls of empty letters, shelves of empty notebooks and stacks and stacks of useless paper. Maybe I know I want to be of more use to my life.

More soon.

Goodnight,
M.

Place and Belonging

photo (9)

8 September 2014
6:12 pm
Edinburgh

T. —

Three things:

  1. I’ve learned that Bloom is exceptional at owning her place. She claimed the bed this morning because it was prime “pigeon-watching” real estate. She sits politely, pretends to be afraid, while we blow up the air mattress for guests. And as soon as we make it up with sheets, blankets, pillows, all the accoutrements of comfort — she claims that too. She was unafraid all along. I wish I could be so in my own space as she is.
  2. I’ve learned that every errand is a journey. I’ve learned how little I know of the outskirts of my city. How little I know of the character and the backstory of the places I’ve lived. How I’ve gotten by on a currency of “present time” rather than history or context. 
    .
  3. I’ve learned that all rules are made to be bent. I asked Andrew: How much could I budget to buy books this weekend in Amsterdam? You know, at the book market? There is one book market I’m thinking of in particular. It’s in a tunnel. Or underneath a bridge. Over by the university. It’s where Andrew found me a beautiful old copy of Peter Pan, and a book of Dutch children’s stories, translated into English. It’s where I found my big beautiful paperback of John Steinbeck’s letters. He said, I think the key word is: budget. If you make a budget before we leave, you can buy books. I will be honest with my budget. I don’t want to break my rule completely, because my rule was made to protect these neglected books in my home, to help me clear out my space, to give me a reading project to focus on. I want to be honest with myself: I am only bending rules because this is Amsterdam we’re talking about. Amsterdam is the exception.

We’re going to Amsterdam this weekend, in case I forgot to tell you. I’m insanely ready to be there, and a little hesitant to be back. It makes me think of what John Steinbeck writes about Paris:

Before very long I must go away, first to Italy and to Greece and then to New York. But I strongly suspect that the elastic string of Paris is tied to me and that for all my life I will not visit Paris. It is other places I will be visiting, while Paris will be a very special home to me.

– from One American in Paris (Thirteenth Article) by John Steinbeck

One question I still have: where is to be my next home? What type of person will I become within its walls?

Goodnight,
M

Making Space

2 September 2014
11:31 PM
Manila

M.–

A few Sundays ago I spent an afternoon sifting through my notebooks and lots of first drafts. I made several outlines of what I have so far, trying to find some coherence–perhaps even progression–in my poems. A big chunk of what I have written was seven, eight years old. Maybe even older than that. But surprisingly I have a considerable number of new ones (I’m talking recently, which in my timeline means as far back as two years). I haven’t been as lazy (and hopeless) as I thought!

The hours went by. By midnight I have, more or less, segregated my work into piles, and I have a clearer picture of what I have written, what interested me, what I believed in, all these years. I have a better understanding of what I am writing about now. It’s been a long time since I did this, and I have to admit that it was a little bit lonely, too, going at it alone. But I was happy to do it–to be able to discuss with myself all of these with a clarity (and maturity?) that I didn’t have when I was eighteen, or twenty-five. I feel (somewhat) accomplished. I feel like I have an agenda (finally!). I have an idea of what I am going to do in the next few months–that part is done. Now, on to the doing.

You often talk about your mentor(s), and consultations about your poems. What does it feel like for you? How do you go about your writing, or your PhD? I sometimes imagine you standing in front of a labyrinthian master plan, your very own Ariadne.

I hope you are making space for what makes you happy, as I am.

Yours,
T.

Keeping Alive

1 September 2014
11:42 PM
Manila

M.–

I miss you. I need to write you, and talk to you, even if I’m just really talking to myself, so here I am. It’s been a busy past few months for me, full of ups and downs. Mostly downs, actually. But those small moments of joy? They far outweigh the bad stuff. And I hold on to them with tenacity that I didn’t think I have.

What this month looks like: I’ve signed up for a lot of classes, but ModPo remains my lighthouse. It’s going to start again on the 6th, and I am returning with a full heart and an excitement to learn new things. I have made new friends in the last few weeks, deepened my relationships with people who have been in my life since the past year, and reconnected with those in my past. It’s an interesting development, seeing myself mirrored in three different ways. But what is constant: the pang of wanting to be in touch with you.

How have you been?

Love always,
T.

Bio-rhythms

IMG_0170

 

1 July 2014
9:35 pm
Edinburgh

T. —

This was our room in one of the many places we stayed during our US trip. It’s one of the two places — AirBnB apartments in Massachusetts — where I really felt like home and wanted to stay. Something about the light, and the trees, and the air, and the space. It felt like a poetic life.

*

I think the best compliment I’ve ever received came from my PhD supervisor. He’s not always one for flat-out compliments, so I’m surprising myself by even saying this. The only reason I remember it is because I notate our meetings sometimes, and I found this while I was doing revision yesterday on some old poems.

It’s about the poem I wrote called “Release,” which I basically took word for word from my post here, in our blog.

He said,

It’s good, and so is release. The poems are very tidy, and you air towards too many adjectives and abstractions. But these last two just let it rip, let the rhythm go.

Can you write all your shit out first and then climb up the mountain?

[Natural rhythm and sounds]. You have that. I would call it bio-rhythms. That’s 70% of poetry, just getting it down.

There’s a rage there for release and freedom. Don’t spell things about about freedom and limitations.

*

It’s the reference to bio-rhythms that gets me. I’m sitting here trying to remember why I always come back to writing, why I care so much about having something to say, why I judge myself for not getting to the point and saying it, why I read to lose myself in what other people have to say, and what they say so elegantly. But ‘bio-rhythms’ makes it seem like there is no logic to any of it: it’s just in my blood. I feel happier with that explanation, with that meaning running through me.

Goodnight,
M

Transit

20140524-191741-69461978.jpg

24 May 2014
7:30 pm
London

T. —

I’m really sorry to hear about your sister. Is everything going to be okay?

In a week from today, Hillary will be my sister-in-law. But she’s already felt like that for years. It’s her birthday today. I’m excited to get to Massachusetts tomorrow and see them both again. To hang out. To cook together and spend time catching up. It’s hard when your family isn’t well, or is far away, or is just more distant and unable to share in the excitement and joys and hinderings of life. I hope your sister is better so soon.

The etymology of transit: act or fact of passing across or through. A going over, passing over, passage.

We are en route. I feel like I’m always en route. Between here and there. Between myself and others. Between who I was and who I am becoming. It’s always in transit.

So far, I’ve slept, survived a terrible headache, forgotten what it feels like to start from somewhere other than Scotland, read 2/3rds of ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, watched episode 3 of Game of Thrones (we’re behind on the new season), and have just enjoyed the process.

More soon.
M

A Marker for Change

Lighthouse, between Craignure and Oban May 2014

Lighthouse, between Craignure and Oban May 2014

22 May 2014
10:20 pm
Edinburgh

T. —

A quick note today. It’s 20 minutes past time for bed.

This lighthouse — I don’t know the name of it. All I know is that this is one of the last pictures I took on my Iona adventure, on the ferry from Craignure (Isle of Mull) back to Oban (back to mainland Scotland). It has become this icon to me: this representation of moving between states of things. A marker for change, for transition.

*

My list of books from Iona:

  • Orkney by Amy Sayerville
  • Otherwise: Poems by Jane Kenyon
  • Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path by John Welwood
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • Earth Elegy: Poems by Margaret Gibson
  • On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  • Something Understood poems compiled by Beverly McAinsh
  • Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
  • Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World by John O’Donohue
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
  • S by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst (not finished. I’m taking it to America with me)
  • Eternal Echoes by John O’Donohue
  • Selected Poems by David Scott
  • Horizontal Gatherings 9 by Jan Sutch Pickard
  • Collected Poems by Kathleen Raine
  • The Patient’s Eyes by David Pirie
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Collected Poems by Norman McCaig
  • The Bone-Collector’s Daughter by Amy Tan
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

*

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

– from When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

*

I’m packing for the US and trying to get ready for bed, and dealing with to-do lists, and I’m thinking: what happened to the minimalist life?

More soon,
M