WHO WE ONCE WERE

Nothing is as it appears to be.
What is this aging? What am I to make
of these pale, brutal numbers? For a moment I’m fourteen.
from She, a poem by Jim Harrison

I recently acquired photos of my grandmother that are very dear to me. I posted one picture of her on Facebook to share with family members who live out-of-state. Her great-grandchildren were astonished by the photo. I was too.

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Suddenly, here in my hands, seven years after her death at 100, was my grandmother, resurrected as a charming, fresh-faced teen, full of life.  The juxtaposition was startling. The pictures of her in my memory are of a white-haired elderly women, full of energy, opinions, and hard-scrabble wisdom. (I wrote a poem about her later years here.) Now I’m holding her youthful visage in my hands. It is stunning to see her look straight into the camera with just a hint of a smile. It is an era of her life I never knew, nor will I ever know.

It is certainly true that our past lives — the full telling of it anyway — recedes into an irretrievable past as each day passes. Snapshots reveal an image of who we were in a single moment of time. Soon after a photo is taken we are no longer that person. We grow out of ourselves like a tree adding layers each year. Fundamentally, the photos of ourselves are strangers to us now. As you look at any photo of yourself, the person you once were has retreated both into the maw of time and into the mysterious depths of yourself. These selves are nearly all but forgotten, save these photos.

I show my children pictures and tell them stories of my past. I am selective. I tell them what I think will help them in their life. I tell them my mistakes, my adventures and travels. I tell the things I am proud and not proud to have participated in. Yet, each time I tell them a piece of my story, I am painfully conscious of the fact that I am constructing my own narrative.  I know that even if they get the high points of that story, most of that story will be lost with me when I lie down for the last time.

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So to with my grandmother. As my version of her life passes before me I can’t help but think I know only the high points of her whole life and but a smidgen of her early life. This portrait tells me that my grandmother was a beautiful young women. This is something she did not, nor would not in humility, tell us. Thus, I know nothing of how her beauty impacted her personality, how it influenced how men and women and relatives treated her, how it influenced her work life, or how it played out in courtship and her eventual choice of a husband. Neither can this portrait speak to me of how she saw the trajectory of her own life or if she ever felt cheated by circumstances or enlivened by her response to it. Looking at this photo, there is much that is hidden.

Holding this photo I begin to think that this young beauty is oblivious, as most of us are at that age, to the coming ravages of time. The Great Depression an event that would indelibly put its harsh stamp on her is but a few years down the road. So too is an alcoholic husband, a miscarriage, a divorce,  the death of four siblings, the death of a two husbands, and a long widowhood in a deteriorating neighborhood and home. I know that from the Great Depression on, poverty will be her constant companion. I do not know, nor will I ever know, the story of the precise moment when she would wake up to the realization that the lack of money would be with her forever.  She never told me that story.

I don’t want to suggest that her life was wholly preoccupied with the difficulty of money. Surely it was a constant and pressing concern but it never seemed to dampen her spirit. She overcame her meager circumstances with thrift. Her frugality was legendary. She stored and canned fruits and vegetables, clipped coupons, and always knew the stores with the best deals. She seemed to have a pot of soup always simmering on the stove. Her cupboards and pantry were nearly always full. She always had on hand enough food to last several months and would always give visitors food to take home.

Overall she lived a healthy and joyful life. She took pleasure in simple things: baking fresh bread, singing, birds, flowers, gardening. When I was a young boy she took me for weekly walks in various parks. She directed my attention to the beauty of the birds, the flowers, and the whisper of the lapping lake shore. In all the years I knew her, I remember her infectious laughter that often left me with side aches. She was generous with the little she had: lending food, her car, and crocheting an infinite number of hats, mittens and afghans for her children and grandchildren. She was a compassionate women: collecting and providing food and clothing to neighbors. She was an independent thinker. In her mid-thirties, before it was popular, she became a vegetarian and never touched a piece of meat again. She claimed it was the reason she lived so long. This was also the season of her life that she “found the Lord.” At the end of visits she would hug and kiss me, and tell me, “I love you and the Lord loves you too.” One of my most vivid memories of her is kneeling at her bed, hands folded before her bowed head, whispering. She prayed five times a day. I only wish I had a photo of her so kneeling. These are the memories I have of the person I remember; the person I knew best.

Over the years my grandma (whom I called Mum) told me many family stories for which I am grateful. Yet she never told me or anyone else I know the story of this fetching photo. Why she posed in that way? Who took the photo? Was it impromptu or planned? I can only guess how she felt at the moment this photo was taken or how she felt about it 30, 50, 70 years later. This saddens me. Had I seen the photo during her lifetime I would have asked her to tell me its story. I would have devoured the details of that story. Who knows, it might have put in perspective some family history or even explained some current family dynamics. Then again, maybe the telling of it would not shed light on anything but one day in her life when she was happy and young and full of promise. Either way, it would have been a good story to hear.

Do you take every opportunity to listen to stories from your elders?

Present self-knowledge is one thing but can we ever say we know who we were?

I’D RATHER BE RUNNING WITH A TEAM OF HUSKIES

I’ve finally figured out how to put text on photos. Yes, I know, I’m a technical troglodyte. I downloaded Picasa and immediately began experimenting and posting on my Twitter account.

Though I’m still learning the ins and outs of the program, its fun and easy to compose text and photos. I’ve always wanted to do this. I can now make my own postcards and illustrate quotes from my writings.

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For this particular creation the photo came first. Our family was travelling in Los Angels a few years back for the Girls’ National Hockey Tournament. We were travelling from rink to rink in the metro area for several days in the sweltering heat. At a shopping center, (my daughter’s team had to shop, of course) and this canine was spotted patiently waiting for its master, so I took his picture. Though he seemed to be taking the heat well and couldn’t help but feel for this thick coated Northern breed. 

Today, I was playing with the program and needed a caption so I came up with what I thought this dogs was thinking. Actually, it was what I was thinking. Its warm outside and instead of mowing the lawn I’d rather be behind a dog team.

Where would you rather be today? 

THOSE SEDUCTIVE 30-DAY WRITING CHALLENGES, PART II; more time to write less

In my senior year of high school I had burned myself out with school activities, sports, a job and dating. One day my mother noticed the dark shadows under my eyes and my lack of enthusiasm. A doctor visit resulted in a diagnosis of mononucleosis. I spent the subsequent two-week a hospital with tentacles of I.V.s, and a complete bed rest order. I learned a hard lesson from this. I tend not to take care of myself.

I remembered that stint in the hospital as I was thinking about budgeting my writing time. After some reflection, I decided to take a hiatus from 30-Day writing challenges for the rest of the year. I don’t have anything against challenges; I simply need more time to write.

To be more precise, I need more time to write less. Yeah, you heard me right; I need more time to write less. I’m a poet, after all.

I know this goes against the grain of many writing gurus. There are bucket loads of advice that push writers to generate more words by doing every possible writing activity. We are told to read more, create more and, of course, generate more media buzz about your work. To write faster we are told to either write madly by a stopwatch or write doggedly until a certain word count is reached. Well, I don’t believe any of this will lead to better poems. Underlying all this faster is better advice is the idea that a writer must do it all or it won’t happen. To me this is the old Faustian bargain. Sell your soul for a chance, just a chance — mind you, of publishing success.

When it comes to taking advice on writing or anything else, I tend to be the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. I tend to buck popular trends. I believe that what is most popular is usually the easy way out. I imagine all these quick little lemmings jumping from that cliff, happily following each other to conform to the cliff jumping trend.  I question, therefore I write.

I think most writers agree that good writing requires more than a draft or two. From initial motivation to finished product involves multiple steps and a seeming lifetime of fixing and fretting. I remarked on some exception to this in my previous post here. I also referred to the danger of writing becoming like fast food – tasteless and fat. If you’re one of those writers satisfied with the first draft as the finished product, one of two things has happened; you are unable or unwilling (because you don’t have time) to evaluate good writing or you are a certified writing savant, of which you can count yourself as among the precious few. In either case, read no more.

America poet, Lorine Niedecker ended a by saying, “What would they say if they knew/ I sit for two months/ on six lines of poetry?” (Find the poem here.) The stories of drafts of poems and novels taking decades to “get right” abound. I think the reason for this is not self-defeating obsession or a Calvinistic perfectionism.  It has everything to do with the next-to-impossible-task of producing vital and indispensable art. A writer knows that words are difficult animals to tame or seduce into revealing their secrets. We’re not after the obvious, the already-been-told-tale or the cliché. , we’re after the gold beneath the hard-packed overburden of our souls.

Though it isn’t typical of the poems I compose, I have worked on one long poem for more than six years. It’s a good poem but I know it has yet to reveal all that it is capable of becoming. So I keep pecking away at it in the hope that one day it will finish saying what must be said instead of what I think it should say. There is an important distinction here between ideal and revelation. I want the revelation. I want the words to show me the way not the other way around. I don’t care how long it takes. This is why I will take more time to write less.

See you next week.

THOSE SEDUCTIVE 30-DAY WRITING CHALLENGES, PART I

Almost every day I read a blogger bellowing, “I can’t keep up. This 30-day writer challenge is killing me.” They sign up with buoyant enthusiasm and two weeks later are scratching like a dog at the door of frustration.

I caught myself scratching that door the past couple of years a few times. It’s not a mystery why. I ignored the voice in the back of my head that said you don’t have time for this. It was a classic case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach.

I rationalized, ‘I’m a writer and love to write, so why not write more?’ I said to myself, ‘Just write faster.’ Many write-fast advocates said I should do this. Just get the first draft out. Let the words flow, Edit later. It was like a siren song. Eventually, I discovered writing faster meant my writing suffered. It is not like me to write desperately, as if my fingers were feet fleeing a mugger.

I am now convinced that I can’t write any faster. I tried writing poems quicker than a speeding bullet but I couldn’t honestly call them poems. Poems written fast tend to be shallow, obvious, lacking conviction, and little more than sentences chopped into lines that merely look poetic. Real imagery, taken from the world but not in it until combined, were absent, which made for faux poems.

My speed writing challenge prose fared no better. What I think is worth reading, and more importantly rereading, has long and hard labor in it. Some authors claim to write quickly and edit little. Poet and novelist, Jim Harrison claims to have written Legends of the Fall, a novella, in 10 days with little editing. This, speedy composition did nothing to diminish his work, it is a masterpiece. So I know some are capable sometimes of words from a whirlwind turning out wonderful. As for me, and every other author of significance I’ve read, find this is the exception.

My history of writing faster than the speed of sound and sense isn’t good. All it has ever produced is bare bones prose with sweeping gaps in logic and a voice resembling an automaton. It had a few juicy kernels of promise, yes, but it was shallow writing – something ill-formed. In the majority of cases, it required more work than it was worth.

I have a speedily produced novel manuscript that has sat for three decades. It will probably never see the light of day because it would take another three decades to add the necessary wholesale revision and editing to make it worth reading.

Though I am a former deadline journalist, I am not wedded to the idea of automatic or speed writing for poetry and fiction, because for me it requires extensive and laborious editing. In the writing race, call me the turtle. Slow and steady beats the rabbit every time.

Do you work at a frantic pace to produce your first draft and spend more time revising? 

While some may get results this way, others may find that slowing down can speed up the finished product.

More on the pros and cons of 30-Day Writing Challenges next week.

WRITERS TELL ALL BLOG HOP

A blog is supposed to be regular as those laxative commercials tell us we all should be. Alas, mine is not and needed a cathartic which fellow Wordsmither and beautiful super blogger Jan Sheridan supplied by nominating me for the “Writer’s Tell All Blog Hop.” Thanks Jan for remembering that I actually have a blog. It’s been a while.

The Hop asks writer’s to answer three questions and nominate three other bloggers. I nominate: Claudine JaboroMariya KolevaClaudette J. Young.

MY TELL ALL (WELL NOT ALL)

It’s been said that if you are afraid of what you are writing you are on the right track. I believe that if your story, poem or art work doesn’t break new ground you won’t see any growth. When every line, every sentence, hums with an electric charge and occasional jolt you are on your way. Under this kind of current any old clichés can be spun and their magnetic fields will gather and mix new alloys.

No doubt metal imagery has a currency with this writer whose head is recently bound back together with titanium screws following brain surgery.  Years ago I was a serious rock head banger now I’m simply a dull metal head.  My writing was on a hiatus for a time, since I wasn’t producing many intelligible words while on morphine and oxycodone.  And while my eyes are still half blind I can avoid looking at the screen to type and audio books can be purchased though I prefer, like a child, to be read to.

WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

Since my head was opened with a knife, I’ve continued to write poems and even an essay on poetry called, Not Milking Goats In Moon Light. Here is an excerpt: 

Poetry is the way I stay connected with the wild soul. The magic of poetry is not having to pull on a hairy teat to imagine the rhythmic ting of blood-hot milk steaming in stainless steel on a cool night under a red ball moon larger than the world.  I only need a masterfully crafted poem to show me a connection to what is primal in us all – that deep and often scary life that lives unseen inside each and every one of us. 

I continue to edit a poetry book, Confessions of a Dog Handler, a mix of letter and line poems loosely drawn from my life as a long-distance dog musher.  I’m also writing an experimental series of haiku poems, tentatively called, Ten Times Ten Haikus. The idea is to see what sense and interesting non-sense can be made using ten sets of 12 words to create one hundred haikus. I’m currently up to eighty-plus. I call it word bending. Actually, it will enrage the grammarians among us. The idea came to me after listening to children, teens and those outside my social milieu use word combinations in grammatically incorrect ways that did not negate meaning but expanded it; out with the old, in with the new. I decided to hard-press words together to see what can be made fresh and vital. It is a way to loosen the mind from its weak and rotted moorings. I have four other collections of poems – general categories that await a theme and close editing. All in good time.

HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?

I don’t have the slightest idea of how to answer that question. It is safe to say, each day I sit down and wait, usually not long, and begin to write.  I prefer not to know where I’m going. I get more results having a certain yet general bearing. I tack like a sail boat into the wind. The other shore, the new land, is out to be discovered. When I silence my mind’s chatter I can hear what’s essential. There is always something out there on the sea or far down in the hold of my ship. Yesterday it was the robin at the base of the birch tree leaping up to peck insects not satisfied with the common fare on the ground. Today an idea from some deep recess of the mind – that the biblical figures of Sara and Agar is less an illustration of two historical peoples but a type of conflict in each person’s soul. There is always some motivation so the sails can be unfurled.

WHO ARE THE AUTHORS YOU MOST ADMIRE?

There are a bazillion, mostly poets, but if I must choose:

Jim Harrison: brawny, uncompromising, shameless, never dull, master of the modern novella (see Legends of the Fall (read the book than see the movie with Brad Pit and Julia Ormond)). A poet first and foremost, he began writing novels to stave off starvation after injuring himself bird hunting. His poems weren’t making any money (surprise) so a writer friend said why not try a novel. Since then his many novels, novellas and poetry books have won international acclaim. A native Michigander, twice I sat across from him at a table drinking wine and could not keep up drinking or thinking.  His imagination associated so wildly I thought he was either loony or making up poems as he spoke. Reading him made me realize what is possible as a writer, even one with a troubled soul.

Others I admire and never tire of reading: Ted Kooser, a plain speaking poet who creates painterly poems of people and places and events was U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-06 (read Delights And Shadows; Norman O. Brown, philosopher and author of probing meditations on the soul, theology, politics and liberation (read Love’s Body);  poet, essayist and novelist Czeslaw Milosz immigrated to the U.S. after WWll having survived the razing of the Warsaw ghetto (read his Collected works); American poet Walt Whitman whose Leaves of Grass opened up the line to admit the energy of the muscular American street in the mid-19th century; Gary Snyder, poet identified with the beats but transcended out of its pessimism early on with poems close to the land and a new way of living with it (read Turtle Island); Mary Oliver, an eternal optimist and observer of what is the ecstatic life (read her both volumes of her collected works; Denise Levertov is a master poet of the modern line and spiritual life energy (read Freeing of the Dust); Kabir and Rumi are ancient mystic poets who charted new regions of the human spirit we are only just now beginning to comprehend (read Coleman Barks translations of Rumi and Bly’s Kabir). There are novelists and non-fiction writers too: Walker Percy, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Pat Frank” Alas Babylon, the first novel I ever read.