After you’ve broken

If I am learning anything from my long journey toward becoming a writer, it has something to do with kindness.

Oh, sure, there’s courage and honesty and creative word-smithing. Those seem important. Discipline, scalpel-sharp critical thinking, dogged commitment. Yup. Lucky breaks, too, and putting in your time and learning how to get by with less. But really, at the very bottom of it, I find it’s kindness that is the most essential to continuing forward.

I’m not talking about empty kindness, easy kindness, the stuff of courtesy and politeness. Real kindness. The undeserved, the unbidden, the unworthy, the unending. And I’m talking about being kind to yourself.

I nearly broke myself last winter when I was kicking my own ass in a brightly lit apartment thousands of miles and an ocean away from home. I was working on my first book-length manuscript, demanding myself to write at least 1000 words a day and a chapter a week for twelve weeks. I was demanding myself to write the best book ever written, the best adventure story, the best gay marriage story. I was demanding myself to write a story that could change the world, that would subvert and surprise and give and give. I was writing a story that could save my relationship with my siblings and could teach my parents. It was a story that was true and right. I was demanding perfection.

Meanwhile, I was physically ill. I was depressed. I was pretty sure I was an egocentric hack. I went spiraling down a vortex of doubt feeding fear feeding frustration feeding doubt. I survived the vortex.

Some folks don’t.

Six months later, thanks to a friend’s suggestion and an editor’s selection, I found myself sitting in a circle of writers seeking our stories together at the incomparable Summer Fishtrap workshop in eastern Oregon. Across the circle sat Luis Alberto Urrea, who told of his own doubt-fear-frustration-doubt vortex that led him to the edge of everything. He survived. And returned to the world of the living with the gorgeous epic The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

If you survive the vortex does not mean you will produce a gorgeous epic. Nor am I saying you must go through the vortex in order to produce brilliance. But I do believe that to tell a great story you must be willing to face the truth of things, and you very well may balk in the face of that truth. And if you balk, it very well may be kindness which allows you to escape with your life and your story.

Later that same week of Fishtrap, the poet Kim Stafford explained to us how his father, the poet William Stafford, wrote. I find it the daily expression of writerly-kindness-to-self:

1) Write the date.
2) Write boring prose.
3) Write into an aphorism or koan – a self-contained observation or idea
4) write the thing.

Kim made us practice his father’s technique. This is what I wrote that day:

7/9/14

Today is Wednesday. I had a harder time waking this morning than yesterday. I didn’t hear as many birds and I am not sure if there actually were fewer birds or if I just couldn’t or didn’t hear them today. No hummingbirds yet today. Or dippers.

I’m wondering as always about the good that will come out of this. This is writing church, but I distrust all churches. I like to believe that this mistrust is not because I believe I do not deserve the sanctuary, but because I doubt the truth of sanctuary in the first place. Or if not truth, then usefulness. Though the use is obvious to be kind to oneself. To be kind to yourself means being kind to everything you know about yourself. Being kind to the ugliness. To be kind to the fear, to be kind to the doubts, the anger, the endless river of voices. These are my voices and every other voice I have ever heard.

Give me the strength to survive this, the going out, the falling. And give me the strength to still be kind, long after I’ve broken against the bedrock.

And then I wrote the thing:

To the Writer

Never tell the names
of the smallest gods whirring
behind your ears, but do not
swat them either, cursing

be kind to everything you know
about yourself, even your doubt
even your hate
even your own death

be kind long after you have
leaped, after you have
fallen, after you have broken against bedrock


Applications are open until December 15th for 2015 Summer Fishtrap Fellowships and Scholarships.

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That Music

I’d meant to read this poem at the Fab Planet summit but ran out of time. Fortunately, there’s always time for a good poem here at andtheuniverse:


“That Music”
W.S. Merwin

By the time I came to hear about it
I was assured that there was no such thing
no it was one more in the long trailing
troupe of figures that had been believed but
had never existed no it had not
resounded in the dark at the beginning
no among the stars there was no singing
then or later no ringing single note
threaded the great absences no echoing
of space in space no there was no calling
along the lights anywhere no it was not
in the choiring of water in the saying
of a name it was not living or warning
through the thrush of dusk or the wren of morning


This is resistance: hearing that which we are told to deny. This is hope: that the thrush and the wren will sing their own songs (regardless of the script thrust upon them). This is joy: to fill the darkness and light alike with song.

This poem can be found in Merwin’s gorgeous Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Also: I’m still searching for photo credit. If you recognize this image, please help me out!

I know what love is.

June 19, 1937

Dear Cedric,

A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that related to those who are loved and those who are real friends.

For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.

Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.

Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptance of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.

Art is both love and friendship, and understanding; the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of Things, it is more than kindness which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the inter-relations of these.

I wish the thundercloud had moved up over Tahoe and let loose on you; I could wish you nothing finer.

Ansel

Read this and other fabulous correspondences at Letters of Note.

To read more about my wedding, where our dear friend Dor (aka Bacon Bit) read this letter, visit my Big Gay Fancy Camp page.

When the rains don’t come

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA sprightly woman 70-years-young walked into my office a year ago.  I’d grown used to the constant interruptions that came with working at a healthy conservation non-profit in a vibrant Colorado farm town on the edge of the wild Rockies.  People had their opinions, their questions, and above all, their unsolicited suggestions.  As the communications coordinator, my job was to listen to everybody who wanted to talk. To say, yes, you’re right, that is a good idea.  Or, yes, that is a reasonable concern.  Or, sure, I’ll have a cookie.

I had already pegged this particular community member as one of the isn’t-our-town-the-best-town-in-all-the-world contingent–but I hadn’t expected her to also be a part of the even more extreme shit’s-going-down-sometime-soon-so-we-better-prepare-for-it-here-and-now crew.  She’d brought in a flyer for an event she was organizing that week at the art center: an evening of community discussion about how we can prepare.  Just what she was thinking we needed to prepare for, I wasn’t sure.  Systematic collapse, I supposed.  I didn’t go to the event to find out.

I tend to scoff at apocalyptic talk.  It sounds a little too much like Revelations.  Besides the gay thing, that final book of the Bible was probably one of the larger contributing factors to my exodus from Christianity.  Blood and ash, really?  Burning skies?  The living dead?  Horsemen of death?! No thanks.

Last year, though, western Colorado, like much of the country, was being hit by a very severe drought.  Farmers had to harvest their hay early and sell their livestock.  The forests turned into tinder.  Driving the five-hours east to Denver, I felt as though I could have lit any hillside ablaze with a single match.  Anybody could start a maelstrom.  I heard reports of fires, big ones, and saw their smoke drift in from around the state.  Whole neighborhoods burned, whole mountainsides.  Many of the fires began from the most mundane sources: a chain bouncing along the road, a broken muffler, even somebody’s target-practice bullets.  Wildfire gets a lot more real when anything and everything could burn.

The reservoirs, which had been overly full from a big snow winter the year prior, were now running on empty.  Having grown up in the Midwest, going to school up on the Great Lakes, living as an adult in Alaska and Montana, for the first time in my life, I lived somewhere where the water was running out.  Fortunately, my small town has access to a few reliable springs that flow out from the base of the West Elk peaks that rise to an elevation of 12,000 feet just a few miles east of town.  Even if the river ran dry (which it did by August) with the little surface water diverted into the irrigation canals which were slowly forced to shut off one by one, the town still had its municipal supply of water.  And our valley, unlike more populated, lower-lying areas in the southwest United States, only needed one good snow year to top off our reservoirs once again.  Even so, it was a drought.  Not the end of the world.

Apocalyptic PlanetToward the end of the summer, I volunteered for a local writer’s book reading.  Craig Child’s book, titled Apocalyptic Planet, is “a field guide to the everending earth.”  In the book, as well as at the reading, Craig shared a series of natural history stories from around the world, places where Craig dug into the past of each respective place and gave the audience a deep and often disturbingly violent story of upheaval and change.  It turns out that the planet is dynamic.  It is constantly turning over, reshaping itself.  In the book, he points out that according to our current understanding of the globe, humans arose as a species, and our civilizations with us, during a particularly pleasant time to be on Earth.  Sure, there is still cataclysm, but there have been greater floods, bigger impacts, drier droughts than what humans have known in our short time on the planet. Instead of using these stories as justifications to continue our course of global change, however, Craig carefully constructs the feeling that the balance we’ve got right now is something we probably shouldn’t choose to throw to the wind.  We are living in a world finely balanced, but this particular global climate state is more of a rarity than we might have imagined, and more easily lost than we might guess.

Since reading his book and hearing Craig speak, I’ve heard other people talking about the long-time perspective as well–and not in the most cheery ways.  Particularly out west, there’s reason to be concerned about water.   My friend and fellow small-town resident, radio producer Julia Kumari-Drapkin, recently produced a piece for This American Lifes global warming episode.  The whole episode is spot-on, more about the dialogue of climate change than the current science of it.  Julia’s piece in particular is both captivating and a little bit heart-breaking.  The story delves into last year’s drought in Colorado and the struggle scientists have to give news they don’t think people want to hear.

The news, in our particular case, was about the droughts of the future, the droughts that the climate models are predicting, the droughts exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-made) climate change.  What the climatologists are beginning to tell the public is that the drought of 2012 could look like an average year within a decade or two.  These future droughts look eerily similar to the  sort of droughts that Craig chronicles in his book, the ones that have been marked in the recent geologic record across the western United States.  We’re not talking about the dust bowl.  We’re talking about droughts that last centuries.  Droughts when there are no good snow years–for three hundred years.  Reach even farther back in the geologic record, and we are talking about droughts that are very difficult to imagine: thousand-year-droughts, that then, aren’t really droughts, but instead a complete shift in climate regimes.  Think large dune complexes in Nebraska, dry grasslands in Minnesota, think a whole lot of desert everywhere west.

This NASA climate model video of projected rainfall changes particularly struck close-to-home.  I recently moved from Colorado to the central Sierras in California to work on a restoration crew in Yosemite National Park.  The long-term precipitation outlook for California and the southwest looks grim.  I get to spend my time out in the high alpine of the Sierras, restoring habitat for rare species like the Yosemite Toad and other sovereign creatures.  And yet, what will happen to them when the big drought hits?  What will happen to these entire ecosystems?  Then there are the people: what will happen to the cities of the Southwest?  To the agriculture of western Colorado?  To the springs at the base of the West Elks?

No one knows what will happen, but one thing for certain is that change is inevitable.  What sort of change, well, I suppose we still have some say in the matter.  I’m going to keep restoring habitat.  And I’m going to keep demanding my government to curb greenhouse gases.  As Bill McKibben is warning in his current Do The Math campaign, climate change is beyond each of our own individual control.  If we are going to curb carbon, it’s going to be a global effort.

We cannot stop change.  In fact, no “balance” on this planet will ever be permanent.  This dynamic world is constantly shifting from one form to another.  Rather than accelerating global change, toward any number of possible future conditions while preparing for collapse, but I’d rather fight hard to hold onto what we’ve got for as long as we can keep it.

The Sea Hold

Rebecca West’s collection of Carl Sandburg poetry found me while I was wandering through the shelves of the Wawona Library.  How do books wait for you, and then pounce like that?  His words spread out like the plains where he’s from: collections of so many small sights, settled in together among the low hills, until, after a long while, your eyes and ears recognize the lines of the much larger body, the grand, the beautiful, the sublime.

***

“The Sea Hold” – Carl Sandburg

The sea is large.

The Sea hold on a leg of land in the Chesapeake hugs an early sunset and a last morning star over the oyster beds and the late clam boats of lonely men.

Five white houses on a half-mile strip of land . . . five white dice rolled from a tube.

Not so long ago . . . the sea was large . . .And to-day the sea has lost nothing . . .  it keeps all.

I am a loon about the sea.
I make so many sea songs, I cry so many sea cries, I forget so many sea songs and sea cries.

I am a loon about the sea.
So are five men I had a fish fry with once in a tar-paper shack trembling in a sand storm.
The sea knows more about them than they know themselves.
They know only how the sea hugs and will not let go.

The sea is large.
The sea must know more than any of us.

***

The month of May found me, and so I have been writing, writing, writing, calling it my self-sponsored artist-in-residency, here in Yosemite National Park.  I just finished an essay I’ve been trying to write for the last two years.  It’s about Chicago, Sandburg’s Chicago.  I sent it off to a magazine.  We’ll see.  Pete’s job has begun, working as a Wilderness Ranger here in Wawona.  My job begins in a week, when I will join a restoration crew as we restore the Yosemite Wilderness.  I feel new.

***

The opening to “Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs” – Carl Sandburg

Rum tiddy um,
tiddy um,
tiddy um tum tum.
My knees are loose-like, my feet want to sling their selves . . .

***

One voice tells me to stop.  That I have nothing to share.  Another voice tells me I have stories.  And a third says that if you offer one well-composed sentence, that’s something.