In the interest of total and complete honesty, please know that I’d much rather be finishing the last pages of Lisa Kleypas’ Midnight Angel than writing right now. In an alternate scenario, I’d like to binge-watch two episodes of Murdoch Mysteries instead of writing right now. Are you sensing a trend?
All I want to do is read and watch TV. I don’t want to do laundry. I don’t want to eat healthy meals. I don’t want to do my taxes. I don’t want to set up a grocery delivery for this weekend. I don’t want to write this blog.
When I was a child, books and sleep were the only way I could escape from the fear and anxiety that plagued my home life. I generally went to “take a nap” an hour or so before my mother arrived home, hoping that by the time I woke up a couple hours later she’d have sealed herself in her room for the night. The rest of the time I lay in bed or whatever safe spot I could find reading, occasionally age-appropriate literature like the Mary Popppins series or the Little Women series, but generally completely inappropriate literature like the endless stream of Harlequin romances I borrowed from one of my aunt’s friends, Victoria Holt novels, and all of Mario Puzo.
Decades later, in grad school, when starting to write about my difficult relationship with my parents, I escaped again—this time to TV. When I didn’t have to be on campus or I didn’t have homework due, I’d spend hours and hours unable to do anything other than stare at the TV. I don’t remember in particular what I watched, but we had cable so I’m sure it was a frenzied assortment of high and low brow movies and whatever TV shows were popular in the early to mid-oughts. With the help of conversations with assorted friends and after fantasizing a few too many times about throwing myself down the stairs at the place I was working for the summer, I went to see the on-campus psychiatrist who informed me I had “depressive disorder, unspecified.” She put me on Zoloft, which helped me bear the pain of baring myself on the page and helped me to live a life apart from copious doses of screen time.
I’m no longer on Zoloft, and I’m no longer depressed, though, like everyone, I do need a good wallow every now and then. There is something going on with me right now, but I can’t tell you what it is. Not because I don’t want to, but because I simply don’t know. I suspect there’s something I’m processing at the deepest levels—possibly because I’m at the culmination of all the poems about my father, possibly because of the anxiety-ridden zeitgeist we’re all feeling, possibly because my hormones have turned into assholes—and it will reveal itself to me when it’s good and ready. In four pages of journaling, or a new and unexpected poem, or it will just fall out of me during a friendly conversation. Till, then, excuse me, I have some literary kissy face to eavesdrop on.
I have just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In it she writes about the many characters she took on—wig and dress and makeup and voice included—in order to eat at the restaurants she needed to review for the New York Times without the establishments figuring out who she really was. It’s a fascinating study in how you get treated one way if people know you wield power and another way when you look like you do anything but. (This isn’t news now nor was it news when Reichl wrote the book in 2005, but it’s still interesting to see how it plays out in the life of someone who is quite different from me.)
What really struck me was how Reichl felt as she slipped in and out of her different personas, how they brought out the best in her and the worst in her. How she so clearly understood what made a woman invisible (which made a great disguise but an emotionally wearing experience), and how one disguise as a red finger-tipped, long-haired blonde named Chloe taught her—as she put it—“that I did know how to take advantage of a man after all. When had I learned this? And what was I going to do about it?”
In the end, Reich wearies of rarely eating dinner with her son—who’s still in single digits—and of dipping in and out of personas. So she finds a new job, and there is—at least for a decade or so—a happy ending.
As I think of how different hair and clothes made Reichl feel, I’m thinking about how my hair has changed radically over the last few years and how I visit store after store and website after website hunting for “my look.” It’s starting to dawn on me that I’m a little lost. I say a “little lost” but it’s also possible that I’m completely off track. It’s easy to change the little things (especially if you start going to a barber so it no longer costs a fortune to change you hairstyle, and you also make piece with a certain credit card bill by praising yourself for paying off a number of other credit card bills), but there are larger questions to be asked, larger changes to be made. I just don’t know what they are.
I hate it when someone describes me as impulsive, yet, if I’m honest, there’s something that’s comforting about impulsivity. Join a gym! Join Weight Watchers! Join this Meet-Up group (that you never go to!) Go blonde again! Embrace your latent goth/punk side! Get a new tattoo! Join an online dating site! Vow to get up 1/2 hour early every day to go exercise!
And while those things—well, most of them—are beneficial, they’re kind of like putting Spanx on my life. They smooth out the bumps for a while, but only for a while. There are deep changes to be made. I don’t know what they are, but I do know they require deep thinking. Which I’m terrified of. It’s one thing to think deeply about the things that happened in my past, which offer fine fodder for poems, and also have the benefit that I don’t really have to DO much because it’s all in the past.
But to think deeply about the present, to admit how damned comfortable I am, and how it’s preferable to complain lunch after lunch, and journal entry after journal entry about my job than to actually face the fact that I’m bored but don’t know what to do next because next has always magically arrived and I’ve not really ever had to set any goals…
I was talking to someone the other day about how I have never really wanted to be a writer, which may seem odd because I am a writer. But that’s the thing, I am a writer. Just like I’m Afro-Caribbean and a cis-gendered woman and the oldest of four and brown-eyed. Being a writer has always just been something I was born with, a pre-existing condition.
This is possibly the part of the conversation where you say, “Well, what is your passion?” And I don’t know if I have one of those, nothing long-term anyway. I’m not short of enthusiasms, but they wax and wane, and the thread that runs through them eludes me. I think it’s there, waiting on the tip of my tongue for me to articulate it, but for now I’m tongue-tied and lost.
I’ve been quite content to just drift along in life. And I have to be honest, it’s worked. I’ve been able to earn my way out of poverty*; I’ve published two chapbooks and numerous poems in magazine; I’ve interviewed countless people I never expected to call on a telephone or sit across from like Liesl Tommy, George Lucas, Josh Groban, John Barrowman; I’ve been to Paris and several times to London, and I’ve lived in Italy. I’ve manage to get promoted up four grade levels in the same department, and—since I’m not being modest—I—with help, of course—founded the social media program for a federal agency. Which is all great, but none of this was a goal. I’ve been smart enough to recognize opportunity—which I realize can be its own gift—but as I look out into the great unknown (my agency possibly closing down, life at 50, etc etc etc), I don’t want to drift anymore. I want to have something to work toward. I want to know who I really am, what I’m really made of. At least I think I do. Cause, let’s face it, drifting is not just easier, it’s more comfortable, and most likely I won’t have to give up a thing. But goals are better, right?
To be continued…
*I mean my own personal poverty, since fully taking on full financial responsibility for myself once I graduated college.
miss the deadline
hate all the pens except the one that’s lost
borrow someone’s text
borrow someone else’s text
kill all your babies*
re-define the verbs
don’t remember what happened the right way
write so objects in the mirror are farther away than they appear
write with one eye closed
write with ears full of sealing wax
measure the distance from your desk to the coffee pot in unwritten pages
write all the wrong words
mispronounce everything especially around line breaks
write only with pencil shavings
read too much
read too little
read books that are not yet written
bring snacks to the book club
never join a book club
club the books you don’t want to read
sell out each time you write a story
make a story from each time you sell out
keep a list of favorite best sellers
add “in bed” to all your motivational quotes
keep a common place book
burn the common place book every night and start again
never sleep at night
sleep at night only when you should be writing
jump off the cliff with a notebook strapped to your back
write like nobody’s listening or will ever listen
write like books are dead
write like English is your 3rd or 4th language and you sometimes speak with a lisp
write like a motherfucker**
*I promise I’m not promoting infant genocide here. “Kill your babies” is the phrase writers use when they’re talking about a line or phrase that they absolutely love but, for whatever reason, doesn’t belong in the piece of writing they’re working on
** I don’t usually swear when I write, and I’d probably be too mortified to say that out loud, but come on, that’s one of the only true things in this list….with many thanks to Cheryl Strayed and the Rumpus for coining it first
My next book’s a work-in-progress…just like moi.
Temps notwithstanding, spring really has sprung. At least that’s what I’m attributing my cleaning jag too. Clearing out the “junk drawer” of one of my filing cabinets, I’ve come across quite a few treasures: copies of the first NEA Arts magazines I wrote by myself, an interview I did with a food historian for American Spirit, a mini-collection of music poems that must have been the hand-out at a now-forgotten workshop, Maureen Seaton’s reading list from the very first poetry workshop I ever took, the essay I wrote to get into grad school, a profile in the MFA newsletter from my first year in the writing program.
I’ve just finished reading a stack of e-mails I’d printed out from when I was on sick leave from work with pneumonia from December 2005-April 2006. I’m both tickled and alarmed by the fact that even as I sent my boss updates on my clearly deteriorating condition, I continued to also give her updates on all of the work I intended to do while I was on sick leave.. Here’s a sample, from January 2 (which I think was a day or two before I was admitted to Adventist Hospital for a week).
“I’m going to the doctor tomorrow afternoon. my lungs are still full of crap and even walking to the front porch to get my mail makes me out of breath. I’m thinking I won’t be back at work until monday, but I’ll see what the doctor says. Unless the doctor forbids me from leaving bed the rest of the week, I’ll plan to get as much work done at home as possible….”
Did I mention that at this point I’d been diagnosed with walking pneumonia?
I carry around this idea in my head of myself as a slacker. But then I read e-mails like that, or I think back at how frantic I was to get as much work done as possible leading up to my fibroids surgery, and I realize that that particular story I tell about myself isn’t exactly accurate. I mean in one e-mail I tell a colleague I have pneumonia, but “I’m going to try and stop by on Thursday and pick up some newsletter stuff [to work on].”
I feel guilty about time off. I remind myself often that we have an allotment of sick days for a reason. That my lungs are still damaged from my 2006 illness and no one expects me to trudge into work on 100-degree days. No one’s surprised when allergy season comes along and I have to take time off because my asthma’s acting up. I know the whole spiel about taking time off to take care of ourselves so that we don’t end up with something worse. And still, I feel guilty.
I come from a long line of women who can’t sit still. They are always sweeping something or cooking something or washing something. Even when they’re sick or exhausted, chores have to be done. Their lives seem to revolve around action, not thinking. If you’re not actively doing something, then you’re wasting time.
I live a life of the mind. I’m thinking about poems, about PR campaigns and interviews for work, about what I want to tackle next in my ongoing practice of self-improvement. I may look passive, but mentally, emotionally, I’m hard at work. I’ll cook, clean, and wash as much as I need to so I don’t live in a total pit, but I’d rather read a book or watch a good TV show, whatever gets me to a thinking place. Still, though I intellectually know I’m doing something, my DNA keeps telling me something else.
And because I’m already carrying around this guilt that I don’t do enough, when it becomes imperative that I not do anything due to illness, the guilt intensifies. Sigh. While I have learned that I need to relax and take days off and enjoy them, I’m still working on not having to spend those days shushing the chorus of “I shoulds” yelling in my brain.
And now as I’m easing back into full-time work, I have to keep reminding myself that I should, in fact, be “easing” back into it. Sure my outside incision has healed well, but there’s still numerous incisions inside of me that are aggravated every time I bend over, or take a walk, or go up a flight of stairs. I have to remind myself to check in: How do I feel? Am I in pain? Am I tired? I still have another week at home telecommuting. And I’ve promised myself that once I’m commuting to work again, if I’m overly tired at the end of the day, I’ll work out an arrangement for a few weeks so I can continue to telecommute a few days a week until my strength’s back and riding the Metro doesn’t make my insides ache any more. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t feel guilty about it.
Christian Kane was briefly a muse. This is from a poetry reading in Charleston in October 2011.
Today I finished May Sarton’s 1975-1976 journal, A House By the Sea. In it she writes that for her , the muse has always been female. Though I write so often about what I generalize as “women’s concerns,” my muses have for the most part been decidedly male. By muse, in this context, I don’t mean the general inspirational element, but rather a real person who has directly inspired a poem. In Chicago, I wrote a lot about Ross Bon who led a jump blues outfit, the Mighty Blue Kings. While I was studying for my MFA, my muse was a blues-playing professor in the Lit department. Currently, it’s Michael Fassbender, though his museship seems somewhat different from his predecessors in that I’m not responding directly to him but using his words from an interview, which have already gone through the filter of someone else’s editor. Though I suppose one could argue that it’s because I was so powerfully affected by him as an actor that I decided to seek out his interviews as source text in the first place.
While I generally have a crush on my muse, not all of my crushes become muses. I’ve never once felt inspired to write anything because of George Clooney. And while my earnest sixteen-year-old self (hand) wrote a moving, shocking, gripping, hearbreaking , tearjerking, postively awful screenplay that was supposed to star Matt Dillon, even this earliest love of my life hasn’t inspired any poems.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you what makes someone a muse for me. They capture my imagination for some reason but to articulate that reason is beyond me. It’s not mere attractiveness, though, in my eyes, at least the ones I’ve named above are quite handsome. But it’s something to do with their talent and, even moreso, their ability in their performances or with their very presence to literally drive me out of my head for a moment. To get me past the editors, the censors, the dot-connectors that all crowd my head to the secret place where the poems wait.
My mother—and my father to a lesser degree—are central figures in my work but I don’t know that I’d consider them muses. They’re far too bound up in who I am. It’s as if when I write about them, as I try to unravel the self I’ve become, it’s an excavation. While the poems that are muse-born are a journey. In both cases the endpoint is unknown but it seems to me a different type of discovery. One’s a sloughing off to find the song that’s already there, perhaps, while the other is a new song entirely. No, that sounds entirely too pat. I think maybe one is a spiraling inward while the other is a spiraling outward. And this is, of course, speaking as if the processes really are that divergent, when it is more true to say that the places where the lines are blurry are much more numerous than the places in which they are distinct.
I should add that I have had women muses. Billie Holiday is a motif through many of my early poems, and even relatively new ones like “The Makers of Memorials.” And Eva Cassidy. I don’t know if Colette and May Sarton can be considered muses or if they are merely influences, and perhaps there isn’t really a difference.
But that’s enough about me and my muses….what have you to say about yours?
by Kathleen Kirk, Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Kathleen Kirk. Photo courtesy of Ms. Kirk
I’ve been thinking about friendship and its surprises. And Emily Dickinson. I’ve recognized in myself both her intensity—the thing that was sometimes too much for her friends and acquaintances—and her shyness, her impulse to withdraw. If we give ourselves wholly to someone, in friendship and trust, and we are rejected or betrayed, it’s successively harder to give oneself wholly again.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Now, Emily may have been talking about poetry or spiritual truth or ultimate reality here (her glimpses of it), not the confidences shared among friends, but I think her poem can apply to any of these things quite easily and well.
The meaning of “confidence” (I learned by looking it up in the American Heritage Dictionary) is actually “trust or faith in a person or thing.” After that, “a trusting relationship” and next “that which is confided; a secret.” These things all apply to friendship. It’s only the fourth meaning, “a feeling of assurance, especially of self-assurance,” that relates to what we often mean by the word “confidence,” but it seems reasonable that we acquire self-confidence from a secure and trustworthy relationship with the world and with other human beings, notably family and friends. If we haven’t had happy friendships, our confidence might be shaky indeed.
I’ve always been a writer and loved writing letters as a child. It was my way of maintaining connection with those close childhood friends I had to leave when my family moved from Florida, then Nebraska, and then went away for a year from our home in Illinois. I wrote long, newsy, frequent letters, and responded quickly when my friends wrote to me, which was much less frequently. I would wait and wait, longing for a response. Finally, weeks or months later, a letter would come, and I might respond to it that very night! One day I told my mother that I had written back right away to a friend I’d been waiting on with yearning, and she shook her head, letting me know my friend might feel bad, unable to write back quickly, that what was easy for me might be very difficult for her. My quick response might be more a slap in the face than the fond caress I intended. What a wake-up call at twelve. (And I was not quite ready to wake up!)
My mother also advised me not to tell secrets to my friends, nor to gossip, as anything one said was likely to get told to others and, if about someone else, back to that someone. This took me a while to learn, as I was always hoping for that true confidante, that dear, trusted friend, the kind one read about in books. As an adult, I have a few close friends, but I am more and more withdrawn in most social situations, noticing that the conversation is too often about people who are not there! Or the relationships are about getting something from the other person, not giving something—that there may be plenty of “networking” but little true reciprocity of a deeper sort.
What a delightful surprise, then, to find my friendship with Paulette growing deeper and closer than it ever had a chance to be when we happened to live in the same city. We met in poetry circles, and I was perhaps still working out my yearning to connect and my need to be quiet then, sensing that not everyone in a particular circle was someone who really wanted friendship but pushing for it, anyway. But both Paulette and I are writers and bloggers, private in our beings, public with our words, able to reveal ourselves to the world, to strangers, in a kind of trust that there are others of our kind out there, even if not always available to us in person.
It’s as if when I shine a light on something in my writing, some people can handle it better from a distance, or diffused through cyberspace. I’ve “met” many wonderful readers and writers through my own blog, people who seem to delight in my goofy humor and quirky insight, people who respond to my bouts of melancholy and occasional cry from the heart.
Paulette is one of these people, and I hope I am that to her. I remember when (at an AWP Conference in Chicago) she first mentioned her blog, thehomebeete, as a place where she’d write about cool and artsy stuff for the home, and I realized I might be too shy and technologically challenged to find it, read it, and figure out how to comment on it. But I did, and here I am now, guest blogging at thehomebeete!
Paulette’s blog has also evolved, and, while I still find beautiful and useful things for the home here, I also find beautiful and useful things from the heart. And hey, home is where the heart is!
Thank you, Paulette.
“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is. Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.
I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.
Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.
Today’s one of those days where I feel like I’m living my “real” life, which is the life I take up when I can set my own rhythm, when the phone doesn’t ring (except once which resulted in me ordering FIOS), plans haven’t been made, and the only sounds in the house are the turning of pages (I’m making my way through Journal of a Solitude), the ticking of the clock fashioned out of an old tin tart pan that I bought at an arts fair in Provincetown more than a decade ago, the dragging of ink across a page (I finally wrote down my list of 50 Things to Accomplish This Year and started the lists of movies I’ve watched and books I’ve read), and the plodding of my slippered feet up and down the polished floorboards of the hallway as I accomplish little tasks (take down the Christmas tree in my room, make my bed, write a few more New Years cards, eat the entire box of generic baked wheat snack crackers that was on top of the fridge).
When I texted my sister this morning I told her my plans for the day were to nap and read and nap and read. There was only one nap and I did turn on the TV to watch Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death on Netflix Instant, but for the most part, today has been about the little domestic adventures: hanging a small amateur painting I bought at a yard sale last summer in the kitchen by the sink, reading the first half of the January issue of Living, Etc. (which is strangely their Christmas issue), wearing the orange bracelet I thrifted on Thursday for no reason at all other than I didn’t feel like putting it away when I unpacked the bag it was sitting in, idly thinking as I watered the three plants that this is the year I will finally repot the plant my friend A. gave me when I came home from the hospital seven years ago, divvying up all the little babies that have rooted themselves since then, each carving out its own little plot in the green pot, the way I have carved out mine.
This morning I was quite taken by the scene playing out across the living room window in the early light. The sun cast the shadow of a branch across the window, with the shadow of a squirrel chasing back and forth across the branch, so that I seemed to have my very own ethereal animated film. I have come to love this apartment though it was chosen for me, my sister and my mother finding a new place for me to live even though no one was sure I’d recover from the severe pneumonia. While I was in the rehabilitation hospital learning to use my atrophied limbs again, the occupational therapist would ask, “What does your bathroom look like?” “How close is your bed to the bedroom door?” Time and again, I’d answer, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I hated this apartment when I finally came home to it. It was boxy and ordinary and even the wealth of closets couldn’t make up for its lack of charm. Though the apartment I was living in when I took ill turned out to be a death trap, I’d loved it. It was an English basement of a Victorian house. I painted the floorboards of the bedroom which was off the kitchen, sewed swathes of pink silk to curtain the old-fashioned windows that swung open inward like French doors. I constantly rearranged the furniture in “the great room,” which included a single bed I used as a couch, and sewed curtains for the bay window out of white fabric traced in blue glittery sworls and whorls. I tore pages out of a book of botanical photographs to hang above the radiator, and decided not to mind that there was an actual weed growing through the carpeting directly in front of the radiator. And I spent many nights lulling myself to sleep with a hot bath in the claw-foot bathtub that took up most of the space in the tiny bathroom that you went up three steps to reach.
I knew I couldn’t stay there, in my beautiful neighborhood of hippies and hydrangeas, once it was clear how sick I was, and, in fact, when I was in ICU, I begged my sister not to make me go back there. But still I couldn’t help but mourn its quirkiness and vintage charm when confronted with the quotidian, dingy cream walls of my new place. Now, seven years later, there’s a midnight blue wall in the living room, a shocking pink wall in the bedroom, a collection of crocheted and wool throws I’ve thrifted in the living room, two rugs based on the Gee’s Bend quilts I love, a faux Tulip table courtesy of IKEA, four vintage wooden Danish dining chairs, two Tord Boontje garland lamps—one of the first purchases I splurged on, a pull-out couch that I inherited from a friend and hope to keep forever, a vintage telephone table that I bought for $10 and recently recovered, plants I’ve managed to keep alive, a collection of Eiffel tower replicas including one that’s a combination liqueur bottle-music box, and art everywhere. On weekends, when I can linger in bed, I am often struck by the beauty of the early sun as it chases over my white sheets, and then, when I finally make my way to the living room, pinks the room in a way that is pure joy.
So here I am typing on my laptop, lying on the blue and white couch covered in the afghan my Granny Rosie crocheted for me 30 years ago, having spent the day watching the light move from a shy pink to that clear bright light particular to the winter. Now the outside world is all in silhouette, save for the punctuations of light from the apartments in the building across the driveway. As the twin pines outside my window stand sentry, as I ease into night knowing that the morning alarm must be set for church and that tomorrow evening I will trade this restorative solitude for the sweet balm of the laughter of friends, I am grateful to be an ordinary woman living an ordinary life on this ordinary, magical day.
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'” — May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude, September 15th
This may not be how it happened but this is how I remember it: I was browsing the Kalamazoo library bookstore with my friend Danna when she handed me this slim volume, a paperback with a black-and-white cover photo of a typewriter and a lamp seen through a glass door. “Journal of a Solitude,” it said, “The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman.”
I don’t remember if I’d heard of May Sarton before. I was perhaps not yet thirty, I had perhaps not yet lived half-a-year in Provincetown where I wrestled with what it meant for me to be an artist. The years of “undefined depressive disorder” brought on my finally getting into therapy and raking up the hot coals of loss and anger I’d long buried were still a half-decade in the future. I had no reason to suspect that this sixty-something Belgian emigre New England writer, typing up these daily entries in the autumn of 1973 through the autumn of the next year, could have anything to say to me.
I remember the shock of recognition when I read the opening paragraph, that quiet voice that understood why I loved long nights of cocktails and blues bands, but still hungered for long stretches of hours hidden away in my apartment with just a pen and a notebook and perhaps a pile of books. “I have written every poem, every novel for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”* How did she know that the only sure reflection of myself I knew was on the page? That it was the poems hidden in my body that helped me understand my wants, my desires, my griefs. Line by line I would tell myself my own secrets. Word by word I learned to recognize myself.
When I met Sarton, I didn’t yet know I was an introvert. Surely someone who regularly organized the company happy hours and spent two or three nights a week out at her favorite bar was an extrovert. I didn’t understand then that one could be a social introvert, enjoy the company of people immensely, but still need solitude in order to refill the well, recharge, refresh. Sarton helped me to understand the anger, the frustration I felt when I’d spent too much time in motion, when I’d not gifted myself one of those days when I was out and about but didn’t speak to a soul other than to pay for a purchase or say “excuse me.” She helped me to see that there was a difference between a day given over to contemplation and the completion of tasks that I wanted to do, and those days that weren’t restful even if I lay on the couch all day because of the endless loop of “I shoulds” running through my overcrowded brain.
I have re-read Journal of a Solitude countless times since that first discovery, and I buy copies when I find them to pass on to woman artist friends who too might find themselves struggling with that need for solitude that seems at odds with what women are supposed to want—to be at the center of family, blood or otherwise—even if we are, as I am, single and childless. I find myself craving Sarton’s voice when I feel lost, when I need to re-establish my sense of self because of some crisis or simply because I’m juggling too many projects at once. I have since collected most of her non-fiction, and I snatch up her novels when I find them though I’ve only read two so far—Kinds of Love, and The Magnificent Spinster (I think). I’m not a fan of her poetry though I buy those books too when I find them as it pains me to think of her voice disappearing, unheard by a woman who desperately needs it, and somehow I think that I will eventually grow into her poems, be able to see past the easy rhymes and “old-fashionedness” to appreciate the pure spirit behind them.
Did I mention that Sarton loved Mrs. Woolf too, and even went to visit her, Mrs. Woolf cool and in her declining years, Sarton eager, still a theater ingenue and not yet bloomed into the writer she’d become?
No matter how many times I’ve read Sarton, I find myself scribbling down her sentences again and again. She is my guardian angel leading me home, back to the quiet center of myself, where I rest alone. where I am equal to the task of honesty. She takes me by the hand, leads me to the blue-and-white couch, whispers forcefully, “The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.” **
* Journal of a Solitude, September 15
** Journal of a Solitude, January 18th
Spoiler Alert: This post is all about my period.
Last night my period started, which, after approximately 33 years of fertility, is not exactly news. Still it feels momentous because it may, in fact, be my final period ever. As I have been warned by my doctor, he may not be able to save my uterus when he removes the fibroids, and if my uterus goes so does my period.
I don’t remember if I was 10 or 11 when my period started but I do remember I was in 5th grade. Mrs. McGrath was my homeroom teacher, and she walked me down to the school office where she exclaimed to the secretaries, “One of my little girls just became a young lady.” One of the secretaries—yes, that is what we called them back then—opened up a cache of emergency supplies and out came a sanitary napkin that was pretty much twice the size I was. Not only that but it was the kind that was designed to be worn with a sanitary belt. I made do with two diaper pins instead.
Later that evening, my mom gave me the talk. It went a little something like this.
Mom: Do you know how you get pregnant?
Me: (tentatively) By playing with boys.
Mom: That’s right.
To be fair, my mother remembers the conversation rather differently, with her version having a little more detail. Whatever the actual exchange, I got the gist. Given that I’ve spent most of my adult life either as a virgin or celibate, with only a handful of years of being sexually active, I’ve never really paid that much attention to my period. Sure it’s annoying but I never worried much about tracking as I didn’t have to worry about pregnancy. I figured it would just get here when it got here. It’s actually embarrassing the number of years (and by years I mean decades), it took me to pay enough attention to realize that my body actually gave me plenty of signals when Aunt Flo was arriving to spend a few days on my couch.
I did, however, finally notice a few years ago that the several days a month when lines of poetry presented themselves unprovoked by prompts or any my usual poet’s tricks coincided with the days preceding my period. So while I don’t exactly look forward to the physical mechanics of menstruation, I do look forward to that time when, for whatever reason, I seem to have greater access to my creative spirit. I sometimes think about the Old Testament prohibitions that say women must be separated from the group during their cycles. I’ve come to believe that it’s less about cleanliness and more about giving women a time apart to fully engage with their creativity. Even as the body physically cleans itself of the unused mechanisms of physical creation, the mind itself shakes off and shakes out the lines, the scenes, the characters that have been waiting for fertilization. Some land on the page, some are reabsorbed to gestate a little longer. Yes, I realize I’m willy nilly mixing my metaphors here, but hopefully you get the point.
I wouldn’t say that I’m scared that my creativity will suddenly disappear if I no longer have a uterus and get a period. But I am mindful of the metaphoric implication of giving up that place in myself that was designed to harbor life.
I’m not sure how to write my way out of the end of this post, and I guess that’s where the TBD comes in. The poems will still be there hidden in my body, I will still be capable of creation regardless of which body parts I may or may not possess after surgery, and while something will be lost, I am expectant that out of that loss, something else will be born, some new metaphor for creation that I’ll only be able to hold onto if I’m capable of letting go.