Recently, the US Department of Transportation sent me two dollars as a way of thanking me for filling out, or for even considering filling out, a survey about my transportation needs. Actually, though, the survey wasn’t addressed to me; it was addressed to any resident of my city who lives (or stays) where I live or who collects mail from my box and reads it.
While two dollars is not twenty dollars or two hundred dollars or two thousand dollars, two dollars is not nothing. Sure, I have received other incentives to take an action I might not otherwise take: free stamps, free Christmas stickers, free return address labels, and free quarters taped to the mailers they accompanied. But pocketing two unearned bucks places me more squarely on the road to Shame City than does nabbing address labels, say. If I took the two dollars without responding to the survey, I would have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a theft, if only on a karmic level. If, however, I took the labels without doing what had been asked of me, I am pretty certain I would escape God’s wrath because God knows I could never find in myself any interest in using such things.
Were I a member of the other political party, I might take the money, crumple up the survey, and rant about big government wasting my hard-earned cash. I might not even recycle the paper it was printed on because I could see myself thinking that God has put a never-ending supply of trees on this green earth for my benefit alone, and I might also think that if I recycle I am just supporting another one of those government scams designed to bilk me out of even more of my dough.
But me, I feel gratitude for the money not only because two bucks is not nothing but also because I can well imagine the drama surrounding any decision made to stuff fistfuls of dollars into envelopes addressed to no one in particular and to send these out into the world with the knowledge that much of the cash could end up in the trash bin with the rest of the unopened junk mail. To be sure it was a gamble, but, at a time when data dictates who gets funding, it was a good one. I might not complete the survey today or tomorrow, but each day I lollygag the good angel sitting on my shoulder will be whispering into my ear that I need to get it done if I want to make it through those Pearly Gates.
Yesterday, I met a new acquaintance for a cup of coffee (well, he had chai), but that rendezvous, and what led to it, is another story. Later, I made my way to my car and discovered I had left the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked, though, oddly—and you will soon see why—the doors usually automatically lock after a short period of time. You can imagine, then, how grateful I was that a) the doors had remained unlocked for several hours, b) no one had stolen the car, and c) I didn’t have to wait interminably for roadside assistance to come find me and break in through a window.
Once inside, I saw something eerie in the change holder that sits in the front under the radio—something that had not been there the last time I remembered looking: 28 grimy pennies. Typically I put only quarters in the holder, which I use for parking and tolls. Occasionally I will put dimes and nickels in it, but I will never put pennies in there because they are useless. Parking meters don’t take pennies, and toll takers don’t much like pennies. Who can blame them?
Recently, I moved temporarily into Northern Virginia, land of tolls, so I have had to become pretty aware of the change I keep in my car. All I can say is that I cannot account for these pennies. Just as, some years back, I could not account for a thick neck scarf that had found its way into the sleeve of my winter coat—which had been hanging on the back of a chair in my living room—and that did not belong to me or to anyone I knew.
What interests me most is how quickly my mind will run towards the paranormal if it cannot easily find a rational answer to a puzzling event. It is the same part of me, I think, that is drawn to mysticism. And God.
Last night I received an email from a friend who told me she had just finished reading Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation. “Somehow, it reminds me of you,” she wrote. There is such mystery embedded in these six words that I searched for it at once on Amazon.
Happily, I was able to “Look Inside!↓” and read a few selected pages of the book. Though I couldn’t determine from these pages what in them might have reminded her of me, I did come upon a passage that made me think of something I wrote in 2012 on painter Lucian Freud. More a piece about what one needs innerly to live an artist’s life than it is about Freud himself, though, “An Ode to Selfishness” gave me an opportunity to reflect briefly on qualities that seem to make the difference between those who sustain the life of an artist — in the very broadest sense of the word — and those who do not.
Freud was a prodigious talent; he was also a prodigious philanderer who was rumored to have fathered as many as 40 children. A man who has a predilection for spilling his seed across continents is of interest anthropologically, yes, but what was most fascinating to me about him was, as I wrote, “his single-minded devotion to his art and…his devil-may-care attitude over what others thought of him….”
As I have gotten older, I have become much less preoccupied with what others might think about me, but I don’t imagine I will ever fully abandon my need for another’s good opinion. This craving, I have come to think, stands in the way of what it takes, in my case, to be a writer worth her salt.
In her novel, Offill has her narrator reflect more deeply on this idea and on how it is related to gender. “My plan was to never get married,” she says. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”
Today I caught the last moments of a Terry Gross interview on NPR. In it, she was speaking with Jack Miles, general editor of The Norton Anthology Of World Religions and professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of God: A Biography, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. What I heard was of great interest, but most interesting of all was a seeming throwaway line I might have missed had I not gone back to read an online transcript of the discussion and reflect on what had been said.
“I have no confidence that the world [awaiting] us — given global warming, given the threat to the human habitat — is a world of ever-increasing knowledge…,” says Miles. “We may be at a peak now from which we will decline. Who knows?”
I think I can honestly say it never occurred to me that human beings would stop evolving; in fact, I have often taken comfort in the belief that we could grow out of our smallnesses and stupidities to become the enlightened band of sisters and brothers we were meant to be. But one glance at the day’s headlines, and I have to wonder if we are, in fact, on a slow, steady slide downward.
Tomorrow it will be three years since I wrote my first blog post. To celebrate, and as a way of offering you my gratitude for reading and supporting my work, I thought I’d unearth and reprint “The hay who wore a toupée,” one of the pieces I wrote in January 2012:
“When I was a child, I think I thought that words were more reliable than grown-ups but not as important as horses. Grown-ups were always gone or leaving, but words were right where you left them. Horses were passion, though, and nothing trumps passion. Just as I can’t remember a time when I was read to I can’t remember a time when I did not read. Any words would do so long as they were companion enough. I especially loved stories of young girls with a heap of derring-do. My favorite was Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library, and I smile now to think of the reason. At such a young age I couldn’t possibly have understood why a mystery novel about a grown-up who keeps trying to steal a book would have taken me so completely. Probably as soon as I mastered cursive I wrote my first poem. This is how it went: On a bright sunny day/he galloped away/his mouth full of hay/wearing a toupée.”
Earlier, I sat down to write a poem for you about the new year, but an hour or so into the process I realized it wasn’t going to be very good. It felt stiff, contrived, and I knew I should scrap it. I’ve never been able to create on command, and I’m always surprised by where the mysterious act of creation takes me — whether I’m writing a poem from thin air or drawing an actual tree in front of me.
From the time I was very small, people have had all kinds of advice about what and how I should write. “Write about what you know,” some have said. “Write about what you don’t know,” a few others have suggested. Upon reading a novel I wrote years back, my brother asked, “Can’t you be a little more cheerful?”
Well, no, I can’t cajole myself into being upbeat. Whatever emerges almost always appears to have its own heart and mind, while I just seem to get taken along for the ride. But, if I could will myself to write something meaningful for you about 2015, it might have some of these sentiments in it: evolve; love yourself and others; live authentically and simply; be kind (or at least stop being unkind, as a friend of mine says); be honest; surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you. Leave suffering and unrequited longing behind you, if you can.
I started this blog nearly three years ago, and, at the time, I had no expectations about what I should do or about how I should do it. I knew only that I wanted to write in a disciplined, thoughtful way because I saw that, for me, a careful, dogged approach to the craft and art of writing was the only path to developing myself.
Though I have done many things in my life — teaching writing among them — I always seemed to run from this slow, steady approach to my own work. Early on here, I began to write sections of a short story and to post them each week. This felt very risky, but your “likes,” “follows,” and comments gave me the confidence to keep on with it. I have since had the piece published — thanks in large part to your support. I now find myself very caught up in writing poetry, which has been a wonderful surprise for me, and I am once again grateful for your responsiveness to this work. I thought you might all want to jump ship if I stopped posting short pieces of nonfiction regularly, but so far only one person has jumped, and perhaps for other reasons.
I often have felt quite sad during the holiday season because the essence of its holiness seems lost on many of us — as does a true sense of wonder and gratitude for the life we each have been given, with every day a chance for renewal and for giving and receiving loving kindness. By staying with me over these years, you have shown me much loving kindness, and I am very grateful to you. During this season, may you all find and keep the peace and love you so deserve.
love is a lunatic aunt
come down from the Bronx to
rant about her maybe baby
and prophesy calamity
he some dark eyed
and need him
on the side
with they aye papi way
he gonna kill me
dead that one
and snuff these holy flame
gonna do miss mujerzuela
so as give him nena pain
lo siento sobrina but
you don’t got no chance
I just thrown the lovers’ tarot
and seen trouble with romance
first I pull the tower then
the devil after that so I think
you better go mami
before you too much fat
* llamas gemelas = “twin flames”
Some years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.
One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.
Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.
For many years I have been fascinated by the use of a technique in poetry known as the “dramatic monologue.” Though he certainly wasn’t the first to use this technique (or form), Victorian poet Robert Browning perfected it in such poems as “Porphyria’s Lover” (a favorite) and “My Last Duchess.” Later, T.S. Eliot used the form in his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (another favorite), and John Berryman used it in his “Dream Songs.” Poems that incorporate dramatic monologue — also known as persona poems — typically make use of one “character” through whom the poem is spoken or delivered. Because a poem using this technique is often in the first person, it is tempting to conclude that the poem’s narrator and the poet are one and the same. But don’t be fooled! Writing this type of poem allows the writer to adopt the “voice” of the character and to inhabit him or her from the inside out (as an actor might). And, because there is no overt commentary about or analysis of the character given within the poem itself, it is left to the reader to decide the poem’s meaning and power by paying close attention to what the often “unreliable narrator” says — or doesn’t say.