As a Californian, I am contractually obligated to be grateful for every precious drop of rain that falls. And I am. But as my region deals with huge rainfall and flooding, it can be challenging. And the varying pressure triggers my back pain. More seriously, it triggers spikes in my daughter’s chronic migraines. And I can’t go out. And the dog wants to go out every 20 minutes, and she can’t understand why we don’t turn the rain off, and we have to put on her doggie raincoat and leash her and take her out each time because there’s a giant puddle in back, and it’s all a giant hassle. And it’s dark.
I know I’m too sensitive to my emotional environment sometimes. The more down those around me feel, the worse I feel. It’s hard right now to get excited about publication tasks, especially since I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed. A heavy depressive fog has settled over me. I’m always cold. The silence required by my daughter’s headaches is oppressive (there is only so long I can tolerate headphones without needing a break).
Here’s the part where I introduce a clever metaphor and link all this to the general experience of living with one of my conditions. But I haven’t got one today. It’s raining in my head, and I have to wait it out. I have to remember all the things I’ve been excited about, even if I can’t feel the excitement right now. It will come back. It always does.
I used to think acceptance was the coward’s way out. It would be wrong for me to accept my conditions or their limitations, because that would mean I was giving up instead of fighting, fighting all the time, fighting to create a “normal” life like all the inspirational stories out there tell us a disabled person is supposed to do.
The culture I live in glorifies fighting. When a person develops cancer, their process is framed as a battle. Their perceived job is to fight–and if the cancer proves to be terminal, the battle is lost. Death is framed as a failure. For millions like me, life with compromises is seen as a failure. Accepting that I cannot work full-time, or spend too long in certain environments, means stepping away from the meritocracy and accepting a role of someone who’s not in the race.
Settling into a regimen of care that doesn’t fix everything but has been sustainable for years is seen as a failure. I’m supposed to be trying things, constantly seeking alternative treatments, and spending my life in an endless search for a cure instead of living it.
Of course, there’s a balance needed between accepting and fighting. There are many battles to fight every day. If a heavy depression has kept me from washing my hair for days, accepting my greasy locks and itchy scalp isn’t the best choice. Better to fight the inertia, if I can, and drag myself to the shower. Ditto for hundreds of other arenas where I take on my demons to win the prize of some meaningful action.
But accepting myself, in general–accepting that I have the life I do–is key, no matter what it costs.
…one might ask. Well, I’ve been writing like hell.
Just not here. Part of my brain seems to think writing sections of my book, or writing new poetry, means there is no time or juice left for updating this site. And that’s bullshit. It’s not as if doing a post takes me a long time; it just takes the willingness to sit down and write something about what’s going on in my head or my life right now.
The hardest part is picking out a subject from the thousands of possible ones. I’m seriously considering getting a jar with scraps of paper and pulling out a random one every day.
I’ve also been house hunting and moving. Yes, after seven years, my family is living in a house again. It’s not really any bigger than the apartment, but it has a little yard for the dog…and a room that has a corner that’s MINE with a DESK in it that belongs to ME and NOBODY else can put so much as a PENCIL on it or I will SMITE them like an Old Testament plague.
The phrase haunts me. Whenever I find a lump where a lump shouldn’t be, or even have a twinge of pain in an unfamiliar place, the fear comes up. I’m turning into a hypochondriac, and I don’t like it.
It’s not just that I am afraid of dying, although I am. It’s that part of me is still waiting for a judgment from the universe–a judgment saying I’ve had enough second chances. A judgment saying my current efforts are too little, too late.
I recently spent time with a fellow addict who is on dialysis. For three years, she tried to quit smoking in order to get on the list for a kidney transplant and could not do it. She finally succeeded—two months before a heart complication showed up and derailed the whole process. Too little, too late.
My blood sugars are lower than they’ve been in a long time–but with every exam I fear the onset of some complication born during the less controlled times. My weight is improving slowly from the place it reached last year–but with every sore knee or backache I fear that I’ll never dance again.
It all feeds into the roar from the ever-present peanut gallery that observes my efforts at writing: You’re too old! It’s too late! There’s not enough time left to accomplish anything that is worth doing!
Here’s the greatest benefit I am receiving from starting to attend actual live poetry events and read my own work: When I know I am going somewhere like this, I get like a kindergartener on Show and Tell Day.
I want to bring something new, if I can. I want to bring something I’ll enjoy sharing. If I have a partial draft that’s been in limbo, I get inspired to sit down with it and see if I can whip it into readable shape. If I have a piece that exists but has never been read to an audience, I get inspired to polish anything that might improve its readability.
It’s wonderful for breaking me out of physical, mental or emotional inertia. Right now I’m about to tackle revising an old draft that has been untouched for nearly a year. I’ve been vaguely dissatisfied with it the whole time, but never dug back in…but for some reason, I want to read it tonight.
Two days ago, over a bowl of oatmeal, I was ambushed by a poem. The seed of it had appeared the day before, and was suddenly mushrooming into near-draft form. Obediently, my half-awake self reached for a pen and wrote things down. In half an hour flat, I had something better than the things I’d been staring at sporadically for two weeks.
“You will find that you may write and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second.”
—Richard Hugo, from The Triggering Town
If I were reading this in a church, this would be the time to shout “Amen!”
I have thought about abandoning a poem when it feels awkward or stuck…and sometimes I do put it aside for a while. This passage affirms what I think I already knew: working on a poem is never wasted time, even if that version of that poem isn’t destined to become a star. The work of the past two weeks bore an unexpected fruit, that’s all.
“Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself.”
The above quote comes from my latest acquisition in the “poets writing about being a poet” genre. It’s called The Triggering Town: Lectures and essays on poets and writing. I recommend it highly; there are some sections that caused me to get out my highlighter because yes, that phrase, I want to remember that one. I could write a post about each of those phrases, and I might.
So what does he mean when he writes “think small?” He’s talking about how some of the best poems come from a small triggering subject as opposed to tackling a huge, monolithic one. A small, finite experience or image is used as a starting point, and the mind expands from there.
It makes sense to me. What scenario sounds as it if will lead to a better poem? A poet sitting down saying “I’m going to write a poem about Death now” or a poet musing about the birdsong that distracted them during their grandfather’s burial?
The advice to “think small” is helping me in other ways right now. I’ve been to several poetry readings and open mics lately, following up that first experience, and it’s having a Pandora’s-box-like effect on my feelings about poetry and my generation of new poem ideas. It is very easy for me to get overwhelmed, especially since I now realize there is more going on in my local poetry scene than I could ever have the time or strength to attend.
Think small. What event am I going to next (and for God’s sake, don’t overcommit yourself!) What am I going to read there? Is it ready?
There’s no one way to stimulate creativity. For me, the seeds of a new poem can come at the oddest times. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is the role played by boredom, fatigue, or concentrating on a task like driving or dishes. A mental state in which thoughts drift randomly and hook up in unexpected ways.
Recently, I had the most glaring example of this…it was the night before my father-in-law died, and I was up at the family’s home being with them in their vigil. We were all catching bits of sleep where we could, in between listening to his breathing. I lay in a trundle bed, stupidly tired, and could not fall asleep. I listened to some music on my headphones, tried again; still no dice.
My mind began to wander, and BAM! the seed of a new poem appeared. Was it a poem about death, or grief, or what it’s like waiting for it this way? No. The poem is (as far as I can tell at this stage) completely unrelated to what was going on. The trigger appears to have been a phrase in a poem I’d read the day before, linked to a different poem I’d been working on, linked to a song I had heard…you get the idea. These things drifted through my fatigue-drugged mind and collided.
And it wasn’t just an idea, it was an idea. One of those juicy ones that gives you a little shiver when it clicks into place.
Those who speak of the drawbacks of technology, or those who caution against the overscheduling of children’s lives, understand that we all need time to daydream. Boredom and random mental drifting are vital to imagination. I know that I interfere with my creativity when I distract myself from insomnia with my iPad instead of just letting myself drift, although I forgive myself because it’s the least of evils at times.