In the used bookstore in which I volunteer, I found a slim paperback book of poetry, modestly and plainly bound, entitled A Gypsy’s History of the World, by Kim Robert Stafford. It called to me and I bought it for $4.00.
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I had never heard of this poet, but he turns out to be quite well-known and has published several books, which I’ll be looking for now. In the meantime, this book is filled with treasures.
For a couple of days I’ve been groping for this week’s post. Sometimes they come so easily, these posts. Other times I flounder. It seems that the more I have going on, the harder it is to come up with a focused essay. Irritating, but writing can be like that.
When I listen to the sound of my life this week I hear a cacophony. There are the half-excited, half-apprehensive feelings I have as the night approaches on which I’ve scheduled a local venue to once again try to start a dance group. (Will I be a good leader? Will they like me? Will anyone come?) There’s the increasing pressure I feel to find a way to earn a paycheck. There are new friends and our conversations as we strengthen our connections. (Am I talking too much? Am I offensive? Am I too blunt? Do I ask too many questions?) I’m preoccupied with family dynamics and past, present, and future possibilities and fears. (What’s the right thing to do? What’s loving? What’s useful? What will people think about me? How do I take care of everyone’s needs and expectations? How much irreparable damage will I do if I make the wrong choice?) There are my weekly activities and appointments. All the material of my daily reading swirls in my head, awaiting synthesis and integration.
In my creative world, I’m with Pele, the Earth-Shaper, sensual, passionate and angry. This week others will come to dance with her, to make offerings, to propitiate and reconnect. Revolving around her are other characters: Rumpelstiltskin the dwarf; Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea; a little brown bat called Ash and his companion, a bark beetle; the eldest of the twelve dancing princesses, Ginger; an old woman, Heks, apprentice to Baba Yaga; and Persephone, who comes to drum for the dance.
All this, and I can’t come up with a thing to post about.
I know this dynamic. The more pressure I put on myself, the harder I try, the more elusive inspiration will be.
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It’s a foggy morning here in Maine. Foggy and oppressive with high humidity and a threat of severe weather this afternoon. I’m planning on meeting a new friend for a walk and then I’ll swim. I decided to stop trying to write a post. I turned off all the lights up here in my little attic space and lit a candle. I picked up A Gypsy’s History of the World and turned back to the beginning of the book.
A dream flips me into the daylight.
I pry my way back:
a door opens, I enter, never
escape; the jailor sings by morning
duets through the bars with me.
I wake and out my window
by dawn a blackbird sings and
listens, sings and listens.
Listen. Thistledown jumps its dance
in the wind. I’m small and have
no regrets. Yesterday is a temporary
tombstone, a hollow stalk
on the hill. I’m putting my best
ear forward; in the space between songs
I’m travelling. My hands make
whistling wings in the wind.
No things meet without music:
wind and the chimney’s whine, hail’s click
with the pane, breath in a bird’s
throat, rain in my ear when I
sleep in the grass. I miss the
whisper of a swallow’s wings
meeting the thin air somewhere far.
Branches of my voice, come back.
Inside each song
At once the cacophony in my head faded away, no more than the murmur of the trees and breeze or the ocean’s breath. For a few minutes, I thought about being small and having no regrets, let alone imagining future regrets. Yesterday and yesterday and yesterday, all temporary tombstones. All my yesterdays add up to almost 20,000 hollow stalks on a hill. And yes, activities and schedules, efforts and appointments, hopes and fears, words and information, friends and family, the way the shadowed ceiling looks in a sleepless hour and the path of silent tears on their way to my pillow. All of that. But I forget about the space between all those songs. I forget that I’m traveling through this place, this life, and these landmarks.
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Sometimes I forget to just listen to life’s music, just witness, just be present and still. Sometimes I forget to fold my hands in my lap and watch the wavering shadows the candle makes inside the song of my life. The song will not be endless. One day it will be yesterday’s song, held in a hollow stalk on a hill. I can’t reach out my hand and clutch it, pin it down, record it and make sense of it. I don’t need to. I don’t want to.
Today, friends, I’m listening.
My daily crime.
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I recently had a discussion with a young friend who’s going through a hard time.
I listened and asked questions, and did my best to enter into her experience. My agenda wasn’t to rescue, fix, or advise, just to let her know I cared and help her think about options.
My intentions were good, but I walked away feeling as though I’d only irritated her and made things worse. Ever since, I’ve been questioning what I said and how I handled this interaction. Was I patronizing? Condescending? Obnoxiously optimistic? Aggressively parental? Didn’t I listen well?
Or maybe my questions were the problem, not because they were bad questions but because they were good questions. I’m reminded of people in my life who have approached my distress with the kinds of questions that made me want to hang up the phone or slap their face. Their questions challenged me to break out of the shrinking cage I was in. They challenged me to take control, take responsibility, face my fear or think outside my usual box.
I’m not sure why, but when I’m good and miserable, or at panic stations, or swept up in powerlessness, I want someone to agree with me. It’s hopeless. I’m helpless. It will never get better. I made mistakes, bad choices, stupid decisions and now I’m paying a price I deserve to pay. I’ve dug a hole so deep I can’t get out without some kind of divine intervention. I have to wait for someone to rescue me.
Sitting here writing this it sounds silly, but it’s not silly when I’m in it. We’ve all had times like this. What I know is that my best friends in crisis are the ones who metaphorically kick me in the butt. They won’t walk down the pity path with me. They won’t agree that it’s all over because I screwed up or made bad choices. They don’t admit the past was apocalyptic and the future will be catastrophic.
These people keep redirecting me back to what I can do right now to help myself, and away from everything else, and sometimes they’re not gentle about it.
This is tricky because it’s counterintuitive, at least to me. When I’m faced with a problem, I want to square right up to it, obsess, throw myself at it, beat my head against it and leave the rest of my life unoccupied. It’s either an all-out wrestling match or I eat ice cream out of the carton (a big carton!), stop taking showers, binge watch ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ all night and sleep all day.
Neither of these approaches has worked for me. The only thing that has ever worked is to identify where my power is right now and let the rest go. I don’t know why that works. I don’t know how it works, but I know it does.
When I was a low-income single mom, what this meant was realizing summer was ending and the boys would need new winter coats I couldn’t afford, and we would need groceries a lot sooner than that, but I had no money. And yes, I was working. At one point I worked two jobs and attended school.
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Anyway, I developed a habit of shaping the day around what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do. I tried not to think about the next day, the next week, the next winter. I figured out what we’d eat that day from what we had, and I did what I could do — all the things that can be done without money. Like playing with Legos on the living room floor, or taking a walk, or reading aloud to the boys, or doing laundry, or working in the garden, or scrubbing the kitchen floor.
Some days were so hard I just lived five minutes at a time. It was all I could handle.
My kids are in their twenties now. All those five minutes, all those one-day-at-a-times passed and we weren’t homeless, we weren’t without food and we always managed winter coats, thanks to Goodwill. I have no idea how it all worked. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.
Now, it’s true I found jobs, got trained and educated, did without things like cell phones and cable TV. I did what I could to help myself through those years, and I had a lot of outside help, too. But my point is I tried not to get stalled with my nose touching a brick wall. I tried to look in another direction — in a direction where I could make choices. Doing that didn’t make the brick wall disappear, but somehow it allowed me to move past it.
Getting back to my friend, I tried to ask questions about where she did have power, but she felt powerless in every direction and the questions only reinforced the feeling instead of helping her reconsider her situation. I left the conversation feeling upset and frustrated and decided I needed to take a step back, give my friend space and let it all unfold.
Interestingly, in the time between that conversation and this minute, my friend got what she needed from someone else, made some hard choices and now sees her way ahead, at least for a few steps.
What I’ve learned from this is that no matter how much I love and care for someone, no matter how much I want to share what I’ve learned in life, sometimes I just can’t be useful or effective. That doesn’t mean, however, that my loved one won’t get what they need from someone else. I’m trying hard to persuade myself this doesn’t make me a failure, but it’s uphill work. Additionally, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of what I feel is nothing more than injured pride. As long as I’m confessing, there might be jealousy in there, too.
I’ve also relearned the thing I wanted to teach. It was clear to me I couldn’t be an effective support to my friend, I couldn’t make her feel better, I had nothing to offer she could use. However, two cords of wood were sitting in our driveway, so my partner turned on music and we stacked it in the barn. He and I cleaned out a closet and I got my fall/winter clothes handy. I was scheduled to work on Labor Day weekend and the day after, so I showed up for work and did my best. I wrote a few pages of my current book and I wrote this post. Today I swim. It was in the middle of all this that my friend came to me with the beginnings of her own solutions to her own problems.
Maybe my love and concern were only an added pressure for my friend. Maybe the most helpful thing I did was step back and live my own life. That, after all, is where my power is.
I just wish it didn’t feel so inadequate.
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