Word Play

Reading a lot of poetry reminds me how much fun language is.

Words get a bad rap sometimes: unable to express the ineffable, “apple” never quite getting at the crispness and juiciness of the real thing, inconsistent and illogical spellings—at least in English.

On the other hand, just consider how entertaining a thesaurus can be. I recently looked up the adjective “visionary,” and the synonyms ranged from “astral” to “noble.” I got a kick out of inserting some of the synonyms into my sentence: “His astral leadership moved the university in a completely new direction.” I bet it did.

I love how some words can’t be translated, like “douce” in French, which means soft, but also sweet and gentle at the same time. It means both the light after sunset on a perfect day and the way it feels at that moment, and we don’t have a word for that in English.

I love that the structure of a language reflects the way a culture thinks. You really can’t say, “When the rain began falling, Jane had been planning to go to the grocery store” in Chinese because the Chinese don’t see the point of obsessing about time in quite the same way Americans do.

I love that, aside from using it to tell jokes, language can be the joke: A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve mushrooms here.” The mushroom says, “Why not? I’m a fungi.”

And I love that words can be hung together so beautifully, with such poise and precision, that they can make us weep.

Like most things human, language won’t get us all the way to wherever we’re going, but it’s a wonderful companion along the way.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here’s one I’m sure the poet enjoyed writing. It is a little less straightforward than the others I’ve posted this month, but just skip the parts you don’t understand and dance with cummings through the rest of it.

i thank You God for most this amazing…
by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Warning: There are a couple of poems I’d like to share that I didn’t get posted, so National Poetry Month may extend slightly into May.

Words to Live By

It’s National Poetry Month! Some of you may object to that exclamation mark and think that National Poetry Month is not far removed from National Root Canal Month, but I beg a couple paragraphs’ worth of your indulgence to convince you otherwise.

National Poetry Month April 2018, poets.orgSometime before we were taught that only English teachers can understand poetry, I believe that everyone loved poetry. “Humpty Dumpty,” after all, is a poem.

In grade school, poetry is often taught first as if it were mainly a question of counting syllables and later as if it were written in a different language. Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote some amazing verses, but here are the first two lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.

In the midst of your years of teenage angst, unless you were a future Middle English scholar, that might not have spoken to your soul. Imagine how different your relationship to poetry might be if, instead, you’d gotten a few lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Poetry is as close as we get to saying the unsayable. It’s the language to use when you most desperately need to be understood, when your heart is broken seven different ways and in the middle you find either unending despair or astonishing hope, when the beauty of a rain drop on a blade of grass has taken your breath away or reminded you of your own mortality or both.

If you like music, you like poetry. If you like the psalms, you like poetry. If you like Paul Simon, you like hard poetry. Here are a few lines from “Obvious Child” whose meaning is far from obvious (punctuation is mine):

I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,
Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite.
I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more.
I don’t expect to sleep through the night.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, give me a month. I’ll post a beautiful and accessible poem every few days in addition to the regular Tuesday night entries. Here’s one of my favorites to start:

The Magical Eraser
By Shel Silverstein

She wouldn’t believe
This pencil has
A magical eraser.
She said I was a silly moo,
She said I was a liar too,
She dared me prove that it was true,
And so what could I do—
I erased her!

Losing the Edge

The edges of my life are fraying. I like edges. They look clean and crisp and clearly mark where one thing ends and the next begins. I never was a color outside the lines kid and didn’t appreciate it when others played fast and loose with the boundaries in my coloring book.

But life apparently prefers watercolors and things are bleeding into each other at an alarming rate. By things I mean work and life because clearly work isn’t life; it’s some alternate universe we enter at eight and leave at five. Through the door in the toadstool after eating the mysterious cake.

The idea that a little less than 5/7 of my time doesn’t count as my life is a little absurd to begin with. It’s even stranger if you consider that people from work become good friends and are invited into the other realm. And of course no membrane prevents work experiences from infiltrating the way I think about the world or vice versa. To switch metaphors, the peas got mixed up with the mashed potatoes long before now.

Yet I’ve always considered work as other, probably because then it can be contained in a neat, little package and dropped at the side of the road when my real life comes along. If work doesn’t count, then I haven’t, for example, irrevocably not published a book because I’m not truly committed to anything else.

Maintaining this level of self-delusion requires serious talent. Let’s examine some evidence. If the amount of time I spend thinking about work while cooking dinner or taking a shower is any indication, I do value my work, thank goodness. Who wants to spend all that time doing something that feels like a waste? And believing that holding work as unimportant will help me accomplish other goals is like training for a marathon by not swimming.

It’s scary, though. If I give work official life status, what’s to keep it from smearing purple crayon all over the coloring book? This concern is probably as relevant to my life as the fear that I may become a couch potato, which, when discussed with a friend, elicited the response, “As if.”

Come in! Come in!

My own bad behavior recently reminded me how important it is to support each other in whatever we dream to do.

A friend on the van knows someone who is thinking about writing a book and so asked me for publishing advice. My internal reaction was, “Write the blankety-blank book and then worry about it.”

My external reaction might have been slightly more gracious, but it wasn’t exactly welcoming. I didn’t say, “Wow, that’s great. What a fabulous project to undertake. What does she want to write about?” I didn’t pour out a list of helpful resources.

Trying to get published is often discouraging. I recently read an article in Poets and Writers Magazine that said, without connections, a writer has a one in 11,111 chance of getting an offer of representation from a typical literary agent.

That means you can be in the top .0001% of writers and still not get signed by a particular agent. My math is not good enough to figure out the odds if you considered all agents, but certainly not good enough to make me dance a jig.

Which is all the more reason to be encouraging to others entering the game. Nobody enjoys being one in 11,111. It is better to be two and even better to be five or ten, exponentially better, in ways that defy mathematics.

I don’t know why we need the support of others who share similar experiences, but anyone who’s ever felt really lousy and then talked to a friend or family member and felt better knows it’s true. We are social beings, and I think it’s hard wired into us to thrive more completely in community.

So, henceforward, I will take as my motto Shel Silverstein’s poem “Invitation,” which begins, “If you are a dreamer, come in.”

Time Flies

I am not an early adopter. When my sister first got a livejournal account, my enlightened reaction was something along the lines of, “Blogs are stupid. Who would do that?” A diary anyone in the world could read had all the appeal of the unidentified, molding substance in the back of my refrigerator. Today, thanks to leap year, Being Finite is exactly one year old.

I didn’t anticipate enjoying blogging. Even though most posts keep me up past my bedtime, I’m always grateful for the writing of them. They keep me honest, and they remind me to look for “things that help when life gets difficult,” to quote the About blurb. I’ve discovered, much to my surprise, that what helps is telling stories about my limitations, quirks, amazing friends and family, lousy days, and moments of gratitude.

It’s remarkably humbling to hear about my posts striking a chord with others or making them laugh. My original plan, quickly abandoned due to complete lack of research, consisted of finding other people and groups doing impressively helpful things. I didn’t expect my life to make interesting material. Readers’ reactions bring home what many have said, that all we really have to offer is our unique existence in this world, and that is enough.

What’s made the last year both enjoyable and humbling is you who read and comment and like, who share and smile about a post on the van, who reference the blog in a conversation, whether spoken or digital. Thank you for sticking with me, for encouraging me, for giving me a reason to write as clearly and thoughtfully as I can at 11 p.m.

Here’s hoping we’re still sharing pixels this time next year.

Let It Be

If authors did risk assessments, no one would ever begin a book. I’ve been working on a new novel for a little while and have only pieces of the world my characters inhabit, pieces that may never coalesce into a whole. I could spend five years writing this story and still not discover the crucial turn in the plot.

Considering how little faith I often have in simple things, this uncertainty should unhinge me. For example, I will check and double-check all the letters in a mail merge, as if the name field goblin might infiltrate Microsoft Word and match Joe’s address with Sally’s salutation. Given that impressive paranoia, I have a surprising amount of faith in this emerging novel, even though it still refuses to let me get too structured about things—no outlining allowed.

Established relationships are more comfortable, more familiar. In my already completed novel, I know the characters and the terrain—both emotional and geographical—intimately. I’m fond of the people and the place.

But this void of beginning offers a paradoxical peacefulness. There is nothing to do but wait for the novel to reveal itself. The usual poking and prodding and futurizing I engage in with the other aspects of my life will only shut the door this book-to-be is entering through.

Maybe all beginnings have this openness to them only we don’t realize it. We are too focused on getting to where we think whatever it is—our life, our relationship, our dinner—should go. We hardly even realize we’re participating in the creation of something new because we’re so focused on the completion of it.

It might help to watch more parts of my life unfold like unwritten novels that I can’t force ahead of where they are. It would help with the fretting.

Inspired by a Hobnobber

For a while I had a quote from Anne Lamott on my refrigerator: “As we live, we begin to learn what helps in life and what hurts.” I’m afraid that many of the stories we tell each other every day hurt, not because they are necessarily untrue but because they do not contain the possibility of hope or change. I’d like to tell some stories that help. They may be purely joyful or they may contain some sadness or pain because without those we wouldn’t need help.

I believe help surrounds us in many forms: the generosity of a houseplant that continues to thrive despite my best efforts to neglect it, that last streak of pale yellow rinsed from the sky just before dark blue gives way to night’s black, the perfect gooey sweetness of a well-toasted s’more. And perhaps most importantly, community.

Communities are like weeds–they spring up all over the place in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. Last night, I attended my first hobnob. The couple who organizes these gatherings uses the etymology to explain the evening to newcomers: “in the sense ‘drink together; drink each other’s health.'” The practice is to show up, munch on whatever arrives, and chat with whoever comes–no stressful preparation for hosts or guests.

I confess that I went mainly in search of single, straight men in their late thirties or early forties, of which I found none. I did, however, meet a number of delightful men and women, gay and straight, in their fifties and sixties. Among them was a man, we’ll call him Tom, whose son is a poet and who overheard me talking about the novel I recently finished. (Kudos to the host and hostess for creating such a welcoming atmosphere–revealing my secret novelist identity to strangers still scares me.)

Tom found me later in the evening to ask about my writing, and I gave the elevator speech description of the novel’s plot. In return, I had the privilege of hearing the love and admiration in his voice as he talked about his son. Tom is a retired physician, and his son’s life as a writer–working as adjunct faculty, going through the process of submission and rejection–is a new world for him.

I think parents may worry, and with good cause, when their children announce they want to do something as financially risky as writing, but Tom is thoroughly impressed with his son and the lifestyle he’s chosen for himself in spite of, or perhaps because of, its difference from his own. He enjoys discovering who his son is, and I imagine being in the presence of that enjoyment would raise anyone’s spirits; it certainly raised mine.

At the end of our conversation Tom said to me, “It’s nice to know there’s someone like you here.” Talk about a ray of light in the darkness. My current litany of self doubts runs something like this, “No one will ever buy this book, especially since I don’t spend enough time sending out query letters, and what’s this crazy blog thing and how can I have time to do any of it between my day job and exercising?” So knowing that someone besides my mom (sorry, Mom) thinks my existence, both as myself and as a writer, is worthwhile helps, a lot. Community at work.

Thank you, Tom, and thanks also to your son for having the courage to pursue his writing and by so doing to inspire and remind me to pursue mine.  For all of you artists and writers and everyone who feels as if the rest of the world has it all figured out while you find life rather puzzling, someone in your community, whether you’ve met this person or not, is grateful there’s someone like you here.