September 21, 2015 § 1 Comment
I went to a writing retreat in eastern Oregon for nearly a month, a place called Playa. “Playa” means beach and the beach is that of a vast, mostly dry lake, whose waters are three miles away: all we could see from the residence was the yellow grasses, cakes of sand, birds big and small, and the smoky horizon. There were wildfires to the north. Closer to home were green grass, roses and sunflowers, snakes and ducks. Behind my cabin, the other cabins and the lodge were mountains—dry sage-greens, grey rock, and lots of birds, coyotes and other creatures. It was very quiet, very remote and beautiful. I was given this great luxury, after one week of driving around with Charles, seeing mountains, waterfalls, lava, Ponderosa forests.
I got much work done—three novels nearly finished, though last night I had doubts, remembering the protagonist needs to care A LOT….about something, anything, a glass of water (Vonnegut)…can I remember what that feels like? Can I drop the self-protectiveness?
—then dreams about a place like Playa, though with more sex and more dishes (it’s always something). The real Playa was not about the social/sexual/money-making concerns of adult life but was more like exuberance of childhood when you know that nothing matters more than serious play. I felt embraced by the company of others who also left their usual problems at home and were almost always in a good mood. It occurred to me, after a couple of weeks, that I hadn’t been in a rage since I left New York. No swearing, no wanting to knife the guy ahead of me, throw the phone out the window, none of that. A little shortness of breath (it’s high altitude), some longing for the cats, occasional hunger for chocolate or theater—but no rage.
Writing as serious play is something I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life at, though the last several years have been mostly dry. A rush of poems in 2011 led to a chapbook, then fits and starts, working and reworking the same material, feeling that I had nothing to say, or nothing I was willing to say. My previous writing retreat (two years ago!) was the last time I was deeply engaged. I’ve already misplaced much of the commitment and joy I felt there, but now know I can get it back.
In the morning, the horizon was startlingly white, like a band of salt, and it was cool. At sunset, a stripe of bright gold set off a scribble of blue mountains–as in so much of America, miles of wilderness where nobody lives except the ten thousand thousand species that get by without history. It was hot most of the day with a vast hum of bugs, especially in the evening as we attempted to sit on porches. The coyotes howled, Deb told bear stories, Cai told rattlesnake stories, Mel made a chocolate cake and the hawks landed on the railing of my porch, dribbling feathers.
One night we lay out on the playa, looking at stars. They have more there than in upstate New York or New Hampshire. They have a few extra galaxies—maybe a universe or two—and so close. The stars were smeared all over the sky like snow sticking to a windshield. We talked about this and that, and we wrote with barely any effort at all.
Okay, some effort. Easier than writing this.
And now a poem by William Stafford. I can’t get the spacing right–go look it up if you want.
An Oregon Message
When we first moved here, pulled
the trees in around us, curled
our backs to the wind, no one
had ever hit the moon—no one.
Now our trees are safer than the stars,
and only other people’s neglect
is our precious and abiding shell,
pierced by meteors, radar, and the telephone.
From our snug place we shout
religiously for attention, in order to hide:
only silence or evasion will bring
dangerous notice, the hovering hawk
of the state, or the sudden quiet stare
and fatal estimate of an alerted neighbor.
This message we smuggle out in
its plain cover, to be opened
quietly: Friends everywhere—
we are alive! Those moon rockets
have missed millions of secret
places! Best wishes.
April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last night I dreamed I was starring in a superhero movie directed by my old flame. I was sitting at a production conference wondering how much weight I’d have to lose by the time shooting started, while the director of photography worried how to film me jumping across rooftops. Other concerns involved email hyperlinks that didn’t work and my whole family lost in an anonymous Paris hotel. From that I woke to Easter Morning, the cats having miraculously provided chocolate eggs from Li-Lac and day-old almond croissants. The afternoon ahead of me will be spent mostly cleaning, with a few walks to break the horror, and an evaluation of the many-times revised first chapters of a novel from a writer I am very fond of, but whose cries for help always involve the fact that he has no time to write, being a parent and full time employee. What can an editor do about this?
My Easter Sundays as a child were made magical by my mother’s love of beauty and abundance: the baskets were gorgeous, with pastel ribbons, a Steiff rabbit, solid chocolate bunnies, various kinds of candy eggs and little toys hidden in the fake but brilliantly green grass. It is something I remember whenever the cat sleeps on my feet: that sudden weight in the darkness, the lesson taught over and over that gifts come in secret yet without fail, that the chaos of dreams is balanced by sunlit and abiding motherly love.
My mother has always found immense joy in domestic creativity, and though she would have had a different life if she’d been born later or in a different place or to a working mother, she knows, as I do now, that the rewards of public life are strident and harsh, harsh as white sugar, cocaine, straight gin—rocketing you to a venomous pleasure not sustainable to those happiest in bedrooms, kitchens, gardens, darkness, the enclosure of baskets and arms.
We both feel sad, sometimes, not to have leveraged our talent and brains to more glittering lives. There’s no doubt we have what it takes, except for our personalities. But most of the world is private, even in public. Most of your most vivid experiences take place in dreams. I’ve met vampires, ghosts, dinosaurs, aliens, angels, gods and talking animals inside my skull. I’ve had innumerable careers, adventures, love affairs and children there. I’ve flown, died, killed, transformed, breathed underwater. I’ve written books more magnificent than anything you have ever read—books that are also cities and cakes, that exist platonically forever, immune to the posturings of culture.
Every night, she comes back from the dead, the Margaret none of you know, the Margaret my mother created in the dark, her daughter that is also herself (if you were wondering where the idea for that particular mystery came from, look at the nearest pregnant woman). If real death were truly like sleep, I wouldn’t mind it at all. But I think in fact is more like sugar, cocaine and straight gin.
The authentic! Shadows of it
sweep past in dreams, one could say imprecisely,
evoking the almost-silent
ripping apart of giant
sheets of cellophane. No.
It thrusts up close. Exactly in dreams
it has you off-guard, you
recognize it before you have time.
For a second before waking
the alarm bell is a red conical hat, it
The authentic! I said
rising from the toilet seat.
The radiator in rhythmic knockings
spoke of the rising steam.
The authentic, I said
breaking the handle of my hairbrush as I
brushed my hair in
rhythmic strokes: That’s it,
that’s joy, it’s always
a recognition, the known
appearing fully itself, and
more itself than one knew.
The new day rises
as heat rises,
knocking in the pipes
with rhythms it seizes for its own
to speak of its invention—
the real, the new-laid
egg whose speckled shell
the poet fondles and must break
if he will be nourished.
A shadow painted where
yes, a shadow must fall.
The cow’s breath
not forgotten in the mist, in the
verisimilitude draws up
heat in us, zest
to follow through,
transformations of day
in its turning, in its becoming.
Stir the holy grains, set
the bowls on the table and
call the child to eat.
While we eat we think,
as we think an undercurrent
of dream runs through us
faster than thought
Call the child to eat,
send him off, his mouth
tasting of toothpaste, to go down
into the ground, into a roaring train
and to school.
His cheeks are pink
his black eyes hold his dreams, he has left
forgetting his glasses.
Follow down the stairs at a clatter
to give them to him and save
his clear sight.
comes in at the street door.
The authentic! It rolls
just out of reach, beyond
running feet and
stretching fingers, down
the green slope and into
the black waves of the sea.
Speak to me, little horse, beloved,
how to follow the iron ball,
how to follow through to the country
beneath the waves
to the place where I must kill you and you step out
of your bones and flystrewn meat
tall, smiling, renewed,
formed in your own likeness.
Marvelous Truth, confront us
at every turn,
in every guise, iron ball,
egg, dark horse, shadow,
of breath on the air,
in our crowded hearts
our steaming bathrooms, kitchens full of
things to be done, the
Thrust close your smile
that we know you, terrible joy.
April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
The cat is having a midlife crisis. He is almost fifty, in human years, and he’s getting that bitter, is this all there is, what about me, huh? This is my only fucking life attitude I remember from before I embraced the annihilation of all my dreams and shot desire through the heart.
He’s in the bad place and he wants us there with him. So it’s meow, meow, meow from 10 pm until one of us wakes up the next morning. Meow while Charles, Mouchette and I watch Nurse Jackie, Cat TV (birds) and the beginnings of movies Charles is interested in that I respond to nastily: “I don’t want to watch a movie about old men. Not even with Al Pacino.”
My husband takes no offense. We have the tolerance/forgiveness thing down pat. You might say we find our flaws the best joke of all.
He wants to go out in the hall. He wants more food. He wants to be picked up and baby-talked to.
MEOW, he says, meaning FUCK YOU.
FITZROY, I AM TAKING YOU TO THE SHELTER TOMORROW. OR LEAVING YOU IN THE PARK WITH A $20 BILL TIED AROUND YOUR NECK.
He wants me to go in the hall with him and I give in. He trots at my heels, his claws making little clicks as he lifts them off the carpet. He sniffs under every other door. He’s looking for a way out, and I tell him that’s the feline/human condition. Then I soften.
“Honey, we should buy a country house in Connecticut for the cats.”
“Not for that little bastard.”
“But Mouchette. Look at her! She wants birds.”
“She has birds right here.”
“She wants real birds.”
“No, she digs it, look at her.”
She’s on top of the TV, trying to find out where the birds on the screen are coming from. She walks over the manual switch and turns off the set.
“Postmodern hunting,” I say.
Fitzroy meows in rage that we’re talking about Mouchette.
He meows at four a.m. He meows until I get out of bed. He purrs when I hold him in my arms, and rub my face on his face. He has no idea that love can die, that women have breaking points, that life is the nightmare of a psychopathic god. He reminds me of me and I have to stop for a minute, recall that he is not in fact my child, that the 24-hour labor I remember so vividly, the doctor horrified at the furry monstrous kitten that came out clawing is only the sort of symptom writers get when they don’t write.
To A Cat
Cat! who has pass’d thy grand climacteric,
How many mice and rats hast in thy days
Destroy’d? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and
Those velvet ears – but prythee do not stick
Thy latent talons in me – and tell me all thy frays,
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick;
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists, –
For all the wheezy asthma – and for all
Thy tail’s tip is nick’d off – and though the fists
Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is thy fur as when the lists
In youth thou enter’dst on glass-bottled wall.
February 14, 2015 § 1 Comment
On the days I don’t write, I’ll blog. That’s the discipline, which I have not been following, but the scalding boredom of illness and my tap-dancing dreams makes me think I have to try harder. It’s Valentine’s Day. I remember February 14th four decades ago: I was a lonely college freshman, recently broken up with my first college boyfriend, living in a rental apartment with my friend Ellen.
Charles, my landlord, was downstairs, with his daughters, six and two, sleeping in the living room (their old bedrooms were now mine and Ellen’s rooms). His divorcing wife lived elsewhere with the boys. Charles had a crush on me: my kilt, combat boots, big Mexican sweater with the cigarette burn on the sleeve, round glasses. I had barely noticed him. I paid more attention to the six-year-old who visited nearly every day and kept me company with her nonstop chatter. But he came back from visiting (breaking up with) a girlfriend in New York and he looked different. He’d cut his straggly hair. He had a certain swagger. I became aware that he was possible—and not all THAT old. He was thirty. I was seventeen.
I seduced him. Even now, I stick to that story. I may not have known I what I was doing in the larger sense—certainly not that I was setting out on a lifetime cruise, that the children would grow up and have children and I’d still know them, that love as the answer to a problem or a question or a dream would be abandoned in rage, while love as what accepts and endures would calmly sail on—
No, I knew none of that, but I knew what I was doing. I’d slept and fooled around with a number of boys: in the wet Vermont woods, on the beach in Mykonos, at a funeral in Long Island, in a threesome with my cousin. I’d read everything from Gone with the Wind to Justine. I knew men were simple creatures in bed, though infinitely mysterious and frightening out of it. I liked making them tremble. Pleasure was my weapon and I wielded it with confidence.
Love is something else. I’ve only ever loved two men, discounting countless infatuations. The early excitement fades. The feeling that you are discovering the meaning of life—I refer to the kind of meaning that lifts you above the unending confusion of the everyday—disappears. You pay the price for not knowing how to handle conflict, which nobody does. You pay the price for secrets and lies. You regret.
I’ve been a dumbass for love and, yes, I regret it. There may be a book or ten in it, but I don’t care about that so much anymore. I learned the makeup of my humanity and have been humbled but not yet made wise. Grudge is my constant companion.
That was the one that got away. My therapist refers this event as my great piece of luck. I can’t really argue. Sanity has its grays, but more madness is not the answer.
And the other? He brings me soup, cleans the kitty litter, entertains me when I am sick at 3 am, and will not, does not know how to, ease my loneliness with make believe. You see that? Lies/make believe. One is nasty; one is nice. They are the same creature. I chased after that creature until it bit my head off.
I don’t really understand anything. Maybe you noticed that already. I would like to say something simple about love; for example, that’s its wonderful, sustaining, infinite, the pulse of the world. But others have said that. I need to find the courage to try again to say whatever it is I really know.
I dreamed last night that my novel (one that doesn’t actually exist, making fun of hostile men) was rejected by a British publisher, causing me to have a tantrum— but it was a snarky, lively book and, leafing through it, I found I was happy to have it home. Then I was buying china with a French country tulip pattern, a gift for Dick Cheney. I was a little embarrassed to be his friend. The salesmen at the china counter insisted that Cheney’s views on torture were his own business and no reason for anyone to criticize him. He loves art, they said. Music and art; he’s a big fan. He can’t make it himself but is passionate about those who do.
I was confused again. Dreams aren’t always clearer. Father issues ribboned through the air. Happy Valentine’s Day.
She goes out to hang the windchime
in her nightie and her work boots.
It’s six-thirty in the morning
and she’s standing on the plastic ice chest
tiptoe to reach the crossbeam of the porch,
windchime in her left hand,
hammer in her right, the nail
gripped tight between her teeth
but nothing happens next because
she’s trying to figure out
how to switch #1 with #3.
She must have been standing in the kitchen,
coffee in her hand, asleep,
when she heard it—the wind blowing
through the sound the windchime
because it wasn’t there.
No one, including me, especially anymore believes
till death do us part,
but I can see what I would miss in leaving—
the way her ankles go into the work boots
as she stands upon the ice chest;
the problem scrunched into her forehead;
the little kissable mouth
with the nail in it.
February 13, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’ve been sick now for almost seven weeks, two nasty viruses separated by a ruptured appendix necessitating surgery and several days in the hospital. Now depression comes, drawing from all the things that generally make me unhappy (difficulties with writing, sex, money, age) but especially this weakness, this inability to do anything to counter the narrative of disability.
Except for my dreams. They have been my safety net: complex, marvelous, not all good but rich and variegated as a shelf of world’s greatest fiction, the well-thumbed paperbacks of Bellow, Marquez, Dickens. I don’t mean I have had dreams like books by those authors—the first to come to mind—not at all really. My dreams have been decidedly realist, American and female, yet blessedly not me, even when known villains from my life make an appearance. The romances, the adventures, the conversations: none of it has the drag of my neuroses and preconceptions, my obsessive and boring attempt to tell the same story over again because I can never find the place where it bursts into magic, purifies with fire, and announces my transfiguration.
In my dreams, the magic is there, fully functioning and insouciant. It creates and sustains without effort; it has the hard brightness of a young genius giving a cocktail party in her Oxford rooms (cleaned by elderly, nameless people). She is someone from whom the veins of madness have been painstakingly removed, leaving more room for air and light.
I have been happy in my dreams and aware of it. I have opened doors in my chest for the books to come out, and they emerged arm in arm like English speaking animals, Noah’s ark elites. I have attended a Cathedral fair that was like a donor’s opening at the Metropolitan Museum, if the Metropolitan was also a consortium of linked living castles in France.
My dreams are my refuge from a same-same dirty and too-small apartment, the foul sweetness of take out food, clients’ questions about when the work will be done—the work that is not my work, that will pay bills I didn’t budget for this year, leaving the debt intact—from the stinky kitty litter, buckets of used Kleenex, rust-stained bathtub, Facebook chatter (my new book! My kid! The republicans! More snow! Three dead…) and husband’s relentless guitar practice—my dreams have a thousand pages, no copy writing errors, I can flirt and sing, and all the characters make sense.
Come inside, they whisper. There’s plenty of room. Be like Fitzroy and Mouchette—sleep eighteen hours. The real world is a heartbreak machine.
So I write this, doing my best to dream awake.
November 27, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’m thankful that my husband and cats are always excited when I wake up in the morning. I’m thankful that my mother wasn’t hurt badly when she tripped over a cement divider in the supermarket parking lot. I’m thankful that I no longer need to use a typewriter and carbon paper. I’m thankful that Charles is doing the dishes. I’m thankful that Fitzroy has woken up and is shaking his furry head to get rid of the ends of dreams. I’m thankful that I have indoor plumbing. I’m thankful that my clients pay their bills. I’m thankful that I can see pictures of beloved children on Facebook. I’m thankful for bitter greens, ripe pears, French cheese, and walnuts. I’m thankful that there is still winter. I’m thankful I don’t live in Buffalo, though, as a child, I always wanted it to snow up to the roof, just because. I’m thankful that my husband is incredibly cute at 72. I’m thankful that my cousins Roberta and Kate are so kind to my mother, and that my cousin Faxy works to save animals. I’m thankful that my sister’s health issues are better now and that my brother is happy with his vibrant poet laughing woman. I’m thankful that when Fitzroy stares at me, he reminds me of my grandmother. I’m thankful for the English language and its thousands of world-creating writers. I’m thankful for certain evenings I will never forget— the sun throwing rosy light over my bed and bare skin and promises like fireworks. And certain other nights in New Hampshire, Virginia, California, New York, in cars, bed, fields and forest. I’m thankful for James Taylor, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin. I’m thankful that I knew Jesus, if only for a week in my teens after taking LSD. I’m thankful to history for having my back, and death for making sure nothing lasts forever. I’m thankful for Africa, the ocean, the Internet, and crickets. I am thankful that I have written books, painted pictures, made jewelry, love, money and peace. I am thankful that it wasn’t worse.
Quaker Meeting, The Sixties
BY ROBIN BECKER
Seeing my friend’s son in his broad-brimmed hat
and suspenders, I think of the Quakers
who lectured us on nonviolent social action
every week when I was a child. In the classrooms
we listened to those who would not take up arms,
who objected, who had accepted alternative
service in distant work camps and showed
slides of hospitals they helped to build.
On Wednesdays, in Meeting for Worship,
when someone rose to speak,
all the energy in the room
flew inside her mouth, empowering her to tell
what she had seen on her brief
encounter with the divine: sometimes, a parable,
a riddle, a kindness. The fall that we were seventeen,
we scuffed our loafers on the gravelly path
from the Meetinghouse, while maple and elm
leaves sailed around our shoulders
like tiny envelopes, our futures sealed inside.
Despite the war in Vietnam, I felt safer
than I ever would again. Perhaps
those aged, protective trees had cast a spell
on us, or maybe the nonviolent Quaker God
had set up a kingdom right there—
suburban Philadelphia. Looking back, I see how
good deeds and thoughts climbed with us to the attic
room for Latin, descended to the gym for sports,
where we hung from the praiseworthy scaffolds
of righteous behavior. We prepared to leave
for college, armed with the language of the American
Friends and the memories of Thanksgiving
dinners we’d cooked for the unfortunates:
borrowing our parents’ cars to drive
downtown to the drop-off point, racing back
to play our last field hockey match. Grim center forwards
shook hands before the whistle, the half-backs’
knee-pads strapped on tight; one varsity team vanquished another.
November 20, 2014 § 5 Comments
It’s my Facebook friend Grace’s birthday today and when I wished her many happy returns, she asked for a new blog post, illustrated with a photo of my cats on the bed. Dear Grace, how did you know that I started a new post yesterday—for the first time in ages—but gave it up when it veered into unpleasant territory? It’s your birthday, so I won’t go to that place. I will tell you about my daily life. When I woke up this morning, my husband said, “Today is a day of celebration.”
“Why?” I asked. “Oh, Fitzroy shit?”
Yes.” (The pumpkin-and-spun-sugar-colored cat threw up a mess of slimy stuff yesterday morning, kindling fears that he had, once again, swallowed something that would require surgery.)
There followed a long conversation about my husband’s obsession with our cat’s digestive issues—and then a sharing of “Dear Prudence” from Slate, with a letter by someone who doesn’t want to go to her sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving because she expects the SIL’s cats to lick the turkey and walk across the table with fecal-tainted paws.
We agreed that this would not stop us.
“But we’re not going anywhere for Thanksgiving,” Charles said.
“That’s because no one invited us.”
“Would we go if they did?”
“Depends on who it was.”
Charles then veered into fantasy about the sort of invitations he would accept, none of which would excite me. I’d be happy going to my brother’s—where my mom and cousins will be—but my brother’s in San Francisco and anyway I just saw most of the family at Ramona’s wedding. I don’t mind ignoring this holiday. It was exciting as a kid; it was exciting when I grew up and got to be the hostess; it was a challenge when my stepchildren were small and I wanted them to clean their plates. It was heartwarming when my stepson hosted us, several years in a row, when the grandchildren were little. But then they stopped inviting us. (We were lovely guests, playing with the children, helping with the dishes. We brought expensive wine, not our fecally-challenged cats. We did not drink too much wine.)
This Thanksgiving I will roast a duck and do something with apples. Apples are the most comforting of foods, especially cooked with maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The only thing better than apples is money—green sheafs of it—or a brisk autumn wind through an open bedroom window. Or the sunlight through Fitzroy’s pink ears. Or Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.
And to write again, even this frippery of a blog post, is always good; I can imagine the long novels, filled with characters to adore and torment, scrolling out through the twilight of my years— forgive the cliché—into the dawn of the dead, which I hope is vast and white and full of souls with poor eyesight (wrapped in fluttering draperies like travelers in a sandstorm) so I can avoid the ones I have nothing to say to, the ones I would erase from Eternity if I could.
This is part of what I wrote yesterday:
The writer needs to be able to not give a fuck. But in order to not give a fuck, one must also care very passionately, believe that one’s story has power and resonance. One must be willing to feel fully human, which I have spent the last couple of years trying not to do. One cannot be any good as a writer without believing that the story is a gift. Whether others like it or not—it is a gift, like a child, and one must be willing to do (almost) anything for it. I have retreated from that position. I have disdain—or possibly terror—for my inner life.
Grace, I’m not sure I have the strength for my next book yet, but thank you for making me put words on something resembling paper. Since this is also a day of celebrating writer’s prizes, here’s a poem I wrote a little while ago for another friend.
For a Poet Winning a Prize
She read a poem about wanting immortality,
questioning if that was alright.
I remember the hot wish, late teens,
More alluring than sex.
Now I think: clown shoes, Kaleidescope glasses
a wish like the last stain
of blood on my underpants.
I’ve no grudge against the future.
Anyone who likes my words can use them.
But why should I imagine this
or care about posterity
with its swaggering, know-nothing ransack
of our personal histories?
Let the dead stay dead, ice thickening
over their tiny ears.
But since none of us
can want only one thing
I admit to a scribble of hope
jammed in a pocket, easily ignored
to be born again in a place like this
almost exactly the same as this,
I just don’t see why
it should matter to me if my poems
are feted when I’m dust.
The poet has gentle eyes.
Fame becomes her.
She looks at stars seriously.
When she spoke, there was a hum in the air
as if thousands of gold and black
already pollen-dusted bees
with their fat, furry backs
and inexorable honey
were under her skin.
I drank too much wine at the reception,
A five-year-old could draw my heart with crayons.
And that would be all,
Another snapped off night,
But the bees followed me.
Tucked in bed, I watch them crawl on the ceiling—
earnest wobble of sun and ink—
and write this poem.