restless

IMG_1323I wrote a little spring poem last week, with a room full of people who were also mostly writing spring poems. It was a guided exercise where we wrote words associated with a place, and other people added words to our lists that they thought matched the originals, and then we wrote something using their words rather than our own. This was in the midst of my last weekend with the thesis, a pleasantly interactive and scribbly evening to interrupta lot of last-minute neurosis. Sans scribbles, my (revised) anticipatory pasque flower place poem:

 

The river is restless. Cold

breeze greets new flowers

in constant push-pull with the sun’s warmth,

the scent of pollen and decay.

Squirrels dance slinky lines through spruce branches.

My clumsy foot

kicks my coffee, a brown stream

over tundra, bound for the river.

 

(Thanks to Nicole Stellon O’Donnell!)

social media: a personal history

In junior high, i’d make one of my best friends sit and listen to me read from my journal. We’d already covered most of the documented territory in more conversational form, but i wanted her to hear the written version: raw, yet unedited, crowded with the run-ons and long parentheticals that still plague me. this was not an exchange of any kind; she didn’t, nor did she wish to read me her murkily constructed secrets. Sometimes she groaned. Often she made excuses to go home earlier than what i knew was her family dinner time. There may have been nose-picking. This was very much something i did to her, and may have had something to do with the eventual strain in our friendship. My journal was not interesting. There were boys and questions about God and extraterrestrial life (often conflated), and i had nothing of what i might now call “voice” that was not directly borrowed from Anne Frank or Anais Nin(how does a pubescent American know what a diary should sound like?), but I was determined to have an audience, and she resented being cast in that role.

And then: the internet came. It made me nervous, and i really believed it was a way for the government/aliens(/God?) to monitor us. But it was also an audience. After a brief flirtation with chat rooms (X-Files and atheist babbling, mostly), i found online journals. They weren’t blogs yet–this was 1999 (after typing this, i learned from Google that “blog” was actually coined in April of that year–but teenagers in Flagstaff weren’t talking about it). But there were online journal sites, and i stayed up late night after night making one on angelfire.com. It was a steep learning curve, and the only time i’ve felt digitally ahead of the game. I taught myself some basic html and started posting, and then i found friends.

I found this network of 3 or 4 strangers who all “knew” each other, at least digitally. i went about making myself known to them. Commenting wasn’t an option then, but you could link your website with theirs, and somehow they found out. The details escape me. Of my first online community, i remember that one woman worked in a pet store, and sometimes she told funny stories about hamsters. The one male of the group was concerned about getting burrito farts in the face if he gave bad cunnilingus (or good?), and suggested that the next advanced mammal have their genitals closer to the belly button. I wrote mostly about Monty Python and learning to drive. The only evidence of my first blog’s existence is this internet artifact: a link page from one of my fans (scroll down to “The Page of Eternal Indecision” (it goes nowhere)). The “voice” is drastically different than how i wrote in my “paper journal” (which you can read more about here). It was performative, hid the fact that I was in high school, tried to be funny and relatable (to an audience of sexually anxious 20somethings).

After the angelfire stage, there was another site, which didn’t require code and you could just hit a button and out it went. I was less silly there, and a little melodramatic. I eventually shut the site down with some closing post about how i had a boyfriend and couldn’t blog at the same time (somehow, maintaining an online presence for my audience of 3 seemed impossible if i were to make our weekly stick juggling dates downtown. So much for having it all.)

Toward the end of high school, i had a brief stint on diaryland.com, where i narrated in specific detail my interactions with a city councilman on whom i had a huge, hopeless crush (perhaps this is the nature of teenage crushes on local politicians), and which would have been a terrible life choice in the age of Google but felt pretty damn invisible at the time. But you can’t be in college and have something called a “diaryland,” and so i learned to import, switched to blogger…and from there, the path was easier to travel. Everyone and their dog was on it. By this point, blogging was a thing. Audience just happened (sometimes with unanticipated consequences (see comments)).

My paper journals have suffered. The latest volume is mostly notes on workshops and classes, menstrual cycles, and an occasional meteorological observation. The internet is letting me do what i wanted to do all along, when i forced old friends to listen to my dull redundant inner truths, and sat down new friends to peruse four 3″ binders of photo albums. Facebook is my teenage brain made public, acceptable, and almost expected as a form of interaction. This is the one area in which i feel almost in step with my generation: the ease and desire to share and be recognized. Over and over and over again.

love’s a feeling like a warm dark stone

WHAT IT MEANS TO STAY HERE
(Wendy Xu)
I lie in a bed and away from all
my thoughts. I pledge all kinds of things
to the moon, how it speaks but not
to me. Giant land snail, you
are my friend. African prairie buck, you king
of going unseen, black horses moving
through the night. The wilds mean
many things and often we go on
into it. We put our precious bodies
in a tent. We have a lifespan and O how
we live it out. I don’t know much
about anything. I drink my coffee and wait
for what is next. My fine house blows over
on a Tuesday and the anthem of what
this means is awfully sweet. Where
shall I wander before I finally
am gone? What do I bring back
in my careless hands to show you?
(brought to my attention by LEC, who said it reminded her of me, so now it reminds me of me too, and staying. As do most things, when it comes down to it.)

———————————–

IMG_2074.1

When i first came to Alaska, i felt claustrophobic in the forest, trapped by scrawny, frizzled spruce trees and dense shrubs that blocked the sky, the horizon. Escaping the taiga was the main reason i jumped then at the opportunity to live and work at or above treeline, where i felt like i could see, move, and breathe easier. I’d always felt uneasy surrounded by too much green, too many shadowed things. The tundra felt enough like the desert–is enough like the desert–to become a home. A few winters here have cured me of the idea that the forest is a green place; green is, rather, something that happens, a brief and showy event, superficial and somewhat overwrought. We anthropomorphize the “lazy willow,” whose leaves turn to yellow by the end of July, finding the whole endeavor not worth the effort. Dig your fingers in and find cold in the earth, wet and blackened. That black, the shadows, the texture and chromatic departure from the gray scale that trees offer, became more like a shelter than a cage. Sometimes the horizon is too much to take in uninterrupted. Becoming a forest dweller caught me by surprise.

A cloudless April weekend in Nome felt uncomfortably bright, and on Monday when i woke to gray skies and haze, i felt a tension i hadn’t recognized dissipate. L said this was the brightest time of year, maybe even the brightest days, when the light is back and the snow isn’t gone yet. I wanted to say how do you stand it, the view from her kitchen table out over the tundra and then the ocean, glaring white, beating in the window, sunlight like some growing spilled thing, creeping into cracks and around the curtain. Not used to it, i felt so small, and so irrelevantly visible in that land-and-seascape. IMG_6422 copyIn the days i was there, the warmth started its work on a small hill just outside the window, and while L worked i gravitated to its darkness. I lay with my book and her dog, face against the dried brown lichens, some familiar, some not. The air wasn’t much above 30˚, if at all, but the hill gathered warmth from every direction, and before i fell asleep i noted the heat distorting the air, radiating up from the dark patch of tundra.IMG_6435I think we crave a certain balance, and what might seem like extremes do balance over time. I’ve had several conversations recently about how manic and exhausting the people seem who have just arrived from somewhere else, and, conversely, how withdrawn and dull the rest of us must seem to them. This must be, in part, about light. Who wouldn’t be a little manic around the light if it didn’t follow the dark, if you just showed up in it with no opposite extreme?

doing something

Of a quiet night sometimes I think of the Metropolitan Opera, Yankee Stadium, Central Park, Indian food, people of color, Film Forums I and II, our many city friends, my old haunts in SoHo and the Village, and I want to scream. And deep winter nights Juliet thinks of hip galleries, the Santa Monica promenade, outdoor swimming pools, funky clothing stores, yoga classes, movie stars, and admits she wants to kill me, burn down the house, and drive nonstop to Los Angeles, where her lucky sister lives.           -Bill Roorbach, Temple Stream

The readings were packed, not because people loved either poetry or me, but because they’d already seen that week’s movie.        -Margaret Atwood, Negotiating With the Dead

While i’m actually doing it, i would so much rather speak publicly to 200 strangers than to 10 people i know, though having done it, it’s much more fulfilling having spoken to the 10. Or, unexpectedly, 45-ish, in an unremarkable room lit with Christmas lights and old brown carpet on the walls. “I’m really surprised so many people are here,” i said to one friend, before we started reading, and she responded, “What, you’re surprised people want something to do on a 40 below night in January?” Which is what it is, and that’s as good a reason as any. It’s the same reason i play bunko, or started giving a shit about whose dogs run fastest, or, though it’s hard to admit now, this far in to it, the reason i started spending a good portion of my meager income on yarn. Something to do. c and i still joke that that’s why i’m living in this house (it was, at first). We all need something, and though, in my constant love/hate with social/cultural isolation and the goddam Parks Highway and all, i really do appreciate–revel in, even–the fact that listening to 3 people croak our way through some obscure stories about animals and road signs is really the big thing for a Saturday night. And then, that people are still talking about it weeks later. Pretty great, really. Makes me want to go out and buy bean bag chairs.

I’m often struck by how easy it is to feel so damn important here, like democracy and community fitness and creative discourse will all collapse if i don’t check my email for a weekend–convincing myself of this importance is one of my cyclical pastimes, something i do every couple months out of boredom, like the shipping pallet projects. But that feeling dissipates just as easily 10 minutes out the door, and i look around and wonder how i ever got so full of it, occupying myself with all these little civic and social duties when really, it’s all spruce trees and snow for miles and miles and miles, and everything else fades into them.

I’ve got to get back into blogging, for myself if not for my readers. Comments/encouragement appreciated. Thank you.

out of what little earth and duration

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory: its failings, our mechanisms of retaining it, the sort of nagging sense that none of it matters.

* * *

In October, i helped pack the recorded memories of one woman into boxes and then into a moving truck, and the sheer weight of them–the physical weight, in back-straining pounds–convinced me that digital is the way to go, for the sake of portability and the ability of posterity to move it from one place to another, if necessary. Or, more likely, for it to just disappear. If every person to live and die on earth produced as many journals and scrapbooks and annotated, cross-referenced single-paged autobiographical narratives as this woman, c’s mother…i was going to say something about running out of paper, or drowning in it, but no. There is no meaningful “if”; we don’t, and even if we do, the paper just becomes stuff. Our capacity to absorb the others’ memories is limited.

* * *

I used to be such a good journaler. Every day, all day, through math class and dinner. When i didn’t bring my journal to high school, i’d write on tiny scraps of paper and tape them in later. Notes on what i and the interesting boys (there were 2) were wearing, and who said what to who, and the weather. I created my first online journal (before the word “blog”) in 1999 on Angelfire, then Diaryland, which have both been eaten by older, clunkier internets. I mostly wrote thinly veiled anecdotes about drama club and Monty Python, applying great cultural significance to my musings. It was a different voice than the journal scraps, less annotated boy wardrobe (“T-shirt. Trenchcoat.”) Gradually, the documentation shifted into emails, conversations, less urgent processing and more obligatory factual transcription. Now, the paper journals have been mostly abandoned, and i blame Facebook and healthy interpersonal communication, school deadlines and housework.

* * *

I’ve been remembering Columbine, my first conscious introduction to this part of American life. I remember being surprised at how quickly the conversation shifted from universal mourning and memorial to a divisive “us vs. them” argument. I don’t remember when that shift stopped surprising me, but it certainly doesn’t now. A week after that shooting, everyone in my high school wore white, and it was suggested that we do so every Tuesday for the remainder of the year. In my journal, i noted that my trenchcoat friends changed styles that day: a tasteful choice, i thought. Later that day, we were released early because of a bomb threat, and the picture in my scrapbook of my three smiling socially outcast white-shirted friends said “jumping on the trampoline on bomb threat day.” After a couple weeks, when my dentist and my gym teacher had made jokes about how i was going to “shoot everyone,” i and others stopped playing the white T-shirt game, started rethinking cause and effect and empathy. Maybe “evil” wasn’t the “cause.”

There are entries in the paper journals of that year that i can’t stand to look at, the anger was so aimless and all-encompassing. And then it passed. But to have lived with it for years…?

* * *

Friday afternoon, my first instinct was to write something, anything, in response, and the default has become to write it publicly: I just heard about this, i too spent all day in a school, i have thoughts and feelings and and and. But why? I called my mom. I made pasta. The temperature dropped below 0 again. c and i cuddled on the couch and watched a mediocre 2004 documentary about the Fox News monstrosity. At some point this weekend it dawned on me that “media” and “mediate” are the same word (duh). And trying now, i am still only thinking of how the way in which a life is commemorated is determined by the stage at which it ended. By how complete the documentation is perceived to be. Memory, i think, is key. To something.

Will kids wear white t-shirts to school on Fridays? What will actually be remembered?

* * *

I just re-read this tonight.

Nativity

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

-Li-Young Lee

 

as a means of attack

I’m not really interested in reading about gardening. As a result, i haven’t really attempted to write about it, either pastoral reflections on tending the earth, literally and metaphorically planting my seed in fertile soil, or manifestos on food sovereignty and overthrow of the vegetable industrial complex. I haven’t really delved into the meaning of it, beyond the obvious (and all the aforementioned subjects are pretty obvious), figuring it would be trite and overdone and boring for everyone.

But i’ve got this blog, which i’m really trying to keep from dropping into MFA-induced senescence again, and pictures of growing things are wildly popular on Facebook. Also, i spend a lot of time these days trying to come up with interesting ways to eat kale, and while we’re talking about trite and overdone, i might as well quote Annie Dillard saying “how you spend your days is how you spend your life.” At which point i must admit that i am spending my life picking kale, an overabundance of already-flowering broccoli, and the cutest little tomatoes you’ll ever see, and so if i’m going to be writing nonfiction, there’s gonna have to be some vegetables in it. So as i was sitting in the greenhouse with a beer after pulling up the remaining arugula, i decided that writing about it is probably inevitable, and i should ease myself in by blogging.

This particular greenhouse in which i am spending my (summer) life is kind of loaded with symbolism for c and me. Before i’d even started keeping a box of my favorite tea and a couple pairs of underpants in his house, i called him from the seed rack at the Fairbanks Freddie’s, and prefaced my request to resurrect a corner of his greenhouse for the summer with “I promise i’m not gonna try to move in or anything, but…” He said yes, and even helped me turn the soil and repair the rotting wood frame. Within a year, i’d moved in, teas, underpants, and all, and the next spring, we replaced all the fiberglass siding. This year, new soil, an electric composter, ripe tomatoes before the end of July. We pour money and time into it like crazy. We call the plants “the kids,” which is totally sweet and appropriate when we’re talking about rushing home to water the kids on a hot day, but perhaps less so by the time we’re gleefully chopping them up for monster salads.

And then there’s the political side of it. Though for this brief season, Alaska seems ideal for gardening, not even Barbara Kingsolver could make life here sound sustainable. Personal or community gardens might make a tiny dent in the carbon footprint of contemporary life in the subarctic, but every time i start to feel self-righteous about that, i need only to look at the 500 gallon fuel tanks on teh other end of the driveway to be reminded that we cannot live on kale alone. last week, i wrote this poem about bulldozers, which got me thinking about what kind of metal things are made of (i was wrong on what bulldozers are made of, it turns out), and then as we made breakfast (eggs with kale), c and i got a little carried away with surveying all the little things in the kitchen made of well-traveled metal, and imagining all the steps and labor and financial and shipping arrangements that made their presence in our kitchen possible. I won’t say capitalism isn’t amazing, but it’s exhausting to think about over breakfast: kitchen utensils, cars, nails, all torn out of the earth’s fertile soil, somewhere. Today i finally finished building a long-procrastinated compost box (the kitchen scraps have outgrown the electric composter, as a result of a well-fed garden, for which i largely credit the composter), and after a moment feeling all smug and ready for the apocalypse, i looked at the box of shiny identical 2″ screws, and thought again of all the necessary steps that got them to me, and i imagined how much less motivated i would have been if i had to do this project without power tools. I seem to focus on metal as the first thing to become unavailable in the event of social and economic collapse, and metal is really necessary for food. I try to take care of my pans, not use more screws than necessary. But still. I digress. I’m kind of falling asleep. See? This is why you shouldn’t read or write about gardening.

Except you should read Rebecca Solnit’s article in Orion, “Revolutionary Plots,” where she says

A garden as a retreat means a refuge, a place to withdraw from the world. A garden as an attack means an intervention in the world, a political statement, a way in which the small space of the garden can participate in the larger space that is society, politics, and ideas. Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack and in so doing illuminates—or maybe we should say engages—the political questions of our time.

She goes on to say, basically, that gardens are great, but not enough, and a scapegoat for actual action: “Planting heirloom seeds is great, but someone has to try to stop Monsanto, and that involves political organizing, sticking your neck out, and confrontation. It involves leaving your garden.” This resonated with me, not because i think of my greenhouse as some revolutionary space, but because i’ve retreated from the question altogether, and that bothers and comforts me at the same time. I had no idea that, as Solnit says, today’s young people are distancing themselves from the baby boomers’ activism by retreating into passivity and gardens; but i certainly use it as a retreat. Much of my life, though, is a retreat. Maybe that’s the root of the uneasiness.

And roots. Root:radical:radish, etc. In college, Lauren and Jesse made t-shirts: “think of a radish.” That’s another topic altogether, but really the same one. The last crop of radishes failed. Too warm, or too dry. And soon, it will be time to pull it all up or bring it inside. The last tomatoes will still ripen on the plant after the leaves have yellowed and fallen off, and the image of them in the window, looking out on the first snows, will make me feel virile and self-sufficient, and also ridiculously vulnerable, all this metal and fuel keeping us and “the kids” alive when all practical evidence suggests that they shouldn’t be.

Today, though, was glorious.

 

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