Redemption Sandwich

Today is my last full day at Rockvale.  It saddens me to be leaving—I’ve enjoyed unprecedented productivity in the last two weeks (22 different first drafts of poems), and it kind of shows me what my writing life would be like if I didn’t have a “day job” that takes up a lot of my creative energy and squanders it on quotidian crap.  Of course, that day job also pays the bills, so I can’t be too dismissive of it. I am grateful to have a job.  But I’ve been very grateful for these two weeks of “professional development” because I’ve really needed them.

Gerbera daisy in the garden

One of the best things that’s come from being here is meeting two new friends.  We were talking last night about how lonely being an adult is, and how difficult it is to make new friends.  But both Kelly and Rebecca have been a godsend.  We eat breakfast together and unwind at night with wine and tea, and becoming friends with them has been really remarkable—especially after the Year of Covid.  And sure, maybe friendship was born of proximity, but I feel like being around other writers, especially these two women—who are honest about themselves in a way that sometimes, surprisingly, writers are not—has been a real salve to my heart. Just this morning, Rebecca made me breakfast—a fried egg with cheese and kale on French bread—a “make-up” for the breakfast sandwich she made me the other day that was, to her mind, imperfect.  Today’s was delicious, for sure—it’s become a joke, her “Redemption Sandwich” (which she has been singing to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”).  But more delicious was her company!  I have felt too sequestered this past year (for good reason, to be sure), but I have missed human company.  Kelly and Rebecca, being writers—and kind, and funny, and goofy to boot—are my kind of people.

Mama (Little Mexico) in the mist

Another thing I’ve enjoyed about being here (besides the writing and my new friends) has been the wildlife.  I love the horses and the cows, and the flocks of goats on various farms.  But I love the other, unexpected, wildlife.  As I was driving a few days ago, I saw three wild turkeys, just hanging out in someone’s front yard, enjoying a colloquy.  I’ve seen deer everywhere.  When I was out at 6:30 a.m. one morning, I saw a whole herd of them, and the other night, when Kelly, Rebecca, and I drove to Publix at twilight, we saw families of deer along both sides of the road, eating dinner.  (So many deer!)

Gladiolus in the garden

Plus, I’ve seen hummingbirds, and butterflies, and even a turkey vulture, sitting on a post.  The rural life is really where I feel the most whole—it reminds me of Grandpa Reilly’s old farm in Pennsylvania, when we escaped the city and just could walk across his fields and take tractor rides and pet the animals in the barn.  That’s what being here has been like for me—a chance to reconnect with rural roots—and realize that in another life, I might have been a farmer poet, instead of an academic.  The trees and the hills and the fields feel like home.

I have always said I want to live in Tennessee, if the fates come together to permit it.  Every time I come to this state, something in my heart blooms. These last two weeks, my heart has blossomed from a year and a half of incubation, of being on hold.  I hope that I can keep blooming when I return to Atlanta—the idyll will be over, but the spirit of it doesn’t have to be.  That’s what imagination and poetry are for—to bring you back, to bring you back even when you only have memories to hold on to.

            Won’t you help to sing
            These songs of freedom?
            ‘Cause all I ever have
            Redemption songs
            Redemption songs
            Redemption songs

What My First Week at Rockvale Has Taught Me

A painting of the RWC farmhouse, in the front room

Way back when I was studying for my comprehensive exam in contemporary women’s poetry for my PhD, I remember sitting on my bed with all my books spread around me—opened hither and thither, bookmarks and stickies shoved in higgedly-piggedly everywhere. My love of note cards began here—so much easier for memorizing passages from poems. I could riffle through them constantly.

At any given moment, I was also reading five or six or sixteen books, and I went through so many mechanical pencils underlining important poetic passages, Bic should have given me stock in the company.  The method was decidedly chaotic, but somehow I felt like a true scholar.  This is what I imagined that the life of the mind would lead to:  being holed up with dozens of books around me, taking notes, and writing.

A view from the front porch

Real life, not so much.  But this week at Rockvale has reminded me a little bit of that crazy time.  I have been reading a wide variety of books (from Greek myth to poetry by Katherine Smith and Sandy Coomer [the doyenne and proprietor of Rockvale] to YA fiction by Melissa Marr and Ibi Zoboi to books about immigration) and journaling and taking notes and hand-writing poem-ish things.

I’ve tried sitting down at the computer directly and writing, but that hasn’t worked so well for me.  Instead, I have had some good luck writing messily, not even my best handwriting, just scribbles and scratches and erasures.  And while the poem-ish things aren’t yet poems, I have found that when I go to type them up, they’re not nearly as bad as I fear they might have been.  For sure, they are drafty as an old robe, but there are many potential kernels, waiting to be popped.

I did not come here thinking that I would be transformed (for all the experience is proving transformative)—I am wise enough to know that you take your emotional shit with you everywhere you go—but I have felt open in a way that I’ve not felt in a long time.  How can I explain?  It’s like I’m only responsible to myself.

It’s downright amazing to be cut off from the penny-ante minutia of day-to-day work.  I am still working—probably 12-15 hours a day since I’ve been here—but because it’s “professional development” time, because I am working solely on my creative growth, I feel remarkable.  Awake.  Like I’m not sleeping through my life, filling it up with things that don’t matter.  And I don’t feel guilty about it either.  I can’t check my email?  Oh well.  They’ll have to figure it all out without me.  And that’s totally ok. (It’s fan-fucking-tastic.)

Horse paddock…check out that Tennessee sky!

Of course, the goal is to produce a number of poems that can go in my new manuscript—but maybe part of the problem of the last year is that by not having a break (either a vacation or teaching in Scotland as was planned two summers in a row), I’ve kind of forgotten what my own company is like. I’ve forgotten how to be just “JC the Poet” instead of “JC the Administrator/ Managing Editor/ Teacher/ Cat Lady/ Wife/ who writes poems in her puny spare time” person.

How many poems I’ll have by this time next week, I’m not sure.  But midway through, I’m feeling motivated, expansive, and ready to see what the next seven days will bring.  If Rockvale has taught me anything, it’s that a different setting doesn’t change everything, doesn’t make you any more of a scholar than you are already, but it changes things enough to give you some useful perspective.

Yes, Virginia, I Do Need a Room of One’s Own

Ah, to be outside one’s typical milieu for the first time in 16 months!

I think about how it is when I am at home, trying to write—the cats are constantly jumping up on me, getting in the way of my computer, sitting on the books I’m using for research, whatever.  There are endless things to clean (not that I get up and clean them, but whatevs, they taunt me).  The phone rings constantly.  The emails and work fires intervene.  Someone in the cul-de-sac invariably manicures on his lawn, the incessant whine and growl of lawnmowers and weed-whackers destroying my concentration. It is hard to find a creative “zone” when too many things make demands on your attention.

Scout, with Sandy petting him

Since I have been here at Rockvale (in Tennessee, 35-ish miles south of Nashville as the crow flies) I have reveled in the almost uninterrupted quiet.  I read here in my “cell” (a beautifully appointed room with a cozy chair and desk and bed with a quilt on it from 1925) or in the fireplace room (which smells of a century of winter fires), and write in a little pool of sunlight on the enclosed porch.  It is almost like I alone have run of the place.  But there are other women here too, working on their own writing, finding their own paths.  Except for a little chitchat in the kitchen when preparing meals, the only noise is the AC turning on and off.  What must it be like to have this kind of quiet all the time?  I think I didn’t realize how exhausted and depleted I’ve been feeling until I rediscovered my own being here in this writer’s colony.  I am truly decompressing.

Mama… a.k.a. Little Mexico

From my window, I can see a paddock, and usually there’s a mama and her foal far out on the other side, nipping the grass.  Today they were over by the fence nearest me, so I went out there and got to pet Scout.  His mama (whose real name is Little Mexico (?)) didn’t come too close, but Scout seemed pretty interested in me, and in debonair Finn and chonky Ollie, the two cats who came running when they saw me.  (I can’t escape cats!)  Scout was so interested that he gave me a big chomp on my forearm—which hurts a bit, but didn’t break the skin.  Still, I’d pet him again if he came to this side of the fence.

Finn

Ollie (who is really Oliver)

I feel grateful to be here.  I think after a year and a half-ish of being shut in the house, I just needed…another house. 😊 I needed a place of clutter-free, basically cat-free peace.  (And wifi and cell service are spotty, so I’m even hard to reach, which actually, I love.) I am hoping to get some good writing done.  I’ve already brainstormed a number of ideas of where to go on my next project, I’ve organized a list of what I have, I’ve done some journaling (I know, what a shocker!) and I’ve read two whole books for research already.

Tomorrow, I’m writing two poems if it kills me.  And maybe I’ll go visit Scout again.

Where will it take me/ what shall I do?*

long island surf

Image from the NYPL Public Domain Digital Collection

During these falling and ebbing tides, a riptide can carry a person far offshore. For example, the ebbing tide at Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton, New York, extends more than 300 metres (980 ft) offshore.

–from Wikipedia

Now they tell me.

After I was swept out to sea on a rip current in Southampton, NY (yes, it was as scary as it sounds), the first thing anyone said to me at the writer’s conference (after “Oh My God!”) was “Write about it.”

I’m now two weeks past my fight with the ocean (where the ocean almost won), and I still don’t know what to say about the experience. Not really. I keep thinking I need to process it, but writers generally process things by writing about them.  Perhaps language is stronger than a nine-foot wave?

But that nine-foot wave that began my ordeal is all I can focus on.  I keep seeing it and remembering how instead of trying to swim through it, I turned around and tried to run from it, taking the full force of its power that knocked me over and began to drag me away from shore, filling my mouth and eyes with sand and salt and something viney, maybe kelp.

It’s that gray-green wave I keep seeing when I close my eyes, that creeps into my dreams and pulls me away from everything I know, making figures indistinct, small, if I can recognize them at all.  I am looking for new language to describe this feeling, but it’s as if the gray-green wave is pulling me towards every cliché you’ve ever heard about drowning—drowning in self-pity, drowning one’s sorrows, this drowning woman grasping at straws, etc.  Nothing seems real to me, but that gray-green wave.

And yet, the weird thing is, the fear and doom I feel now is all after-the-fact.  When I was in the moment, gasping for air and feeling helpless but trying to fight my way out of that current, fear and doom were not what I was thinking about.  I never thought, You’re going to die. Instead, I was angry.

Maybe that was adrenalin at work, my way of not losing my head—by focusing on my anger. Anger because misgivings about the waves had troubled me before I went in—I even wrote about them in my notebook while I watched the water.  Anger that I didn’t listen to my gut which said, Don’t do this, don’t go in, even between the safety flags. Anger for knowing how to swim well, and yet not being able to right myself and break free from the tumbling surf.  There is a kind clarity in anger, I suppose, and I was level-headed enough to quit struggling and to take the blessed hands that wound up hauling me to shore.

But now that wave haunts me, even four hours inland.  I didn’t go back to the beach after that day—I couldn’t.  I didn’t even want to see the water again—which is irrational and yet somehow petulant, as if the ocean betrayed me—who loves the ocean beyond most things (except cats, my mother, and Jesus)—when I’m the one who betrayed my own good sense to stay safe.

*****

I am looking at Google Maps of Coopers Beach, and from overhead the beach looks like nothing special, and the crests on the waves hardly as imposing as an eyelash.  Perhaps someday I will be able to view the experience through the transformative lens of art, and write the poems that I am meant to write about it.  For now, I think I will just end this post here—without details, without a timeline, without anything beyond the memory of that nine-foot gray-green wave.

 

*Lyric from Robert Palmer’s song “Riptide”

Some New Things Out

fat ladies coney island

Image from NYPL Public Domain Digital Collection

It’s June, which means I’m hip deep in my annual summer doldrums, and not feeling particularly writerly—an unfortunate circumstance, because with things a little on the quieter side (not teaching summer classes, for instance), you’d think I’d be writing up a storm.

Alas, I’m too undone, wishing I was anywhere but in Atlanta (like these great ladies in this stereograph of Coney Island), and I’m so anguished about our current immigrant crisis (and general Washington, D.C. chaos) I can’t even really focus enough to write anyway.  I keep telling myself just hang on until the middle of July—which is when I’ll go away for a couple of weeks to the coast and hopefully rejuvenate my flagging spirit, but that’s still so far away.  Meanwhile, I’m melting into the pavement—and worrying about what new horror will assail us in the next hour of the news cycle.

Anyway, existential poor-me’s aside, I have a couple of poems/ nonfictions (depending on what you call them…I like to think of them as “poemeditations”) in the most recent issue (2017/2018) of Grubb Street.  (Scroll through the online journal to p. 3 and 4.)  These are more from my Venice collection, which will someday find a home, I hope.

And I’ve got five poems in the July issue of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.  Actually, it turns out these poems were supposed to come out in last November’s issue, but somehow there was a snafu and the submission disappeared (on their end) in Submittable.  It was lucky I followed up with Dead Mule, because the editor was mystified at how the poems had gone astray, but she was great and fixed it and now the poems are there for you to read.

If you like my work, feel free to leave a comment.  If you don’t, leave a comment anyway, and give me something else to brood about.

 

 

How High Does the Body Count Have to Climb Before We Say “Enough”?

Another day, another mass shooting, another cry for gun control, another example of Washington doing absolutely nothing but mouthing platitudes.

Sunday’s horrifying LGBTQIA hate crime at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the utter inability (or disinclination) for our government to enact any kind of sensible, pervasive, and strict legislation in the face of the gun lobby that bribes, bullies, and subdues our Representatives, Senators, and President fills me with an inexpressible melancholy.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

Gun supporters will tell you that there are plenty of laws on the books that regulate guns.  Gun supporters will tell you that it’s not the guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.  Gun supporters will tell you that there’s no way you can predict who will use a gun unlawfully, that the majority of gun owners are lawful citizens who would never think to kill anyone.  Gun supporters will tell you that the Second Amendment provides for their lawful right to own, collect, brandish, and use weapons, and that anyone who wants additional gun laws are in fact impeding their Constitutional rights.

I’m not a Constitutional lawyer.  I don’t know the ins-and-outs of law and the history behind it—and I recognize that it’s a complicated issue that harkens back to pre-Revolutionary times.  So you might say, what right do I have to interpret the Constitution?  I’ll tell you.  The same right to interpret it as all the gun-addicted, death-and-violence-loving, NRA supporters have, who twist the Constitution to suit their purposes.

I can’t see how the Second Amendment (to wit:  “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) which clearly refers to militia (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, esp. to supplement a regular army in an emergency, freq. as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers”) can possibly mean the average American citizen, sitting in his (or her) home, who is not a member of a military force (such as the police, the Army, or the National Guard) hired to defend the country.

I can understand about owning a gun for “personal protection” or owning a rifle for hunting, though I would not personally own a firearm for either purpose.  I don’t understand why the average American citizen needs to buy a military-style AR-15 (or any other assault weapon that can shoot numerous, gratuitous rounds of ammunition in a matter of seconds), or why the average American citizen needs to build a personal arsenal.  We are not expecting an imminent invasion from hostile forces.  No country is declaring war on the United States; there is no expectation of conscription to fight invaders, and thus no need to hoard assault weapons.  How can the average American citizen possibly justify owning one or more of these weapons for either personal protection or hunting purposes?  What purpose can such a weapon serve, other than to kill mass quantities of human beings in as little time as possible?  People are dying.  We do nothing.

To me, the slavish, almost masturbatory desire for guns and violence, the veneration of violence as entertainment, the irrational fears propagated by right-wing radio and television personalities (and people who unquestioningly accept what these warmongers and fearmongers are peddling), the prison industrial complex mentality, and our culture’s toxic masculinity, are literally killing us.

We think the only way to protect ourselves is through deadly force; we don’t care about reason and diplomacy and compromise.  We value property above human life, which is evident in so many states (23) adopting Stand Your Ground laws.  We normalize active shooter training in daycares and college campuses (I attended one last week as part of a day of professional development in academic advising)—as if it’s ok that we have to teach children how to avoid getting shot right alongside teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic.  We listen to media organizations that constantly barrage us with a diet of threats and racist rhetoric, and so we begin to believe we really are under attack. We accept uncritically the language of these media and potential Presidents whose sole purpose is to make money and to accumulate power—they don’t care that they spew hate, misinformation, and racist ideologies.  They don’t care that they whip people into a frenzy of fear, as long as they get a big fat check in the process.  We don’t care that gun manufacturers come out every year with more powerful weapons that promise higher kill counts and sell them at gun shows…to the average American citizen.  The deaths of human beings mean nothing to the gun industry and gun supporters.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting (where 20 children at an elementary school died, as well as six adults) which should have been, but wasn’t, a watershed moment to overcome our American anathema against enacting the fiercest gun restrictions yet, a 2013 article on CNN Money reported that a ban on assault weapons could impact Smith & Wesson stock shares by 40 cents a share.  While Smith & Wesson expressed sadness at the deaths of these children, they nevertheless saw a spike in sales for assault weapons as gun enthusiasts purchased record numbers of these weapons merely on the threat of a ban; projected earnings for the company in 2013 was approximately $580M, by the way.

And it’s not just the gun manufacturers getting rich.  According to a 2015 Fortune Magazine article tracking the political lobbying and campaign contributions spent by the National Rifle Association, the NRA spent over $30M in funding government officials and campaigns, and an additional nearly $20M to “candidates who tweeted ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the San Bernardino shooting.’  Our politicians welcome these contributions and consequently continue to stymie any efforts to make gun laws more restrictive.  It’s quid pro quo.  The Center for Responsible Politics reports that among federal candidates in 2014, the NRA directly pledged nearly $1M among the Republican and Democrat House and Senate members.  Granted, the direct contributions are small, ranging from $250 to $9,900, but our government officials know what side their bread is buttered on.  If the NRA is willing to support our lawmakers, lawmakers are unlikely to vote against NRA interests.  It’s as simple as that.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the lives of human beings were less important than our acquisition of money.  Somewhere along the way we decided that the deaths of our fellow citizens was an acceptable tradeoff in order to “protect” our property.  Somewhere along the way, we sacrificed the belief in a civil society to embrace the law of the jungle.  Kill or be killed.

And as much as it seems like I am tossing the blame at our political leaders and the NRA, the fact is, there are still more of us who believe in restrictive gun control than who don’t—and if we collaborated en masse, through letter campaigns, through lobbying of our own, through marches, through activist means, through voting in third and fourth parties who are not beholden to Super PACs and gun lobbies, maybe we could put a stop to this gun addiction.  People are dying.

But we do nothing.  We are all complicit in the deaths at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at Sandy Hook, at San Bernardino, at Aurora, at Columbine—and all the other mass shootings.  Good, law-abiding people are complicit.  We have learned a kind of helplessness; we wring our hands and pray, but accept becoming inured to the horror of these daily mass shootings because it’s painful and wearying to think about them.  We have adopted a worldview that says nothing we do can matter.  That nothing we can do will change our cultural attitudes and beliefs.  That nothing we can do can stop the killings.  And so nothing changes.

But we have to combat that pessimism that keeps us immobilized.  We have to believe that we can change things.  We must.  Americans are dying.

There have been five additional mass shootings since the massacre in Orlando—five.  Five mass shootings since Sunday.  Five.  I can’t wrap my head around this.  Can you?  Five mass shootings in three days?  This is not war-torn Fallujah.  This is America.  In toto (again, according to the Center for Responsible Politics), there have been 16 mass shootings, 69 deaths, and 100 injuries from guns in June 2016 alone—and the month is only half over!  (Of course, this doesn’t even take into consideration any deaths by guns for “regular” property or drug-related crimes or things like domestic partner violence.  I’m sure the June body count is much higher when you put all the gun deaths together.)  In the face of these shootings, how do we sit back and do nothing?  How do I?

My family’s safety and right to life is more important than anyone’s need to own a gun.  Isn’t your family’s?

Write your Congressmen.  Write the President.  Tell them that the death of Americans by Americans with guns is not acceptable.  Tell them the cost-benefit ratio is too high.  Tell them the sacrifice is too much.  Tell them to embrace stricter gun laws especially for assault weapons, and if they don’t, you’ll support candidates who do.  This is not a Democrat/ Republican issue.  This is an issue of basic human rights.  Don’t we, as Americans, deserve to live, free from the persistent threat of imminent death when we go to nightclubs or daycares or movie theaters?

Writing letters not your thing?  Then volunteer with or donate money to gun control advocacy groups (such as the member organizations of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence or groups like the Violence Policy Center and Everytown for Gun Safety).  Don’t be complicit in the deaths of our fellow citizens any more.  Don’t stand by any more.

Writing a letter to our government officials or volunteering a few hours with advocacy groups may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and I am doing it.  We have to start somewhere.  Americans are dying.  We must, must, must do something.

Today’s Zentangle… and a Thought

Zentangle 031815

Today I wasted over two good hours of my life that I’ll never get back dealing with people who didn’t want to be dealt with.  I got angsty and upset, and really, that just means they win.  So I came home and did this tangle to de-tangle my brain.  They call Zentangles meditative art, and they work.  If you haven’t tried doing them, you should. (You can get books about them at Amazon.)

Anyone can do them–I feel much calmer than I did earlier.  It doesn’t fix what still needs to be fixed, but I guess some things just happen in their own time.