Field Trips, Honest Feedback, and Real Life

sanmao

“Don’t ask from where I have come, My home is far, far away. Why do you wander so far? Wander so far?” – Sanmao

After a couple of weeks with wonky schedules, I met back up with L. today for our hour of English conversation. Highlights today included learning about San Mao, also known as Echo Chan or Chen Mao Ping, a Taiwanese writer who committed suicide in 1991. I had never heard of her before, and her books sound amazing. L. told me that she cried when she read them.

The subject of writing had come up because I gave L. a copy of Why I Was Late for Our Meeting, and was telling her that the poems are about real life. This, she said, reminded her of San Mao’s books, which are autobiographical in nature. I’m looking forward to finding them at the library.

L. majored in the physical sciences in college and is now pursuing these at a graduate level, but she told me about taking a writing class where she got to write about “feelings” and how much she enjoyed it. Her piece was even published by the college newspaper. We talked about he difference between analyzing data and writing about things like love and grief, things that are subjective, difficult to quantify, and impossible to prove or explain.

One phrase L. learned from me today was “honest feedback,” which she promised to give me after reading the book! Another was “running errands,” since that is exactly what we did after sitting in Starbucks for a while first. I’d already had too much coffee and uncharacteristically forewent a drink, instead asking if she’d want to accompany me to the post office to send off today’s batch of signed books.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you the other expression that came up: “Field trip.” It’s fun, finding ways to explain and define these things that as a native English speaker, I wouldn’t otherwise stop to ponder. A field trip… hmmmm… something educational, perhaps out of the ordinary.

And so today, we combined errands and field trips, beginning at the post office. The clerk was lovely and patiently explained things like “media mail” and zip codes, even showing us her screen at one point and how every single address comes up. (Isn’t that crazy?) After all of the books were postmarked, L. told me about the Chinese system for mailing things. I understood most of it, I think, and it sounds so different from ours. I remembered being in a foreign country and having to learn all of those basic things from scratch — how to mail a letter or package, for example. And the feeling of newness that accompanies living abroad.

We stepped back outside and I told her I had one more errand to run, to pick up a prescription at the CVS pharmacy. She told me both of her parents are doctors, something I didn’t know before. Turns out, her dad is an acupuncturist and her mom is a nurse, but they work in the same hospital. I told her how acupuncture is considered “alternative” medicine here by most Western doctors, but that it has helped me personally and I wished it would be offered in hospitals.

I explained to her how getting a prescription works. All of these mundane details of our lives, things we take for granted culturally. I didn’t even attempt to get into explaining insurance and our health care system — that’s hard enough without a language barrier!

With that, our hour was up. L. said it was “very useful” to do these things with me, as it showed her what my “real life” is like. We finalized our meeting time for next week before saying goodbye, and she once again promised to give me “honest feedback” about my poems at our next meeting.

After we walked in opposite directions, I had this thought — that maybe it would be good to have to accompany someone outside of our usual orbit now and then just to do errands. To see what “real life” means for someone whose “real” and “life” might be quite different from your own. What you think is “alternative” might be their normal. And maybe, by sharing your normal with someone who’s not part of your day-today, it will seem less like drudgery and more like what it is: The stuff that means you’re living a life. A real one — the only kind.

Now Would Be a Good Time to Forget Your Perfect Offering

0q33pyk-axi-tina-rataj-berardFast and furious freewrite about worry. Here goes.

What worries me is worrying itself, and how it is a closed loop, a vicious cycle, a mindfuck and a body destroyer. The topics that typically worry me most are so familiar, so ubiquitous. They remind me of the dust beneath our bed. Just there. But if we would only move the entire frame away, sweeping and mopping would be a snap. Worrying about being able to focus and connect and keep writing and doing my work in this world.

I worry that all the noise will make it impossible to hear my own heart. I worry that I feel alienated by conversations people are having — people I once related to or felt connected to.

And so there is this sense of shifting: Who are my people?

And then remembering that the place where worry goes away for me is when I don’t worry about who my people are. If you read these words and they spark some sense of yes for you, if we care about each other, if we are both worried about Russia and Canadian geese dying in toxic lakes and the school-to-prison pipeline and corruption beyond imagination and how we never learned the native maps, how there was barely even a mention in school of life on this land before the British came and sought “freedom” on faulty ideals that excluded the very people who named the rivers, before random borders were established, when women’s voices were in the margins of the writing pads, kitchen subversives and secret abolitionists, if you are worried that we are in a state so severe that worrying will get us nowhere, if you know that we are already nowhere and thus, more here than ever, in a post-worrying world where speed leads to implosion, then you are my people.

If you feel alienated by the mainstream and question whether “mainstream” is even a thing and who gets to decide these things and no, I won’t share yet another Trump video, like the one where he’s saying “Man of the Year” has a much better ring to it than “Person of the Year” (don’t you think? YEAH roars his reality-show crowd, his minions) because sharing this shit changes nothing. But then I can’t resist because I’m so worked up, so I share. And then I delete. Repeat.

Getting worked up changes nothing and yet if you aren’t worked up, if you aren’t worrying, what are you doing? Who are you being?

There is no right or wrong way to be. And yet I write this, and even as the words come, there is a hollow ring to them. I can’t bear platitudes. I can’t bear language so inclusive that it could be misconstrued as apology for ignorance, inaction, or anything that enables this moment to go unchallenged. I worry about questions around judgment, factions, language police (on all sides), and so much noise, oh just so much noise.

Am I adding to the noise? Oh, but I must.

Now would be a good time to forget your perfect offering. Right, Mr. Cohen (may you rest in peace)?

Forget your perfect offering. Don’t let this rancid moment in history curl your heart into acrid dissolution. Tell me what you worry about. Tell me what your Sunday will bring. Tell me one beautiful thing about your life. Tell me which windows let in the most light. Tell me where you are on the map of the world. Tell me that this is not “spiritual bypassing” but real, real life, real connection, in this moment — and that that still counts. Tell me it still fucking counts.

And I will keep telling you, too: Everything counts. Your life, your words, your ways. Forget your perfect offering and keep being here with me.

Join me for my next two-week writing group: Imperfect Offerings, January 9-20, 2017. Come let the words out without having to get it right or prove a thing. This is a place for practice, not perfection. Register here

The Light We Throw

jp5rutrnaes-mark-rabeDriving south on 116, determined
not to miss the bus like yesterday,
my daughter chooses the soundtrack
of this wet morning, a precipitous mix
of snow and rain and angsty lyrics.
She mentions how much better
her outfit would look with Doc Martens,
hinting at the Hanukkah gift she knows
I know she knows awaits her.
She assures me she doesn’t, like, need
anything, but offers updated wish lists
like the cuddles and kisses I still covet.
I say “I love you” to my wife and youngest
before we leave, scolding myself gently
for the morbid flashes of black ice
and no return. We sit in the parking lot
waiting for the bus, a prosaic moment
I will insist on turning into poetry later.
We are incorrigible, the whole lot
of us, stubborn in being who we are.
And in these shortest of days, I find
that my heart will twist in any direction
to get a glimpse of the light we throw
off when the others aren’t looking.

27/30 Poems in November: Truth

day-6Kitchen-table revelation
we can change our minds
we can change our thoughts
we can get up
and turn down the heat
when the room gets too hot.
Truth is kitchen-sink
everything but that.
Truth is mad smacking
can’t change the world
just like that
one little voice
in the clanking universe.
Truth is forehead-smacking
honest inquiry
arm’s length and speak
your mind girl.
Truth is big love
and the empty sink
means nobody is eating.
Truth is kitchen table
strewn with papers
not one of them
life changing.
Truth is smack-dab
in the middle of chanting
some one-syllable name
for God you were gob-smacked
by your own foolish heart
and saw that it was time
to stop blaming yourself
for everything
that didn’t go as planned.
Truth is
you didn’t think
ahead
for once were in the moment
and in the moment
you knew what you wanted
needed and you asked
and received
and how we live
with the consequences
of cowardice and courage
may weigh the same
on the kitchen scale
and the karmic scale
and the scale that weighs
hearts and bones
and doesn’t judge.
Truth is kitchen trash
can overflowing
so cinch up the bag
and take it to the bins
in the garage,
take it to the landfill
take it to the streets
take it to heart
when you made up
your story
and declared it to be
true.

27/30

**

Q: What is #30poemsinnovember?

A: A literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans in Northampton, MA.

The Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. Participating poets aim to raise $30,000 over the course of the month.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

I’m just $140 away from $500. Help me reach my goal.

17/30 Poems in November: Salt Cracker Girl

px00234_9I seem to be writing a lot of poems lately
about people standing behind me
in line at grocery stores.
(I must be one of those people
who’s always forgetting that one item —
paper towels, butter —
and running back to the store.)

Today, it was a young woman, alone.
I kept stealing
glances at her ghostly face
and expressionless eyes.
She was buying two boxes of crackers.
Salt crackers but not Saltines —
I didn’t recognize the brand

and it didn’t matter. What mattered
was the matted fur
on her black wool peacoat,
and how heavily it hung
on her concave frame.
She wore corduroys the color
of cat vomit
and though the coat came to her knees

I could see her legs
were stick thin.
I remembered
when my wife was so sick
we feared for her life,
how horrifically thin she’d grown
after living on rice
alone for months,
not by choice, because of disease.

But there was something
about this girl-woman;
it was eerie and sad,
how I could hear her thoughts
as she caught my backwards glimpse:
I imagined her thinking I thought
she was gross for buying
two boxes of crackers.

I imagined she intended to make
those crackers last a week.
That she’d dole them out
in painstakingly tiny bites,
not allowing herself more
than three a day.

I was making this up. I know
not all thin people are sick. But
everything in me — my younger self
swinging wildly between anorexic
and bulimic behaviors —
my older self, a bona fide Jewish mother
who no longer self-abuses
(at least not physically)

wanted to say something to her,
to gently say, “Excuse me”
as she exited the store
behind me. To say, “I know this

is none of my business, but –”
at which point, maybe
she would have cut me off,
deservedly so — “You’re right,
it’s none of your fucking business.”

Or maybe she would have listened.
Maybe her black, marble-like eyes
inside those deep sockets that looked
like she’d sobbed for hours
before cleaning herself up
to get the ritual crackers
would have filled with tears.

But I didn’t. Instead, I paid
and she paid. I walked to my car
and she walked to her car.
We will probably never see
each other again.

Maybe tonight she’s staring down
one of those boxes,
and the salt crackers are taunting her
but she tells herself she’s stronger.
Her cat nudges her calfs,
weaving figure eights around her ankles.

She reaches down to pet him,
flashing back to the woman
ahead of her in line at the grocery
who was lousy
at hiding her concern.

Keep your concern,
the girl
says out loud. Leave me alone.