Sunday, September 25, 2016

100 rules for living (give or take)

I spent a lot of time in the car over the weekend. I drove about 1,250 miles in all, and read poems in three different places, and generally enjoyed seeing people and, in between, having time to think my thoughts.

As I drove through cornfields, the radio was in and out, and I did that thing you do where you tune slowly through the fuzzy channels, leaning in to determine whether you’ve landed on the pleasant company of public radio or you’re driving through evangelical hell.

One of the things I like best about driving is having a chance to collect my thoughts in silence as I watch the landscape roll by. The Midwest is especially beautiful this time of year, fields half harvested, rows of corn standing tall above rows of stubble beside them. It put me in a contemplative frame of mind, and somehow I found myself writing as I went—poem ideas, things to look up later, thoughts to consider. I write fine in the car; it’s not like texting. I can write one-handed without looking, and although the page is a mess when I’m done, I can usually decipher it.

Somewhere along the way, I started a list. I thought to have a top ten list of rules for living, actually—it seemed like a healthy thing for anyone to do, if we buy into the Socratic notion that the unexamined life is not worth living.

But ten items didn’t do the trick for me. I had more to say, some of it expansive like the landscape, but some of it pretty trivial. I set a goal to write one hundred, but I ended up with 117 somehow—and crafted a rule to remind myself that random restrictions, even self-imposed ones, need not be followed.

By the way, I found this to be a strangely compelling writing exercise. It’s not one that hones craft as much as it’s one that compels honesty. I’m sharing here, but this is private writing. These rules are intended for me. I wouldn’t dare be slick with myself. I’d call myself out, just as I’d call out you.

I feel like I could write a list with a thousand items, or maybe 1,017. There is so much to say about a life. But here are the rules I came up with—a work in progress. A start.

1.              Give people the benefit of the doubt.
2.              Accept all people, even if you have to reject some of what they bring—spite, jealousy, meanness.
3.              Receive sorrow as you would joy—its expression is a gift.
4.              It’s best to reach out, two times, a million. You’ll have fewer regrets that way.
5.              Don’t revel in winning when someone has lost.
6.              Let loss be a catalyst. Don’t live there.
7.              Put yourself inside other lives. Look in lighted windows and passing cars.
8.              People may do wrong, even terrible things, but no one is lower than you.
9.              Also, no one is better than you.
10.          Develop a new skill. Work on something you’re bad at.
11.          Limit time in front of the mirror. You can pick yourself out of a lineup.
12.          It’s hard to spot your gifts. Know your good.
13.          Sit outside at night.
14.          Get to the water.
15.          Remember that alcohol makes you feel bad.
16.          Remember that sugar does, too.
17.          Eat whole foods—things that look like how they came from the earth.
18.          Move around. Look around. Walk.
19.          Be inaccessible sometimes.
20.          Don’t love your job; love your purpose.
21.          If your job and your purpose dovetail, recognize how lucky you are.
22.          Listen to people without judging.
23.          Don’t revel in others’ errors.
24.          Be attuned to patterns—even rows of corn stubble, a line of Corvettes on the highway. There’s meaning in patterns.
25.          Engage in conversations that are over your head.
26.          Find the depth you’re missing in simplicity.
27.          Try new restaurants.
28.          Turn off the TV.
29.          Get eight hours of sleep.
30.          If you can’t sleep, get up and do.
31.          In the summer, look for signs of fall. In the winter, look for signs of spring. This is not a metaphor.
32.          Sometimes when you’re driving fast, put your hand out the window and see what speed feels like.
33.          Scream when you’re alone. Notice how rusty you are at this.
34.          Remember you’re an animal.
35.          Remember you’re made of God.
36.          Be bold enough to try to make yourself whole.
37.          Important question: Are you being faithful to yourself?
38.          Quit being so insistent upon the self.
39.          Express gratitude to an actual person every day. Deities don’t count.
40.          Every now and then, spend a day out of time. Hide all the clocks.
41.          Let yourself be vulnerable on a large scale.
42.          Dance when you get the opportunity.
43.          It’s OK that you’re bad at it.
44.          There are a few things you’ll never be good at. Don’t let that fact keep you from enjoying them.
45.          Find a systematic way to feed people who are hungry. I mean this literally.
46.          It’s good for you to be hungry sometimes.
47.          When traveling, give yourself permission to be a tourist.
48.          Treat yourself to a nice hotel every so often.
49.          Don’t hit people.
50.          Don’t think about hitting people.
51.          Drive long distances alone, no radio.
52.          Try not to wear the same thing two days in a row. People think that’s weird.
53.          Be as kind as you can to strangers—and push yourself to be even kinder than that.
54.          Smile and you’ll feel better.
55.          Laugh right out loud.
56.          Don’t walk around with headphones on. Be present for other people.
57.          Don’t check your phone in company.
58.          Each life needs a great adventure.
59.          Fall in love with someone who makes you laugh.
60.          Take a deep belly breath every time you think of it.
61.          Find a church you like and go, or find some other regular way to tend to your spirit.
62.          Challenge or scare yourself.
63.          Cherish a ridiculous phobia, like my fear of Wisconsin.
64.          Don’t hoard your stuff in distant places. Get rid of your storage unit.
65.          Don’t have more stuff than you can actively enjoy.
66.          Clean something every day.
67.          Some people belief ridiculous things. There’s no way you’re not one of them.
68.          Be good.
69.          Don’t be too obedient.
70.          Steal pens.
71.          Read every day.
72.          Everything you read thoughtfully improves you.
73.          Care about history.
74.          See history in every place. Peel back the layers.
75.          Doubt the linearity of time. Embracing this moment embraces every moment.
76.          Call your mom.
77.          Don’t expect your family to understand you.
78.          Master the Irish goodbye.
79.          Show up as yourself.
80.          Try to be your best self.
81.          Live a life that can’t be summarized in a bumper sticker.
82.          Try to understand something that is beyond you.
83.          Passionate people are more interesting.
84.          Everyone needs a hobby.
85.          Don’t let work define you.
86.          Don’t work all the time.
87.          Take a vacation at least once a year.
88.          Do a better job of staying in touch.
89.          Fix broken things or get rid of them. Don’t surround yourself with the energy of brokenness.
90.          Think about flow—of air, of money, of love, of compassion.
91.          Knock down obstructions.
92.          You’re connected to every atom in the universe.
93.          Act accordingly.
94.          You are the unlikeliest of miracles, but here you are.
95.          Your children are your chance to grab hold of a supernova. Do this every day.
96.          Everyone else’s child is just as phenomenal. Treat them as such.
97.          Racism needs only your silence to thrive.
98.          Be about justice.
99.          Don’t think in binaries when most of life happens on a continuum.
100.       Don’t propagate bad thinking about gender. Mind your words.
101.       Most change is brought about through language. Be judicious in its use.
102.       Use your powers for good.
103.       Love chance. It takes you to the best places.
104.       Eat apples. You feel good when you eat apples.
105.       Be faithful to all those who love you.
106.       Things you must not wear: Heels. Pantyhose. Girdles. Underwires. Love your body, head to toe.
107.       Look at your spine, made to bend all ways. You were built to be flexible.
108.       Wear socks to bed and you won’t get cramps.
109.       Drive a car for years after it’s paid for. That’s like a free car.
110.       Go out of your way for roadside attractions.
111.       Sex should feel good. You should do it a lot.
112.       It’s not home without an animal.
113.       Think regularly about the kind of life you’re living.
114.       Change it if you want to.
115.       Give yourself a secret name. This is not a metaphor.
116.       Be the author of some new good.

117.       Don’t let yourself be hemmed in by random restrictions, especially when they’re self-imposed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Going home again

I suppose a lot of us who make our art in private feed a fantasy of public acclaim.

Maybe I’m not alone in picturing myself giving the commencement address at my old high school, or maybe showing up on the news in some triumphant way, so that everyone in my hometown would explain how they knew me or repeat that cool thing I said that one time.

Truth is, I haven’t lived in my hometown since 1987, and I don’t know anyone there. It’s strange; as a child, I could enter any business, and I would know three-quarters of the people I saw. But I just visited my hometown over this past weekend, and I didn’t know anyone—not a single person I encountered anywhere, aside from family.

There will never be a triumphal return, and anyway, the fantasy is not a serious one. I had a bad reputation in high school, and it was a frantic, peaceless time for me—marching band, clubs, classes, friends, boyfriends, something going on every night. With my blond hair, I was widely considered “ditzy” or bubble-headed, and I seldom got credit for my intellect. I’ve never missed high school, and those were not, in fact, the best years of my life.

Over the weekend, I traveled to Gallipolis, Ohio, where I grew up. I drove twelve hours one way and landed at my dear mother’s door. Make no mistake, the trip home was worth it; I got to enjoy my mom and two of my three siblings, and I was glad I went.

But on Saturday, I had planned a poetry workshop and reading from my new full-length collection at the French Art Colony, my hometown’s gallery and art space. I had promoted this event heavily online, and the local media, such as they are, were alerted.

And when 10:30 a.m. rolled around and the workshop was to begin, I had to face a grim fact: Nobody had come.

So much for triumphal returns. Mine amounted to sitting in an elegant dining room of this historic home-turned-museum and grading composition papers while I waited for the second event, a 1 p.m. reading. I couldn’t exactly leave; someone might have shown up with an urgent need to become a sonneteer. You can’t, in good conscience, leave someone like that hanging. You just can’t.

My sister Brenda, pretty much the nicest person I know, showed up before both events to arrange little finger foods on trays. Before the workshop-that-wasn’t, she had arranged little brownies on a tray, and when she came back, this time with my brother, Don, the tray was nearly empty, somehow. (Ghosts?) And I was alone.

They didn’t let on how sad this was. Instead, they both put themselves to work, arranging cheese and crackers and other sad things on sad trays for the sad empty room.

And then, wonder of wonders, two people showed up! My Facebook friends, Kelly Sundberg and Shane Stricker, drove almost an hour from Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University, to Gallipolis, home of … my mom. People who weren’t related to me not only came to the reading, but they made real effort to get there. They acted like it wasn’t sad, and that made it a lot less sad, really.

And then, additional wonder of wonders, another friend showed up. This was John Jackson, a fellow graduate of the Gallia Academy High School Class of 1987. “I’ll bet you’re surprised to see me here,” John said, and I was. I hadn’t seen him in nearly thirty years, and he was never a big poetry person, to my recollection. What’s more, we’re just about as far apart as two people can get, politically speaking, and we vex each other with some regularity on social media. An example: a glance at his Facebook feed reveals posts objecting to political action taken by pro athletes against police violence, and my own page shows full-throated support for their controversial actions and their message. That’s just the difference between John and me, but we continue to like (and tolerate!) each other.

So that was the scene. Around the table with me were my brother and sister, not poetry lovers by nature, but readers and thinkers who are wise to my bullshit and my airs. And there were two extremely talented writers, Kelly and Shane, who know my Facebook persona and are solidly part of the contemporary literary world. And there was John, a smart, soulful guy and a good egg, who came just to support someone he thinks is crazy about half the time.

And there was cheese. Plenty of cheese.

I read more than a dozen poems, and between them, I tried to find things to say that would be illuminating to this mixed group. And we had dialogue between poems. The group was small enough that I heard that occasional comment (“I liked that one,” that kind of thing) and we had little conversations about the work and life in general.

I read one poem, and John, a musician, was reminded of a favorite song of his, by the band Tesla. He recited a verse, and was so moved that he misted up in the telling. (Not into poetry, he’d told me—could have fooled me, John!)

It ended up being kind of beautiful, actually. I’ll treasure the memory of exactly ten hands clapping. They were ten precious hands—as good as a stadium, for my money.

Yesterday, the day after my twelve-hour return trek, I was unloading some things from the trunk of my car just outside my house, and I heard a voice.

“I really liked your poetry reading the other night,” a man said.

I experienced a temporary disconnect. This wasn’t Brenda, Don, Kelly, Shane, or John. But no, the stranger was referring a reading I’d had here in Springfield, Missouri, at Missouri State University. There had been a good-sized crowd, and I didn’t know everyone present. This person must have been in the room.

I thanked him. “That means so much,” I said. And it did. And it still does.

Poetry isn’t the movies. It isn’t arena rock. Lines seldom wend around the block for a poet. But sometimes you connect, in ways you would never predict. And sometimes someone claps—sometimes someone speaks up to let you know you made an impact.

I’ll take it. That’s more than enough glory for me.