Tag Archives: listening

Keeping Things in Circulation

Along with staying in both new and familiar places, my plan for my recent travels was to listen. It wasn’t easy just to take time to be somewhere and not be working madly on something, and I had to keep reminding myself that my task was listening. Everywhere I went was worthy of that kind of attention, and it was really helpful to grant permission to notice and appreciate and nothing else. I can’t really say nothing else, because I did think about work in terms of new ideas, but that didn’t interfere with the listening. It was all quite restorative.

While I was away, my book-length poem, The Hungry Grass, was accepted for publication, which will happen next year, and the fact that the meeting was held while I was in the very place in which the poem is set came as a sign of validation. It reinforced for me that my writing is a worthwhile undertaking, that I’m right to do it. I know it can be important to write even if no one else will ever read a word, but for me, there are career and professional considerations as well. I won’t go into the personal need to be read. That acceptance letter had more than one effect.

I had been thinking about what to write next, and the acceptance made that decision seem more pressing. Until the manuscript was placed for publication it was still in progress, in a way. So, I thought about the next big project, and I managed to do that with greater calm than I have before. There are two, maybe three projects, that I’ll be working on over the next year or two. One is something that I had allowed to languish, and its back with some enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to getting back at it. That’s one effect.

Another effect of the news is that I came home with a renewed energy for submitting poems to poetry journals. I used to be exceedingly businesslike about keeping things in circulation, but I’d gotten lazy about it. As I write, all of my remaining unpublished poems are once again out in the world seeking placement. I feel happy about that. It’s so full of possibility.

Of course, it’s full of danger, too–the risk of submitting work is that the work might be rejected. That always makes me sad, but the more I appear in print, the less power those rejection slips have over me. That alone is an excellent reason to keep sending things to editors. My mother used to say that water draws water. Publication draws publication.

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A Metaphor of Stone Fences

Even as the morning was happening, I knew it was a metaphor, and by the time it was over, I experienced such a euphoria at my accomplishment that I stopped in at the church and lit a candle. It all started when I set out to walk to Synge’s Chair, the spot on the north end of Inis Meain where J.M. Synge used to sit and contemplate. It’s a beautiful spot for a writerly person.

On my last visit here, I was told it’s possible to walk all around the edge of the island, and I decided to set out, but I didn’t get committed until later. This is a very rocky place, without enough soil to support trees and only rare bushes. On my right, as I proceeded counter-clockwise (another metaphor, now that I think on it), there was a high barrier of piled rocks, so that while I could hear the ocean, I couldn’t see it. I stumbled and tripped and teetered over shards and stones and occasional bits of grasses until I came to a stone fence, which I climbed over. I did that about six times.

As I searched for footholds, I pointed out to myself that maybe I shouldn’t do that, that it was foolhardy and didn’t I know my age. I replied that in that case, this was probably the only time I would ever do it. So I kept on. I started composing my apology to the search and rescue people who were going to have to come out and find me after I sprained an ankle or broke a hip. All the time, I could hear the ocean and sometimes I could see the spray. I wasn’t wearing a watch.

And then, I came to the end of the high barrier and could see the ocean. I could also see the flat stone platform that circles the coast on the sea-side of that barrier. And I thought to myself of course I did it the hard way.  I always do it the hard way. It happens without even trying. I have a gift for it. But, for my own mad reasons, I didn’t turn back, didn’t give up. And I felt such relief when I got to a bit of road and the walking got so easy, even though it was all uphill. When I got to the spine of the island and could see the dun, I began to feel elation. I felt a euphoria of accomplishment, and parched as I was, I took a few minutes to light the candle as a gesture to the universe before heading home. I’d been gone three hours.

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Going to Listen

Sometimes, my work ethic interferes with some other positive aspects of life. I find it difficult (impossible) not to feel guilty if I’m not producing something or doing something. I’m having to relearn the importance of “doing nothing” as a component of well-being. During my time as a graduate student, I worked every day for years. And years. About two years after I completed the PhD, I began to realize that I could give myself permission to take a day off.

For the last several years, I have been unable to go somewhere just to go there. As a continuation of the graduate experience, I tend to turn everything into work–can’t do it just to enjoy it, need to turn it into a project or a course. It isn’t healthy to look at a pleasure and think, “How can I turn this into work?” Justifying my existence is exhausting, always feeling that I had to have an active answer to “what are you doing.” My days were full of gerunds–finishing, writing, researching, developing.

Awhile ago, I related a story about staying in the Irish midlands for a few focussed weeks, but being stuck and not writing, becoming frustrated and anxious about time passing without results. In my creative paralysis, I went for a walk to the bog, mostly just to get away from all those unwritten lines and empty pages. Stomping along the road berating myself. I got to the edge of the bog and stood there staring at it, and eventually, I became aware of the breeze on my face, and I gradually became present. My head had been back in the cottage with the unwritten lines. I heard birds calling. I started to look around and saw all sorts of plants and grasses and little blossoms. It was a revelation.

I realized that I had been neglecting the sensory world. I was so excited because I had discovered why the lines were empty. It was because I didn’t know anything about the things that belonged in those lines. In order to make a world real, there must be breezes, grasses, sounds, colours, textures. There was a lot of research to do, to discover the natural world, the sensory world. It wasn’t an intellectual discovery. It was a sensory discovery. My surroundings told me.

The other day, I was telling my coffee companion that I’m nervous about the three weeks I have set aside for myself in June, going away for the first time with no specific project to pursue. That’s uncharted territory for me, and I don’t know how it will work. How do I justify the going? What am I going for? She reminded me of my epiphany in the bog. She said maybe I’m going to listen. I’m excited by that. That’s doing something. Why am I going? I’m going to listen.

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Hours in a Day

John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. My carefully drawn plan for a Spring program had life happen to it, so now, I need to find twice as many hours in a day. The question isn’t really “can I do it.” I can. I could fit every bit of that work into every day of that three weeks. I could. But that isn’t the whole of it. When we get stretched like that, something suffers.

Even if we don’t like to admit it, that’s the truth. Maybe it’s the quality of the work that suffers. Or the overall atmosphere in the office or house or group. Patience snaps. Tempers flare. Quality drops. Other people are affected. There’s a lot of writing and reading and thinking and listening to get done in that three weeks. There’s a limit to how much we can listen in a day, and I don’t want merely to look like I’m listening. I want to be listening. I want to be thinking. Maybe I should change my plan. And that’s a hard thing to do–let go of something that looks so good, in theory. It doesn’t matter how good it looks, if I can’t execute.

Lots of us overbook our time, and it’s just plain unhealthy and inefficient. Today, I am going to appear extremely inefficient because I am going to be staring into space, thinking. Occasionally, I’ll scribble something. Then, I’ll stare at that, and maybe I’ll scribble over it. Acts of creation are not impressive to watch. The act of creation is the idea, the plan. It takes a great deal of energy, and if it isn’t a solid plan, the reality won’t be solid, either. I can think on my feet, but I don’t want to spend three weeks juggling flaming sticks, especially if I’m tired. No good can come from that.

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