Category Archives: Writing and Reading

Entries about the art and craft of writing and commentaries or reviews of stuff I read

A Journal of the Plague Year: #7

It’s Monday, the first official day of Spring Break after a preliminary week-long break on account of the plague that is COVID-19. Last night I dreamt that our Governor, Kate Brown, downloaded the news about the coronavirus directly into my brain, announcing finally that she was ordering a “shelter-in-place” for all Oregonians. Her download came to me in chunks, the parsing and ordering of which I tossed and turned over all night long. I don’t know how I felt during all of this–annoyed mostly. Why me, Governor Brown? I’m already sheltering-in-place, pretty much. I haven’t driven a car for a week. So maybe, psychologically, I thought that perhaps Kate might consider me a kind of model citizen, you know, as she keeps tabs on all of us, Santa Claus-like. It must have just been on my mind–the latest news is that she’s seriously considering and that maybe the announcement will come today. Perhaps, by the time I finish this entry, or this paragraph, it will be the law of the land. Meanwhile, stupid Oregonians at the top of Spring Break are driving to the coast in droves, freaking out the locals, putting everyone who lives there in danger, acting in complete arrogance and irresponsibility. The Mayor of Warrenton has told everyone they’ve got 24 hours to get out. Good for the Mayor of Warrenton.

Turns out: we’ve just been told to shelter-in-place by the Governor.

I still don’t have any whiskey.

I didn’t write anything yesterday, I chose instead to give myself a little break while at the same time getting serious about some household chores. It was the last, it appears, of the beautiful days for a while, so it seemed like the best day to give the travel-trailer a wash. I used a socket wrench to tighten a thing. We walked and played with the dogs. I rode my bike for a bit. I read some fiction and drank some beer. René made chili, and we watched the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The last thing I did last night before tucking myself in: I walked outside into the yard and listened to the quiet. I live on 3/4 of an acre, surrounded by these old, gigantic oak trees, but my street tends to be a busy one, and we’re not 700 feet from a four lane highway, so there’s usually always, even in our bucolic setting, the buzz of traffic. Last night, no buzz. It was eery. And glorious.

I’ve got a few more things on the To-Do list for the day, not the least of which is finding a great poem. I’m leaning Romantic. I’m gravitating toward Wordsworth, but Keats might be more challenging and fun. Given that we’ve got nothing but time, there’d be nothing amiss with two Romantics in a row, don’t you think? No guarantees.

A Note on the Video: Oh my god, I don’t know what I was thinking. I hope the effort was worth it. It took me maybe twelve tries to get this one right. If I didn’t have the interpretation correct, I’d mess up a word, or the phone rang, or it started to rain, or it started to rain really hard, or finally, to hail!  I am outside in my travel trailer, the clean one, and it is hardly designed for acoustics. Anyway, I think I finally got it here, with a few minor errors–one singular word becomes plural and a “these” becomes a “those.” Dear John Keats, forgive me. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #6

This morning (upon waking? in the shower? during meditation, while Sam Harris spoke to me about conscious awareness? over breakfast?), I found myself thinking Thoreau. Passages from Walden were emerging from the memory banks where favorite books are stored. It occurred to me that if one were to grab a classic from American Literature off the shelf that might be of great use during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be Walden. In particular, the section called “Solitude.” If there was ever a prince or a king of social distancing, it would be Henry David Thoreau. This particular passage comes to me first, as he imagines what he would say to those who question his nutty project of living in the woods alone for two years:

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such,–This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?

As things get more and more serious we tend to be more and more careful, and the difficulty of today was in telling our son that it would be best if his friend did not come over. She lives right down the road, is more than likely practicing her own social distancing, is likely safe to have around–but at what point can you know with any certainty that someone outside your family, no matter how trusted, is not carrying this stupid virus? What chance are you willing to take? It appears, at least today, we’re not taking chances. We’re only eight days into this thing and the chances are that it will get worse and that this conversation will get harder and harder. Us married folks, especially us long-time married folks, take each other’s company for granted, I suppose. If we had to, it probably wouldn’t kill us to be apart, but we don’t have to, and so we have each other’s company all through this thing, a huge comfort. But if you’re young and smitten, think what the prospects of weeks away from your friend might signify! The bloody end of the world as we know it. You’ll have to settle for your parents! And for solitude.

I am, I would say, a social person in small doses. I love small, intimate gatherings but I loath crowded social events–and I do love solitude. Thoreau again:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

I think that my son has inherited some of this from me. He’ll spend gobs of time in his room “alone.” Most of that time he is not really alone, occupied as he usually is with communications in real time with his gaming buddies. But when he practices his drumming, or when he does his homework, or when he reads, he seems content often to be alone. But this will be difficult and it will get more and more difficult. And my thoughts move from Thoreau to Rilke.  In his Letters to a Young Poet, offering more advice about loving and living than he ever gives about writing, he gifts to the young poet and subsequently the entire world that famous and absolutely incalculable good advice: Hold to the difficult. Today’s reading, not a poem but a piece of prose–from a poet, a selection I hope you find as comforting as I do in times of difficulty.

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #4

It’s only been four days, but I miss my students, I miss my student teacher, I miss my colleagues, and I miss that building, oddly enough, perhaps, the most constant and stable thing in my adult life, my school and my classroom like another home. Meanwhile, the sun shines, the dogs get another long walk. Another beautiful day on which to ponder this darkness.

Every once in a while, in my professional capacity, I get riled up about something. On Wednesday, March 11, a single day before we learned schools would be closed, I attended a morning staff meeting that irked me to such a degree that I did the thing I usually do in such circumstances: I began an open letter in order to air my grievances. I was committed and passionate and insistent about all the things that went (as I perceived them) wrong during that particular staff meeting. I had decided to share it with my bosses. I spent hours on this thing. And almost immediately after learning that schools would be shut down, my indignation totally deflated.

If nothing else, in these strange times, incomparable for me to anything in my entire experience on the planet, we tend to winnow through stuff that concerns us to find what we hold most dear, find most important and life-giving, and let the rest fall away like chaff. Maybe someday, that indignant feeling about bad staff meetings in an otherwise idyllic working environment (outside of the intense difficulty of the job) will bubble back up, and I may have an opportunity and an obligation to speak. But right now, all I want to do is read, write, make music, love my family, do the odd thing that needs doing around the house and yard, walk the dogs, ride the bike, and recite poetry.

I seem to be gravitating toward my all time favorite poems, as one does. This one: the first Mary Oliver poem I ever heard and the one I come back to over and over, “Wild Geese.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #3

Number of cases of coronavirus in Oregon: 75. Number of Oregon deaths from the virus: 3. Number of student contact days lost thus far: 3. Number of student contact days expected to be lost, as of this moment: 27. Number of educational hours potentially lost: approximately 175. Number of plans in place (or announced) for remote schooling: 0.  Number of prom nights canceled: 1. Number of IB exams students will be ill-prepared to take or might miss altogether: 11. Number of graduation ceremonies postponed or cancelled: unknown.

Unknown.

It is strange to know so little. It is strange to be in the middle of or in the beginning stages of a pandemic but not know a single soul who is sick from it. It is strange to think about any number of people you know who might have it or might get it. It is strange to be living in a constant nagging fear regarding your own health, your wife’s, your child’s. It is strange to have this great gift of time opening up before us. It is strange to think that the very best way to help might be in doing absolutely nothing–or at least–in going absolutely nowhere. I haven’t driven a car in four days. On our walk with the dogs this morning there were lots of people out walking or biking the recreational trail in our neighborhood, everyone keeping their distance from strangers, of course, but greeting people nevertheless as they passed, everyone polite, cheerful, kind, as if it were any Saturday spring morning happening on a Wednesday. I saw a student of mine and we said hello gleefully but did not stop to talk. I’ve spent a lot of time with my dogs. I read them poetry in the back yard.  I am thinking about embarking on a few ambitious creative projects. I am reading fiction.

Meanwhile, politics.

Never mind. I’m meditating every morning with Sam Harris on the Waking Up app. He gave me a free year’s subscription just for asking. That was kind of him, I think. The poem I chose to read today, first to the dogs in the back yard, then on my front porch into the stupid smart phone video recorder, is a favorite William Stafford poem, a poem that for years now we have been reading to our juniors on the very first day of class, and that I have read to seniors on the very last day of class. It’s all about the moment, friends, and serves us well as a meditation for this time, an appropriate mantra in our uncertainty. Take the best of care, everyone. “You Reading This, Be Ready.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #2

Good news and bad news.

Here’s the good news, in no particular order: the dogs got a walk two days in a row. I rode my bike two days in a row. I fixed the kitchen sink all by myself. It’s another beautiful day, weather-wise. Feels almost like BBQ season. The government is thinking about sending everyone money. The Boomtown Rats released a new album on Friday. Every single one of these sentences seem about the same length. While two members of my household are mostly recovered from late winter colds, no one in the family has a fever. We are all more or less healthy, and yet (this may count as bad news), when I told my chiropractor’s office that I was recovering from a cold, they postponed my visit for a week–no massage for me today.

And here’s the bad news, in order of severity, from this vantage point: The death toll from COVID-19 in our neighboring state, Washington, is up to 50, half of the total nation-wide. The number of confirmed cases in Oregon rises to 66, almost double from the stats I saw yesterday. One fatality. The governor extends the statewide school closure to April 28. That’s my job. That’s what I do. Restaurants are closed except for take-out. Bars are closed. Musicians can’t gig. The Flaming Lips did not perform in Portland with the Oregon Symphony. Having nothing but time on one’s hands, sometimes it is difficult to choose a thing to do. I spent maybe a half an hour today trying to decide between riding a bike and reading a book. I find it super difficult to stop touching my face. I’ve noticed of late that I often make inexplicable typographical errors. I have not yet heard the new Boomtown Rats album. It’s St. Patty’s day and there are only two beers in the fridge. I am out of whiskey.

So I decided to ride first, read later. Bike then book. I picked up Emily Dickinson: “There is no Frigate like a Book.” And that inspired the following video and the initial dive into Joan Frank’s Where You’re All Going. I’m hoping this lovely book by this beautiful friend will provide some answers.

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Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution

resolve_quotes

As the song says, it’s been a long time since I rock and rolled. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of literal rocking and rolling on the drums. I’m speaking figuratively about the kind of rock and roll that typically manifests itself in poetry, fiction, and right here on the blog site. Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September. I don’t like it. After awhile, it gets under the skin and begins to itch. Left untreated it can fester and come out sideways. So without an idea in my head, I start writing today just so I can say that I wrote something. Here I am writing words, stringing them together to form sentences, stringing sentences together to form paragraphs, the first of which ends right here, on December 25, Christmas Day, 2019.

The only way to stop the block is to write your way through it. I get that. I believe it. I tell my students this. So allow me to write my way through the block. What the block represents, I hope, is simply a lull, a fallow period before an enormously stupendous harvest. What the block represents, I fear, is a faltering of creative powers, a diminishing of skill, a kind of inspiration death. The latter possibility is too terrible to consider and I find myself fighting a mighty battle against it. After all, I’ve had dry spells in creativity before and I’ve always come out the other end and continued to create.

Perhaps, as I believe that creativity feeds more creativity, I have found myself over the last several months wanting in several of the activities or conditions that inspire productive periods for me, and engaging in too many activities that don’t.

Things I know feed my creative spirit that I have not been doing:

  • Writing regularly and consistently, anything, poetry, fiction, blog entry.
  • Reading: Freely reading, NOT the kind of reading I do in preparation for teaching.
  • Making original music, writing songs: Playing drums in a cover band, while fun, exhilarating, and somewhat lucrative, somehow does not do the entire trick.
  • Being in community with other creatives: Socially or artistically–facebook don’t cut the mustard, and convening with a writing community once a year ain’t enough.
  • Meditating.
  • April: All of the other months of the year that aren’t April, they’re just not April. I need to do more April.

Things I’ve been doing that don’t help.

  • The opposite of all of the above descriptors.
  • Facebook.
  • Generally speaking, the internet.
  • Feeling abjectly depressed about the gov’ment, fearful of another four years of said gov’ment, and unable to resist the “what horrible shit went down today on the clown car” impulse.
  • Allowing anxiety about certain monumental and impending life choices to paralyze me into making no choices about anything whatsoever, related or not.

‘Tis the season to make the resolutions, yes? Do more of the stuff that feeds the creativity and less of the stuff that doesn’t. Can we get specific? Can we find some small achievable goals that will build on each other over time so that 2020 becomes a year of productivity and creative health? Okay, then, let’s try a thing. Let’s make a damn list. Here’s a list of achievable stuff that, if I accomplish, would make me feel pretty great about the new year:

  1. Write a thing, at least one thing, once a week. It doesn’t have to be a finished thing.
  2. Read for pleasure, at least one book a month.
  3. Write an album’s worth of songs. For almost a decade I wrote six songs every month. This should not be a problem.
  4. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me–therapist, financial advisor, friends, my courage community–toward optimum discernment regarding these monumental and impending life choices.
  5. Meditate more often–and generally speaking, take better care of my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Regular exercise, anyone?

That’s a good list. It seems within reach, reasonable. It’s a positive list. I noticed that I didn’t list things that began with the words “stop,” “don’t,” or “resist.” It’s all “do more of” rather than moralizing about what I should do less of. I’m going to make a copy of this thing and post it somewhere where I can see it every day. Maybe I’ll make myself a chart. Get all Benjamin Frankliny up in here. I’m pretty pleased with myself. I’ve written my way through the block and have decided upon some resolutions. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, and to me. Let’s do this.

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Car Crash Haiku

Damaged bumpers from car accident

As we were about to read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for the poem of the day, I was introducing my students to a poetic formal structure I was pretty sure none of them had ever heard of, the villanelle. To begin with, I explained to them that a formal structure was one in which the poet was following a set of rules. I asked them if they knew of any formal poetic structures, and as it turns out, most of them were familiar with these two giants: the sonnet and the haiku. We unpacked what they could remember about the rules of a sonnet, and then the haiku. Many of them recited: five, seven, five. Okay, a haiku is a three line poem in which the first line is five syllables long, the second line is seven syllables long, and the third line five syllables long. I do not consider myself a haiku scholar by any stretch, but I ventured to guess out loud for the edification of my charges that there might be other “rules” at work in a haiku, especially in its most traditional form. I speculated that many haiku are meditative in tone and usually incorporate some nature imagery. And then I told them that they were unlikely, for example, to find very many car crash haiku. After one student suggested that Car Crash Haiku might be a great name for a band, I laughed out loud, agreed, came pretty close right then and there to walking out of the room to form such a band, and then, having embraced the idea fully, I suggested a student could actually do a series of car crash haiku, thought better of it, and claimed the idea for my own–which, you know, is kind of a cheat–because any individual in that room could go out into the world with their own series of car crash haiku and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. So, this little paragraph is just to say that somebody might be generating some number of car crash haiku in the near future. It could become an entirely new haiku school. I just wanted people to know how it started. You’re welcome.

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