Monthly Archives: March 2014

Pinned

Pinned-Moths_LGIn a recent dream I found my limbs crossed under rubble—arm rested on arm and leg on leg and no moving them. And when I shifted in bed to relieve the thought, my neck hinged with all the weight of my body above it, loading it. Moving once more, the hinge transferred to my waist. I couldn’t unbend because this dream was cramped, no room remained.

Waking was wonderful. Having so much space relieved me, and I walked downstairs, drank a glass of water, and traveled back to my bed again, banishing the dream and reminding myself of the square feet of my home, my comfort and safety. I slept well after that.

I’m unclear why this dream visited or what it meant to say. We’re all prone to those cul-de-sacs that unsettle sleep, sick dreams with stuttering plot lines reveling in futility. An arm pinned beneath me, an extra fold of pillow, an overused posture may have started it, or something less physical. Maybe the day’s frustrations butted into corners again. Maybe earlier conversations turned on themselves, and spun like drunks stuck between walls.

As a fifth grader, I used to ride my bike to school and, nervous even then, I’d wake too early just to assure I’d set off in time. My clock radio clicked, and nearly every day—heavy radio rotation being what it was—I heard “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson, a song I only understood as tone, his grayish brown moaning akin to clouds hanging over Texas City, the next town over, home of Union Carbide and Monsanto refineries.

Just as now, sleep seemed better. Why should I get up? My dreams hadn’t granted much respite, and the day promised little. Harry Nilsson couldn’t even make words, going “Wahh, Waaahh-wa-waaah-wahn-wah” and dooming the next hours before they started. Oh, what gratitude I felt when, for whatever reason muster-able, I wouldn’t have to go. Absolved, I’d sleep again. In complete peace.

Not much has changed. The importance of routine makes a bigger impression now that I’ve grown up—I know how daily workouts or a regular schedule or positive patterns of waking and sleeping add up. And I don’t really want to not work. Yet affirmations don’t make tedium easier. Though nearly every 7:15 am finds me sitting at my desk, slumped over a stack of papers, the greatest reprieve is still turning, stretching, and returning to sleep.

But you shouldn’t admit that. I think sometimes how far we are from early humanity and what they may have felt with no alarm to wake them. They must have had their own anxieties—like being hunted and mauled—but all of what we call progress could mean nothing to them. We might explain it. They might understand, and then ask, “And, that’s better because…?”

We make more and more, not just physically but conceptually, so much so our inventions seem material, the necessities that are truly fabricated and the obligations written in stone that really belong in sand. We can’t give ourselves a break. We can’t rest.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Worry

AKA Mr. Haiku

haiku-busonYou may not believe me, but sometimes my daily haiku seem the only important writing I do. They are short enough that I can’t screw up or, if I screw up, their singular utterance seems only cryptic, perhaps ironic, maybe (possibly) deliberate. They are at very least fun and arrive like cinnamon or dark chocolate or wood smoke, a hint of scent elsewhere, even in winter.

Truthfully, I rarely worry about how good they may be. Issa wrote, “What a strange thing! To be alive beneath cherry blossoms” and thus said what every haiku does. If we’re attuned to fresh perception, it visits us continually.

Every early spring a day arrives when I hear birds. I’ve missed their song without knowing, and they seem entirely novel, an alien echo, another dimension intruding. When my life is right, the sudden appearance of sun any time of year elicits automatic exaltation.

Occasionally, trying to write haiku, I sense my mind laboring for profundity, as if this time I’ll dive deeper and hold my breath longer and experience denser reality. What appears instead is the absurdity of wishing and a bemused relief at escaping seriousness.

Most people regard writing haiku as a special sort of serenity. In Haiku Mind, Patricia Donegan describes her encounter with this state as she looked at a sun-bathed orange and felt, “All was perfect as it was, and I felt suddenly at peace as I saw ‘the thing itself’ as if it was in its nakedness without my overlay of thoughts or opinions, and tears rolled down my face.”

Crying isn’t a regular part of my own experience, not just because such high contentedness is hard to come by but also because haiku don’t seem so limited to gratification. I understand “the thing itself” revelation but sometimes experience resignation instead, knowing whatever I feel—serenity, longing, grief, desire, frustration, self-pity, or the unnamable—is okay. The angry haiku, the sad haiku, the elated haiku, the confused haiku all possess similar acquiescence.

I haven’t much patience for people who want to distinguish between hokku and haiku, between haiku and senryu or between strict haiku and free. Those distinctions and requirements seem—I apologize to purists—silly. Haiku are finally clearer in spirit than definition.

My affection for the dark before commercials and silence after a song’s coda comes from every human’s desire to pause. For just a moment, nothing is moving on to better or worse. I’m not serene so much as still.

And, to me, haiku often resemble jokes, springing as they do from simultaneously startling and familiar observations, hinging on changing directions. The flame in wood grain resolves itself as a graph of the day’s troubles, the fire hydrant seems momentarily stubborn, planted sumo-like in defiance, or a dog with a leash but no owner becomes a murder suspect.

Haiku writers place shifts in kireji, cutting words, but revelation isn’t structural. Pay exclusive attention to words or syllables and haiku become too material to flicker and eddy. They sound translated even in home languages. I’m never sure if only the oblique can be conveyed in haiku or if the form of haiku renders everything oblique. In either case, the syllabled joints and angles see life as through a series of mirrors and thus, for once, afresh.

Someone asked me recently if I thought haiku were important to my “practice.” I felt a flood of goodwill—I wanted to embrace him. How wonderful to endow my fixation with such gravity! Yet, truth told, that moment offered validation, the uttered truth of faith. These daily haiku may seem amusement and rehearsal, but they’re central to all I see, sense, and feel as a writer and human being.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Blogging, Buddhism, Desire, Epiphany, Essays, Haiku, Identity, life, Meditations, Poetry, Survival, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Writing

Battling Literature

literature-versus-traffic_obKyL_11446Suggesting books occasionally leads to conversations like this:

“What were you thinking?”

“What?”

Crying of Lot 49. I almost quit with five pages left. That was the longest short book I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I understood a word of it.”

“I’m sorry—“

“You are going to have to explain to me why anyone would consider that great literature.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Among lists suitably retitled “100 Books You Should Suffer Through Before Dying” or “50 Books Smart People Know” or “Bragging Rights: Books” are some troublesome texts, and, as an English teacher, people sometimes want me to name them. They ask me what was the strangest book I read—A Void—or the most complex—Name of the Rose—or the most troubling—Blood Meridian—the most baffling—Tie: Pound’s The Cantos and Joyce’s Ulysses.

I regard these conversations as getting-to-know-you banter, but my listeners sometimes hear them as recommendations:

“You are one sick dude.”

“What?”

“You told me about that book Disgrace. Christ, could it have been more miserable? I wanted to jump off a bridge.”

“You didn’t like it?”

A special person undertakes books as challenges. You have to love puzzling, carrying a riddle around all day hoping the tiny metal ball will somehow—while you’re not watching—nestle into its dimple. You have to put aside knowing and settle for guessing. You have to feel good about having a sense of meaning.

“Do you think anyone really understands The Sound and the Fury?”

“I don’t know. Maybe people who study it.”

“Why would anyone study it? It’s just so bizarre. I was completely lost.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Right now, in one of my classes, I’m teaching Time’s Arrow, a narrator’s account of living within his “host” as the host’s life reels backwards toward a horrendous past. Every event is presented in reverse—tennis players gather the ball out of the net or backstop and then bat it around until someone, seemingly arbitrarily, grabs the ball from the air and pockets it. The narrator doesn’t understand what we ought to, but actually we don’t understand it without effort either. We have to rearrange, read in reverse, talk about it. In class, that process might lead to discussion:

“I don’t get it.”

“What specifically?”

“Anything. What is the point? I mean, if the narrator is confused, how are we supposed to know what’s going on?”

“Because you figure it out.”

“But that’s impossible… or, anyway, really, really hard. Too hard.”

“What, you don’t like it?”

As a high school student I gathered my book badges, the arcane and long-hair novels I’d read on my own—Moby Dick, The Metamorphosis, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, and Pale Fire. I can’t say I understood them all or grokked them as fully as I did later, but I didn’t expect to. I accepted that I was exercising, matching my brain against brains much more complicated and potent than my own. As an acolyte, what more might I expect?

Some of my students take the same perspective. They love the process even if it leads to no material result, and they revel in conversations about what might and might not be known. They experience singular excitement over not understanding entirely. Being at sea, they recognize, is sometimes wonderful. In literature, there’s certainly less harm in being mentally adrift than actually being lost in a lifeboat, and they don’t mind feeling dumb if they also feel stimulated, tested.

“I love the language.”

“What?”

Remembrance of Things Past

“Do you get it?”

“No, not really, but sometimes.”

“So are you understanding it?’

“Sometimes, but that’s enough, I guess.”

“You appreciate it.”

“Yes.”

“So you like it?”

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Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Education, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, Hope, Laments, Meditations, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts