Monday, September 19, 2016

all available light

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a poem by Carrie Newcomer, and have since bought her book A Permeable Life. (Some very cool cover art on her books and albums...). I think it's really interesting to read the poems and lyrics of songwriters. There's less constraint, more feeling, perhaps? I think poets spend far too much time worrying about whether something can be said, in what form, and if a poem is a poem. But maybe that's just me. 

So here's the title poem from her book:

A Permeable Life

by Carrie Newcomer

I want to leave enough room in my heart
For the unexpected,
For the mistake that becomes knowing,
For knowing that becomes wonder,
For wonder that makes everything porous,
Allowing in and out
All available light. 

An impermeable life is full to the edges,
But only to the edges.
It is a limited thing.
Like the pause at the centre of the breath,
Neither releasing or inviting,
With no hollow spaces
For longing and possibility,

I would rather live unlocked,
And more often than not astonished,
Which is possible
If I am willing to surrender
What I already think I know.
So I will stay open
And companionably friendly,
With all that presses out from the heart
And comes in at a slant
And shimmers just below
The surface of things. 

I picked this vase of random flowers from my yard early last week and just kept shooting it in whatever light was available. An exercise. A practice. Something to hold on to. 

Let yourself fall. 
Learn to
observe snakes
Plant impossible gardens.
Invite a dangerous person for tea.
Make little characters who say "yes" and distribute them
everywhere throughout your house.
Become a friend of freedom 
and uncertainty. 
Look forward to dreams.
Cry at a movie.
Swing as high as you can on a swing
in the moonlight.
Provide different moods.
Refuse to be made 'responsible.'
Do it for love.
Take a lot of naps.
Give away money.
Do it now, the money will follow.
Believe in magic.
Smile a lot.
Take moon baths.
Have wild imaginings, transformative dreams and perfect calm.
Draw on walls.
Read every day.
Imagine that you are enchanted.
Play with children
listen to old people.
Open yourself,
dive into it, be free.
Praise yourself, bless yourself
drive away fear.
Play with everything. 
Take care of the child in yourself. 
You are innocent.
Build a fortress with blankets.
Get wet.
Embrace trees. 
Write love letters.

- Joseph Beuys

{there are quite a lot of translations of the above, and I've subbed in a few lines that make more sense...Sometimes the first line is translated as: Stay loose. Which is also kind of nice}.

The above is sometimes titled, how to be a writer, but could also be titled, how to live.

These are currently, and ongoingly, my huge everyday every minute questions. There are times when you feel that YOU ARE DOING ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING WRONG. Or that things aren't going your way. That the rug is being slowly and deliberately and not quite hilariously pulled out from underneath you. As usual, and as it goes in most lives, a lot of stuff is going right for us. Our daughter is doing wonderfully in college, loving her life, working hard, and appreciating it all. Really, that's the most important thing. I've taken on extra hours at the library - a good thing. But the bad part is that I'm struggling with my writing. Less time, more worries, etc etc. Perimenopause is basically killing me. (Yes, I'm doing all the stuff I should be doing in that regard). And there are days when I read something like, 'embrace trees' and I want to yell out the open car window on the way to work, are you F'ing KIDDING ME????? When do you expect me to find the time and energy and the proper mental state required to embrace trees???? I used to be all about embracing the trees and now the trees are strangers to me!!! Bloody trees.

But yah, this blog is called Calm Things, so.

I'm going to embrace flowers, invite dangerous people to tea.

Later in the day:

And this one, very early in the morning:

A couple of weeks ago, I read: "What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the internet" by Leo Milani. It's really stuck with me. From the article: 

"These people, says Harris, are the last of a dying breed. “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After,” he writes. It is a nice conceit. Harris, like your correspondent, grew up in a very different world, one with limited channels of communication, fewer forms of entertainment, and less public scrutiny of quotidian actions or fleeting thoughts. It was neither better nor worse than the world we live in today. Like technology, it just was.

Being in this situation puts us in a privileged position.”If we’re the last people in history to know life before the internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”"

The novel I'm writing currently takes place before the internet, in the era of cassette tapes. And maybe that's why I've been thinking a lot about the time before the internet, and maybe more especially, the time before social media. I remember when just having email was a lot to handle. When blogs were kind of this amazing space where you connected with people from all over the world. And now we swim in all this stuff. And I don't think we even half know how much of it occupies our brains. Well, maybe we do, and we don't want to know. I don't.

Over the summer, I kept taking out a favourite old book, written pre-internet, in the 70s, and just sort of marvelling about how quiet it is. I've talked about it before in more than one place, certainly here, and also in my book, Calm Things. Little Saint, by Hanna Green, who passed before the book was published.

From the fly leaf:

"This is a book written in ecstasy.  
In the early 1970s, the writer Hanna Green and her husband, Jack Wesley, an artist, came upon a village called Conques, curled like a conch shell in the mountains of south-central France. Entranced, they returned the next year, an date next, living there for months at a time. Hannah Green was attracted to the craggy landscape, the ancient language, the traditions of the region. Most of all, she felt herself drawn to the story of the little saint whose spirit fills the lives in that place."  
"Written in a kind of rapture, Little Saint tells the story of a living presence, of her travels in time: of holy and healing places and characters; of fields and force and unexplained emanations...." 

Perhaps the fact that it's one part travel book, is why I felt the absence of the internet in this book in my most recent reading, so much. Or because I keep wondering what it would feel like to turn it all off for a year and write. (Knowing, really, that I'd be perfectly unable to give it up).

How possible is it though, now, to write a book "in ecstasy."

Look how beautifully the garden winds down. How the late bloomers persist.

And the spiders send out their last messages, less carefully, with less perfection and clarity. But perhaps more beautifully.

So let's return to the subject "How To Be a Writer," with the help of Rebecca Solnit and her 10 tips.  

Here's number six:

Time. It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

And now we are in the trees, seeing through / with that light.

Recent reads. This interview with Kiki Smith where she says:

But which is your favourite place?

Home. To stay in my home and work. I like monastic life. Get up, do some yoga, go to the foundry then go to a movie. I like to have a single purposed activity in a given place. In New York there is too much information, too many e-mails. I like to be concentrated in my work. I also enjoy having a private life separate from my life as an artist.

Do you find it difficult for a woman to be an artist?

I don’t think it is difficult to be an artist. It is a great gift and a pleasure that you take for yourself. It is an activity that you have to do.

Ars Poetica 

by Dorothea Lasky

I wanted to tell the veterinary assistant about the cat video Jason sent me
But I resisted for fear she’d think it strange
I am very lonely
Yesterday my boyfriend called me, drunk again
And interspersed between ringing tears and clinginess
He screamed at me with a kind of bitterness
No other human had before to my ears
And told me that I was no good
Well maybe he didn’t mean that
But that is what I heard
When he told me my life was not worthwhile
And my life’s work the work of the elite.
I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day
I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep,
Write poems in my sleep
Make my dreams poems
Make my body a poem with beautiful clothes
I want my face to be a poem
I have just learned how to apply
Eyeliner to the corners of my eyes to make them appear wide
There is a romantic abandon in me always
I want to feel the dread for others
I can feel it through song
Only through song am I able to sum up so many words into a few
Like when he said I am no good
I am no good
Goodness is not the point anymore
Holding on to things
Now that’s the point

That feeling you have when you want to turn everything and everyone around you into a poem, to turn them toward the available light. To say, see: you are a poem, however lonely and broke and sad you are. And yes, as Lasky says, the point is holding on, holding on to things. It might be repetitive to say, but hold on to whatever available light.

Other peoples' flower gardens:

The leaves that are beginning to turn:

Last things.

It seems we keep reading versions of articles like this one: "I Published my Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim - and Then I Promptly Went Broke." 

Watched: I love the Met videos. What a cool behind the scenes look at an installation of a statue

Lastly, as predicted, Rumi and the Red Handbag did not win the Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Thanks to everyone for all the votes, the shots in the arm, the comments and the good wishes. I'm thrilled to have been named a finalist, loved seeing all the attention the book received, and participating in all the ARCA events. A good time. Deeply honoured to have been part of it all. 

Wishing you all calm things in the week ahead, and time, and light, and something to embrace, flowers or trees or some unexpected beautiful thing. 

- Shawna


  1. I had to go look up Carrie Newcomer, I had never heard of her. I do love that poem. I also love how you followed the light around all day, you've inspired me to do the same. Those flowers are so gorgeous in any light!

    And that perimenopause stuff, it sucks, no doubt about it. The only good thing is that it won't last forever. You will be back to hugging those f*ing trees one day :)

  2. I'm so pleased you had the experience of Rumi and the RH being nominated and I'm pleased I got to vote for it.
    I'm hoping you didn't add all those pretty sugar cubes in that dainty cup of tea! :-) though the resulting images are entirely beautiful. Hoping that blinking perimenopause dissolves away soon enough. I so loved what Susan wrote about hugging those trees! Laughed so hard at that.
    Wishing you a calm week.

  3. The flowers are so beautiful. And go ahead, embrace a tree -- or at least stroke its bark.


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