Monday, August 23, 2010

Poetic Interlude: Forth and Back

Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio. Oliver once told an interviewer that she "was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it." For Oliver, the only worthy interest was writing. Oliver led a very solitary life as a writer. But that didn't bother her: "I decided very early that I wanted to write," she says. "But I didn't think of it as a career. I didn't even think of it as a profession...It was the most exciting thing, the most powerful thing, the most wonderful thing to do with my life. And I didn't question if I should - I just kept sharpening the pencils!"

Oliver’s work reflects a deep communion with the natural world, a phenomenon she also finds innate: "I don't know why I felt such affinity with the natural world," she says, "except that it was available to me, that's the first thing. It was right there."

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
- “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

We are like a seasaw, a heavy-duty circular saw
Cutting into the emerald water, perhaps killing a fish.
That fish is the only record we have of progress.
I want to say I love you.
Not only say it, but mean it.
Gravity prevents me, but inertia compels me.
I want to defy gravity, be a grasshopper
And spring away from urges that plague my senses.
You question my motives, but I swear I do,
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

After getting backup. This swing does not forget
the motion it must make.
The swing remembers to go back and forth, up and down,
It’s that continual motion that distracts us
from the frivolous imperative that was once our life.
What happened to the sweetness you used to eat
Out of my hand? Have I fed you wrong?
Have a fed you astray?
You wonder how to continue, now that I’ve led you
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

Without me? You’ll find a way
Away from me. You’ll just need a plan,
A just plan you’ll need. You can’t just float away
Which is what you’ve been doing all your life.
It’s fine for a day, but you need to do more
With your precious life. Be wild. Be free.
I think I have a plan, and although I’ll help you with yours,
You’ll need to do most of it on your own.
You’ll need to learn how to be on your own,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

With no Guide. I know I’m not perfect.
I know I have things in my life which are
Enormous and complicated; enormously complicated, even
I myself can recognize this. I am trying to improve
In between life’s metaphors and malapropisms
I am trying to make sense of why I’m here,
Who made me. Why?
But besides finding my Purpose in Life,
I must also try to find Happiness,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Lessons Learned from...Poetry

We don't read poetry like we used to. We still study poems in school; we still acknowledge poets at prestigious award ceremonies; but how often do you see someone leafing through Leaves of Grass on the subway? Exactly. I attempted to revive poetry last autumn. I loftily headed out and bought a volume of Christina Rossetti (there's nothing life reading "Goblin Market" on a crisp fall day) and tried to read it like a novel. It didn't quite work, but more annoyingly, I didn't know why it didn't quite work. I suppose it was because reading poems is so much more labor intensive than reading a novel. There is the multi-layered meaning, jungle gym of language and general density to a (good) poem.

Poetry and Poets teach us to take our time, to meander in this ├╝ber-efficient and ultra-sonic world. It's a hard lesson for me to learn. I love 'getting things done' and 'crossing it off my list'. I often jump into projects without fully considering all the ramifications. But poetry lives in the ramifications.

I came across an interesting poetry form while reading the Griffin shortlist this year. P.K. Page's book of Glosas were so engaging I decided to try to write one myself. Here goes...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lessons Learned from...Moving (Part 2)

My husband and I recently moved from Toronto to Halifax. Reasons for our move can be summed up as follows: we wanted to improve our Quality of Life (QOL). I've always assumed this to be an objective term, that everyone would implicitly know what I meant when I employed it to explain our rationale for moving. Wrong. Discussing our impending move with a bona fide 'big city' girl, she asked what exactly I meant by QOL. She claimed that, to her, QOL meant living in a city with millions of other people. (I don't know how to reconcile this with the fact that her choice complaint concerned her inability to read on the commuter train due to crowds, but whatever.)

This got me thinking as to what QOL really means. I know various brains have attempted to define it (the 'Popsicle Index' is likely my fav), but, to me, it comes down to the following:
  1. Climate and weather
  2. Pollution, air quality and urban hygiene
  3. Convenient access to amenities
  4. Availability of pleasure activities
  5. Reasonable commute to work
  6. Proximity to like-minded people

Of course, built into this paradigm is personality: one person's pleasure and favorable climate is the next person's pain and rain. We all have varying definitions of convenient and reasonable. We all weigh these factors differently. Am I missing anything (...besides the dirty, yet quirky, Toronto streets)?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lessons Learned from...Overindulgence

Perhaps this is an ironic lesson to learn during Abstinence August, but I think the key to happiness is Moderation. Moderation: a tiny and sought-after neighborhood nestled in between the sprawling suburb of Overindulgence and the exclusive condominium complex of Abstinence. It's OK to visit Overindulgence for an evening or stay with relatives in Abstinence for a month or so, but I don't really want to live there.

When we do get lost and find ourselves in Overindulgence or Abstinence for longer than necessary, let's just draw ourselves a map and steadily make our way back home again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lessons Learned from...Abstinence August, Starting Out

Remember the Sex & the City episode where Miranda uses chocolate as a substitute for sex? She ends up eating so much chocolate cake that she throws the pastry in the rubbish and pours dish-washing liquid all over it. When we're trying to abstain from something, it seems a natural reaction is to replace it with something else. But does this really accomplish the self-restraint, self-denial and forbearance we are trying to obtain when we abstain? I don't think so; otherwise this month would be called Alternative August.

Many different cultures have fasting, total gastronomic abstinence, as part of their rituals. I wonder why? I suspect there is something cleansing (either mentally or physically) in the act. I'm sure the reward of congratulation (both from self and society) holds some inspiration as well. Often, especially when abstaining for religious purposes, some greater motive is involved. For example, the hunger you feel is supposed to remind you of some greater void. I wonder what should I reflect on whenever I feel tempted?

My first challenge, even before the month began, was to convince others that I really was going to follow through with this. I met some resistance: eating chocolate and drinking wine is a lot more fun when you have company. Around my house I'm probably the biggest promoter of cocoa and vino. But ultimately you have to do what's right for you. When you know in your heart you need to do something, that's motivation enough. And getting through the first day primarily unscathed, well that boosts my motivation even more.