Ugh. Insomnia. And it’s the fuzzy-headed kind. Trying to head off a cold, I took a tablet before bed that has zinc and valerian in it. I slept soundly for about five hours, and then that was it. Sometimes I can starting listing the countries of the world, and I’ll fall back to sleep before I can fill a continent, but tonight I got through all of them, and here I am, still awake. By the time I got through South America and was working my way through Africa, I knew I was done for. And now, it’s only half an hour until my alarm goes off, so I might as well start the process of waking up.
Today in Creative Writing, we’ll look at the pictures and poems that people put together with their random words. I showed several of my own on Friday as examples, so I don’t know if I’ll put up pictures like this one. I just pulled fifteen random cards from my word tickets and arranged them together. I’m not sure I like the line “dance wanderer combust.” The flow feels wrong, like I’m packing too many syllables into it. I like the word wanderer on its own, but in some contexts, that “-erer” can sound like a car with an engine that won’t turn over.
I hope my students are feeling the sense of freedom from prescribed meaning that I am feeling from working with word pools. We’ll get into intentional meanings soon enough, but it’s a nice breath to begin the semester with nonsense and random associations. It’s been an odd experience for me, a little risky. I feel sort of vulnerable, like I am letting my students in to my own personal crazy. I keep worrying that they’ll start rolling their eyes, that they won’t get it. And this is so deeply connected to the way my brain works that I feel like I might feel a greater sense of personal rejection if they can’t get into it. Enough of them have sent me fantastic random word projects, however, that I am feeling less anxious about it.
Gratitude List: 1. The shadows that swoop through the woods behind the house when vultures are flying in front of the sun. 2. Random meanings plucked from odd associations 3. Even though sleep was short, I did get some good solid hours of deep sleep 4. The ones who work for justice 5. Warm blankets
One of the things about the Judeo-Christian creation story that always captures my attention is the idea that the humans are tasked with the work of naming. The Holy One breathes life into the clay to make a living person, and then the people set about the task of breathing out the names of their companions, the animals. I wish I could figure out how to make a seamless connection here to the sort-of-silly and whimsically-fun project of labeling people and things with random words from our Word Pools that we are doing in my Creative Writing class.
There’s something mind-expanding about taking the random word “chaos” and using it to label the foamy swirl in the middle of my cup of coffee. When I added “widdershins” to the outward spiral of the cup, I was being less whimsical, because the old word for the leftward spiral is widdershins. And “chaos” begat “primordial,” so that, too, was association rather than simple randomness.
Even so, I can see how, turned loose to run in its own pathways, my brain played a simple associative game with words and ideas, building up tidbits of meaning into a cohesive whole. And that’s the process I want my students to be finding. Breaking it all down to the little bits, and rebuilding up new structures and associative maps of meaning. Beginning, like First Human, with words for things, and then building up relationships and intricate and complex webs of patterns and thoughts.
Speaking of words and the structuring of meaning, for some reason this morning, my mind has pulled the words “ort” and “crot” out of the stew of my brain. An “ort” is a small piece of something, particularly a leftover bit from a meal. I am thinking of all these little random words that we have pulled out of the webs of sentences and ideas and thrown onto other objects, like the crumbs dropped from the table of a messy eater. A “crot” is a piece of a phrase, an abrupt fragment of meaning used to create movement and rapid transitions in a piece of writing.
Begin with the crumbs, the orts, that fall out of the meal of a conversation. Grab twenty random words. Thirty? Forty? Taste them. Memorize them. Write them. Throw them against the wall. Toss them together and see which ones stick together. Combine them into crots, little strands of potential. Knot them. Twist and spin them. Form them into longer strands and webs, phrases, sentences, ideas. Follow the footsteps of First Human. Breathe that Holy air into your lungs, and breathe out Words. Orts. Crots and phrases. Make a new thing.
Gratitude List: 1. Orts and Crots: Tiny pieces and fragments of meaning that get thrown and tossed and jumbled together to create meanings and ideas and conceptual frameworks. 2. Breath. Breathing. In. Out. Gratitude and compassion. Hope and fortitude. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. 3. Goldfinches on the thistle sock. (Thistle sock–that’s fun to say.) 4. Morning writing while my small architect designs a house made of shipping containers. He has taped four pieces of graph paper together to create his idea. 5. A little bit of snow remains on the ground. I’d like some deeper snow at least once this winter, please.
One of the subjects that keeps snagging my poetic attention is the landscape manuscript–how everything around us (not just the landscape) has a “text” that we might understand, if only we could read it. When I’m driving down the road and thinking about a knotty issue I am trying to resolve and I see three crows standing quietly in a winter field, or seven geese suddenly fly overhead in a raggedy V across my view, or something in the way the sun shines on the remaining leaves of that old oak seems to have a message for me–it’s as if there’s a deep text in the world that could be understood if only I knew the letters. And of course the landscape does have messages, and they can be read. It’s what farmers and meteorologists and hikers have done forever. It is what ecologists and environmentalists are doing right now, to save our lives.
And sometimes the visual and aural messages in my environment do seem to align themselves in perfect messages that feel like they’re meant for me, specifically, to read. Again, this is whimsical and playful rather than scientific. And it also captures my attention. I’m not going to make a judgement about whether or not the Holy One Herself, or the Universe, or the faeries, set up yesterday’s little alignment just so my heart could see it, but I will claim the whimsy, say that the synchronicity caught my heart, and then I will use it to construct the next steps of intuitive meaning for the shape my ponderings take in the coming days. I’d rather step into the future making meaning from the rich webs of whimsy and coincidence that surround me than refusing to gather the symbols that dance through my life and live with meaning defined only by the hardest of logic.
I was driving across the Route 30 bridge, listening to the most recent episode of “This Jungian Life” podcast, on the Trickster archetype, because my friend had recommended it to me. I was thinking about the Fool, and how I hoped that this archetype would inform my activism in the coming year, speaking truth through the lies in the way only the Fool can. The theme of the podcast suddenly turned to the way that tricksters throughout history have been challengers of suppression and repression and autocratic rule, how they act as a corrective when a person or a system becomes too rigidly rule-based and oppressive. There was a “click” in my brain at the coincidence of thought and outer message.
At that moment, my eye caught the new Sight and Sound billboard at the end of the bridge—shining purple, it advertised their upcoming production of Queen Esther, and one of my favorite Bible phrases, from the book of Esther, took up the central space in large letters: “FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS.” Again, an internal click.
As I passed the billboard, a large vulture swooped low above the highway. Click.
Yes, it’s whimsy and intuition, poetry and dreaminess, rather than hard science or pure logic or cold reason. While I need the latter, while I value science and logic and reason as important mental processes, I think a world that makes meaning without the more poetic processes is bereft of the spark of spirit.
And so it is settled, this day before Epiphany. My word, my archetype, my guiding principle, for the coming year is the Fool. Sacred clown. Jester. Trickster. I’ve been considering how the Fool subverts the dominant paradigm (to use an old phrase) to speak the truth behind the lies. In a political milieu swimming in falsehoods, how does the Fool speak truth? Lear’s Fool spoke from deep love and tenderness, was not afraid to speak harsh truths right to the king’s face, and kept repeating the truth from various angles until the truth shone in.
Even the travelers whose arrival we celebrate today and tomorrow, the Wise Ones, the magi, have an element of the Fool. Magi, Mages, Magic, Image, Imagination. The truth they first told Herod was too bald, too open, too dangerous, and so, when they were presented with the deep truth of this Child, they disobeyed the king and fled home a different way, tricking the King. Still, the consequences were grave and terrible for too baldly proclaiming the truth to the king in the first place. This is lesson to be deeply conscious of to whom and how the truth is presented. The Fool must be wise.
So. The Fool. Those black vulture wings are also in my consciousness. And the echidna, a hybrid creature who survives and thrives because it is more than one thing. Those mists and rainbows, veiling and shattering, scattering light. Wading in the water: Do you want to be well? And Aslan’s words to Lucy: “Courage, Dear Heart!”
There is one more thing, a more abstract word rather than an archetype: Orenda. It comes from the Iroquoian language systems, and it refers to the spiritual power that exists in all things, the energy that we transmit between us, that we can access to change the world.
Okay, and there’s one more thing. My friends. Community. Last night’s dreams were a succession of anxiety dreams. In several scenes, I was trying to find Joss, and just couldn’t make contact. In several scenes, I had little fiddly school details to remember and take care of while I was rushing around trying to do other things. In several scenes I was in a car, constantly missing my exit, needing to turn around, but unable to get around another car or to fit my car into the space of the turn-off. Finally, standing on a sidewalk, about to throw my phone on the ground because I couldn’t get it to make a simple call to Joss, a group of my college friends walked up. Nancy took my phone and got it to dial Joss. Gloria put her hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes, and started to tell me a helpful story. The others gathered around. I could feel everyone’s presence. And I calmed down. Friends. I get by with a little help. . .
What are your messages from the coming year? What words and images coalesce for you? What synchronicities in your inner and outer landscape call to you to listen and follow?
Gratitude List: 1. Friends. How even in my dreams, my beloveds appeared to bring me peace. You. The little connections that are bigger than you know. The way the web of our connections holds us up, and holds the world. 2. The spiritual force within each one of us that enlivens and enlightens and helps us to bring change and goodness into the world. 3. Synchronicity and coincidence and making meaning where it comes. 4. Image and imagination and magic. 5. Being greeted throughout the day by cats.
Yesterday, as I was scrolling through Facebook in a lazy moment, I came upon another of those word search puzzles. This one was different. It was a different color, different font. The same friend had posted both this one and the one from the day before. The blurb at the top of the second, like the first, was something like: “The first three words you see are your words for the coming year!” I have my own processes for choosing my words for the year, but still, I couldn’t resist.
I’m a sucker for this stuff, and social media has been happy to oblige. I used to take those Facebook quizzes before I began to get wary about viruses and data collection. Like the puzzles, the quizzes offer you some random answer to an inner question. “What is my personality?” “What will 2020 be like?” “Who among my friends is most like me?”
I think that probably most of us who take these quizzes and do these inconsequential games are participating playfully, but also holding some tiny deep-self spark of hope that this little bit of utter randomness will offer us a truth we can hold onto. Like the mining of dreams or daily experience for images and ideas that will guide the inner work of the coming year, these games engage the younger, more playful deep-self part of our psyches, offering us a chance to seek meaning in organic and flowing associative connection as opposed to marked and organized logical connection.
Both processes are valid for inner work, but we have a tendency to downplay the imaginative and associative parts of our inner selves and try to make meaning and sense of the world through the logical processes. This is where I think we get ourselves into trouble. Even Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and claimed to use associative processes like sleeping on an idea, and following intuitional trails, to find his way to some of his greatest thoughts about how the world works.
Searching for meaning in this way, by following the rabbit trails of the intuition, and associating seemingly random images and stories to create a narrative guide, is a form of divination. Humans have practiced divination since our early days as humans, and through all our cultures. We divined, through our senses and awareness of the natural signals around us, whether the day would be a good one for gathering mushrooms or for hunting. We let our intuition tell us whether those new mushrooms might be like the ones that feed us or the ones that kill us. It’s only natural, perhaps, that three crows in a dead tree or the sudden appearance of a coyote at the woodsedge might begin to take on greater significance, too.
Divine: an adjective, and sometimes a noun. Holy. Godlike. Heavenly. Having the properties and attributes of a deity. Divine: a verb. To seek to know. To observe patterns and (perhaps random) elements in a landscape or a mind in order to create meaning, to develop a guiding narrative for the future.
Do my friends and I (and you, perhaps) believe that the faery folk, or God, or some spirit presence, guides our eyes down those word search charts to find us the exact words that are meant for us for the coming year? Probably not, or not exactly. Do those words take on meaning, at least for some of us? Yes. Out of the random soup of the thousands of words that we read and experience daily, here are three to focus on, three to consider special. Yes, the prophecy is definitely self-fulfilling. If Health appears in my three and I have been feeling an internal sense of having neglected my health, perhaps taking this as my word will mean that I begin, in intentional and unintentional ways, to look to my health, and so 2020 becomes a year of robust health for me. When I look back at the end of the year and remind myself of my 2020 words: “Amazing! Look! Health was one of my words, and look how that has come true!”
Magic happens in many ways, and sometimes we make the magic happen.
In the tarot system of divination, one of the major cards is the Fool, who dances on the edge of a cliff, seemingly unaware of the danger, but perhaps aware and dancing anyway, because one must live joyfully no matter the circumstances. Perhaps becauseof the dire nature of circumstances, the Fool must dance. Since I began to play with the idea of the Fool as one of my guiding concepts for 2020, the Fool has begun to appear everywhere, in books and images and references. Two days ago, I made that little corn dolly Fool and took some photos of her in various places. Yesterday, I did a little digital twisting of some of those photos, and came up with the one attached to this post. See how she dances at the edge of that cliff, even setting her foot into air as though she is about to trust the wind to hold her?
And here’s the strange thing about following the intuitional, poetic, pathways. Sometimes (and maybe often) delightful coincidences/synchronicities (call them what you will) occur. In the first Word Search I did, the words I saw first were: Health, Gratitude, Wade. Wade? Not particularly inspirational. Not like the others at all, haha. The maker of the puzzle clearly didn’t intend it. Of all the possibilities, wouldn’t you know it, I would find the odd one out. The second puzzle, remember, was a different puzzle. I looked closely at it afterward, and the words were definitely different, in different places. My words in the second? Dance, Friendship, and. . .Wade. Yes.
My logic-brain is rolling its eyes and chuckling. But that laughter is a doorway to the deep-self fool, who loves sense that doesn’t make sense, who molds coincidence into meaning. As quick as my logic-brain was working to shrug it off, that deep-self elf had already begun to weave the patterns of a new idea. So I’m wading in the coming year. Does that mean that things will be a slog? Or maybe I have finished swimming in waters above my head and I might now be free to wade instead. I’m heading toward the second. And, because my being human means that I am a meaning-maker, I will build the meaning into my narrative for the coming year.
Dreamwork: Last night wasn’t particularly dreamy, but I did wake up with a sense of a dream in my head. I don’t remember all of the context or even the images. But I do remember the terrible sense of urgency to get a book ready to send to a publisher. Oooof. I don’t really want urgency in my collecting basket at the moment, and I’ve been wanting to put some poems or reflections or stories together into a book, but I’m not sure I want to marry that to greater urgency. There is a deadline coming up at the end of the month for a chapbook contest for Paraclete Press. Perhaps I’ll begin with that.
Gratitude List: 1. These long slow mornings I have had for writing and contemplating and meditating. I’m beginning to feel an edge of panic that I’ll be losing the gift of morning in just a few days, but I want to focus on being grateful for the days I have had to re-develop the habit of long morning writing sessions. My blog posts will soon be getting much shorter and quicker. 2. Still two days of break. Time to get more work done, and time to spend with my family and the cats. 3. Playing games. The boys got some new games for Christmas. Can’t Catch Harry is sort of like spoons, and Ravine and Spaceteam are collaborative problem-solving games. 4. Deep, sound sleep. 5. How the logic-brain and the deep-self work together to create meaning.
I’ve been thinking about my poetic process, looking through some of the neglected poems that I want to figure out how to publish, and realizing that quite a number of my poems are myth-making poems. I use poetry as a DIY Mything process, taking my own experiences and observations and transmuting them into myths. This thought is tangling with the threads of my current morning writing project of working with the Inanna story. Storytelling, writing, speaking–this whole language gig–is all about how we make meaning in the world. Art, too, as a communicative process, is about charging existence with meaning.
Gratitude List: 1. Meaning-making, DIY Myth-making, poetry, art, communication 2. Participating in a Literary Festival, listening, learning, absorbing 3. Good writing 4. How the sun shines in 5. Oak trees
May we walk in Beauty!
I’ve been thinking again about the process of poetry. In my AP Literature class recently, I have had the students choose a poetic form, no matter how lofty and traditional or edgy and nonsensical, to teach to the class. We’ve had some delightful lessons this week, learning the Magic 9 and the Nonet and the Rondeau and the Fib, among others. Yesterday, we found ourselves with a little extra time after the presentations, and we were ready to do our own thing, so we spent half the period creating our own poetic form! We developed our own rules for our own Lit Poetic Form. The process was delicious and intensely collaborative. At the end, we came up with this:
Lit Poem Two stanzas of seven lines each. It’s a word-count poem, with the following pattern: Stanza 1: 1, 3, 5, 7, 5, 3, 1 (It makes a diamond shape) Stanza 2: 7, 5, 3, 1, 3, 5, 7 (This one makes an hourglass form) When you put them together, they look somewhat like a lit candle. (Get it?) The rhyme scheme goes like this: Stanza 1: abcxcba (in which x is random and unrhymed) Stanza 2: cbaxabc (in which x is also random, and not necessarily rhymed with the first x)
This is how we make meaning. We spent twenty minutes collaboratively creating a world, complete with its order and purpose. Now we have to write the poems to prove its viability.
If you could trust your voice completely, if you didn’t have to consider how how others would respond, if you didn’t have to be safe, to be tame, to be docile and humble, acceptable and charming and quiet, if you had not been trained to make your words into an easy chair, to turn your voice to honey: What would you say?
Today’s Prompt is to make a poem titled “__(Blank)__ Again.” This month, I haven’t worked particularly hard at pushing myself outside my poetic comfort zone. Today, I generated a collection of random words on the internet and told myself I had to use a certain number of them in a poem.
The Plot Oozes Again
Does it matter if these words come from a random spouter of words on the internet, or if they derive from some capricious fountain in my head?
Or perhaps I’ll choose every fifth word from our clumsy correspondence. There, for instance, I had to strew a sneaky adjective among my thoughts. It modifies my meaning, subdues my ideas, and severs my intentions. Perfect poetry, the obfuscation (my word) of sense.
Which of these words are mine? Which are yours? And which, when we consider the luxuriant input of the internet, are the fantastic tickets of the random realm? The plot oozes, the smoggy street is cloistered in cobweb, and something has gone, chortling, off the rails.
Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.
This week in Creative Writing class, students have been presenting poetic forms of their choice, and we’ve been exploring writing in each one. I particularly love working with poetic forms and ideas that fracture meaning by re-arranging words, like in Billy Collins’s joke form, the Paradelle, which uses two repeated lines, and then re-mixes the words in those lines. Abstract poetry, too, often makes use of fractured and oddly mixed words to create a sense of meaning that transcends the direct line of thought. As intentionally goofy as Collins’s form is, it does something sort of exciting to the brain to shift words around and break up their linear meaning.
Habits and rhythms can become ruts. When I have my winter blinders on, trudging through the muck of dark and cold just to get through it, I find that the linear tracks I am making sometimes become deep and worn ruts, making it hard to find meanings in the days and moments other than the ones that make the direct and prosy sentences of my days. I need to rearrange things on the pages of my days, step out of the worn tracks, break the sense of the sentences, shift the meanings. Add a new thing today, even if it’s a new stretch in my yoga routine. Drop another habit, perhaps the quick check of email or FB when I get home from being away.
Here is an attempt at a Paradelle. I’m not sure if it works to put serious thought into a joke form, but it feels satisfying to use the fracturing of the the form to break up the mental trudge:
Walking through the haze of winter days. Walking through the haze of winter days. My feet step in the same weary tracks. My feet step in the same weary tracks. Through the step of haze, the weary feet, my winter tracks in same walking days.
I’ve worn a rut both long and deep. I’ve worn a rut both long and deep. Confined myself to pooling shadows. Confined myself to pooling shadows. To a rut I’ve both shadows confined, pooling deep both worn and long myself.
And made myself a hidden prison. And made myself a hidden prison. Of raw endurance and force of habit. Of raw endurance and force of habit. Force. Prison. Endurance: myself of raw, and made of hidden and a habit.
Winter and a force of endurance, walking in a haze, same feet, shadows: the raw and hidden habit, long and confined, both to step through the weary prison rut worn tracks of my pooling deep, I’ve made days of myself. Myself.
Gratitude List: 1. Long, deep mornings to write 2. Tree-shadows against the sky 3. Hunger that wakes me up 4. The way my students react with a natural aversion to injustice in literature. 5. Twinkling lights
May we walk in Beauty!
“How does a woman know? She listens. She listens in. Like light on waves.” —Margaret Atwood
“Every moment is a gift of life.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
“Only a fool knows everything.” —African proverb
“Note to self: If you want to have loving feelings, do loving things.” —Anne Lamott
Your thoughts, like birds
across the clear sky
of your mind,
like marks of a scribe
across the white page
of your dreams,
and meaning will form
from the patterns
that resolve as words
upon the page,
that whirl in the dusk
like a flock of starlings,
flowing as one being.
1. Pippi the Prius is fixed and out of the shop. It felt sort of like going to pick up a beloved old dog at the vet. There’s something not quite right with the battery. I’m hoping that it’s just because she’s been sitting so much of the time that she’s been getting fixed, and it’ll work itself out. The man at the shop said that it was within 75 cents of being totaled, so they put the detailing stripe on with a decal instead of paint, and gave that to us for free. I am grateful for that quarter we had to spare. And for the crew who fixed her up good as new.
2. Autumn sun, morning and evening, sparkling through the trees, skipping down the fields.
3. Making plans, fortifying, resolving
4. Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”
5. Finding my way into the new dreams
I have been second-guessing myself a little. I decided to read Redwall to the boys, without remembering how violent it can get. It’s pretty intense stuff for bedtime reading. I love the peaceful realm of Redwall and Mossflower, but the warring bits are intense, and there’s that whole holy defense bit that makes me nervous in its approximation of a just war philosophy. On the other hand, for small children who are trying to learn to face their fears and anxieties, a tiny mouse facing up to a bully of a rat might be a good metaphor. This afternoon, One Small Boy said, “Hey Mom. If a Badguy came into our house, this is what I would do to it.” And he ran forward with a series of karate-like moves. He might bowl a Badguy over with pure cuteness, I’m thinking. Still, I found it interesting that Badguy is “it,” like a monster or a phantom, or a floating anxiety. I think we’ll keep reading the book, remembering to reflect on the way Matthias cares for his friends, on the Abbot’s refusal to mistreat even his enemies, on the way the mice work together.
Gratitude List: 1. Cool breeze
2. Constructing meaning
3. Reading with the boys
4. Getting to be the scholar