Three deer grazed in the forest behind my house, skittish but hungry. One headed for the penstemon flowers growing in our yard, but seeing Mike and me, and Kelly the (unthreatening) Labrador, opted out. A yellow swallowtail butterfly was briefly trapped under the shade shelter on the patio, fighting the winds that signal yet another red flag warning.
Craving water, a handful of us took various watercraft – my kayak (Martha), Alan’s new McKenzie boat, and an assortment of paddleboards – out to Lake Mary to paddle around at dusk. Later, after the speedboats, water skiers and jet skiers left, the wind quieted and the water calmed to glass, reflecting the stars as we sat on the dock, dark outlines enjoying snacks and chats in the twilight.
I woke in the night, overstimulated by the evening’s chatter, thinking about identity, about how we’re all becoming ourselves, based on genetics and upbringing, and the choices we make. Our personalities are a complicated soup of all those factors, but who can say which ingredients are most important at this stage of our middle-aged lives, and which aspects we need to edit out?
In college in the late 1970s, my wardrobe was a pared-down collection of green army fatigue pants, flannel shirts, and hiking boots. I wore my hair in a bun, and didn’t need glasses. I was studying journalism, working at the student newspaper and doing other odd jobs (including refinishing furniture), so I could afford to buy groceries. My best friend, Andi, also worked at the paper to support herself and her husband, Dave, who was an architecture student at Ball State.
One summer evening, I made what was supposed to be an elegant dinner of basil pesto over spaghetti for Andi, Dave and my roommate, Mindy. Except that I forgot to take the wooden spoon I was using out of the blender before I pushed the purée button, and the whole mess was peppered with splinters. There was no margin in my budget to correct the mistake, so everyone picked out the wooden bits, and drank a lot of wine.
In the years since, I’ve learned a lot about what to put in, and what to leave out.
On a Saturday afternoon last May, I drove to Tucson to visit the University of Arizona Poetry Center for a tour and workshop. Among the 40,000 volumes of poetry, we experienced the beautiful spaces – indoor and outdoor – of the building, which was completed in 2007. Unlike some libraries, there’s not much “writer’s dust” to breathe in: the words are as vibrant and light-filled as the space.
In the workshop, we were instructed to pick a number between 20 and 25, and then two numbers between 5 and 10. We delved into the stacks, chose five books at random, and copied down two lines from each volume, as indicated by our selection of page number and line numbers. Upstairs, we cut apart those lines, creating our own abbreviated “magnetic poetry” collection of words for raw material. There was no thought of plagiarism. Once we’d deconstructed those sentences, our teacher, Anita told us, “They’re your words now.”
My pile of words became this:
The schoolteacher attended the delicate season.
Patient, frail, shot through the head,
when she kissed the dark, living desire.
After, that alien word: beautiful.
What of her middle-aged husband, infinitely flushed, obvious?
Always this flannel shirt, and fussing.
Sometimes a dearth of time or raw materials is helpful for creating. Without parameters, I find myself flailing about, missing the keys of purpose and content to unlock the door to my own mind. I do some of my best work when under a tiny bit of pressure. Too much, and my process collapses. Too little and the expanse feels overwhelming, diluted and unfillable. Like a stockpot full of ingredients, the project has to cook down to reveal its simmered essence and become a tasty broth.
Today, I copied words from five volumes in my own eclectic library: Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson), Possession (A.S. Byatt), The Book of Calamities (Peter Trachtenberg), Leap (Terry Tempest Williams), and In the Beginning (Karen Armstrong). I cut them up, and began to rearrange. I subtracted about half of the original words (and added a few) to come up with this:
We pin our hopes on the summer solstice,
Sitting in her bonnet, smiling demurely,
Surrounded by cut flowers on the longest day of the year.
But under her skirt burns a bonfire:
The coming of winter, a kiss of death,
When hope will be bludgeoned by the dark days.
Imagine turning away from the inflammatory condition,
Away from possession,
Away from the hostage situation,
And, as a condition of release
Flying into the inferno and embracing the heat.