Sunday, June 28, 2020

THE INTRICATE INTERPLAY OF WRITING AND FEEDBACK

Most of my life, I thought that writing was a very solitary activity. And it was, to a great extent.  Once I focused on poetry, I would write and revise, usually on Monday afternoons when I had a babysitter, send out poems to journals and contests, and in the beginning, get them all back with the equivalent of "No, thank you."  I'd had poems published in grade school, high school and college, in the school newsletter or journal, but I never really thought of it as a high calling; I still saw myself with the vocation of writing The Great American Novel.
Just before I got married, I took a poetry workshop at the New School in New York City, where I lived at the time, from poet Colette Inez, and began to see myself as a poet. She told me I could send her poems from time to time and she would comment on them and send them back to me.  Thus began a correspondence of over 40 years, that eventually spanned the continent, when I moved to California. We became friends and she told me at one point that there was only one friend of hers from high school who had written to her longer than I had.  
Her critiques were invaluable, and I almost always made the changes she suggested, although we wrote very different sorts of poetry.  She also would occasionally add a comment such as "I hear echoes of Emily Dickinson here," or "Beautiful!" and those made my day.  
I had other friends who lifted me up with their thoughts on my poetry. One friend, who died unexpectedly recently, told me several times that she saved and treasured all the poems I had ever sent her.  My daughter Mary at one point gave me some very specific compliments on several of my poems that she had been reading and re-reading. And she has now metamorphosed into my chief commenter and critic of the chapbook that I have been working on for two years.  She often sounds hesitant when she tells me I need to write another poem to cover a certain period of my life or that I need to reflect on, journal and pray about aspects of the background of my poem, as well as re-reading Song of Songs and the Gospels in order to throw more light on what I am writing about.  But she doesn't back down when the rebel in me starts to complain, and we both know that I want this to be in alignment with my deepest calling. Not for nothing was she called "The Hammer" at the last place she worked.  However, when I am tempted to see her as whanging away at me just when I thought I was almost finished, instead I think of her as the hammer that Michelangelo used to release David from the block of marble where he was imprisoned, the hammer that will carve out a "Portal of Light." Or, as I wrote at the end of a much earlier poem, "California Passages,"

I do not seem

a prisoner of this brown house, these days

of subtle routine chains,

riveted to a window view

--clock time framed--


distilled, restrained,

sparse slices of seasons,

like flint to flame:


one intense vision

held at bay.


Birds paying morning calls

light the blowtorch of sunrise

etch arches 

in these stuccoed walls


I fly free.


My daughter, with her deft touch, is etching arches with the blowtorch of her brilliance and persistence so I can fly free into the vision I dream.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

PORTAL INTO MYSELF

Eighteen months after I started a new poem that gave evidence of going off in an entirely new direction, I am still trying to loop a rein over it, though more of it is written than I ever expected.  In October of 2018, I called it "Portal," and it has been an entry into a new world of poetry, as well as an introduction to the cork board section of Scrivener, which has allowed me to move these sections around as inspiration has curled around my journeys, up a ziggurat, and down a mountain path to an encounter that led me to change the title to "Portal of Light."  Several times, I have thought I was almost finished, but then I asked my daughter to critique it, and she suggests another poem to write, a gap to fill in with some narrative verse, journaling to help me discover what I am trying to say, prayer and meditation to listen to what I need to discover, and then I realize, as my son used to say when he was little,
"There's lots of work to be done."
What I realized as I looked at the "assignments" she has given me, that I would at first reject as not being relevant or something I didn't want to write because it required delving back into the powerfully painful feelings I experienced when my husband died, or looking at how those feelings unspooled in my life since then, or that I couldn't write another poem as good as the one that opened the whole chapbook, was that what she was asking was for me to plunge into the transfiguration experience that ended "Portal of Light" and to allow myself to continue to be reconfigured by it.  This reminded me of reading a book by Matthew Kelly where he said at one point that God doesn't want to tweak you, he wants to transform you.  My response was that he had already transformed me into a widow, and I would have preferred that he just tweaked me.  As I reflected on the challenge my daughter had given me, I realized that I was slowly creeping back to the corner where I had been hiding before the metamorphosis created by love opened the "Portal of Light" that I have been struggling to paint in my chapbook.  What I think she is daring me to do is to keep going forward, through the "Portal of Light" into a more abundant and radiant life.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

CHARLES CORDELL'S HIGHEST FLIGHT

My dear friend's husband Charles died early Saturday morning after a long battle with cancer, COPD and congestive heart failure. He designed airplanes, helicopters, and drones for the military, and was a brilliant artist who let my grandchildren watch as he painted a mural in their home. He loved flying so much that he and his wife bought a ranch in the high desert with a landing strip so that he could fly more easily.  As his illness progressed he could no longer climb into a cockpit but he could identify any flying machine overhead. When his soul took flight, I thought of a poem my mother loved, although she was never a pilot.
 
“An aeroplane is not to us a weapon of war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstasy.”

– Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of High Flight, in a letter to his parents

On Aug. 18, 1941, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., of No. 53 Operational Training Unit, Royal Canadian Air Force, climbed into a Spitfire for a test flight. With its unique elliptical wings and legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the nimble Spitfire is arguably the most storied and beautifully designed fighter to come out of World War II. As he flew the fighter through a series of combat maneuvers, Magee experienced a euphoria that typically grips pilots as they put their high performance airplanes through their paces. But, unlike other pilots who after landing walk away thrilled to the point of being speechless, Magee, an accomplished poet, began translating his joyful experience into words on a piece of paper while still airborne. On Sept. 3, 1941, in a letter to his parents he wrote, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you.” That verse was the sonnet High Flight, the most famous poem to emerge from World War II.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

 

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark nor even eagle flew –

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A MIND-BLOWING, LIFE-ALTERING COACHING CALL

Back in October of 2018, a number of circumstances converged on me that led to a call with my coach, Deborah Hurwitz (Productivity for Perfectionists), that I called at the time "mind-exploding."
The call was on Monday, and just the weekend before I had been a member of the team of facilitators on a Beginning Experience Weekend retreat.  These weekends, which are held at an Abbey's retreat center, are designed to help those who have been widowed, divorced, or separated to begin the process of working with and through the grief they are experiencing at the loss of a spouse through death or the dissolution of their marriage. It helps to begin healing of the wounds they have experienced.
I had made the Weekend retreat earlier that year and twelve of us who made the retreat together bonded through our experience and continued to go to the follow up sessions primarily--at least in my case--to be able to spend time with these other people who understand the pain of losing your spouse, and how it streaks like a lightning bolt across your consciousness without warning. You don't have to explain, for example, why you start to cry in the middle of a sentence for no apparent reason. The other facilitators told us they had never had so many people from one Weekend continue on as the twelve of us, and they began to call us the "Twelve Apostles."  In September there was an all day gathering when we were told we would learn more about becoming a facilitator, though we didn't have to commit to writing talks or giving them on a weekend.  All of us came, and each one of us began writing our first talk.  I eventually wrote and gave two talks on that October Weekend, and I was able to see that the talks I gave made a difference to the participants, as well as the empathy and compassion we shared in our small groups. It was a very intense experience because not only was I reliving my own sorrow, but also being concerned about each of the people on the retreat as they wrestled with their own grief.
Then just before I went to bed Sunday night, I glanced through the emails that had come in over the weekend and was met with the news that a dear friend of mine had died suddenly and unexpectedly; as she was getting out of a car, she just collapsed. We had been friends since college, and my beloved and I had visited her and her husband on the East Coast when we were out there in 2010. Then when my husband was dying, she had flown out with another friend to spend some time with us.  They had me come to their hotel and have a cup of coffee with them one afternoon when some of my children were with my husband.  We spent a couple of hours just talking and I appreciated just being able to escape briefly from the scene of my husband's dying. Now my friend was gone, and her husband had had no preparation at all.
When I began the call with Deborah, I briefly described the harrowing weekend I had experienced, and she was very understanding.  Then we reviewed the session that had just ended, in which I had achieved some of my goals but not others.  Then she asked me a question that detonated in my mind: if I were to do what is most calling me, what would it be?  I knew immediately; in fact I have known it for some time in the background of my life. I probably suspected it even before I was married, when I thought of taking a writing course since I had long wanted to write The Great American Novel. Instead, I decided that I didn't have time to take a novel-writing course so I took a poetry workshop and that was when I met Colette Inez, who was my mentor for over 40 years.  I fell in love with poetry then, and I have been writing it seriously ever since. I told Deborah that "I have such a deep desire to keep plumbing more deeply and that the new poem I have started will be different than anything I've ever done before, and it is almost frightening to think about working on it. I can also see poetry as somehow trivial--it will probably never support me, but I don't need it to do that. We talked about being a shaman (and how to pronounce that word!) and the importance that poetry really has." When I recorded this in the progress report for the session, I was crying as I wrote it because "I didn't realize before how key it is to my life's meaning."
The poem I had begun was originally called "The Gate of Gratitude."  It slowly grew into a longer poem and when I added some verses from the "Song of Songs," at one point I ridiculously called it "Canticle of Panicles." Fortunately I realized that that would never do for a serious poem, which was evolving into a chapbook, at first just called "Portal," and now "Portal of Light."  At some point my daughter Mary offered to look at it and critique it--and since she had been an English major in college and started working on her PhD in Literature at UCLA, I took her up on it, and it has been an amazing collaboration.  Since the chapbook is about my marriage, our family, and my widowhood, she has been able to comment on both its literary style as well as the contents, and in every case she has been extremely insightful, even when it meant writing entire new sections or doing major revisions.  But everything she has suggested has strengthened it, and I think I am getting close to attacking the final section that needs to be written.  I am intimidated by this because Mary said it needs to be a poem that is up to the standard of the opening poem, which is probably the most powerful poem I've ever written. But with several rounds of meditation and journaling since we met last week, I am beginning to believe I can undertake it.