The Land of Overwhelm

I talked to my friend Carla this afternoon while I took my second walk of the day. After a sunny morning, the sky was overcast and the air felt close. Before I was finished I swear I felt a drop of rain. Carla said she was struggling a bit: “Maybe it’s the pandemic. But it’s not just that.”  I have been feeling antsy and, frankly, a little crazed, myself. Today I looked at the sky and reminded myself of how much impending weather plays with my moods.

I am finished with my mystery novel and poised to get it out to agents. Poised to begin in earnest with typing the new mystery (so far scribbled into various notebooks). I’m also making a valiant effort to pull together a poetry manuscript. My present writing mood is an anxious grieving coupled with a feeling of being about to burst … maybe into bloom. I’m not sure yet.

My youngest daughter is in California with a friend. “Do you know there’s a pandemic?” I asked her, and she said, “Can we use your car?” Right now she’s staying with an old friend of mine, who–like me–has an empty nest and a great need to mother somebody. She talked the kids into canceling their hotel reservations in San Diego and spending three more days with her and her husband. So that makes me happy. It makes me happy that Emma was in the ocean today and saw five dolphins and a pelican. Despite everything else going on in the world, there are also dolphins.

Who knows why (or check “all of the above”) but this weekend I have spent a bunch of hours reorganizing one of my writing spaces. On Friday afternoon, I decided to move a big file cabinet from a corner of the playroom downstairs to my “zoom room” upstairs. First, I had to empty it. I found records for my 1981 Datsun, a copy of my wedding invitation, and six months of bottle-feeding and diapering records that we kept when our twins were born — from July 12 to mid-December 1993. (Good grief, what were we thinking?)

I also found drafts of novel openings that never went anywhere, short stories I had forgotten I ever wrote, tons of old Creative Writing Program journals, and stacks and stacks (and stacks) of poetry. I had kept every program for the old Castalia reading series, and other people’s poems from four years of Professor Bentley’s workshops–four quarters per year, labeled and dated. 

From all of these, I kept copies of my poems with Nelson’s comments on them. I kept a handful of the Castalia programs and a copy of the news article about his death, at age 72, of cancer. I kept my wedding invitation.

I felt a little like Theodore Roethke in his “Elegy for Jane.” (If you don’t already have it memorized, click on the link to hear Roethke read this 22-line poem for his student.) Or, I don’t mean his experience in the poem, but the story Nelson told us: that when Roethke came across his student Jane’s poems in his office files, he gave the bundle of papers a kiss and threw it into the trash.

I threw most everything into the recycle bin. So many people I will never see again. So many poems that I thought someday I would make the time to reread. Maybe I didn’t feel like Roethke. I felt more like Jane, as though I were a ghost, “waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.”

But I also felt lighter. I felt a little more able to move forward. Or to imagine moving forward.

Before I finished for the day, rain began. The dark swooped in a little earlier this evening, along with that smell that is partly rain, partly chill, and partly the scent of woodsmoke. It reminded me that even in the “Time of Corona” (as another friend calls it), one season is ending and another tiptoeing into the room.

Carla’s right. It’s the pandemic, and it’s not the pandemic.


Norah Pollard

DEATH & RAPTURE IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, Norah PollardAntrim House Books, P.O. Box 111, Tariffville, CT 06081, 2009, 116 pages, $19 paper,

Oh, my! I hardly know what to say about this book. I first saw it at my friend Madelon’s house. I asked about it and she read a poem (the one I’m sharing below), I went straight home and ordered my own copy, and though I had read around in it, today I read it straight through, from cover to cover. This, I recommend.

Pollard has divided this collection into three parts (“Norah”; “Michael,” her brother whose death continues to haunt her; and “Jimmy,” a lover who is…complicated). Several poems skirt around her father, Red Pollard of Seabiscuit fame (“My father was unable to hug me / or talk to me,” one poem begins), and many many of them are about loss. Reading all of these poems in one afternoon and evening (it took a while), was like reading a novel, or three novellas. My head is swimming.

The poems are about loss, but also about love, and sex, and poetry’s sustaining fire. In the second poem (in this section the poems are largely about her childhood), “What the Poet Knows,” she writes: “I fell into the condition of poetry.” Aren’t we glad? But here’s the poem I promised:

She Dreamed of Cows

I knew a woman who washed her hair and bathed
her body and put on the nightgown she’d worn
as a bride and lay down with a .38 in her right hand.
Before she did the thing, she went over her life.
She started at the beginning and recalled everything–
all the shame, sorrow, regret and loss.
This took her a long time into the night
and a long time crying out in rage and grief and disbelief–
until sleep captured her and bore her down.

She dreamed of a green pasture and a green oak tree.
She dreamed of cows. She dreamed she stood
under the tree and the brown and white cows
came slowly up from the pond and stood near her.
Some butted her gently and they licked her bare arms
with their great coarse drooling tongues. Their eyes, wet as
shining water, regarded her. They came closer and began to
press their warm flanks against her, and as they pressed
an almost unendurable joy came over her and
lifted her like a warm wind and she could fly.
She flew over the tree and she flew over the field and
she flew with the cows.

When the woman woke, she rose and went to the mirror.
She looked a long time at her living self.
Then she went down to the kitchen which the sun had made all
yellow, and she made tea. She drank it at the table, slowly,
all the while touching her arms where the cows had licked.

Who’s in Your Circle?

Sometime late last fall, one of my daughters had a work crisis. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill, ordinary crap that happens at work–it was huge and it threatened to crush her spirit.

If you have met my kids, then you know that they do not like taking advice from their mom. Usually, if I think it’s a good idea, they run skipping and laughing in the other direction. This time, however, my kiddo came to me and said, “What would you do?”

This is what I said.

Pay very very close attention to this. You are being taught something that you have to learn if you’re going to stick in this career. Learn all you can from this. Go in every day determined to learn all that you can.

Don’t defend yourself. Stay open.

Stop calling it a crisis, stop calling it horrible. Call it a challenge. Call it an opportunity.

Know that I absolutely believe in you. Know that I absolutely believe in your ability to grow from this.

The really cool thing? She did.

At the beginning of this episode, she was removed from her classroom assignment and told by the principal that maybe she shouldn’t be a teacher. One week in, the principal admitted, “We threw you into the deep end of the pool.” By the end of her half-year contract, the principal wrote a glowing recommendation letter.

This past week I have been a dark place. My husband is better, he’s reading books and doing crossword puzzles again, and he’s even made it back to the gym. He’s doing chores around the house. He’s cheerful! Meanwhile, I’m angry and defensive. I’ve felt all alone and embattled. I’ve given over precious writing time to watching television. I’ve raged and wept.

And I’ve reached out to friends, and I’ve shown up at Writing Lab. I’ve reread The Circle and reread Parker Palmer’s chapters on his circles of friends. I’ve read poetry. I’ve taken long walks in nature. I’ve called on God. I’ve thrown myself on God’s mercy. I’ve remembered my advice to my daughter last fall:

Stop calling it a crisis — learn all you can — keep your heart open — this is the way forward.

Someday, honey, you’re going to look back on this and see that it was where something wonderful began.


What I’m Reading Now

“Don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks. Yes, you will get knocked down. You will fail. But you just have to get up again and give it another go.” –Joanna Penn 

“Life can be perceived either as an inspiring challenge or a dispiriting struggle. When you perceive life as a struggle you are continually confronted with situations that overwhelm you and bring up your inner confusion and helplessness. When you allow life to be a challenge, each area of ignorance brings an opportunity for mastery.” –Laura Day

My mom had a couple of stories about my early childhood — one was that I didn’t walk until I was 13 months old. “I thought you were retarded,” she liked to say.

Another story was that I wouldn’t color in my coloring book until I figured out, at age three, how to do it perfectly, without going outside the lines.

I never had a spanking until I was three — around the time my next younger sister was born. “You never needed one until then,” Mom used to say.

So here I am, 59 years later, trying once again to finish a novel…and going back to the beginning, over and over, day after day, and trying to make it perfect.

So I’m hunkering down here, trying to understand this largely unconscious pattern and bring as much awareness as I can to it. That I’m seeing it is partly due to reading (and reading and rereading) Laura Day’s chapter on inner roadblocks in The Circle, and it’s partly due to this journey that I’m on with my husband. He has some very powerful issues around money, to be brief, and these stem from his childhood. Because of his health crisis, he’s had to talk with a number of mental health professionals, and each time money and his perceived lack of it comes up, he tells again the story of being a little boy and witnessing his mother’s behavior and fear around not having enough, and he’s been told again and again that he can let that go now, to which he responds, “I can’t.”

I can see how this impairs him, how it is crippling him and how it has been distorting his thinking not just lately but for many years. I can critique it — after all, his mother always put three meals on the table, they were always housed, he and his older brother were able to attend a private college on athletic scholarships. Yes, his mother was afraid and did a lot of hand-wringing, but 70 years is a long time to cling to that story and give it such importance.

What I can’t see so well is how my internalized stories have distorted and crippled my life. But here goes. I was a farm-girl. My mother also has a story about catching me around age two or three carrying a puppy with my teeth in its nape. My brother and I used to muck out the barn for a quarter, and I pretty much loved that work. I played in mud puddles and waded creeks and rode horses. I got dirty and tore my clothes and got my hair tangled in trees.

Yes, I had a perfectionist streak and going to college and graduate school kind of fine-tuned that in me. But I also had an anti-perfectionist streak, a messy, get-your-hands-dirty streak, and raising three daughters (who are decidedly not interested in being perceived anywhere near “perfect”) and being an indifferent housekeeper and a pretty slovenly dog-owner — haven’t these “perfected” something else entirely?

My husband is, by the way, much better. He’s on some serious meds and he’s reclaiming his life. He still sees the glass as half-empty, but it doesn’t seem to be drained dry, the way it has been for two months. We’ll have to wait and see (which is a hugely imperfect process) what happens next.

And while being an imperfect wife and mother, I can choose to finish this novel and send it out on schedule (by March 14!!!). Of course I can. It just won’t be perfect.

“The soul is generous: it takes in the needs of the world. The soul is wise: it suffers without shutting down. The soul is hopeful: it engages the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The soul is creative: it finds a path between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes. All we need to do is to bring down the wall that separates us from our own souls and deprives the world of the soul’s regenerative powers.” –Parker Palmer