Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Easy come, easy go

Today my job with the Census, which was supposed to last until the end of the month, ended. I am dropped back into a familiar void: of not checking my bank statements out of fear, hoping I can coast on the fumes of cash past; wondering how I will continue to pay Sara’s daycare and my rent costs alone, wondering how I got to be almost 35 and in this position. Reader, that question will not be answered here but probably relates to my inability to check bank statements, stop buying lip gloss / red wine, or function while emotionally flattened—which, since graduating college, was most of the time.

On the plus side, I can lie in bed eating sea-salt encrusted dark chocolate and reading O Magazine. I bought a new notebook at Borders last night because I intend to start writing again: yes, the aforementioned writing that will never be published and, if it is, only a few will see. I feel like there is more welling up and I need to connect…and this past 5 weeks spent in meetings, wearing a nametag, driving over the steep Mississippi river bridge to New Orleans East, sitting in church cafeterias and community centers, walking the streets with my black Census bag, has definitely exhausted and disconnected me, even as it’s been affirming and invigorating (making money, being valued by the world in some way). I am hoping that I will be rehired for the next Census operation next month. But in the meantime, it’s back to the world of unemployment, guilt, and creativity.

Over 9 months of unemployment, even as I have lost much in terms of the means to be materially secure and proud of myself—and have wrestled a group of new poems from some inner necessity—I have shared a common fate with many other people in this country at this time, and I believe that is valuable...and provides perspective. A beautifully-dressed woman in her mid-50s who recently began working in my Census “crew” (only to be told, 3 days into her job, that we’re out of work) spent last week moving out of her home, which she lost after 3 years out of a job. “Now I live with my mother in the ghetto,” she told me. There was a kind of question in her careful but blunt tone of voice—why this, what now, why me?

I don’t know what the answer is for her, and can’t imagine being forced to make such a transition. For me, I am just trying to survive until August when I plan, if they’ll have me, to enter Loyola’s MS in Counseling program and from there—after years of homework, further debt accumulation, and a lengthy certification process—a new life and career I hope will carry me and my child forward for the long haul. One dream is definitely finished: while I will still write, I won’t try to live as a writer anymore. I won’t take jobs in coffee shops and bookstores, or volunteer at a holistic studies institute (I’m sure my mom still cringes at the thought of months I spent living in a tent in Rhinebeck, NY), in order to have the time and emotional space to write. I won’t pursue a creative PhD to be more competitive for academic jobs. I won’t market myself as a freelance editor or writer, making a business out of words and reading; or try to direct my skills into related fields such as marketing. And I won’t do any of this for the most impractical reason of all: my heart isn’t in it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Outside the door

I seem to be entering, or revisiting, a depressing phase as a poet—the old struggle of should I keep doing this? This is coming up because in the first months I was in New Orleans, I was very productive and now find myself faced with a poetic “product” or body of work ready to be disseminated—in literary mags, to chapbook and book contests.

But I’m deeply tired of the public poetry world: the money part (paying to enter contests you won’t win), how you have to be grateful for a remotely positive rejection, the bullshit that does get published that I find tepid or otherwise uninspiring (I’m not saying all published poetry is tepid, of course, but definitely some). And for what? So a few other, um, poets—talk about preaching to the choir—will read your scribblings? Probably they’re also jockeying for position, of necessity thinking: is this work better or worse than mine, has this poet won more or fewer contests/publications than I have? Even if someone is passionate about others’ writing, she cannot help but position her work/herself in relation to it and to the larger culture and conversation, which includes competition and doors that either open or stay closed. Yes, I can write for myself and never publish. But in this world of instant connection to everything, such a pose does not feel appropriate or realistic. With so many opportunities to connect, why would I make a goal of creating in isolation and obscurity? But self-publishing or doing so on this blog just wouldn’t give me the sense of affirmation I can’t help but crave.

I believe in saying something: in speaking out, preferably in a way that can be understood/felt not only by a few who are within the same official poetry forum, but by some in the wider human community. I believe in the power of writing to organize and capture, or even bless, a moment or emotional process that otherwise would have bloomed, died, and gone unnoticed. And I will keep standing up for that. However, whereas in my 20s it honestly didn’t feel important that I had no significant success and recognition to speak of for my labors (and trust me, it IS labor), in my 30s it does, creating a feedback loop of: if this is not going to be noticeably valued by or useful to others, if these words are sent out into the wind, then why am I putting so much energy into this, what is the source that will keep feeding this vocation? It turns out I can’t be like Tibetan monks who spend days or weeks completing sand mandalas, only to immediately dispose of them. I want to hear a response from the world besides the one that basically says: “Thanks for your $20, which will promote the publication of another writer; but your poem/manuscript did not make the cut.” (And if I did hear a more positive answer, as sometimes happens, how satisfying could that possibly be given the narrow margins within which such success is measured and appreciated?)

Lately, not only does it feel insulting and crappy to accept this reality, it feels limiting to have—as a life goal—writing for a few, while essentially hiding from the people in your own family who will never understand or like your writing. Going forward, I would rather reach other people in a tangible, humble way than promote my “so smart, so artistic” self in a finite and less-than-hugely significant one. (Caveat: if this unassuming, real connection can happen through writing, that’s fine too, but in that case it probably won’t be poetry.) I am glad for the moments of connection and recognition I have felt over the years as a poet in a larger community of writers; and I have found folks I met in this sphere to be among the most compassionate and nuanced people I know. But the question of whether such rewards as are available can sustain my whole existential enterprise is, well, a question.

Growing up, thinking that I was intelligent and creative kept me from feeling like shit. I clung to this side of my nature in order to avoid the other things: being judged unattractive, unpopular, clumsy in my skin—a flawed human like everybody else, but somehow worse. It’s a classic story. Now, the thought of moving away from this identity—born of pain and a need for approval—and becoming a therapist seems to offer a way of having my voice actually be heard: of receptively entering into an intimate conversation with the world outside my door.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Honda is da bomb

Yesterday I received a letter from Honda recalling my driver’s side airbag. The letter stated, in calm language, that in my model (a 2001 Civic) the airbag inflator is under too much pressure and “could,” if the bag deploys, explode, striking everyone in the car with pieces of metal.

For 9 years, since purchasing my Civic new from a lot in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I have driven back and forth across the country over and over, an intricate criss-cross reflective of major life choices at different times. There was the meandering trip my fiancĂ©-to-be and I took from Cruces to Seattle—his hometown—and back the first summer we were dating. (My car was “the safe one,” as his was a much older Accord; so we used it for all our travels.) After he moved to Virginia that autumn to upgrade his MA degree to an MFA at the venerable UVA, I soon followed, packing up my small adobe house—at the time, everything I owned fit in my Honda. When I developed a flying phobia after 911, I thought relying on my car to travel long distances was safer than getting on a plane to anywhere. And so I went: from Charlottesville to NJ and back for holidays with family, to Asheville twice a year for grad school, to eastern Pennsylvania for Chris’ and my wedding in a town called Washington’s Crossing, and then to our new life in, of all places, small-town Alabama—occasioned by his finally securing a tenure-track position. Two years later, the Honda followed a yellow Penske truck driven by my stepfather over a thousand miles north to Ithaca, NY and my eventual divorce. After two more years, with my boyfriend (now ex) at the wheel, it ferried our 6-pound daughter away from the hospital in her first carseat; and, recently, has delivered me back to the South and another uncertain future.

All this time I thought the car was my friend, my container, my vessel from life to life. It hadn’t hosted a first orgasm or anything (that honor fell to a battered ’77 Chevy Impala, on a hilltop covered in cornstalks) but it had pretty much been everywhere else, and gotten me home safe each time—wherever home was.

What can I know about the journeys of my life, what they mean, where they should end up? I’ve been driving around a bomb.