The Quiet In-Betweens: Everyday Magic, Day 1055

Sometimes I feel like I’m at a sudden still point between waves of motion and change. Like right now as I sit in a floral chair in my living room, staring out at the just-cleaned kitchen counter and still-stuff-piled-on kitchen table while the dog sleeps in the corner and the cat sleeps in her clementine orange box. But of course the whole notion of a still point is just a notion. Life is famous for tossing one damn thing after another at us, but beneath all the damn things, everything is always in motion and all is perpetually changing.

Still there are these in-betweens: the wisps or room fulls of spaciousness that, as I get older, feel more real than the packed whirls of activity and action. Pay attention, I’ve been reminding myself for years. Cherish this.

It is easier to talk about what surrounds the in-betweens because that kind of stuff has names and lots of language to delineate it from the unscheduled, the quiet, the open-palm time that’s also on tap. For the last few weeks, I could speak of oral surgery, Passover, eating a Havana chicken sandwich with a friend, walking across the field with Moxie the dog, loading the dishwasher, opening the mail. I could point to wonders around me: the first budding lilac, the light on the porch in this photo, a great breakfast of Matzo Brei (friend matzo, likely an acquired taste), and the cool joy of cold water when I’m thirsty.

But to speak of the in-between is to speak in between language. Then again, that’s why we have poetry. “Language does what it can’t say,” William Stafford once wrote, and he also wrote something in his poem “Bi-Focal” that I continually ponder about the world happening twice: “once what we see it as;/ second it legends itself/ deep, the way it is.” Maybe the in-betweens are when we catch up with life as the way it is more than the ways we name or see it. There’s grace in such meetings.

Then again, maybe it’s in-betweens all the way down to and past the last breath of our life. One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, which begins with “I felt a funeral in my brain” (none of her poems were actually titled by her) ends with these lines:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —

That word “then” and the long dash are both in-between things pointing to what happens when we finish knowing, and then —

The Power of Blossoms: Everyday Magic, Day 971

Emily Dickinson writes, “I started early — Took my dog.” In my case, I started late and took my croissant, and unlike Dickinson, I wasn’t looking for mermaids in the basement of the ocean or fleeing from the silver-tongued tide. Nope, I was savoring one flowering tree after another, that and buttery layers of flakey wonder.

Each spring, I hit the pause button on my life at some moment, and if I’m smart, many moments, and head out into the neighborhoods to worship at the fleeting faces of magnolia blossoms. Some weeks later, after the frost has zapped those magnolias brown-edged and fallen,  I mosey along the lilac. I’ve also done lily-of-the-valley walks because those tiny white bells hold whole worlds of exquisite joy. This year, with winter holding its ground far later than usual and a sluggish spring, everything exploded into blossom at once, so a few days ago, I parked the car near the Barker Street bakery, got my provisions, and headed out into the blossoming world.

Instead of a somewhat orderly procession of daffodils before tulips and magnolias before redbuds, this year, everything is showing off at once. Turn a corner and behold! Lilac is just starting beside a spread of tulips. Cherry trees are partying on high, one happy hand of pink piled against another. Grape hyacinth sings the song of its people below a bevy of flowering dogwood and against the backdrop of Rhododendron (what are you doing so far west, Appalachian flowers?). From the ground, covered with thousands of slips of Bradford pear paper petals, to the heavens, framed with interlocking purple, pink, and white, the world is blooming faster than we can comprehend.

It’s also changing wildly fast after winter’s long dormant stretch of snow, ice, gray skies, and sudden jolts down in temperature, all of which makes life seem more monolithic than it is.  What’s peaking today will be hollowing out in a week. What’s just opening its doors, flower by flower, will soon dissolve or fall away. That’s why I write and walk into this most springs: to acknowledge that yes, this is remarkable even if seasonal, and yes, we’re alive to bear witness to more than just the grief and insanity of the world.

Tomorrow, if I’m not an idiot, I’ll be the one walking slowly, phone in hand, to take pictures of what’s shining, to paraphrase poet Li-Young Lee, blossom to impossible blossom. I might even be crawling along the sidewalk to smell the lily-of-the-valley. Each bundle or spread or hidden conclave of flowers here, in all their power, demand no less.

God Has a Little Talk With Fred Phelps: Everyday Magic, Day 792

Fred: You’re God?

God: You were expecting some white man with a beard. Puleeeaze!

Fred: But you’re Black, and you look like Barbra Streisand.

God: That’s because I’m Haitian. And I love being Barbra on my good days. You know what she sings about people who need people.

Fred: Say, are you a fella or a gal?

God: Fred, Fred, Fred, didn’t you ever stop to consider that God was a drag queen? How else could we create man and woman in our image?

Fred: But all my life, I…..

God: Don’t want to hear it, Fred. I know what you did all your life, and it hurts my head, my heart too.

Fred: Are you this way because of all the fags?

God: (Turning away from Fred for a moment) Emily, would you bring me the extra strength aspirin right away? (Turns back to Fred) That’s Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites. Love hanging with that girl. She’s a hoot. Now Fred, I’m so sick of hearing you say that F-word that as of this moment, every time you say it, what will come out of your mouth is “the lights fandango.”

Fred: But the lights fandango have ruined everything, even hell, which is where I must be by mistake.

God: No heaven, no hell, my misguided non-friend, but just what you make of it – just like the old saying which, by the way, I came up with. Now enough of you saying anything. It’s time for you to hear me out. You have been bad, Fred, very, very bad. Lucky for you, I have a way of dealing with the likes of evil ones. You’re going to Life Rehab.

Fred: But I don’t do drugs.

God: Life Rehab, Fred. You’ll have many decades, maybe centuries, to work out what made you such Fercockt.

Fred: What?

God: Fercockt. Yiddish for “fucked up.”

Fred (looking horrified): You’re not Jewish, are you God?

God: Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, you name it. I’m even atheist. I know, no one can believe in themselves all the time.

Fred: How is that….

God: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” That’s Walt Whitman, someone else I put together. Love when the poets get it right! Back to what I’m saying…

Fred: Whitman? Isn’t he a lights fandango?And what the heck do I do in Life Rehab?

God: A little of this, a little of that. No golf — Genghis Khan ruined that for everyone, but lots of self-reflection activities. Some collaging, a lot of writing, long walks on the beach, a lot of juicing, a bit of hard love counseling, big time energy healing, and if you’re really making progress, maybe a massage, and of course, group therapy sessions with the guys….

Fred: The guys?

God: Fred, you don’t think you’re the worse badass I’ve seen? You’re not even in the league of A-List evil. We have some long-time rehab residents. Stalin has been a bear. And Hitler….don’t even get me started on that one. I refuse to send him back even as a slug until he makes a lot more progress. I don’t know if Leona Hemsley and her dog will ever leave even although she complains about the thread count of the sheets constantly.

Fred: How long are people there?

God: That depends on you, Fred. We’ve had some make remarkable progress. Mussolini was able to turn it around in about 23 years. Richard Nixon knocked our socks off at how fast he progressed, but then again, once he came out, all his unpleasantness melted away. Some will be there for hundreds of years. You’ll love the activities. We have the best crafts counselors there. No fluorescent posters for you, though. You don’t get to touch hot pink for at least 20 years.

Fred: Sounds like a lot of damn basket weaving.

God: Don’t knock basket weaving, Fred. Charles Manson is exquisite at it. Now if you’ll excuse me (turning to Emily Dickinson to take the pills she brought him). What is this green stuff, Emily?

Emily Dickinson: A shot of wheat grass. Good for you, like a certain slant of light.

God (laughing): Good one, Emily. Hey, start early and take your dog. (Looks back at Fred) Guess you don’t know her poetry, do you, Fred? No prob. We have lots of poetry in Life Rehab. You’ll be memorizing a poem a day, starting with the work of Paul Monette, one of my favorite of the lights Fandango. Oh, and one more thing, Fred, you’re not in Kansas anymore. A little gift for the sunflower state this first day of spring. Now as most people who knew of you would say, be gone with you. Emily and I are going to Kansas to get some barbecue.

“I Started Early, Took My Dog”: Everyday Magic, Day 544

Okay, so 9 a.m. isn’t exactly early, but it’s earlier than I usually take my dog for a walk, and it’s the start of what I’m hoping to make into a summer tradition. Summer in May? Absolutely: it arrived over a month early and acts like it’ll be around a while. In any case, I set out, leash in hand, in the tradition of other poets. Emily Dickinson, who wrote “I started early, took my dog,” obviously did the same, and it seems, from reading Mary Oliver’s poems, that she’s always out early and often with the dog.

I soon realized the wonder and goodness of such a walk, first thing after drinking my coffee-almond-milk concoction in the tub. Beyond the reality that Shay needs a lot of activity (and lord knows, I need more too), there’s the sheer beauty of the morning. Dainty pale yellow butterflies, slips of love notes, fluttered through. Other butterflies were equally abundant (and was that a monarch I saw?). The birds sang, phoebe to phoebe in that squeaky song of, “I’m here, are you there?” as if they were checking in on cell phones. Butterfly milkweed, the bundles of future flowers still green, filled the field.

The dog, like all dogs, had to stop and add his contribution to certain key locations. My friend Danny says it’s like a comment section after an on-line article, a way of saying, “Okay, I read what you said, and here’s what I have to add.” He pees in the exact places along walks in the country and in town as if each spot is a toll booth only dogs can see.

We rambled down to the mailbox, got the paper for our household and my mother-in-law’s, and walked the longer way up to her house to greet her and drop off the news. Then it was uphill toward home, the air sweet around us in its brightness and breeze.

While 70 degrees in May is an ideal time to walk with a dog, so is the morning, before my head fills up beyond recognition of projects in various states of completion or disarray. It’s enough to make me imagine waking up even earlier on hotter days, maybe eventually as early as Dickinson and Oliver, to see where the dog and day leads me.

Are You the Pretender?: Everyday Magic, Day 491

I was rushing about the small kitchen of Turning Point: The Center for Healing and Hope, making coffee and putting fruit on trays, when an elderly man stopped his walker in front of me and said, “Are you the pretender?”

“The pretender?”

“For the poetry class.”

“Yes, I am,” I told him, realizing he meant “presenter” or maybe I just heard “pretender,” but in any case, I am the pretender. Some people are born to take to pretending like dogs take to trash bags, and I’m one of them. As a kid, I remember frequently running down my suburban block to the bus stop while deep in fantasy that I was rushing to the stage to accept my Oscar. “I want to thank the Academy, and especially all the little people — you know who you are — for making my dream come true,” I would announce.

Not surprisingly, my report cards often had two comments: “Caryn daydreams too much” and “Caryn could do better if she just tried harder.” I didn’t have time to try harder because I was daydreaming elaborate scenarios of publishing books, holding art shows, marrying the love of my life on a mountain top, and touring with my imaginary band, the Rootin’ Shootin’ Tootets (I was lead singer and lead tambourine-on-thigh banger).

Fast forward to now, and I make a living largely out of helping others pretend. “Trust yourself,” I always tell each writing class, and most of my students at Goddard too. “And if you don’t trust yourself, pretend you do until it’s true.” The only way to do what feels impossible to many of us is to suspend disbelief (e.g. pretend otherwise) so that we can make changes in ourselves that we couldn’t have fathomed otherwise.

Writing is an act of both daring and imagination channeled through moving fingers and held afloat by pretending it will amount to something (if not now, in time). I started this post thinking only of that scene in Turning Point without any idea of what I would be by this paragraph. I love what William Stafford says about words inventing words, and what Robert Frost points to about way leading to way. Whether I’m writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a blog post or a song, I put on my pretend hat, game for where imagination, luck, rhythm and voice will take me. Just like Emily Dickinson parodies  — “Split the lark, and you’ll find the music” — I can’t get to where I don’t yet imagine by mapping it out ahead of time or taking apart what keeps the lark singing.

There’s something else I’ve learned which fuels all all I do: making stuff up and making things (out of words and other arts) is the fastest road and most scenic way to get to what is most worth knowing in life. Because by pretending — like invoking all the names of God on the basis that we can’t truly name such expansive mystery and grace — you can get closer to the fire of what’s real.