How does one describe an experience of mental illness? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately as I think about putting into words an odyssey I’d rather not dwell on too long. In the last four months I experienced a series of situations I wouldn’t wish on my greatest enemy (not even Trump). It was intolerable, full of suffering, and of course, as these things are, full of grace. Continue reading
Live human conversation is happening in my dining room. In this time of Covid it’s as soothing to me as listening to a symphony.
My son’s friend Emilio is visiting. He has come to build a tower desktop computer with my son TJ. The two of them have spread out the parts on the dining room table and are carefully assembling parts and screwing pieces together. They talk about their online school experience, attempts at working out and living at home.
Emilio says he hasn’t been out of the house since March. His mom has mandated that he sees no one. She hasn’t even allowed him to order his favorite fast food, for fear it might pass on the virus. I guess she relented today, knowing his computer is an important hobby.
I have a few errands to run, but I’m reluctant to leave this hum of conversation. I’ve been battling anxiety and my whole world is calibrated toward the goal of being less anxious. Even doing errands has become difficult. Can they just wait? Do I really need to return the wrong-size slippers I bought at CVS? Do I need to buy those noodles at Costco? Last time I went to Costco a loud alarm went off at the register and I was barely able to cope.
Writing, on the other hand, and this listening to human words, is a refuge. The physical act of putting words on paper or a screen is calming. It’s as automatic as driving a car, but even more immersive. To get lost in writing, to become absorbed with words and meanings and sounds, offers solace. How strongly I want to get lost! I want to escape my own troublesome thoughts.
Poetry has been perhaps the best escape for me lately. On several sleepless nights I’ve sat in bed with my notebook circling over a few lines of poetry, playing with different combinations of words and syllables. Poetry demands that every word, every morpheme, count. It’s writing at its most pared down and concise.
Some people think poetry is serious and stuffy and complicated. This is not true. A lot of poetry can be playful. Just look at a Billy Collins poem or many haikus. Many times a haiku will carry an ironic meaning. For example, the other day I wrote:
on the back fence
open all day
I was trying to play with the idea that although these flowers have the word “morning,” their wide purple blooms are actually open all day. I have a view of them outside my kitchen window and all day long hummingbirds and butterflies flit around the flowers gathering nectar.
I also wrote:
deep orange persimmons
“let them ripen, be patient”
says my neighbor
This captures a brief conversation with my neighbor the other day when I walked by her tree and she was picking persimmons. She gave me a few, still shiny and hard, and told me to let them ripen on the counter. They were like getting gold. According to my neighbor the squirrels often get to the persimmons before she can pick them.
Poetry is all about detail. It’s often about the senses. It’s about noticing and recording the noticings. For example, I might notice the feel of the jagged jigsaw puzzle pieces in my hand or the ooze of an egg I’m cooking as I crack it into the pan. All of those textures are fodder for poems.
I’ve learned that managing anxiety is also about details. One strategy is paying attention to breathing. I learned about breath prayer this summer when I participated in a virtual Camino pilgrimage. The guide I listened to instructed us to pick one phrase to say as we inhaled and another to say when we exhaled. I picked “Come Lord Jesus” on inhaling and “fill me with your love” on exhaling. I find it centering and relaxing.
It’s now a few days later and election night has come and gone. Biden has won and makes a wonderful speech, talking about unity and healing. For a short time I feel hopeful and elated. But still my anxiety, coupled with depression now–the sister of anxiety–continues. Writing has become difficult. I struggle to put words together. I fear that this one thing that helps me has been taken away. Still, I return to poetry, remembering a conversation with my son.
Miguel mentioned the other day that he had discovered William Carlos Williams, a poet from the last century. I am curious about this poet and do some Googling. It turns out he and Ezra Pound were part of the Imagism movement of the early 20th century, which featured “precision of images and clear, sharp language.” His poem about a wheelbarrow (below) has been frequently quoted. It is a brief, haiku-like poem, superficially about a wheelbarrow. Is there a deeper meaning?
from Spring and All (1923)
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Technically, this poem features a lot of enjambment, which is incomplete syntax at the end of a line. You have to jump to the next line to finish the thought. The effect of enjambment is to slow the reader down, almost to a meditative level.
Some critics thought Williams wrote this poem when he was treating a dying patient (he was a doctor) and he looked out the window and saw this scene. The toy wheelbarrow belonged to the little girl he was treating. Williams scribbled these lines on his prescription pad. Later this theory was debunked, but I like the idea. I want to believe that a poet’s radar is always on, ready to compose poems, even when engaged in another activity. Maybe that’s why Mary Oliver recommended that poets always carry a notebook, to quickly write down their inspirations. I can picture Mary, walking at the Cape Cod seashore, with notebook in hand.
Here’s a haiku I quickly wrote this afternoon after a walk. It follows traditional haiku rules of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third.
turtles on the log
brown shells absorb midday sun
walk around the lake
The 5-7-5 rule is often broken in published haiku. I like the rule, as it sets some parameters in writing. Next time I’ll try some enjambment. What are some of your favorite poems?
I received more persimmons the other day. They seem almost a fall poem in themselves, with their smooth orange skin. There are two types of persimmons, ones that have a round bottom and ones that have a pointy bottom. My neighbor gave me the pointy-end kind that need to ripen before you eat them. Then you scoop out the flesh and eat the soft, gooey insides. My friend gave me the round kind. You can slice these like an apple and eat them alone or in a salad. The texture is almost like a pear. I will savor these persimmons. In my state of struggle I need all the beauty I can find.