There’s a kind of energy that comes from not knowing where to go next. The discomfort of being, technically, emotionally, and physically “unsettled” can make you edgy, uncertain, but also forces you to reevaluate what’s important to you, where you’d like to go, what bothers you about your current situation and imagining what a better situation would look like.
As I may have mentioned in previous posts, we’re going through a move, in town, but still, a slow process. We’ve now sold the house, and are living in it for the next couple of months as renters as we shop the crazy real estate market for a house without too many downsides. Because what is really important? What are you willing to spend money for? Is it a garden, built-in bookshelves, seclusion, a quiet neighborhood, convenience, safety, a neighborhood where things are “happening?” Sometimes shopping for a house feels like a reflection of where we are in our lives right now. We don’t have kids, so we don’t need a sprawling home; Glenn works too hard and I’m not able to do as much gardening and landscaping as, say, an acre of land might require, and besides, land is so expensive! Where do we picture ourselves in five years, in ten? Will we still be here? Will Glenn want to keep this particular job at this particular company? Will we have friends in a different part of town, will we be as enamored with this or that neighborhood then? I know we’re moving because doctors have said I’m not going to recover stair-climbing ability – but what else do I need to worry about?
Another thing selling the home did was make me think about my student loans, those outstanding debts that seem like they will be outstanding forever. Student loans niggle at the back of my brain, reminding me I don’t make enough money, I don’t have a steady job anymore, remind me of the expenses that are part of being a poet that really, I can’t afford. I think about my dream of getting a (probably impractical) Phd someday. Where am I going with this whole poetry thing, anyway? I make some money freelance writing, editing, teaching, and other sort of piecemeal things, but from my books? I hardly make enough in a year to buy our groceries for a month. It’s discouraging. Then I think: maybe I should do something else, something steady, something that pays the bills. My health is pretty regularly not great, but I could do something from home, maybe go back to tech or marketing writing – a grind, not inspirational, but steady and monetarily rewarding.
Being an artist of any sort requires sacrifice, and it’s not always just your sacrifice – it’s your spouse, your kids, your friends and family that have to sacrifice the time and money you might otherwise have that’s devoted to that art. Is that sacrifice worth it? As a poet, I have to say, I don’t always know the answer. Rejections are many and payment is rare; poets, even when they win significant prizes, do not usually become rich and famous, or even gainfully employed. I am older than when I started, and not just in age, but in reduced expectations and increased cynicism. But there is a part of me that still loves reading and writing poetry for its own sake, and that part of me won’t give it up. It’s impractical, it’s often unrewarding, but it is something I’m passionate about and, just like visual art, makes me happy to be around.
Yesterday I went to a coffee shop to meet and talk shop with other writers, to take stock of what we were trying to accomplish, what we had accomplished. Then I came home and read poems I loved from my first time in college, in my twenties – Margaret Atwood, Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, Susan Musgrave. Times like this afternoon are very important to my sense of “what I’m doing with my life” – that even though where I live is impermanent, the state of my health impermanent (as well as, sadly, as I’ve seen lately, the state of my spouse’s health), and often writing is a lonely and discouraging venture – we are not alone in our pursuit of our art, we are not crazy for wanting to be published, read, recognized, and paid, and one of the most important things we can do as writers is encourage each other along a rather rocky path as our lives change and our paths veer wildly. Writing is something we take with us wherever we go, at any age and income, something we can hold onto, our way of interpreting and interacting with the world. Buying an MFA (one route to a writing community) may be expensive, but it is free to go and meet a friend and exchange manuscripts, talk about rejections and acceptances, or talk to a writer you admire and ask advice. As I try to find a house, define what I want going forward personally and professionally, I hold on to the fact that writing can make a difference in my life, in others’ lives, and that we can help each other out along the way.
I’m reading at Issaquah’s Talking Pages Poetry Night tomorrow night, with a craft talk by Kelly Davio! Here’s the info…
Talking Pages Poetry Night
August 18, 7 p.m.
Historic Shell Station
232 Front St. N., Issaquah
We are pleased to welcome featured poets Jeannine Hall Gailey and Kelly Davio for our August event.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is a former Redmond poet laureate and the author of four books of poetry.
Kelly Davio is poetry editor of Tahoma Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House.
Talking Pages is co-sponsored by the City of Issaquah Arts Commission. You should come out! It will be fun!
And if everything goes smoothly, we’ll be closing on our house sale (gulp) this Thursday! Crazy! Have we found another house to live in yet? No!!! We went in and saw another do-able house, but the pre-inspection revealed mold, this time both under and over the house. It’s a big problem with older homes here, unfortunately, and I’m super-sensitive to mold. So, onward!
Terrible stuff in the news today – a bombing in Bangkok, where my little brother lived until recently, and shellings in the Ukraine. A big explosion in China that they sort of, but not really, covered up. On a lesser level, a dustup about AWP not awarding a creative non-fiction award this year. (With 178 entries, they should have been able to find one they could at least edit into excellence, right?) I’m taking my husband, G, to the doctor today to follow up on his hospital test results, which were somewhat worrying, so we hope they have some good answers and advice for us there. A lot of unease out there right now, in the atmosphere, in me. You feel powerless in the face of bad things, because in some ways, we are. We can only do what we can in the space and time we are given.
I would say I’ve probably moved more than the average person, and I’m getting ready to move again. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, then my parents moved the family to LA. From LA we moved to Knoxville, and from Knoxville to Cincinnati. They stayed in Cincinnati. I got married and left for Richmond, VA, until I started working in Northern VA, commuted to a job in NYC, then took a job in Seattle, WA. I spent a couple of years, recently, in Carlsbad and Napa, California, before I moved back to the Northwest. I’ve moved fifteen times in seventeen years; this will make it sixteen moves in eighteen years. For some people, that is their idea of hell. For me, it’s more or less “normal.” Our marriage is 21 years old, and in that time, we’ve never lived anywhere longer than three years, the amount we’ve spent in our current condo.
What does it mean to pick yourself up and separate yourself from “home?” Does it change how you write? I would say, yes. When you move a lot, you’re more careful about picking up things – heavy furniture, friends, commitments. You write flash fiction and prose poems with your life, not novels and epic poems. Today I’m starting to pack up this house, and we are looking even more aggressively for our next house – one with no stairs, and a little space for a writing office for me, since I’m often working from home. Maybe a garden. Modest needs. We’ve been outbid on a couple of houses, already, turned down a couple after bad pre-inspections that found large problems, and in this crazy-hot Seattle-area market, if you like something, you have to bid on it right away, waive inspections, and offer more than asking. Then, you still only get it if you’re lucky, or there’s something wrong with it.
I was thinking about how this stuff affects my sense of self, my writing. I probably don’t write as well when I’m unsettled – say, that time between deciding to leave one place and settling into another. I also stop purchasing things, because they become just one more thing to pack. I clean out closets, peek in long-unopened boxes, give books and lit mags to friends. On the other hand, I tend to send out work more. It’s a good time to cleanse oneself of ghosts, bad feelings, illnesses, and extra stuff. It gives you a sense of impermanence, of mortality, but also of freedom and possibility. Your sense of self can absolutely never be tied to a piece of land, to a house, to a piece of furniture, because you know in your gut that those things are all transitory. They are not you. I’ve lost boxes of important memories in moves, left behind friends that didn’t stay close. Things have been damaged and misplaced. And you are left, perhaps, wistful for a place to call home; in fact, when people ask, you’re not really even sure what to list as your “hometown.” I usually say Knoxville, because I lived there from 3-10 years old, and it seems like the place that fit me best. Now I consider the Seattle area my home for the foreseeable future, with its funky art scene, terrible traffic, overpriced real estate, mountains and rivers and oceans, herons and fleece-wearing folk. I don’t call myself a southerner, or a midwesterner, or a Northwesterner. You adjust the fit to your needs. You say: I am leaving one place and going to another. How long will I stay? I never say things like “forever” as in “this is our forever house.” Because you never know. But I’m okay with that.
Hey guys! Glenn perked right up after being given a hefty dose of meds by the hospital docs so off we went to Whidbey Island’s NILA MFA Program as scheduled. Yesterday it was just lovely – high seventies, sunshine, so much wildlife. We drove out here, I taught my class, then we went mucking around on a couple of beaches (Double Bluff, Ebey’s Landing) and a garden (Meerkerk Gardens) and took lots of pictures. The locale of the MFA program is right on the water in Coupeville, a part of Whidbey I had never explored before. There’s a garden on the premesis and my cabin looks right out over the water. Today the day began with rain, but I’m looking forward to teaching a class and then giving a reading on the very last night of the residency.
Also, The Rumpus ran my review of Cate Marvin’s excellent Oracle right as I was leaving, so here’s a link to that. I talk about how the Cold War affects poets, why my pet peeve is women poets being compared to Sylvia Plath, and Marvin’s slippery use of persona.
Here are a few pics of Whidbey’s Captain Whidbey Inn, where the MFA program takes place, as well as wildlife, a view of Mt Baker, some inspiration-postcard-type shots of beach sunsets and beach clouds.
Looking forward to escaping out to Whidbey Island to the NILA program to be a guest faculty member (along with friends such as Donna Miscolta and Daemond Arrindell) and teach classes on persona poetry and PR for poets as well as give a short reading. It should be fun! And I could use some fun because…
While the house was on the market last week, I picked up a seriously violent stomach bug, so getting out of the house for each showing and inspection and such was sort of miserable – I was just in a cloud of “I don’t feel well enough to stand” the entire week (but I did lose two pounds. Why is that always my silver lining? Nearly died of pneumonia – but I lost two pounds! What is wrong with me??) Immediately after I got well from that, while we were negotiating paperwork with a prospective buyer, Glenn started having stomach trouble, but his was more serious than mine, and required a visit to the hospital for lots of tests and it turned out several sort of serious things were wrong. Sometimes “healthy” people are people who just haven’t had enough CTscans or blood work! I forget that with us in our forties, men are suddenly susceptible to a host of strange maladies. Anyway, I’m way worse at being the one worried about a sick person than being the sick person, if you know what I mean. The men in my family need to settle down and start being healthy again! Anyway, my sweet husband is home resting, on antibiotics, and hopefully on his way to feeling better too (dude turned down morphine at the hospital like a champ! I hate that stuff too!) Plus now we have to send him to a couple specialists. I’m the one usually doing the specialist merry-go-round, and these are specialists I don’t have any experience with. And we were confronted with the fact that being a one-car household sometimes sucks, like if you both have doctors appointments at the same time in different places.
So it’s been a trying last week with no luck finding a new house, which means we may need to look at renting somewhere one-story-like soon. You know, not stressful at all. Just kidding, totally stressful. Plus, I think I’ve been sick with something or other most of this summer, which makes you feel like you’re missing out on something as it drifts into mid-August. I wish I could say I was turning this all into material, but I’m not sure that’s true – I’m just skittish and unsettled, without the well of creativity that stress sometimes brings. I’m hoping Whidbey, with its beautiful landscapes and opportunities to talk writing, will bring me back to my usual, normal, still-kind-of-skittish-but-more-creatively-productive self.
Wish us some housing, health, and happiness luck!