written in community during renee long’s write for joy challenge
There’s something magical about a live performance. It’s in the anticipation, the not-knowing what will take shape in the meeting space between performer and viewer. It’s in the expectant hush in a crowd just before the lights go up, and the electricity you can still feel as you leave the venue, noticing all that the performance stirred up inside you. In these endless pandemic days, it feels like another lifetime when Lyle and I would go see live shows regularly. Even with small children at home, we used to make an effort to hire a babysitter, get out of the house, and take in a concert, play, or reading, at least a few times a year. I love being in the audience, participating in the excitement of creative exchange.
But actually getting up on a stage and performing? That’s a tall order for an introvert (albeit a very social one) like me. I am uncomfortable being the center of attention. Growing up, I played small roles in community theater (a fuzzy lamb in Charlotte’s Web, an orphan extra in Annie), and sang soprano in choir. I loved being part of the electric spark of live performances– but only when I could disappear into a crowd.
Fast-forward several decades to college, when I hosted author events at an indie bookstore. I would carefully prepare an introduction, practicing all week before getting behind the mic to tell the audience about the writer and writing they were about to hear. It was a tiny bookstore, a tiny crowd, yet no matter how much I rehearsed or how many pep talks I gave myself, my hands always shook holding my notes as I read. I felt embarrassed by this visible evidence of my nervousness, but also determined to keep putting myself in front of a crowd in the service of something I loved.
And I really love the power of the written word.
This Saturday, I’m participating for the third time in Ruminate Magazine‘s Happenings: a week-long fundraising event in which Ruminate contributors go live on the Internet to create art on-demand for ticket-holders. (Get yours here.)
The first year, I felt simultaneously intimidated and honored by the email invitation then-Poetry Editor Kristin George Bagdanov sent, asking me to show up and offer some “spontaneous ruminations.” I loved and respected her work as a poet and editor, and felt humbled that she would invite me. I thought about all the ways I’d felt supported and inspired by Ruminate in the five years I’d been writing for them, from the personalized way their editors engaged with my work and communicated with me, to the intentional ways they invited me into a deeper conversation with other writers and readers.
And I thought about how good it would be to push myself outside my comfort zone and invite viewers to share in the creative process. I was genuinely curious: what would it be like to write for others, in front of an audience?
Terrifying! said a tiny voice inside. This is a terrible idea!
But a stronger voice said, This is an amazing growth opportunity! DO IT.
I sat with the terrified voice for about 30 seconds before responding, “YES.”
The truth is, as I’ve grown in my craft, it has become less and less important that I feel a little scared about making a fool of myself, when I’m sharing my love for the creative spirit– that thing that makes your hair stand on end when you see a painting, hear a song, or read a poem and feel this sense of, “That’s me. I’m connected to this. I’m part of something bigger.”
I’ve learned that even though I almost always feel anxious before getting up in front of a crowd, whether or not I can see individual faces, as soon as I begin reading a poem, all of that dissolves away. In connecting to the power of poetry, to the compelling magic I’ve been drawn to since childhood, I disconnect from my attachment to this tiny version of myself. And it’s such a relief.
Maybe that sounds grandiose or strange. I’m not even sure I’m very “good” at performance. It doesn’t really matter. What matters to me, and why I’ve continued saying, “YES”– to Ruminate‘s invitation each year, and to other opportunities to grow as a writer– is that there’s always more to discover about the creative spirit, when I choose to use my gifts in the service of something I love.
I still feel scared. I’ve never used Instagram Live, the platform Ruminate has chosen for this year’s Happenings. I now have three children, including an 8-week old, and it’s going to be hard to carve out even one hour away from them this Saturday. As much as I know I’ll enjoy myself during that hour of creating, I’m also really looking forward to 11 am, when it’ll all be behind me, at least for another year.
And, I’m also excited to see what happens this time. To have the experience of showing up in front of a blank page, tapping into poetry-mind, and being surprised by what I find out as I write. Though I don’t know yet what I’ll write, I know the creative spirit will meet me, as it always meets us when we take a risk and just show up.
I hope to see you there!
Last night I went for a short walk along Netarts bay. Children and dogs ran back and forth on the wet sand, and the water was flat and still. It was hard to believe it was the same sea that only hours prior was slamming against the rocks, tossed by stormy winds, as the first of the season’s dangerous king tides battered the Oregon coast. Last night, the wind threw the plastic beach chairs on the porch against the sliding glass door, over and over, and this morning the sea is choppy again. The wind whistles and shakes the little beach house, and I shudder, thinking of getting back in my car in an hour to return to my family after this short retreat.
How different the same sea can look at high and low tides, especially when they are this extreme. How different my own outlook can be when the weather is stormy, inside or out.
Nearing the end of this pregnancy, I’m wrapping up 36 hours of solitude on the Oregon coast, at the end of a year of extremes, and I’m thinking about tides, seasons, solitude vs loneliness, and answered prayer.
The God I know is a God who speaks through bodies and relationships. There is so much I don’t understand about how prayer works, but I want to name what I’ve seen and experienced in the past few weeks, in writing and praying about feeling lonely.
I continue to feel God’s presence in the shared silence between verses during Zoom morning prayer, knowing that the men and women I pray with carry me in their hearts the way I carry them in mine. Sometimes there are practical things we can “do” to respond to one another’s needs and prayers, but most of the time there is the simple act of praying together, even though we are apart, all of us turned toward the same presence of God.
I’ve started reading through the book of John and praying over Zoom with a few dear friends once a week, women I’d lost touch with when the pandemic hit. What began as a book club many years ago grew into a more informal friendship rooted in a practice of praying together. Off and on over many years, through illnesses and job transitions, longed-for weddings and babies, we have had the privilege of watching God move in each other’s lives. Even in seasons when we were too busy for book clubs or studies, we’d still meet at the same bakery every few months to catch up on each other’s lives. That bakery closed permanently during the pandemic, and I realized I hadn’t connected with them in some time. I’ve been so grateful to rekindle that bond, in spite of the distance.
More chances to renew friendships and strike up conversation have emerged. Another good friend and I started reading Rachel Held Evan’s book Inspired together, and talking through some of the questions it raises for us over Facetime. I had an outdoor, socially-distanced meet-up with another friend and her children (in masks!) whom I hadn’t seen in months. And some hard conversations about risk tolerance happened with friends in our bubble, allowing me to see how much love and understanding holds up those friendships, and making room for more time spent with other grown-ups, something I’m realizing I really need to feel well.
All of this has helped give me the strength to be more honest with my children. I’ve told them that it’s hard work for Mama to grow a baby, and I need them to help by picking up their things when I ask, and being kind to each other. I’ve been amazed by the way they’ve responded when I’m vulnerable with them in this way. One day, I let them see me cry and they brought me stuffies and tissues, patting my hand and saying, “It’s okay to be sad, Mama.” What an incredible reassurance. I must be getting something right, for all I feel I’m failing them, if they can respond to me with such empathy.
Being here solo on the coast is one half of a babymoon my husband and I won’t get to take together: I stayed with the kids one weekend so he could get a few days of rest on his own, and now he’s done the same for me. I felt a little nervous that a solo weekend would only exacerbate the loneliness I’ve felt at home, but instead I’ve had time to catch up with friends on the phone, and reconnect to the writing practice that makes me feel whole.
Writing has felt less lonely since I joined Exhale last month, a positive and encouraging online community of mothers and writers, many of them women of faith. I’ve been surprised by the way it has helped me find time to write, and how good it feels to be writing again, even a little. Making that small step led to more connection than I expected: two writers I admire read and shared my last post with their readers, and I watched my words reach many more people than they ever would have otherwise. I am deeply touched by that generosity. It has felt so good to read your comments here, and to hear from friends in real life about their own struggles with loneliness. In this long season of parenting in a pandemic, there is comfort for me in knowing that I am not alone in feeling alone.
Meanwhile, my fellow SPU alum Charlotte Donlon has just published a book on faith and loneliness called The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads us to Each Other. The title could not more perfectly encapsulate what I’ve felt in the past few weeks. News of this book reached me just a few days ago, and I’m still marveling over the beauty of that synchronicity. I ordered my copy and can’t wait to read it. I hope you will too.
I see and feel God moving in all of this, a prayer answered many times over, and I’m so grateful. The extreme tides of 2020 are far from over and I know the sea will get stormy once again, so I am writing this down to remember God’s faithfulness, and the gift of renewed connections.
Photo of Green String Farm byLyle Poulin
A few years after finishing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, I apprenticed and worked on small farms, inspired in part by the writing of Wendell Berry. In an interview in one of my favorite magazines at the time, The Sun, Berry had spoken persuasively about the importance of being rooted in community, caring deeply for the land, and cultivating local economies, in an effort to rebuild sustainability for ourselves and our troubled environment. He also gently suggested that the interviewer not get too hung up on the identity of writer, because “there are lots of other worthwhile things you can do.”
This sentence was jarring. It allowed me to admit my frustration in viewing my creative work as my single purpose, and translating that into my sole means of financial support. I felt I wasn’t meant to do just one thing, and yet much of my training and the gist of the popular idea of a “serious” writer pushed me to do just that.
Beyond restlessness and money fears, I also felt hungry for work that would feed me and my neighbors, while addressing some of the dysfunction of modern life that nagged at my consciousness. As I apprenticed at Green String Farm, then worked for non-profit Petaluma Bounty Farm, I got firsthand lessons in growing food using natural process farming.
One of the main tenets of this approach is that to grow truly nutritious food, you need to feed the soil first— and to understand it as a community of microbes, fungi, organic material, and more. Soil health depends on diversity and balance. What a perfect metaphor for my own health! I, too, needed to do a range of “worthwhile things” in order to find balance. In tending the soil, I was tending not just the plants that grew in it, but also my body and spirit. In experiencing the satisfaction of nourishing myself and others, I got a taste of the fulfillment I was looking for.
Book cover image courtesy of Didi Pershouse
This deeper understanding of the foundations of health is at the heart of a surprising new book: The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities, by Didi Pershouse (Mycelium Books, 2016). Part memoir and part fact-driven analysis of modern farming and medicine, The Ecology of Care describes Pershouse’s gradual shift from her work in private acupuncture, to community acupuncture and advocacy for soil restoration. It’s a beautifully-written, hope-filled prescription for an embrace of community at every level— perhaps our best shot of surviving our climate crisis.
Pershouse draws connections between the soil degradation wrought by the industrial food system, and the harm done to our bodies by industrial medicine. Since “we are what we eat,” there’s a lot of overlap. Over the past century, we’ve shifted from small, diverse farms to profit-driven mono-cropping, and our guts reflect that change. Stripping the topsoil of micronutrients and microbes, and lacing food crops with pesticides and herbicides, we’ve experienced a corresponding loss of microbial diversity in our bodies, and an increase in disease processes related to the ingestion of chemicals. Likewise, as our systems of care shifted from village doctors, midwives, and herbalists to for-profit hospitals and privatized insurance, the cost of care has skyrocketed while quality has plummeted.
But there’s hope.
A re-invigoration of community-based healthcare can decrease costs and increase quality of care, while reducing the vast carbon footprint of an over-reliance on hospitals for basic care. An embrace of farming practices dedicated to creating a “soil carbon sponge” can help harness the excess carbon driving climate change, while restoring soil health.
Photo by Lyle Poulin
A born scientist and gifted artist, Pershouse is both methodical in her research and emotionally persuasive in her writing. She brings humor and nuance to her discussion of the complicated history described above. In an era of alarmism, Pershouse’s work is refreshing in its commitment to both honesty and optimism. She moderates her appraisal of each system’s failures by offering tangible alternative frameworks, and allowing for emotional responsiveness. These challenges are significant, and Pershouse’s work is sustained by listening partnerships with friends involved in many different aspects of healing. In adopting such a practice for ourselves, healers of all kinds can avoid burnout. We can listen to one another when each of us inevitably reaches a moment of despair, acknowledging that pain before identifying what is working and what to focus on next.
For me, Pershouse’s work picks up where Berry leaves off. As I enter another surprising twist in my career path, The Ecology of Care helps me see how my seemingly-disparate interests—writing, agriculture, and community health— are in fact needfully interconnected.
“Hope is a discipline,” Pershouse writes toward the end of her book. This worthwhile work of restoring our health must be undertaken together, and everyone is invited.
I always admire poets who paint a vivid, compelling picture of a setting or situation that seems, on its surface, to be “about” one thing– but through the smallest inflections and details, suggests something deeper. Carey Taylor is one of these poets, and her new collection The Lure of Impermanence is full of poems like this.
In “Pomology,” we have only one line to anchor us in the unmentioned story– “morphine drips”– while the rest of the poem gives us a tender portrait of the speaker’s father’s passionate knowledge of a certain kind of apple. He is telling the nurse, in detail, about the apples’ “low disease susceptibility,/ how they are foolproof really,/ reliable, well balanced,/ and sweet,” while his wife lies in a hospital bed. He has just asked the nurse “how long before his wife can go home,” and the unanswered question hangs in the space between the lines of the poem, telling us all we need to know.
Impermanence– what is brief, mortal, transient, uncertain– is like that. Tricky in its hidden obviousness. There at the end of a life, a sentence, a moment, anything really. Expected– and yet always wholly unexpected.
“Arrivals and Departures” is a lament of the world continuing, cruelly, after the death of a loved one. The poem accuses “the cottonwoods in the ravine” of continuing to blossom right in the face of a friend’s quiet grief. Outrageously, “the ferry in the harbor moaned/arrivals and departures,” a loud reminder of what is both ever-changing and constant. Yet there are also markers of mortality that don’t hurt– “hope on a stem/ in the name of trillium and iris.”
This double-possibility, this tension, is the thread weaving this collection together. The poem of lament stands beside the poem of celebration and gratitude. The natural and the man-made world are full of reminders of impermanence, and they are both luminous and terrible. These are strong poems, rich in color and imagery, peopled with both the familiar– the faces of neighbors, tea kettles, socks– as well as the mysterious: gemstones, airborne observatories, earthquakes.
I loved this book for the way it offers language for holding the confusion of life’s experiences together in cupped hands, not trying to explain or deny, but not giving in to despair either.
I met Carey last summer when we both read at the Lents Farmer’s Market here in Portland, and we read together again this past January. She’s a talented reader, full of warmth and humor, and it’s wonderful to hear these poems aloud. You can hear her read from The Lure of Impermanence this Saturday at the Inland Poetry Festival in Washington, and follow her here for more of her writing and events.
Oh, hi. It’s me again. Surfacing after months of quiet here on the blog to say, I made a book, and now it’s a real and beautiful object in the world, and I’m thrilled.
Rupture, Light is a chapbook just published by Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection touching on themes of loss, faith, and identity, often through the lens of my experience as a mother. These are poems I wrote and revised beginning in 2011, and so they reflect life experiences from graduate school all the way up through the births of my two children. For about four years, I revised and submitted the manuscript again and again as time allowed, against the backdrop of bearing and raising my kids, healing from injury and chronic illness, returning to work and redefining my purpose and identity in the wake of the upheaval of motherhood.
When I was pregnant with Robin, I felt a powerful wave of energy coaxing me to just get this book out there, one way or another, before he was born. I knew that becoming a family with two kids would be a major transition, and I wanted to sort of clear the decks– creatively and logistically. On a practical level, having already come through the babyhood of one child, I knew the level of focus and energy needed to pursue publication wouldn’t be available to me for at least a year after Robin was born. And on a creative level, which was the more powerful motivating force, I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world, honored and amplified in the way only a “real” book can.
Following Sky’s birth in 2015, I had abruptly stopped writing poems, and had begun instinctively to write long-form essays, something I’d never done with much confidence or inspiration prior to that. I’m still puzzling over the shift, which has remained. Firstly, at least for me, it that even though they are technically “shorter,” crafting poems requires a greater level of attention, presence, and quite frankly time than does crafting prose– and needless to say those things can be in short supply when you have young children. The same goes for reading poetry. Sure, you can whip through a collection of poems in a couple of hours, but it takes months, sometimes years, to really absorb a collection’s message and integrate it into what you currently think you know about the world. For me, the same is not usually true for reading and writing narrative nonfiction, and so I think I’ve naturally gravitated to a form that allows a little more flexibility during this busy season of motherhood.
All that to say, I needed to get these poems out into the world so that I could stay “current” with where the creative spirit seems to be leading me. Perhaps now that this book has arrived, and is offering me opportunities to read my poems aloud and be among Portland’s poetry community, poems will begin to come to me again.
I have dreamed of writing and publishing since I was about ten years old. This little book is a chapbook, not a full-length collection, which can be seen as a first step into publishing for an “emerging” writer, and can also be a beautiful way for an “established” writer to showcase a small group of thematic poems, or poems that don’t seem to “fit” anywhere else. This is all publishing-world stuff, and so at certain points in the process I’ve wrestled with feelings of being somehow less than a “real” writer, with this first book not being a real book. It’s a good wrestling that mirrors a theme in my personal growth these last few years, as I’ve learned to let go of old ways of thinking in order to become more fully alive.
I want to share how this experience of fruition has and hasn’t lined up with how I thought I’d feel, and what I thought was significant about publication.
Finishing Line Press accepted my manuscript Rupture, Light in April of last year, right around Easter. A few weeks later, I had a major flare-up from a previous car accident that sent me spiraling into the worst pain of my life– constant, chronic neck and arm pain that didn’t relent until around mid-July and didn’t fully clear until late August. As I went to multiple appointments, managed medications, and struggled to keep up with my children, I was simultaneously putting together materials for producing the book, including trying to finalize cover art. I couldn’t read, write, or spend more than ten minutes at the computer without excruciating pain, so this was challenging and confusing. It was strange to be pulling the book toward reality at the same time that my body was pulling me toward a future I didn’t yet recognize– one I wasn’t sure would even include writing, which was terrifying. I lost my grant-writing clients and began to seriously consider other career options, as desk work was suddenly cast in a different light by the diagnosis of a bulging cervical disc and severe foramenal stenosis.
Minute by minute, day by day, I inched closer to healing and the book moved closer to completion and my old narratives about who I am continued to disintegrate. It was a surreal, disorienting time.
Fast-forward to last week, January 17th, when a nondescript cardboard box arrived on my front porch. I had told my 3-year-old daughter that my books would be arriving soon. My daughter is just getting old enough to understand that I am a writer, and she is as curious and passionate as I am about books and learning. So she was as excited about the books’ arrival as she might have been about Christmas.
That day, I had just learned about the death of Mary Oliver when Sky raced into my room yelling, “Mama!!! Your books are here!!” Together we sat on the living room floor and opened the box, and there was my real book, my first book of poems, right there in my hands, and meanwhile Mary Oliver was dead. The poet of my childhood and adolescence– the poet who had inspired me at a young age to pursue poetry as a vocation– had slipped from the world. It was again a strange and surreal mix of emotion.
Last Saturday, January 12, I had the great pleasure of reading from Rupture, Light, at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop here in Portland, alongside two talented and funny and warm women and poets: Kristin Berger (Echolocation, Cirque Press) and Carey Taylor (The Lure of Impermanence, Cirque Press.) I had read with Carey in the summer as part of the poetry series Kristin organizes at our local farmer’s market. It was fun to read with both of them on the opposite side of the year, to go from wide blue summer skies to the insular world of a bookshop on a dark winter’s night.
Kristin’s work is stunning– it’s direct, urgent, unapologetic while also speaking the language of the body, weaving in strands of the everydayness of human experience, with the necessary dry humor that requires nowadays. Echolocation floored me. It’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a while. Granted, I’ve definitely not been reading nearly as much poetry lately as I used to, but I think that further emphasizes the success of this book: it was human enough to overcome my strange resistance to reading poetry (“I’m so tired. Can I focus enough to read poems right now?”) and passionate enough to sustain my interest from page one. It was a pleasure to hear Kristin read from her book.
The Lure of Impermanence, Carey Taylor’s first book, is on my bedside table right now. I’m enjoying its irreverence and momentum. Carey does some really amazing things with imagery in her work, especially color, and I loved listening to her read. She’s a former teacher, and so she has an easy yet authoritative presence, a way of inviting listeners right into her poems that makes you feel like you’re there with the poem’s speaker. She is just as warm and welcoming in person, and meeting her has been one of the great gifts of this new experience of publication for me.
I really loved getting to share my own poems with the people who showed up that night. The room was packed, and there was an energy of deep listening that really touched me. I met a fellow poet named Phil, who wore a broad-brimmed hat and sat listening in the front row with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face. My parents and my sister were in town for my son’s birthday, also the 12th, and my husband and four of my close writer friends were there. I’m not sure you could ask for a more affirming space to read. I felt relaxed and happy and like I could speak from my heart as I talked about the origins of each poem.
I’m deeply grateful for the chance to do this in my lifetime– to make poems, to make books, and to read with and for others. I hope I get to write many more poems (and essays and maybe even fiction) and bring many more books into the world.
Last fall, I received the enormous gift of an extended conversation with poet Julie L. Moore, facilitated by Ruminate Magazine.
Here is Part 1 of the series “Creative Lives,” a slightly edited version of our email exchange in which we discuss the highs and lows of pursuing a life in poetry.
In Part 2, we discuss writing community and the poets and writers who have shaped us. And in Parts 3 and 4, we talk about the process of building a collection of poems, and how we respond as poets to the aching, changing world around us.
I hope you enjoy this conversation on poetry and the creative process.
Photo via Unsplash
Here’s a poem I wrote in response to Tina Modotti’s “Baby Nursing, Mexico City,” a 1926 photograph posted as part of Ekphrastic Review‘s 20 day poetry challenge in September.
It was definitely a challenge, stretching my writing muscles to respond in verse to a different work of visual art each weekday. I am grateful to editor Lorette Luzajic for hosting this annual challenge, for publishing my poem, and for so joyfully bringing together the worlds of visual and literary art in a way that feels accessible and welcoming to both reader and writer. It’s really a stunning journal! You should check it out.
This image in particular spoke to me because I began weaning my toddler in early August.
The morning Modotti’s photograph was posted, I was feeling a little sadness about this transition in our lives as mother and daughter. Simultaneously, the photo filled me with gratitude for the 16 months of nursing we’ve had, and grief for the gradual shift toward independence that weaning marks and initiates.
Photo via Ekphrastic Review, under public domain.
Take a risk or leap with your creativity and tell me about it in the comments below. If your story grabs me, I’ll give you a one-year subscription to my favorite magazine.
Yesterday I received Issue 40 of Ruminate Magazine, in which my poem “Yellow” appears, winner of the Janet B. McCabe poetry contest. Entering the contest felt like a leap, after a hiatus from writing and submissions following my daughter’s birth.
It felt like recommitting to my dreams, and receiving the prize has been affirming and supportive. It’s helping me pay for childcare to work on my book. I’m grateful for a magazine that pays its contributors and runs contests like this one, because they’re committed to fostering and supporting a dynamic community of writers, artists, and readers.
To celebrate, I’d like to give the gift of a one-year subscription to a new reader.
Comment below with a few words about your creative leap by October 4th, 2016. I’ll pick my favorite story and give a one-year gift subscription to this beautiful journal of art and faith.
Be bold. Submit your writing to a journal on your reach list. Apply for a grant or a fellowship. Undertake a new project. Reach out to a fellow artist and ask them to collaborate with you. Paint a big canvas when you usually work small, or a small canvas when you usually go big. Whatever feels like a risk or a long shot, try it.
I can’t wait to hear about it.
Photo via Unsplash.
***10/5/2016 UPDATE: Congratulations to Janaya Martin and D. Allen, who will both receive one-year subscriptions to Ruminate Magazine. I loved both of your stories and am excited to share this journal with you. Thanks to everyone who responded via email and social media, as well. Congratulations on all of your creative leaping. Keep it up.***
Here’s a letter I wrote for Dear Earth With Love, a collaborative community chronicle of personal stories about climate change.
My dear friend Jo created this project. I encourage you to write your own letter to the earth, responding to your personal experience with climate change. It could be a letter, poem, story, song, or spoken word piece. It could be a video of a dance or performance; a painting, collage, or sculpture. Whatever medium suits you best, use it and make something– then submit your work.
Dear Earth With Love holds rolling submissions, with a deadline posted every few months. The next deadline is August 31, 2016.