Sunday, April 26, 2015

Three For Generation X: About A Girl (Poem 3)

Here's the third and last poem relating to music and Generation X. Read my two previous posts to see which other two songs I picked and what this little series is all about. There are also notes following this poem about the song I picked and why.

An Easy Friend

Nobody asked for your sacrifice.
Didn’t you know? We weren’t that kind of generation.
We were slackers. Born with a cynical cord
twined around our umbilicals.
Behind the boom in time, numbers, ambition.
Most of us couldn’t even achieve the effort of being born.
Warded off by The Pill, weeded out by Roe.
Divorce did a job averting a few of us too.
Among those of us who made it to living
how many did we lose to loving?
Thinned out by a virus
in body, blood, ranks, rainbows.
No wonder the rest of us turned timid in love
reluctant in the duties of regeneration.

We didn’t need a voice.
We needed every voice…

but probably we would’ve settled
for an easy friend.
                                    (I would’ve.
                                    With an ear to lend.
                                    And all that.)

I could have said the same things you sang
about a girl about a boy. Bout lots of boys.
                                    (Is this the moment you knew was coming?
                                    When I tell you how much your songs
                                    spoke to my soul, our souls, our cynical slacker
                                    smelly lazy latchkey
                                    disillusioned
                                    ironylined
                                    souls?
                                    Yes. This is that moment.
                                    When I hang your words.
                                    Out to dry.)

A guitar’s just as good as a gun’s just as good as a needle’s just as good as a pen’s just as good as a song’s just as good as a poem’s just as good as a woman’s just as good as a man’s just as good as a boy’s just as good as a girl. A girl’s just as a good on her own, without a voice to represent, without a boy to rock her into a hit, to record her into history, to whip her in to land.
                                                                             (What does that even mean?)

When I was the last age you ever allowed yourself
easy friends were hard to come by. Since then
it hasn’t got much easier.
I eventually picked up a pen
the way some boys (some girls)
pick up a guitar, as if to say:
Screw this. Maybe you’ll understand, at least.

A pen, a page, a computer, a keyboard
are easier friends than some I could name.
Just as good as a boy, a girl, a guitar
a voice, a generation, a journal, a mic
a blog, a dog, a crew of cats you feed
out your back door every day
(your only friends these days
easy or otherwise)
a curtain of constellations around the park
you used to run to when your parents fought
through the night (my boy, my boy
tell me where did you sleep last night?)
a lineup of police cars you used to paint
the words God is a Gay watchamacallit
(what does that even mean?)
a wall of bricks where the words
You are alive appeared after the twin
towers fell (oh yeah, you missed that
…and we missed you…since we still
don’t know what to make of that.
I’d guess you wouldn’t as well.
The event just overwhelmed
our generationally predisposed
ineffectual reserves of effort
supposedly.)

Nobody asked for your sacrifice. And since the morning
the twin towers fell, sacrifice gets tossed around
as much as dollar bills at a strip show.
They’re standing in a line for it.
Terrorists do it, soldiers do it.
It’s not just for troubled rockers anymore
not just for the voices coming over
American airwaves
for how many generations now?

All the same, we would have liked
to have you stick around longer.
We needed every voice.

In every voice there's a song worth hearing.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This poem was inspired by "About a Girl," a song by Nirvana that was recorded in December 1988 and released in 1989 on the band's first album, Bleach. The song was recorded only a few months after the release of the two previous songs I chose for this "Three for Generation X" theme--"Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses and "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock--which may come as a surprise to some. "About a Girl" was re-recorded and re-released as a single in 1993 and '94, as an acoustic (or "unplugged") version performed during a concert in New York for MTV. That latter version of the song is the one most people know. But the song's earlier origins are important, as this song was one of the first glimmers of the songwriting talent of Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain--even before the breakthrough hits "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come As You Are." When the song was re-released, it served as Nirvana's last hit--the live version was released as a single in the fall of 1994, a few months after the death of Cobain, who died by suicide in April that year.


It is, of course, a cliche for me to choose a Nirvana song, any Nirvana song, as part of anything discussing or examining Generation X. Because Kurt Cobain, of course, is the voice of Generation X--or so Generation X has been told since Nirvana rose to rock stardom in the early 90s after the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and its host album, Nevermind. In truth, I for one never really considered Cobain my generation's voice. At least not its one and only or most important voice. I mainly just thought of them as a pretty decent band. I still do. But I also had conflicted feelings about Cobain and the whole grunge movement and the way Nirvana and grunge were being pushed upon people my age as the thing we'd been waiting for our whole lives. I'll go into that a bit more in a minute. But first I wanted to say part of the reason I chose this song was because Kurt Cobain has been in the news again lately in the U.S., with a new documentary about him just released, as well as an interview with his daughter in Rolling Stone. I read his daughter's interview and a couple of her statements kinda jumped out at me: "My dad was exceptionally ambitious. He wanted his band to be successful. But he didn't want to be the fucking voice of a generation." Elsewhere she says: "Kurt got to the point where he eventually had to sacrifice every bit of who he was to his art, because the world demanded it of him."

The words "ambitious" and "sacrifice" especially struck me, because those are two words no one    has ever applied to Generation X--certainly not in Nirvana's heyday or in the wake of Generation X's invention by the media and so-called social generation experts. For those who aren't familiar with the term Generation X and the label it applied to Americans born between roughly 1961 and 1981, here's some background.


The term "Generation X" was actually nothing new by the time it was applied to people in my age group, starting about 1989, when Canadian author Douglas Coupland first used it to describe the post-Boomer generation and even made it the title of his first novel (which came out in 1991). But we were the generation the term stuck to. After the massive influence of the Baby Boom on American culture, the generation following could barely stand a chance to fill their shoes, culturally speaking--or so that was the idea at the time the term "Gen X" started to pick up steam. Generation X was seen to be the generation that grew up in a vacuum. Our numbers were said to be considerably fewer compared to preceding generations as well as to the generation to come (the Millennials)—a combined result of the invention and widespread availability of the Pill, the legalization of abortion in the U.S., the mass return of American women to the workforce, and the decrease in marriage and substantial increase in divorce in the U.S. in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s. Gen X was also typically characterized in the media as being less ambitious in their careers, more apathetic in their politics, more cynical and pessimistic in their outlook, with a perpetual underlying anxiety formed by having spent their childhoods under the threat of a Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and their teen and young adult years under the threat of contracting HIV and AIDS (which in the 1980s and 90s was still a virtual death sentence for HIV+ Americans). Words like "slackers" and "latchkey kids" were used to describe us. We were said to be capable of communicating only through irony. Boomers openly expressed their contempt for us and their fears for the future once all their own generation kick the bucket. Nevermind (see what I did there?) everything the Boomers themselves did to put the future in jeopardy.

And now 20-some years later an interview is released with the daughter of Generation X's supposed spokesman where she's calling him stuff like ambitious and talking about the sacrifices he made. So much for the selfish slacker identity. Go figure.

So I decided to write a poem keeping both the labels that were applied to my generation and the theme of sacrifice in mind. I chose "About a Girl" because I wanted a song that was more personal and emotionally direct than the other two songs I picked for this poem series. Despite its title, the song isn't about a girl. Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" is about a girl, about Axl Rose's wife. Nirvana's "About a Girl" is really to a girl, not about one. Cobain was inspired by his relationship with his first serious girlfriend for this song. The girl he wrote it for supposedly had no idea the song was about her until years after Cobain's death. As with the other poems in this series, I worked a few lyrics from the song here and there into the poem, as well as lyrics to an old American folk song ("In the Pines") that Nirvana covered during their MTV Unplugged concert. I also worked in bits of Cobain lore, such as claims by Kurt that he used to spray paint the words "God Is Gay" on cars in his hometown as a teen (though his arrest record says he was writing "Ain't got no how watchamacallit" on cars instead). The bit about the brick wall reading "You are alive" is from a photo that was printed in the days after September 11th, 2001. Someone had written those words on a wall in New York City in the aftermath of the attacks on the city that day. Every American has images stuck in their mind from that horrible day--among the foremost images in my memory of September 11th are the words on that brick wall.

And here I come back to the question of whether Kurt Cobain really was my generation's strongest voice or only voice or whatever. I think Nirvana was great and Kurt Cobain was very gifted, and I think it's a definite loss to music and our culture that he died so young. I'm sure he had many more good songs in him. I'm also sure the biggest loss is to his friends and family, especially his daughter. There was only one father for Frances Bean Cobain. There were actually many musical voices for Generation X. And many of those voices are still around, still performing and speaking, singing and writing. In fact one of our generation's voices just won the Grammy for album of the year.

Then there are all the Gen X voices to consider who didn't fit our culture's worship of straight white guys--of which Kurt Cobain was one. I guess one more reason I was never comfortable with the crowning of Cobain as my generation's pre-eminent voice was because I found it a little too convenient that our voice was yet another straight white male in a long line of important straight white males our country and culture have been told to revere and emulate. Too convenient and too ironic, considering Gen X kids were born into the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement, women's movement, and Gay Liberation movement. By the time we came of age, shouldn't our culture have moved beyond anointing white guys? Then again, Gen X kids were also born into the backlash against the great social justice movements of the 1950s-70s. In some regards, I think the media's rush to embrace Kurt Cobain was a way of putting all those uppity black, female, and gay singers and superstars and rappers and rockers of the 80s--from Madonna to Michael Jackson to Freddie Mercury to Prince to Public Enemy--back in their place. (Witness the way Cobain's own fellow musician wife, Courtney Love, was increasingly demonized and ridiculed even as Cobain was celebrated and sanctified.) Grunge itself may have been a reaction against 80s commercialism--its popularity (if not the music) was also a reaction against 80s multiculturalism. Cobain, meanwhile, outspokenly detested homophobia, sexism, and racism ("God Is Gay" he wrote). No wonder he resisted the voice-of-a-generation label. Too bad he had to do it at the expense of his own life.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Three For Generation X: It Takes Two (Poem 2)

Here's my 2nd poem relating to music and Generation X. (Read my previous post to find out what this is all about.) Some notes follow this poem about the song I chose and why. 

To Make a Thing Go Right

Bus Stop’s got a back like a sidewalk she struck once
with her face. He pushes and she swears her spine
will crack same as her front tooth did that one time
she fell. Bus Stop’s real name she doesn’t know.
But she’s seen him at her corner in the morning
so she calls him Bus Stop. He calls her Ashley.
Her name’s Gina. She’s too shy to correct him.
Her teacher tells her she has to get over that.
Specially if she wants to be a star someday
Which she most definitely does. But it’s not easy
as her teacher thinks. Same as this game called Trust
she makes them play every Friday. So you can think
about it over your weekend so she says.

Trust works like this: Sit down on the ground
with your back up against your partner’s.
(Today her partner is Bus Stop.) Hook elbows.
Push back. Now stand together if you can.
Work together teacher says. It takes trust.
It takes two. Well she and Bus Stop must not trust
each other much. They take the longest in class
to make it to standing. He pushes back on her
too hard. Or calls her a name other than Ashley.
A name she wishes the teacher would hear
to make him stop. Why’s this called Trust some
other kid asks. Why we do this? We’re not learning
anything. All it makes us do is fight.

Bus Stop is cursing, pushing, twisting. Keeps
calling her that name. She unhooks her elbows
from him. Jumps up. Puts her hands on her
hips and Bus Stop in his place. It’s Gina.
Not Ashley. Not Bitch. Not Retard. Gina.
Say it with me now Bus Stop. He says it with her.
She doesn’t answer when he asks what the hell
Bus Stop means. They still have to make it
to standing or teacher will never let them go.
She says all right now kids I need you to cooperate.
When I count to three I want you both to push.
Ready? One. Two. Three. Cmon Gina
she hears Bus Stop say. And she knows right off
this time they’ll make it to standing.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This poem was inspired by "It Takes Two," a song released in the summer of 1988 by the hip hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. It came out the same year Guns N' Roses released "Sweet Child O' Mine" (the first song I wrote about in this Three for Generation X experiment) as a single. As with "Sweet Child," I chose this song simply because I really like it. How could anyone not? It was a hit when it came out, went platinum by 1989. The music mag Spin was so taken by the song, they not only anointed it single of the year but the best single of all time. (Does Kanye know about this?) Over 20 years on and its popularity has only grown. The opening line of Rob Base's rap ("I wanna rock right now") has become as iconic as the opening riffs to G N' R's "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle," as have the song's chorus and "Yeah! Woo!" loop, which were sampled from a song James Brown penned for Lyn Collins in the early 70s.

I know this song might seem a lightweight choice from the hip hop catalogue, considering it came out around the same time such game changers of hip hop like Ice-T and NWA were putting out the beginnings of what would be called "gangsta rap" and rap and hip hop would soon erupt in the media as a national controversy. But for me to choose a rap song with a hard-core sound or heavier message would not only be disingenuous to the kind of kid I was back then (a mouse, basically) and the kind of music I liked--I think it would also just underscore the simplistic and racist charges lobbed at rap and hip hop (and the black communities, inner city communities, and youth culture in general) by the media and pearl-clutching politicians of the time. Hip hop had already diversified as a music and cultural movement long before the larger media took notice of it. Going back to the 70s, early hip hop had a music element (rapping and DJing), a dance element (breakdancing), an art element (graffiti art). Gangsta rap was only one development among many. The sounds in "It Takes Two" were another. "It Takes Two" was one of the first hip hop songs to combine house music (a Chicago invention, just as hip hop was a New York creation) to make an even more danceable record than previous hip hop tunes--the result was something called hip-house. And while the lyrics of the song might not be anything that would impress a Nobel Prize committee, there is a definite message concerning respect and solidarity in the song's lyrics. I'd argue that respect is one of the most recurring and important themes in hip house music, even in gangsta rap. I wanted to write a poem that reflected that theme.

There's a self-aware humor throughout the lyrics too ("Ladies love me/ Girls adore me/ I mean even the ones who never saw me"). There's humor in a helluva lot of rap songs actually, far more than there was in other music of the time in my opinion (I'm sorry but I never found myself laughing along to Nirvana or U2 or The Smiths). But you wouldn't have known that in the 80s and 90s by listening to all the hysteria about how dark and doomed rap supposedly was. There was a lot of joy in hip hop--at least in my memories of the 80s there is. While I wasn't in with the hip hop crowd when I was young (or in any crowd--I was kind of a misfit), I was curious and appreciative of the music, and I was especially drawn to it for the breakdancing element. I loved singers who were also dancers when I was a kid, like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I have a vivid memory of watching breakdancing in person for the first time when I was still pretty young, in junior high school, in Chicago one afternoon--some other kids breakdancing on a mat on a side street--and being disappointed that I couldn't stay longer to keep watching them. I also remember boys practicing their breakdancing in the playlot at our junior high school with the rest of us kids crowded around them, and the teachers coming out to break up the crowd every day, saying "those boys will break their necks one of these days". I remember an aspiring beatboxer in my high school who used to beatbox battle to The Fat Boys on the school cafeteria jukebox during lunch. I remember me trying to teach myself to moonwalk and pop and lock and do the worm and all that shit in my room when my sister Arla (who shared a room with me) wasn't around. (I am grateful there is no video or photographic evidence of those attempts.) I remember a pen pal correspondence I started when I was 16 with a boy my age from the south side of the city, who worshiped rappers and graffiti artists and who I learned a lot from about what hip hop meant to people our age and what it could mean for our generation as we and the music grew up and got hopefully wiser. Just as long as it didn't lose its fun. Considering the staying power of "It Takes Two," I think the joy element of hip hop was definitely rescued from all the anti-rap hysteria of old. Today, gangsta rap pioneers Ice-T and Ice Cube are a couple of likeable actors--people seem to forget how demonized these guys were. As for Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, they split up shortly after their debut album, leaving Rob Base to go solo with another album, before re-forming and recording and touring again. Their reunion was cut short though by E-Z Rock's health problems from diabetes. He passed away not even a year ago, on April 27th, at the age of 46. Only 6 months prior, Rob Base had lost his life partner, his wife, who died in October 2013. Rob Base gave this interview to Rolling Stone about his musical partner, E-Z Rock, and their work shortly after his friend's death.

Below I embedded the video for "It Takes Two" and another video of my fellow Gen X-ers Will Smith and Jimmy Fallon attempting to re-create the song with an iPad app. Both videos make me smile, and the Smith/Fallon one just shows how loved the song still is after all these years. As Rob Base himself once said, "All I know is, it's a club banger."



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Three For Generation X: Sweet Child (Poem 1)

After a little break, I'm back with some poem posts for National Poetry Month/NaPoWriMo. While I pretty much abandoned the poem a day challenge, I still got a few poem ideas I thought I might as well try out before the month is over.

This poem is the 1st of three I decided to write about music and Generation X. I got the idea after reading a collection of poems where the poet incorporated favorite song lyrics into a number of his poems and included numerous odes to certain American musical forms and American musicians. Some of the poems got me thinking about the music I grew up with, the songs I loved as a teenager (which is really the only time in a music fan's life that matters to the American music industry) and the songs and sounds that represented my generation, that seemed to be everywhere in the 1980s and 90s. My teen years were between 1985 and 1991. My high school years were from 1986 to 1990. Among North Americans, Generation X refers to the population born after the post-World War II baby boom, roughly between 1961 and 1981. Having been born in 1972, I'm smack in the middle of this generation.

I may write a post that goes a little further into the Generation X label and what it meant to me, but for now I'll just introduce the reasoning behind the three poems I've written. I chose 3 songs to write about that were all recorded and released within 3 years of each other, between 1987 and 1989, in the heart of my high school years. The songs I chose aren't necessarily my favorite songs of that era, nor are they songs I consider the 3 most important to Generation X--they are just 3 songs I like. They are also 3 songs that, together, represent some of the most important bands and movements in music of the 80s and 90s. One of the bands is a hip-hop duo, another is a grunge band, and another is a straight-up rock band. I specifically chose only American bands/songs, because that's my own nationality and the culture that formed me and because the music represented by these 3 songs is also inherently American. These songs and their makers became hits for a reason--they all spoke authentically to the experience of their main audience, namely American kids in the 80s and 90s. Their problems, their peculiarities, their points-of-view. (If the songs went on to strike a nerve globally as well, that was undoubtedly icing on the cake.) I also purposely limited my choices to songs by men, simply because I wanted to explore how a female voice from Generation X might respond to three of the male voices from Generation X.

I've decided to post the poems one at a time, and also reveal the 3 songs one by one, rather than all at once. So here's the 1st poem:

Sweet Child

I’ve never been cool. I mean here I am 15
in a half-empty full-plush theater in Bettendorf
at my first concert
with my parents
and it’s Crystal Gayle--
what does that tell ya?

In the parking lot I saw 2 kids frenching
in a red pick-up with the windows
rolled down and guns n’ roses roaring
and I mean really going at it--
the music and kissing both.

The girl may have even been topless
and the boy looked like
he was clutching her hair
so it’d hurt. But I didn’t wanna stare
too long to be sure
or my parents would see.

They prefer me unknowing and I find
it’s just easier to go along. But then mom
had to complain their music
was too loud and all I could do was wish
it was even louder.

Inside the theater my dad sits on one side
of me and my aunt on the other. They applaud
wildly after every song. But the whole time
Crystal croons all I can hear is Axl’s
words: Where do we go now?
Where do we go?

I think I would trade nights
with the girl in the pick-up
for the music alone.

Cuz I am so far off from that kind
of thing, from being that wild girl
in the pick-up
living that kind of passion. And I know
it will be years
before I learn the truth.

I will be a late bloomer in love
not kissing boys until college and not getting
my hair clutched until I’m old enough
to know that kind of thing
has nothing to do
with passion.

And Axl will never answer
his own question. He’ll only get old
same as me and the wild girl.
By middle age she and I will be
spending our nights
just the same, sweet child
or wild youth
or everything between.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

A few notes...Unless you were living in a cave in Antarctica during the 80s and 90s, I'm sure you've figured out this poem was inspired by "Sweet Child O' Mine," a song recorded in 1987 and released as a single in 1988 by Guns N' Roses. While I wasn't a Guns N' Roses fan back in the day (their music was too aggressive for my tastes at the time, and their image and Axl Rose's lyrics grotesquely misogynistic), I did like this song a lot, and I still do. It was also impossible for anyone not to know their songs back then, as Guns N' Roses were absolutely massive. It didn't matter even if you hated them. From 1988 on their music was everywhere. Their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, which features "Sweet Child O' Mine," still stands as the best-selling debut album in American history. According to a Rolling Stone article, even as late as 2000 the album was still selling 5,000 to 6,000 copies a week. Sometime in the mid-90s though the band imploded. They broke up or didn't break up or sued each other or sued their girlfriends and fans or got sued by their girlfriends or fans or something or whatever. It all got hard to keep track of after awhile. A few years ago, long after the rest of the original band lineup moved on to other things, Axl finally emerged from wherever he'd been hiding (presumably not a cave in Antarctica) to release the first Guns N' Roses album in forever, or 15 years--same thing in the new Internet age. It probably goes without saying that the album was something of a disappointment in sales and to many critics and fans alike. Too much time had passed for Generation X to get excited about their old hard-rock heroes anymore. As B.B. King once sang, "The thrill is gone." Except for that moment when the opening riff for "Sweet Child" comes on:


Lastly, like most of my poems, this poem takes some inspiration from real-life experiences of mine but is hardly autobiographical. So, yes, while it is true one of my first concerts was Crystal Gayle, in Iowa, with my parents and aunt and uncle, there was no pickup blaring G N' R in the parking lot, and I wasn't 15...I was 18 or 19. Which, I am fully aware, makes it even sadder.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

So Many Stones: On The Difficulty Of Writing


Tell me if you can guess the location in the picture above. It might come as a surprise that it's Spain, that country of Barcelona nightlife and notorious bullfights, of olive groves, vineyards, and Mediterranean beaches. When most people think of Spain, they probably don't imagine a landscape like the one in this picture: a vast field of stones, basically. But Spain this is--a central high-plains region of Spain called the Meseta. Not all of the Meseta is this stony, but much of it is this shadeless. This picture was taken on a day in October in 2011, while I was walking the Camino de Santiago.

I decided to put up a post featuring this photo because the scene it depicts is a good metaphor for how I've been feeling lately about my writing efforts and life efforts in general. If you've been following my blog the past few months or so, you've probably noticed a lot of posts about rejection and frustration. Even if the posts aren't specifically about those topics, I'm sure the sense of each is obvious in a lot of them.

In the last year or so, I've been writing a lot--much more than I was able to for a long time. That's a good thing since for many years I had something of a block about writing, as well as a bad procrastination habit. I would plan to write, want to write, even sometimes actually sit down to write, and it would feel like trying to give birth to a full-grown giraffe. The words wouldn't come without a big fight, and when they did come they didn't meld together in a way that made much sense to me, to the story I was trying to tell or even the kind of writer I was trying to be. (As an aside, one specific problem I noticed in my writing at this time was its academic or encyclopedic tone. I worked for years at an encyclopedia company, copy editing the articles all day, and it wasn't long before the dry, informative style of writing that makes perfect sense for encyclopedia entries was infecting my own personal, creative writing. I still have to watch out for it, all these years later.) That was when I did write at all. Most of the time I found 1,000 ways to avoid writing altogether--or put it off 'til the next day or later in the day or after dinner or after Cold Case or before work in the morning and so on. But somehow things changed, and in recent years I began to find it easier to write. I think trying other creative endeavors like acting helped to unblock me, as did creating this blog and deciding I would just start out easy by describing some of the travel experiences I'd enjoyed. I still procrastinate, and I still feel blocked at times, but not nearly as much as, say, 10 years ago.

Another change is that I've begun submitting my stuff, something I rarely did before. I think that's also a good thing, but it's hard to gauge, as I get rejected so much. I also get very little feedback in my rejections--and I get very little feedback in general, on this blog or on the few things I have successfully published. Am I sending my work out prematurely? Am I still not ready (i.e., not good enough) to be submitting my stuff at all? Will I ever be ready? If not, then should I just give up writing altogether, even for myself alone?

The truth is I've also been struggling with rejection outside of writing. Some readers may know I tried starting a business a few years back. That failed--I made no profit and went into debt--and I had to close the door on that less than two years ago. Since that decision I've kind of been flailing to regain some footing careerwise--applying for lots of jobs, getting the rare interview, not getting hired, or not getting any response. I've been working during this time at a local store in the suburb I grew up in, a place I had worked at over 20 years ago, before getting any degrees or education and having much job or life experience. I was grateful to be taken back at this local job, but the pay was nothing I could live on and I began to feel trapped in a past I thought I'd outgrown or escaped years ago. And there have been other issues to deal with--coming to terms with some traumatic experiences in Chicago and Ireland from years ago and trying to close the door on all that, on certain people and places, finally. It's all been a very transitional time, and while I know all the transition is necessary, I've long been eager to finally get to the next stage, a stable stage, where I can both settle in and move on without wasting so much energy rehashing the past or trying to recover from the past.

So what has all of this to do with this picture above?

I've been looking at this picture lately and thinking about why it's meaningful to me right now. For one, I think it's because it was taken on a very important journey I took a few years ago, the Camino de Santiago, a journey that was all about sorting out my feelings and habits of the past and present and reconciling myself to those feelings and habits. The Camino for me was a philosophical journey, more than a religious or spiritual one--though there were definitely spiritual/religious reasons for me embarking on it. I learned a lot about pacing on the Camino--about respecting everyone's individual pace in life, including my own, and not worrying or concerning myself with whether I'm going too slow or too fast, with whether I take too many rest breaks or veer off the path or backtrack or stop or  even get completely lost at times, and with whether any or everyone else goes faster or straighter than me on the Camino or in life. I learned a lot about respecting my personal life pace and respecting the boundaries of my own pace--meaning, I try not to allow others to lecture me anymore or feel bad about my life decisions and how my life does or does not meet up with society's or any particular busybody's expectations. I learned lots more on the Camino, and I had a lot of fun and experienced a lot of challenges (physical and mental) and walked through some really difficult and beautiful terrain and difficult and lonely days and difficult, beautiful, and lonely memories and thoughts.

One of the loneliest times I had on the Camino was walking the Meseta. For those walking the Camino from the south of France (from St. Jean Pied de Port or thereabouts) or just over the border in Spain (from Roncesvalles or San Sebastian or Pamplona), the Meseta is the middle part of their journey, the long stretch in between the cities of Burgos and Leon. Quite a few pilgrims decide to just skip over it and take a bus or taxi between Burgos and Leon--to save time or because they feel the landscape of the Meseta is not interesting enough or too barren to reckon with. They're right--it is pretty barren compared to other terrains of the Camino. It's not lushly green or mountainous or forested, and of course it's far from Spain's famous beaches and more exotic hotspots. There are no cities between Burgos and Leon--you're not gonna encounter any sizzling nightlife (though why you'd really want to on the Camino is beyond me, considering how the Camino makes you look and smell after just a few days of walking and how it fatigues you and demands early bedtimes and early risings the whole way). For Americans, walking the Meseta is probably comparable to walking the pre-pioneer Midwest or through desert country or across west Texas. It's actually a breathtaking and rewarding landscape to walk across, but the rewards are stark and hard-won, just like the scenery and the harvests of the terrain you're walking through.

Walking the Meseta, I started to have doubts about whether I should even finish the Camino, whether I should keep walking all the way to Santiago. I was having lots of discomfort and pain from blisters all over my feet, which were slowing me down day by day. I was walking on and off with another American woman whose personality I sometimes found hard to read. Then I was walking on my own most of the time, and some days I barely encountered another pilgrim or a local for long stretches of the way. I worried it would be this lonely all the way to the end. I wasn't sure I was enjoying myself very much. I was more distracted than expected by some news I'd gotten about an old flame, just before starting the Camino, while I was visiting old acquaintances in Ireland. At times, I think I felt much like I did when I was trying to write years before, in the days I was living by myself with my cats in an apartment in Chicago and I had very little social life, few people I felt I could really trust to talk about the past, while spending my work life hunched over manuscripts on subatomic particles and thermodynamics and the history of the Ukraine (it's very depressing, trust me) or slave trade (not just depressing but horrifying, I hope it goes without saying).

I don't know what this is adding up to for you, the reader, but maybe you'll understand more when I say that when I look at the picture above, I don't just see a natural landscape, I see a landscape of life. I see a field filled with countless small stones--a field that wouldn't be much fun to walk over, no matter the weather. I see stones that could be used as tools but, as they appear in this picture, don't seem to serve much purpose, don't seem fit for transforming into much else, like a house or a hut or a wall--not without a huge amount of time, effort, patience, and trial and error. I see nothing growing, and no evidence of something growable in other times of the year. I see a thousand fits and starts, failures, plans that don't work out, friendships that end badly, form rejections, half-finished poems, stilted stories, periods of self-doubt and isolation. I see words too, more words than I know the meaning of or know how to put together on a page in a way that appeals to me and tells the truth and serves the purpose of truth and poetry or storytelling.

I also see beauty, and I see potential and hope and the future. It was windy the day this picture was taken, though not too cold. The sky changed a great deal throughout my walking for the day--from my memories and from all the pictures I took on that single day, I can see it varied from gray and dim to rainy to cloudy and sunny. At this moment, in the afternoon of October 9th, 2011, the sky above the Meseta between Burgos and Hornillos was blue with long swaths of clouds that matched the stretch of the horizon. The clouds to me look like writing, like lines of words going down a blue page, except at the top of the "page" where the clouds are more formless, blot-like--doodles, scribbles, notes, cartoon bubbles, who knows? I know I may be the only who sees this. I also know I probably didn't see this at all when I was actually there on the scene, taking this picture. All I saw were the rocks. All I saw was the beautiful desolation, the emptiness and loneliness and the challenge. I also saw a scene that I could show to everyone back home after I finished the Camino and say, See how hard it was at times? See what it was like? I saw my own future pride, in having walked all over a landscape like this and survived. Because even then, despite the self-doubt I was feeling, I knew the chances were I would get through this, that I would keep going and come away with a story to tell.

Right now I have a few poems sent out waiting for acceptance or rejection. And a story too, that's been rejected from 2 places so far and is still in limbo at another place. I have a bunch of poems that I've been putting up on this blog lately--most of which I think are really bad, and I feel a lot of anxiety about that, about how bad they are and whether I should be posting them and whether I should bother writing another poem (or finishing the few I've started) ever again. I have stories up here that have been rejected too. I have other stories in various stages of vision and revision. I have ideas in my head (with a few notes written down) for stories and essays and poems that I wonder if I should even attempt, because I fear maybe they're too personal or too difficult for me to pull off. I'm afraid the effort will just be met with rejection--both from editors and journals and from friends and acquaintances who may think "You shouldn't be writing that. You shouldn't be talking about such things. You shouldn't be feeling such feelings."

I'm not afraid of mining the past for stories and poems. I think that's my business and my decision. I know I don't need anyone's permission to write about my own life. But I am afraid of not being validated, of giving out pieces of myself only to have no one willing to take them, to even hear them, believe them, consider them. I fear hurting others as I write about my past hurts, but I also fear the frustration that only comes from self-censorship, from silencing yourself.

These are vicious cycles to get caught in. The only thin that makes them tolerable is the knowledge that they're also common cycles for writers. Writing requires everyday conquerings of fear and anxiety. No...not everyday. Every hour, every minute, every moment you set aside to write a sentence, a paragraph, a story or poem, an essay, a novel, a life memory or truth. Writing requires recognizing the cycles and trusting that at some point the wheel will turn the way you want it, just as likely as the times it turns the way you don't. It's more likely the turn the way you want it when you keep the wheel going, when you keep trying and keep writing, rather than when you give up and stop or when you let fear or self-doubt or the possible critiques or judgement of others get in the way of your words.

At the moment I don't know if the wheel is turning my way again. I finally got a job, in a museum in Chicago (expect a blog post about the museum soon), and I'm happy and excited about it and tempted to see it as a sign that things are starting to go my way again. I also stumbled across an old Tumblr blog of mine that I had abandoned and completely forgotten about. Ironically I discovered it while creating a new blog of sorts, a Wordpress site that I set up just to feature my published credits. I was doing some Googling to see if my Wordpress site was coming up when the old Tumblr one did instead. It wasn't a serious blog or anything. I started it as a kind of release from this one, a little project where I would just re-post other people's animal pics and art and the occasional joke or article or poem I liked. I only kept it up for a month or so. Looking through it I was surprised that I had written one entry--about writer's block. In that entry, I mention a lot of things that have been plaguing me again--anxiety, fear, procrastination, same old same old. I also looked through the pictures I had shared on the old blog--my own pics and other people's--and at the comments I had written under some of them. Under a few of them I had actually made some pretty wise or poetic comments--that surprised me too. Why didn't I pursue some of those lines a little further back then, use them in a full poem or a story? Why didn't I even remember writing them? I was glad I'd rediscovered them now. When you're struggling with self-doubt, it's a gift to come across evidence from the past that you've not only been here before, but you've made it through before too. It's also a gift to come across the odd line of yours that reads rather well after few years' distance, especially when you probably didn't think much of it back then and were probably underrating yourself and being too hard on yourself then just as you are now.

Which brings me back to this picture at the top of this post, and the questions that come to my mind. Where have I seen this kind of landscape before? Why am I seeing it this way now? I like the picture as much for all the stones as I do for the pretty clouds and blue sky. I think the picture wouldn't be half as interesting, half as striking if it was missing the stony part or if the sky part was cut off. I think you need both to make this a good picture, and I think it's the same in writing and storytelling. The perfectionist in you wants there to be no stones in the way--push 'em all out of the picture, out of your poems and stories, out of your writing and efforts. The coward in you wants you to ignore the stones altogether--pretend they're not there. Write without the stones--focus on the pretty blue sky and the nice things in life and the good times in your life. Leave out the stones. Lie. Hide. Keep it all light, impersonal, sunny. Keep the dark stuff, the stony parts, the real personal--and truthful--stuff to yourself. Cut out the stones. Cut out your heart. Cut out your struggle and effort. Show only half the picture, half the landscape, half the truth, half the story.

Well, the piles of stones are as much a part of the story as the pretty sky. The stones are as much a part of the truth as anything. An important part, as important as the sky and the clouds and the nicer, more scenic parts of the journey, of the Camino and the story. The stones are worth a story in themselves, even without the blue sky above it--and the blue sky is worth its own story. But the two together, in one photo, in one story, on one day, on one road, is the better story, the richer, more honest, more complex, and more interesting one. The stones are my story and every writer's story, and the picture above is my story too--past, present, and I hope, future.

As they say on the Camino, and as I try to say to myself when I need it, including now: Ánimo!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Skin Poem

I've been having second thoughts about the NaPoWriMo challenge. But here's a recent effort anyway.

Green Skin

I grew green skin
when I was 22…

I did it for you.

Now I’m 42
I must confess:

It fit me like a bottleneck and felt like a stamp
that said: Good Person! on my soul.

I miss my old skin. My motley. Not to mention
my ambiguous moral fiber.

I’m think I’m ready
for a shedding

and I’d like you
to look away…or leave
as I slough
off

and re-emerge dappled
disobedient
and
raw.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Baking At Ballymaloe

Debbie Shaw teaching a baking course at Ballymaloe Cookery School, in Co. Cork, Ireland.
This picture was taken in September 2013 at a famous cooking school in the southern tip of Ireland. The school is called Ballymaloe, located in County Cork, and the woman teaching in the photo is named Debbie Shaw. All those goodies you see in the foreground of the picture were made by her during the course of the lesson: soda bread, scones, focaccia, lemon poppyseed cupcakes, and sponge cake with lemon curd and raspberry filling. This course was part of a women's tour I organized for my former tour company, Wayfaring Women Tours. This was actually the penultimate day of the tour, which lasted 9 days and took us from Galway City, around Connemara, to the Burren and the Aran Islands, down to Dingle and through County Kerry, across Cork to Ballymaloe and Blarney. Our time at Ballymaloe also included an overnight stay in the truly beautiful country home (called Ballymaloe House) and dinner at the house. Ballymaloe was one of the definite highlights of the entire tour.

I included a visit to Ballymaloe, both the cooking school and the country home, on the tour not only because I knew it would be a great time, but also because I wanted the guests on the tour to come away from their time in Ireland with a positive view of Irish food, cooking, baking, and eating. Ballymaloe is famous in Ireland (and throughout Europe) for changing the notion of Irish cooking as being bland, boring, uninspired, and unhealthy. What Myrtle Allen, who opened Ballymaloe House in 1963, did down in County Cork over 50 years ago was effectively start a revolution. At Ballymaloe, emphasis was placed on using local ingredients and "growing your own" vegetables and products as well as embracing traditional recipes and country skills (from cheese making to home brewing to baking your own bread). All the members of the tour got a chance after the lesson to make their own scones and cakes in the Ballymaloe kitchen and got recipes to take home with them. Needless to say, we had a great time. That's me showing up one of my magnificences below. ;-) You can read more about our time at Ballymaloe and about the school and house in general, and view more pics, at this old post of mine: The Ballymaloe Revolution. I absolutely recommend a visit to Ballymaloe--the school, the house, the restaurant, even just the gift shops--for anyone visiting Ireland or County Cork. 

How ya like me now?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Concert Poem

Today's poem. I don't think this is much of an attempt. I thought of not writing one today at all--actually I think of not writing anything at all anymore. Some days you wonder why you bother. Just being honest here.

Concert

Sometimes, not often enough, I hear shimmers
here, where cars bumble around Indian chief
cul-de-sacs, and lawnmowers jet across the yards.
Someone cuddles a radio to a window and sets
a song free. The birds and locusts
probably don’t like it. Their show is shown up.
Sometimes, when summer allows it, the center
of town rumbles with the weight of a train
hounding the night to wake. The night dreams
through the rumpus, shivers only for the skunks
playing tunes with their tails.

There's a train in this poem. So here's a train picture. This was a pic I took several years ago that a writer acquaintance of mine altered for a project he started last year. You can read more about it here and here.