The Summer Day

I’ve been sick lately. Physically ill. And while it’s likely nothing serious (never know, it could be a demon possession in its early stages), it’s got me thinking: I’ve got just one body. I’ve got just one life. I know this is nothing novel. Poets, saints, and random college students smoking weed have been saying the same thing for centuries. But while it’s not a novel idea, it doesn’t make it any less true. It just means it’s something it might be nice for me to remember more often. 20280683_771497112979_2300797240628028966_o
What if I acted like I only had one life? What would be different? Mary Oliver asked us in her often-quoted poem “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I like to think of my life as a wild thing. Some thing outside of me that needs taming. I do that in various ways: with routine, with work, with healthy eating, exercise and positive daily structure. Well, I do these things sometimes. I’m working on it. But if I remembered more often that my life is wild, and unique, and feral; an endangered species; something there is only one of? What would I do differently?

I want to read more. More widely, more diversely. (I recently started reading There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, by the way, and it’s amazing–you should pick it up). I want to write. Every day. I feel more myself when I’m writing. I want to spend more time living my values: creativity, community, love, intelligence, openness. I want to spend more time with the people who matter to me, and less time in bed thinking of all the things that have gone wrong, or could go wrong.

Last week my therapist asked me, what are you willing to do to improve your “now” experience? I thought about it a little bit and wrote down these things:

Do a little good each day.
Say yes more (without whining first).
Be vulnerable. Be willing to learn and make mistakes.
Do one thing at a time. Live the now.
Think positive. Think forward. Plan for the future.

It’s telling, to me, that included in my list was “plan for the future.” I would tell Mary Oliver that, with my one wild and precious life, I’m going to live it. And that’s a huge leap from where I was a few months ago.

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Best Day of My Life

I stole something. I stole something from a writing professor I used to have in college.

What I stole wasn’t an object, though. It was an expression. Whenever Del Doughty was asked how he was doing, he would, without fail, respond: best day of my life. It was the tone that pulled the expression through. It never seemed trite, disingenuous; never phony or insincere. I always felt like he was, really, having the best day of his life. I never felt compelled to ask why. 

How’s it going?

Best day of my life.

Awesome.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this response to the question “How are you?” I ask customers at work all the time how they are and they all seem to answer the same. They’re good (which is, technically, not grammatically correct, but I take off my English professor hat when I’m selling fish), or they’re alright, or they’re well, or if they’re feeling a little saucy, they’re “still kickin’!”

But I’ve stolen the Del Doughty. When they ask me back how I’m doing, I tell them it’s the best day of my life. Sometimes they act like they didn’t hear me and proceed with their order, or they become very surprised and want to know why. Did I just get married? Did I win the lottery? (If I just got married or won the lottery, would I be selling fish on a Wednesday evening?)

Some people just laugh when I tell them it’s the best day of my life. And some people say “right on!” or “I like your attitude!” But I find that more than having an impact on the customer, it’s begun to impact me. I start having better and better days. Each day, a little better than the one before. I start acting like it’s the best day of my life, and it becomes a better day.

R says words have power, and he’s right. God created the world with words, and we’re made in his image. Whatever we say can come into being. If I call myself stupid, I might start to believe it. And maybe others will, too. If I say it’s the best day of my life, it might become the best day of my life.

I’m still working on the tone. A little off-the-cuff, aloof, unpremeditated. It’s livened up my interactions with customers, for sure. But tone aside, I just need to keep saying it. Doing it. It’s the best day of my life. Because today’s what we got. Not yesterday or tomorrow.

One Thing at a Time

Each day I do my best to do one thing at a time. I sit on the balcony and drink coffee and I do just that. I wash the dishes with grace and ease. The birds fly over and I watch the birds.

19466400_765904730159_3546991413190197803_oI don’t live in the past—not on faraway bridges, not in Ohio cornfields where my pets are buried. There are parts of me there and they stay there. Today I sit at the desk and that’s where I live. With the quiet bamboo and the stack of bills, with the staple remover, the hand cream.

My calendar tells me what’s coming but I don’t place myself in its boxes yet. I live with the slow swing of the now, or I try. The finches taking dust baths by the curb of the street: I put myself under their tiny wings.

 

 

Writing Habits

I like to think of a writing habit like a thing a nun puts on when she sits down to write. Maybe that’s a little bit what I need to do. Get a uniform or an outfit that I put on in the morning when I sit down at my desk. A writing sombrero. A pair of writing overalls, or special writing underpants.

The past couple of mornings I’ve been trying to get up early and write. I’ve never really been a morning person. I like to sleep in, and getting up before 7 or 8:00 is kind of a pain for me. During the semester, when I’m teaching, I do get up early and (I admit) I kinda like it: to have the whole day ahead of me, time to get things done while the sun is still up. I teach early morning classes, hold office hours, and am usually home before noon, so the rest of the day is mine to work and write. Getting up early does have its benefits.

My summer job at Whole Foods, selling meat and fish, usually has me coming in around 2:00, so I’ve been taking advantage of being able to sleep in late. But I realized I need to make writing a priority, so I’ve been trying to get up earlier. I can’t write when I get home from work. I used to be a night owl: staying up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning in college and writing terrible poems while I looked at the moon and thought about how terribly special and alone I felt. All college poets feel terribly special and alone.

A few years ago I entered a love poem contest through Common Good Books in St. Paul. My poem didn’t win, but it was chosen as a finalist by Garrison Keillor, and I was invited to a small poetry reading celebration to honor the winners and finalists. GK read my poem aloud, which made it sound very serious, like a serious poet had written it. But after the event, I asked if I could take a picture with him, and he obliged. I don’t remember his exact words, but he told me he admired my poem and “fought for it.” He told me I was young (I guess next to Garrison Keillor anybody would look young). He told me to keep writing. And then he leaned in close like he was going to tell me something very secret. “Get up early,” he said. He says he writes at four o’clock in the morning, when nobody else is awake.

I don’t think I’m ready for the four o’clock writing habit, but I think I’m ready to try out a regular writing routine. When do you do your best writing? What are your writing habits? I find that I don’t usually write at the same time of day, nor do I have any special habits or traditions that follow me into my writing practice. I just kind of have to sit down and do it. It’s the sitting down that’s the hardest part: just starting.

God Helps Those Who Wake Up Early

R says God helps those who wake up early. I don’t know if he’s right. I don’t know if I feel helped; if God is helping me, or if I feel different, or what. But I’m here. I’m breathing in and out, I have coffee and a little bamboo plant is keeping watch over my desk. I’m here. I’m writing. Maybe I’m helping myself. IMG_2179 (1)

I need to be doing more things to help myself. That means yes, waking up early and writing. If I’m not writing, I’m not myself anyway. Maybe, I’m loath to say, that means drinking less coffee and more water. Eating radishes. Going to yoga. Learning to be gentle with myself, and to be firm with others. Whatever the case is, I need to carry my body through this place in a way that’s helpful. Today I’m starting by waking up early.

FullSizeRender (2)This morning I went out on the balcony to finish my coffee. The neighbors were unloading tires from the back of a pickup truck. Birds were stringing invisible garlands between trees. The sun already good and hot on my back. I noticed a dead bee on the railing of the balcony. Curled up there, like he had lay down to take a nap and just never woke up. I know that’s silly to say, because bees don’t lie down to sleep. I can’t remember if I learned it from Tom Waits or Amy Leach (funny, how their interests coincide), but (I think) if a bee wants to sleep outside the hive, he attaches himself to the stem of a plant, stretches out at a right angle, and falls asleep with his legs dangling down like wind chimes.

The point is, a few months ago I lay myself down and didn’t want to get up. But I want to get up. Being good to yourself isn’t easy. It’s work. But God helps those who get up early. And I’m here. I’m up. It’s early. And I’m doing what I can to help myself.

 

 

Mallard Island: 2017

My problems are small. Everything is small, except for the pot of coffee I made myself when I got up to write this morning. My problems, my life, my everything; everything is small.

rockLast week I lay on my back on the eastern-most rock of Mallard Island and saw the whole Milky Way. I felt myself becoming smaller and smaller: all these stars making their long way to this grey rock, and me: a lone cigarette curling into itself, burning slowly out. I have never felt so neverwhere.

Mallard Island has a special way of making you feel like nothing and everything both at once. This is the fourth summer I have been to Mallard Island. It has guided me through many griefs. The first summer I was at Mallard, 2012, my close friend had just committed suicide. Though it was a writing retreat, I did little writing. I walked around the island in confusion: crying, putting my body in the water, sitting on rocks, canoeing out and canoeing back in. I listened for loons wailing. I watched the deer on faraway islands chewing the weeds. The island is small, and has no internet. No running water. No television. Mostly I sat with the terrible feeling. I swallowed it like a boulder.

deskThis year was similar, but a different grief: the day I left for Mallard, my divorce was in the process of being finalized. When I got to the island, I wrote like crazy. I wrote a lot of poems about horses telling me how to live my life. (I have a series I’m working on called “Horses Explain Things to Me”). Many of them were funny. I think  I was trying to push my emotions away from me. But at a quiet time, the island said, now, girl. And I wrote what I needed to write.

Those six days weren’t all tears and grief. The island has nurturing and restorative properties .There are over 12,000 snake.jpgbooks on the island. I was there with ten other women poets. We wrote together, learned together, swam together, cooked dinners and ate together, laughed, played, shared stories, and explored the small island.

On Mallard Island I feel like myself. More like myself than anywhere else. A better version of myself. I’m not scared of spiders. Okay. I can co-exist with them, at least. I wrote twenty poems. Not all of them are good. In one of them, I eat Taco Bell with a horse. But I wrote. A thing I hadn’t done since late February. I swam, I practiced yoga on the front dock, and I picked blueberries, and crossed paths with a snake. I woke up with the sun and I didn’t feel busy because there was nowhere else I needed to be.

Brett Elizabeth Dot Com

Here we go. I’m starting this thing. My name with a dot com after it. I have a lot to write down.

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This, I guess, will be the place where I do that. I had an old blog called The Angry Grammarian. I did a lot of writing there, about what I was reading, events I attended, things I was doing around the city, poems I published. But I’m starting a new life. A brand new life. Everything in my life is different than it was just months ago. So I bought my name dot com.

Here I go.