The Lowland: falling back into writing – Rebecca Reynolds

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. . . I know that I haven’t powers enough to divide myself into one who earns and one who creates . . . Rilke, from a letter quoted at length in Tillie Olson’s Silences.

. . . So much talk of women’s struggle to balance work and family, but what about the struggle to balance work and art? I do not mean art work and art (though there is some relevance to that, which I will touch upon), I mean the sort of daily paid work that you begin around 9 am and leave whenever your day might be over, depending on the life of your workplace.

I have heard that some people experience a “second wind” when they get home from work, but I do not know who these mythical beings might be, nor what they ingest to feel this way — and I take a fistful of vitamins myself. Nevertheless, when I arrive home, I feel utterly drained of creative energy. I leave my office with a sense of fatigue, of returning to the world like a desiccated bloom. It hardly matters whether I’ve spent the day bored, eager, or pleasantly focused — the aims of work and art are so different that I cannot connect the two. Thus, beyond fatigue, I also experience a dual sense of division and loss, of divided focus and lost internal satisfaction that accompanies the efforts and solaces of art.

* * *

I do not hate my job. I resent it at times, but often I derive real pleasure from it. On the other hand, I mourn earlier, less stressful days when I was publishing poetry and functioning like a writer should function. I sent out work, accumulated acceptances (and rejections), published two books, won awards and tasted language in my mouth as I left the house in the morning. I knew I could wake early and return to writing the next day, no matter how often I fumbled, revised my poems to dregs, or struggled between the sound and the meaning and the politics of my own tongue.

These days I am simply more tired; the workplace has become more stressful with each incremental salary upgrade and even as I like many aspects of my job, I do not exactly care for it. I require it to survive, I am periodically creative in my approach, but I have rarely sought leadership positions or made potentially ambitious moves. Given my ambivalence, I also do not know how anybody balances work and childcare — unless they are naturally ambitious or have a tremendous need to be liked. I am married to a woman and we are both well over the child-bearing cusp. Yet I imagine the exhaustion I would feel with children, given how little energy I can conjure at the end of the day. My imaginary children would be taken care of, but how could I abandon myself to them, give myself fully to something outside of myself when I barely have the energy to heat soup? Of course, I know that the combination of love and a child’s well-being would be compelling, and most likely I would have been a fine parent. I love children and enjoy spending time with them. However, other needs arose in my life, and the urge to bear a child of my own was not such a strong impulse, as it is for some. I also believe that in my case, the creative imperative in its various forms converted some of that desire for a child to a desire for a different sort of productiveness.

Although my job became more demanding over the years, I never gave up being a poet; I continued to write after publishing my first two books. A morning person, I continued to wake early and work. I continued to drive to my job with a sense of accomplishment, of creative work being done, practiced and loved in its place. I simply stopped trying to publish after a bit. I sent my third manuscript to contests, a precarious venture at best, and now a fourth manuscript and a prose piece remain in progress. Nevertheless, I have always disliked the business of self-promotion (the PO-biz, or art’s work) and have quietly let loose the few connections I had with more seasoned poets.

In other words, I survive in obscurity. I cringe when I think of Tillie Olsen’s essays in Silences, essays I read long ago in college like omens. So often I feel as if my own life has been disrupted by the need to support myself materially. As a lesbian who lived most of her life without a partner who could serve periodically as a primary breadwinner, I have remained in thrall to my job. Worse yet, I am a fearful person. I am forever in therapy. I talk in circles around my fear, my depressions, recovery from substance abuse, hesitations, and anger. Work has been my safety net. Poetry has been an escape and a way back, a way into and through my subconscious and its dreams, a connection to the world forged through words and their music, and a link to beauty when, like today, the world requires us to imagine it.

Therefore I suppose it is not surprising that I finally experienced writer’s block. Not that there hadn’t been times when I wrote badly or barely finished anything at all (that can describe the life of a poet in even the best circumstances). Instead, I felt too scared to write. For well over a year, the thought of writing filled me with so much dread, so much self-blame and sense of dysfunction that I simply could not approach it. It is not hard to stay far from writing — one simply stops. However, that act of stopping, of standing far away from the work, caused me more sorrow than anything else, and the sorrow added to the tension and the tension added to the anxiety, and the cycle continued. My entire sense of being, of expression, turned into a kind of shame. Likewise, I could not read poetry, my usual source of inspiration — especially not contemporary writers. I envied them too much. Their success created swells of anger, much of it self-directed, and I strayed from reading, for these poets were doing what I could not imagine.

I do not mean to say I was numb, in fact, the opposite. I felt raw. So much so that sitting down to write quite literally felt like subjecting myself to heart-rending jabs. I could not be still, I could not listen to an inner sound, I could not find a voice, I could not stand the trajectory of my career. I thought I had wasted too much time in my day job to recover, to pull myself up again or slink away from that fear. To re-approach the deeper work of my life, especially when the newer, successful writers were 20 or even 30 years younger than me. I thought about a time when I might reinvent myself, even writing about age perhaps (though I don’t feel terribly old at 57). I thought about keeping a home, loving a garden, tending a lover; about fending off fear by creating a space for myself in this light-filled house with its window box and tiny rooms, it’s mess and color, books, pottery, artwork, photos of nieces and nephews stuck to the refrigerator with souvenir magnets. I was creating a surface in which my life looked normal and felt like a welcoming and art-filled space to return to. But part of me felt a complicated emptiness, of not doing or not having the other art, one which almost defines me (or at least, it had for a long time), and I knew I would need to approach it again, to fill a void that literally hurt my body the way depression and anxiety bruises those soft, inner parts of us.

Around May, my partner experienced her own mental health problems, greater than my own — and, to make a long story short, resigned from her position to recuperate. Her job was more lucrative than mine, so I began to worry about finances as well as her health and her ability to recover from this setback. Her childhood monsters had been rearing up to disrupt her life, and we felt as if they had finally defeated her. Therefore she engaged in intensive therapy to diminish those moments when her post-traumatic stress exerted its sudden pull on her psyche. Fortunately, she had saved enough of our money to keep us going for a while, though I started to look at ads for smaller houses in cheaper towns, trying to imagine us moving, eliminating books and objects, starting again, digging a new garden, re-imagining the furniture and colors that surround us. I felt the time and energy involved in such an endeavor (running away) would save me from other feelings — my rage, mostly, and the many other tasks I could not seem to accomplish.

Despite the fact that we had saved money, the reality finally gripped me — that I most likely would not retire as early as I had hoped, and that I would be working for several more years, and that my wife might be torn by her private demons once again, even as she grew better and began looking for new jobs. Amidst these concerns, I faced aspects of my own beliefs and fears. I felt the jumbled emotions of anger, love, and deep concern for the hurtful feelings that my wife experienced so often. We were both sensitive to life in ways that could make us shudder and storm about the house, though she often chose sleep as an antidote, whereas I have always avoided the oblivion of sleep, chosen movies, and novels or the garden if the weather wills, to weed and dig my way into a meditative space.

Ironically, amid all our tumult, I have been able to approach writing once again. For once, I fully accept the fact that there is no “later,” an imaginary time when one is free to accomplish one’s life work: that it must instead be accomplished along the way. I am discovering new writers again (and some old writers). I tell myself that I want to write about mental illness — though my poetry is never so clearly “about” one discernible topic. Whatever the impetus, I’ve returned to the page. I still neglect the requisite self-promotion, but I am showing up, bit by bit, for the work. I do not feel good about it quite yet — I feel like I am standing at the edge of a vast body of water, dipping my toes in the cold, unready for the eddy, the buoyancy or immersion, and that my head is still full of the quotidian language that fills my workday, and the sounds are never as lush, but I am stepping in, and I do not know where it will take me. Indeed, I never know where a poem will go, and that is where the surprise, like music, comes in. Somewhere in the intensity and fullness and thick or quiet distresses of life, you must decide to press onward. Or, as an old friend would quote Robert Frost, “I can see no way out but through.”

First Poem

Guyot’s Geographic Series. Elementary Geography for Primary Classes

Some parts of the earth are high land, other parts are low land.

History should be

The schist of our suspicions, layered

hair, textile, and sugar. Terrible journeys. Lukewarm time

watering itself under and under; intimate

geography gaping at the vessels, which gape, too. The days

she comes back from ECT

Electro-convulsive-therapy

an oxymoron

as the cat

settles in the groove of hip. We live upon the surface of the Earth.

The Earth’s surface is made up of land and water.

Just as I say

there is a woman; there is also

my wife, huddled in sleep, a cat who steps off, paces

the couch back, finds a blanket folded in quarters. Another landmass.

We are so normal

here and there. Another woman, “why is everything so hard,” she asks.

A certain kind of connection begins in the middle of life, this

caring. I listen to such music, too much, so

the ghosts explore me too, birthed from a reckoning as

she dreams of chicks and speaks in funky tongues. Lumpy dump . . .

Something. Arms crossed, belly exposed. Last summer

in the gallery, Pittsburgh, I saw flora birthed in the foiled pink glow of

plant light, alighting in the sense of soaring and landing

in mid-life. The artist required soil and lots of it, I thought,

Something I could never ask — for monumental weight, though

loving what I recognized. This weedless scape. “Weed” is subjective

of course. Leave the flowering kind — pull the false nettle and little trees

from their small lives, a wrenching

therapy, to despoil the wanton forestry before it takes us.

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