After this…


Returning from the land of Pessoa some weeks ago, and now as I think about inertia and the desire to do anything/nothing, I can only borrow his words:

“From any trip, even a short one, I return as from a slumber full of dreams – in a dazed confusion, with one sensation stuck to another, drunk from what I saw. I can’t rest because my soul’s not well. I can’t move because something’s not right between my body and soul. What I lack isn’t mobility but the very desire to move.”

It’s always the statement, the promise – to oneself or to others – that “after this, I will do this…” or “once this is complete, things will go back to normal”. Is this just self-deception?

I crash into this promise again and again but have learned never to believe it. Usually, the chaos is the norm, and only in subsiding or disappearing would things feel abnormal. I don’t know if this approach is optimism or excuse-making. Either way, it’s not really my style, that is, being so out of touch with myself, my life and its patterns that I fool myself and others into thinking that things will be drastically different at some unknown point in the future “when things calm down”. Some people are not meant for calm, and they never will be.

I am not one of those people, even if I, too, find myself making excuses – as we all do. Some excuses more damaging than others. I reread Pessoa’s words, which he applies to returning from a short trip, but which could be any situation that feels like a “slumber full of dreams”. Initially it made me think of a moment in recent time, how someone else must have felt. Thinking that I could put words to or start to understand his confusion comforted me. Weeks later, I thought, though, that this was not entirely new to me: years and years earlier, the roles were reversed, and I was the confused one.

Even decades after a moment like that occurs, followed by the “dazed confusion”, the memory of the excuses that inevitably accompany the ‘aftermath’ sticks with me. Almost 20 years ago, a confessional evening spent with a friend, candlelight in a terrible storm: the moment, the evening, was “one sensation stuck to another”, sort of drunk from being caught up in the experience, in being enveloped completely by that immediate moment. But returning to reality from it, the very desire to move robbed from me – a swirl of conflicting emotion – including a kind of love and admiration for her, a guilty desire not to hurt her, but a much stronger feeling of needing to start concocting excuses for why this would never work.

In Gabor Maté’s book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he writes: “if you want to find liberation in your commitments, your word needs to be freely given or not given at all. Don’t make promises to reform out of a sense of duty or to appease someone else. If you don’t know how to say no to other people’s expectations, howsoever well meant or valid those may be, your yes has no authenticity. This is what I have learned.” This applies not just to addicts but to everyone, myself included.

In trying not to disappoint people or making ourselves appear superhuman, to be all things to all people, most of us overpromise and underdeliver. But shouldn’t we be striving to make promises (not to reform, in the case of the addict of the quote) that we freely commit to keep? The expectations of others can weigh heavy, but that inadvertent and slippery giving of false hope that making empty promises creates weighs much heavier and hurts more in the long run – for everyone involved. Perhaps, though, it is that people are unable to be honest with themselves (maybe it’s where the optimism comes in: “we’re doing our best” and “maybe things will change”).

true life


-Yehuda Amichai
People in the dark always see people
In the light. It’s an old truth, since sun and night
Were created, people and darkness, and electricity.
A truth exploited by those who make war
For easy killing in an ambush, a truth that enables
The unhappy to see the happy, and the lonely — people in love
In a brightly lit room.
Yet true life is led between dark and light:
“I locked the door,” you said,
An important sentence, full of destiny.
I still remember the words,
But I forgot on which side of the door they were said,
Inside or outside.
And from the only letter I wrote to you
I remember only the bitter taste of
The stamp’s glue on my tongue.

Photo (c) 2006 MDV used under Creative Commons license.

casual lover’s shoulder


Natalya Gorbanyevskaya

And there is nothing at all – neither fear,
nor a stiffening before the executioner.
I lay my head upon the hollowed block,
as on a casual lover’s shoulder.

Roll, curly head, over the planed boards,
mind you don’t get a splinter in your parted lips–
the boards bruise your temples, the trumpets
sound solemnly in your ears;

the polished copper dazzles you,
the horses’ manes toss–
O, what a day to die on!

Another day dawns sunless,

and in the semi-dark – either
through sleepiness, some ancient madness,
or new apocrypha – my lover’s shoulder
still smells to me of pine shavings.

И вовсе нету ничего – ни страху,
ни цепененья перед палачом,
роняю голову на вымытую плаху,
как на случайного любовника плечо.

Катись, кудрявая, по скобленым доскам,
не занози разинутые губы,
а доски ударяют по вискам,
гудят в ушах торжественные трубы,

слепит глаза начищенная медь,
и гривы лошадиные взлетают,
в такое утро только умереть!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
В другое утро еле рассветает,

и в сумраке, спросонья или что,
иль старый бред, или апокриф новый,
но все мне пахнет стружкою сосновой
случайного любовника плечо.

Come Away with Me & other randomness


It’s always a world of tiny coincidences. A few weeks back we were batting about the expression ‘come away with me’, daydreaming of running away and doing things both out of control and outside of our “normal” lives. Eventually we more or less came to substitute ‘Norah Jones with me’ for the expression ‘come away with me’ – for what should be obvious reasons. I had not thought about Norah Jones in years, if ever. Then suddenly, the very next day, I saw that she gave the first performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit after Soundgarden the night of Chris Cornell’s death. Jones did “Black Hole Sun” (who didn’t, though?) and made it sound more like something Tori Amos than Soundgarden.

In another coincidence, I told some colleagues at lunch the other day (sitting in glorious and rare sun) the story of someone I used to work with who was basically a complete lunatic (I used it as a story to show how difficult it can be to fire federal workers). I had not thought of the crazy co-worker in years, but I got a message from my mom later that same evening telling me he had died.

“The resultant fervor of human belonging”Wole Soyinka

Life is full of these little things – coincidences and things we want in some fiendish fever to connect: the pieces must connect! … I wonder if it is all completely random or if it’s feedback from “energy” we’ve put into the world by conjuring these things up actively that then comes back to us like a boomerang.

Probably it comes down to intent and motivation.

As Pamuk asks in Strangeness in my Mind: “Intentions come in two forms: That which our heart intends and that which our words intend”. And these are indeed different phenomena. The heart will lead us to do the most irrational things (‘come away with me’ and whatnot), intending as it does to make us connect, impervious to the knowledge that it is a bad idea. The head, our words, will instead look for reason and sense, and in some cases, protective gear and weaponry in the form of iron-clad excuses not to do things that maybe we should brave our fears to do.

Are we seeking the missing pieces that link our lives and events together? Are we looking for words to explain coincidental happenstance? Do we intend to share knowledge (“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” –Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air)? Do we intend to join what Soyinka referred to as the ‘fervor of human belonging’ (which has its duality, light and dark)?

Motivation can be even more tenuous. I find myself succumbing, as Doris Lessing describes in The Golden Notebook, to the pull of acting out multiple personalities, playing different roles, playing off another (like Saul and Anna), driven by the one keenly stupid motivation: “I wanted to see what would happen”. Maybe this is a solid motivation in scientific experimentation. In human relations, not so much. But with curiosity the driver, the one great motivator, you do get adventures; you do get disasters. No one will claim your life was devoid of interesting stuff.

“And yet—an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.” -from Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage  Alice Munro

Or is that just the cynic speaking?

yet less for loss


And yet the line that always sticks with me: “fearless in religion, for our bed was the church”.

A Kind of Loss
Ingeborg Bachmann

Used together: seasons, books, a piece of music.
The keys, teacups, bread basket, sheets and a bed.
A hope chest of words, of gestures, brought back, used, used up.
A household order maintained. Said. Done. And always a hand was there.
I’ve fallen in love with winter, with a Viennese septet, with summer.
With village maps, a mountain nest, a beach and a bed.
Kept a calendar cult, declared promises irrevocable,
bowed before something, was pious to a nothing

(-to a folded newspaper, cold ashes, the scribbled piece of paper) ,
fearless in religion, for our bed was the church.

From my lake view arose my inexhaustible painting.
From my balcony I greeted entire peoples, my neighbors.
By the chimney fire, in safety, my hair took on its deepest hue.
The ringing at the door was the alarm for my joy.

It’s not you I’ve lost,
but the world.

Eine Art Verlust
Gemeinsam benutzt: Jahreszeiten, Bücher und eine Musik.
Die Schlüssel, die Teeschalen, den Brotkorb, Leintücher
und ein Bett.
Eine Aussteuer von Worten, von Gesten, mitgebracht,
verwendet, verbraucht.
Eine Hausordnung beachtet. Gesagt. Getan. Und immer
die Hand gereicht.

In Winter, in ein Wiener Septett und in Sommer habe ich
mich verliebt.
In Landkarten, in ein Bergnest, in einen Strand und in ein Bett.
Einen Kult getrieben mit Daten, Versprechen für
unkündbar erklärt,
angehimmelt ein Etwas und fromm gewesen vor einem Nichts,

( – der gefalteten Zeitung, der kalten Asche, dem Zettel
mit einer Notiz)
furchtlos in der Religion, denn die Kirche war dieses Bett.

Aus dem Seeblick hervor ging meine unerschöpfliche Malerei.
Von dem Balkon herab waren die Völker, meine Nachbarn,
zu grüßen.
Am Kaminfeuer, in der Sicherheit, hatte mein Haar seine
äußerste Farbe.
Das Klingeln an der Tür war der Alarm für meine Freude.

Nicht dich habe ich verloren,
sondern die Welt.



Have I squirreled this beloved poem away, hoarding it only for myself? I mention poetry and poems, especially favorites, so often but have seemingly never mentioned this one from Vesna Parun. And it should indeed be felt, read, experience, shared. I fell in love with it when I was wandering through one of the most awkward periods of my life – early university. Feeling invisible and out of place in a way I had not since I was maybe five years old, I was clinging to emotional, often overwrought, poetry that embodied what I can only call self-pitying lamentations. This certainly falls into that category, but its pitiful mourning is beautiful regardless of its tone of dejected retreat. It reminds me not to trivialize what I felt, what I currently feel and, most of all, what others feel.

First encountered in the translation (ugh – we know how I feel about that) in the pre-internet era, I searched for some time and finally found the original Croatian when I went to Croatia for the first time in the latter half of the 1990s. It has long been what I do in foreign cities: seek out poems in their original language(s) and/or purchase anthologies of local poetry. Perhaps it was this time, locating this long-loved poem, falling in love with the dual harshness and beauty of Zagreb, that felt most triumphant.

You Whose Hands Are More Innocent than Mine
-Vesna Parun
You whose hands are more innocent than mine
and you who are as wise as detachment.
You who can read his forehead
and know his solitudes better than I,
and you who remove the slow shadows
of indecision from his face
as the spring wind removes
the shadows of clouds floating above the hills.

If your embrace encourages his heart
and your thighs abate pain,
if your name eases
his thoughts, and your throat
shades his bedside,
and the night of your voice is the orchard
still untouched by storms.

Then stay beside him
and be more pious than those
who have loved him before you.
Fear the echo that encroaches
the harmless beds of love.
And be gentle to his dream
beneath the unseen mountain
on the rim of the sea that roars.

Stroll on his strand. Let the sad
dolphins come to meet you.
Roam in his forest. The friendly lizards
will not harm you
And the thirsty snakes that I tamed
will be humble before you.

Let the birds that I have warmed
during nights of sharp frost sing for you.
Let the boy that I protected
along deserted roads caress you.
Let the flowers that I watered
with my tears be fragrant for you.

I do not await the best years
of his manhood. His fecundity
I will never receive between my breasts
that have been ravaged by the glances
of herdsmen at fairs
and lecherous thieves.

I will never lead his children
by the hand. And the stories
I so long ago prepared for them,
perhaps I will tell them tearfully
to the poor little bears
left behind in the black forest.

You whose hands are more innocent than mine,
be gentle to his dream
that has remained so unaffected.
But allow me to see
his face, before the unknown years
descend on him.
And give me news of him now and again,
so that I will not have to ask strangers
who wonder at my boldness, and
neighbors who pity my persistence.

You whose hands are more innocent than mine
stay by his bedside
and be gentle to his dream.

Original version in Croatian
Ti koja imas nevinije ruke od mojih
i koja si mudra kao bezbriznost.
Ti koja umijes s njegova cela citati
bolje od mene njegovu samocu,
i koja otklanjas spore sjenke
kolebanja s njegova lica
kao sto proljetni vjetar otklanja
sjene oblaka koje plove nad brijegom.

Ako tvoj zagrljaj hrabri srce
i tvoja bedra zaustavljaju bol,
ako je tvoje ime pocinak
njegovim mislima, i tvoje grlo
hladovina njegovu lezaju,
i noc tvojega glasa vocnjak
jos nedirnut olujama.

Onda ostani pokraj njega
i budi poboznija od sviju
koje su ga ljubile prije tebe.
Boj se jeka sto se priblizuju
neduznim posteljama ljubavi.
I blaga budi njegovu snu,
pod nevidljivom planinom
na rubu mora koje huci.

Seci njegovim zalom. Neka te susrecu
ozaloscene pliskavice.
Tumaraj njegovom sumom. Prijazni gusteri
nece ti uciniti zla.
I zedne zmije koje ja ukrotih
pred tobom ce biti ponizne.

Neka ti pjevaju ptice koje ja ogrijah
u nocima ostrih mrazova.
Neka te miluje djecak kojega zastitih
od uhoda na pustom drumu.
Neka ti mirise cvijece koje ja zalijevah
svojim suzama.

Ja ne docekah najljepse doba
njegove muskosti. Njegovu plodnost
ne primih u svoja njedra
koja su pustosili pogledi
gonica stoke na sajmovima
i pohlepnih razbojnika.

Ja necu nikada voditi za ruku
njegovu djecu. I price
koje za njih davno pripremih
mozda cu ispricati placuci
malim ubogim medvjedima
ostavljenim u crnoj sumi.

Ti koja imas nevinije ruke od mojih,
budi blaga njegovu snu
koji je ostao bezazlen.
Ali mi dopusti da vidim
njegovo lice, dok na njega budu
silazile nepoznate godine.

I reci mi katkad nesto o njemu,
da ne moram pitati strance
koji mi se cude, i susjede
koji zale moju strpljivost.

Ti koja imas nevinije ruke od mojih,
ostani kraj njegova uzglavlja
i budi blaga njegovu snu!

all the ifs


-Blaga Dimitrova

When you return,
if you return,
it’s only then you’ll find you’re gone.

The streets will lead
here there everywhere,
and only your somewhere will be standing still.

Your greeting will be
mumbled, downcast,
and it will find a stranger’s welcome.

Guiltily you’ll walk into your home,
looking all about
as though it’s a house forgotten in some dream.

And you’ll run your fingers
over your self missing
among the books and things all rearranged.

And you’ll know
something has been rearranged,
not merely your house but the world as well.

Just like that and naturally –
so as to occupy
the space taken up by you.

Stray observations, asking for a tap and the memory trap


“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn

But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe

Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.


How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?

Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?

Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls’ education.

While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.

As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)

As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.

I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.

After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.

While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.

Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.

Give! Give! Give! More! More! More!

edge of madness


The Edge
Louise Glück

Time and again, time and again I tie
My heart to that headboard
While my quilted cries
Harden against his hand. He’s bored —
I see it. Don’t I lick his bribes, set his bouquets
In water? Over Mother’s lace I watch him drive into the gored
Roasts, deal slivers in his mercy… I can feel his thighs
Against me for the children’s sakes. Reward?
Mornings, crippled with this house,
I see him toast his toast and test
His coffee, hedgingly. The waste’s my breakfast.

coat of many colors

A Coat
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.