How to Write a Poem

First, write the story that is your life.
Read that story aloud, then, set it aside.

Next, write a different story that is also your life but
make it much shorter, allowing fewer adjectives. No adverbs.

Press the story that is your life into a page
and then press it again into
a paragraph.

Undress that paragraph.
Take it down to bone.

From the marrow of this paragraph, make one sentence.
Set this aside.

Later, much later, read this one sentence
when you have had too much to drink
or when
the moon is spilling out its light
or when
the person you most love has just left
or when
the person you love most has just returned.

Speak that sentence — that noun, that verb —
knowing they are your life.

Say it again. This time
using no words at all.

11,324 minutes. Exactly.

Some evening late December 2020, my daughter caught me reading. Which is to say she entered one of the rooms in my home where I am prone to sit in a particularly favored chair and gaze happily into the page or screen of whatever book had my attention at the moment. Her odds of catching me at it were good since I tend to fill most unscheduled moments of my day with words.

“Reading,” she said. Sometimes, she finds, it is important to state the obvious facts. And then: “Do you have any idea exactly how much time you spend reading?”

It was the word “exactly” that caught my attention. Her question deserved my thoughtful answer. I knew with certainty I read somewhere between “a lot” and “a ridiculous percentage of my total conscious hours”.  But, pondering the question, I realized I did not, in fact, know exactly how much I read.

I decided to find out. Me being me, I kept track.

First, I downloaded a counter app for my phone, something I could easily use to increment the minutes in my day spent reading for leisure. I used the Tally Pro app because it was already installed on my phone (I like to count things) and because it easily could be set up with seven separate counters, one for each day of the week. I set up the app for the week to run Monday through Sunday because, let’s be honest, Monday is the first day of the week and Sunday is the last.

Next, I set up a Google Sheet with 52 rows, one for each week of the year, with columns for each day of the week again running Monday through Sunday. At the end of those columns, a row to calculate the weekly total and then another column to calculate the overall total.

That part was easy and fun. The next part was even better.

I made myself a habit of timing every time I sat down to read for fun. My phone was usually at hand and it always wants something useful to do while I’m ignoring it, so I allowed it to track my reading time with the stop watch. Start. Stop. No big deal. When my phone wasn’t at hand, my Fitbit stopwatch served just as well. A few times, it was just a mere glance at the clock. Nothing fancy. The important thing was consistency and a careful habit of logging those tracked minutes into the TallyPro counter so they didn’t get lost.

Right now, you are probably thinking that neurotically measuring something you really enjoy might take all the fun out of the thing you are meant to be enjoying. Wrong. Measuring things compulsively makes things even more fun. Capturing. Documenting. Incrementing. You push the button to start the clock, set it aside and get lost into your reading. No big deal. Then you look up when you are done and are amazed to find how time compresses when you are making your bookish escape from this temporal plane into the next.

It was never a hard habit to maintain. Read. Measure. Record. Read. Measure. Record. Once a week, update the Google Sheet and reset the counter for a fresh week ahead.

Sometime in July, my daughter noticed me fiddling with my phone each time immediately after I read. “What are you doing?” she asked.

So, I told her.

“Of course you are.”

She rolled her eyes. If you have a teenager in your home, you know the look.

Yep. Of course I was.

I managed this process the whole year, all 365 days of 2021. And now, I can say with authority exactly how much I read: 11,324 minutes. Which is 188.7 hours. Which is 7.86 days if you were reading constantly without sleeping, eating or any of those other annoying life functions.

There were 126 days when I didn’t read at all. I don’t specifically recall those days but the idea of them makes me sad.

There was one glorious day, Wednesday, December 1 where I read 207 minutes at a stretch. I averaged 216 minutes a week so that one glorious December day was a week’s worth of reading at one go. My best weeks for reading were the weeks of January 4 – 10 (482 minutes) and April 26 – May 2 (476 minutes). Everybody gets to read a lot the first of January. That’s not weird. My April binge was while recovering from surgery.

I can’t pretend any of this information is actually useful. I also want to be clear that this is not a humble brag. I know people who read way more than me.

I think I just want you to understand that I am the kind of person who does stuff like this. All the time. I like to measure things. I like to keep track. I like to know “exactly” how much.

Also, I want you to understand that I stopped counting on December 31. Now that I know exactly how much I read in 2021, I don’t need to keep doing it. That way lies madness.

Of course, I do find myself getting curious about context. 11,324 minutes. So what? Is that more or less amount of time than usual spent reading? A lot more? A lot less? I can’t begin to know without doing the work. I have considered setting up a statistical sampling study to time myself during preselected representative weeks and then benchmark against averages from the previous year. I could do that. It would probably even be fun. I may or may not already be doing that. You’ll never know, nor will my daughter, until I tell you.

Photo by Danny Doneo on Pexels.com

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Goodreads review.)

The Ministry for the FutureThe Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson


Our future, yours and mine, gets more complicated. The climate catastrophe is already happening. It gets worse. Be not afraid.

Also, fear not the length of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It is a big read full of big ideas and also some characters. Dive into it. Let it wash over you. This is not a character-driven story, though it is very much about people and the agency people have to influence the future. It is a story without heroes, though the people in it are heroic. It has no villains. Just billions of people and animals struggling to adapt themselves to their too quickly changing environments. It is a story about adaptation and wicked problems and impossible choices. It is a hopeful story.

The story reminds us that, as individuals, we are small — puny, even. Our separate minds cannot hope to grasp the scope and complexity of our global ecosystem. The list of things we don’t understand overwhelms. We don’t understand economics. We don’t understand politics. We don’t really even understand ourselves. Our individual actions seem to have little impact. No one of us can hope to save the world. Give up the idea that someone else is going to save us. We are all together going to have help save each other.

We all know the Paris Treaty has not been enough. It could not be. And the subsequent COP meetings will continue to be bureaucratic parades, a periodic stock-taking that captures the news cycle but engenders little concrete action. And yet, from humble beginnings, massive transformation can begin.

The story follows the work of a newly-created Ministry for the Future, a global policy agency grown from the Paris Climate Treaty. The Ministry finds and supports various scientific, social and political initiatives already happening around the world. People are more creative than any government agency. The Ministry doesn’t invent the work or even set the direction. The work is already happening. It just needs to be supported and amplified. There are successes and setbacks, brutal weather catastrophes and violence. Only occasionally a politician wanders through but the bankers are the true seat of power. Their job, as always, is to preserve the markets. The bankers get motivated when they finally realize the only way to preserve the markets is to preserve the planet.

This is a book that resists simple star ratings. It is unlike any other book I have read because it is intentionally not a character-driven story with a traditional plot arc. It is a near-future accounting of all of us. What Robinson gives is not futurism. It is right now. And the goal is not solving climate change. We are way past that. The story is about mitigation — how we will need to learn to continually adapt ourselves to the changes set into motion during the Anthropocene.

Those who came before us set into motion an unplanned experiment of radically reshaping the world. There is now no escape from that experiment and there will be no end to the work. The stakes are enormous. It has become our responsibility to take up the work of that experiment more mindfully than those who came before us. It is our moral duty to understand ourselves responsible to the very real people, not yet born, of the next seven generations. These people will be blessed and cursed by what you and I are doing today. If we can learn to be mindful of these unseen people and also learn to see one another, the each 8 billion currently standing on Earth, we can take up the work with a hopeful spirit. We can bend the curve, as we said in the early COVID days. We can adapt ourselves to better ways of living.

We are not doomed, but we are making a story in which we are not the main characters. Pretending to the main characters of our story is a recipe for continued disaster.

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The Day Before: January 5, 2021

My journal entry from 9:57pm on Tuesday, January 5, 2021, the night before the Insurrectionists disrupted democracy and trashed the Capitol.

I don’t know what to write tonight. I am tired, and I am anxious. Anxious enough to puke. The Senate race being tallied in Georgia tonight will determine the balance of power in the Senate. Not normally something I’d want to puke over but these are not normal times. If Republicans pick up the two seats, we can count on two years of impasse and obstruction from do-nothing, Grim Reaper McConnell. We don’t have time to waste with the pandemic ranging, the economy crashing and the environment burning. The future is burning and Trump’s idiot band of enablers are crowding into the clown car. They either don’t understand that the world is burning or they don’t care. Ask yourself who profits from the status quo. At least for a little while, corporate captives wringing the last drops of profit from civilization. If Democrats pick up two seats, then the Democrats have a narrow advantage with Kamala Harris’ tie breaking vote. Not a mandate but a possible path to get some things fixed. What an absolute shit show.

And I’m feeling sick because tomorrow is the Congressional vote to certify the Electoral College votes and officially declare Biden the next president. Except it won’t unfold as a formality. It will be a spectacle of fake outrage and pretend concern, a show for the dummies and fools like the Georgia voter quoted in an interview today saying she voted for Trump today in the Senate election because we need someone to “rule with an iron fist”. Far-right extremists, racists and actual Nazis are gathering in DC tomorrow at the President’s behest. People are going to get hurt. People are going to get killed. This is all so painfully stupid and repellant and you cannot bear to watch but you cannot afford to look away. And so we bear witness, feeling sick with anger and frustration and fear and disgust.

A hard moment in which to be writing, which is what I am meant to be doing. But I think tonight I will give myself an actual break. I’m so tired. I’m so worried. I’m so distracted. Let’s just put a cap on today and get some rest. Wake up when it is time, check the skies and keep our backs to the wall. It is going to be absolutely ugly. A true nightmare.

I knew in my bones it would be bad. I didn’t know how bad.

What strikes me most in that night’s journal entry is how much I was thinking of the moment to come in terms of normal politics. Jackson’s blog Life on the Blue Highways has it right: “Every Day is January 6 Now”. It wasn’t politics, and it wasn’t normal. And it isn’t over.

Back in the Basement

In Spring 2020, like many other middle-class American knowledge worker types, I created a make-shift, “temporary” Work From Home station in my living room. I moved my writing desk, my computer and, it turns out, the creative part of my psyche upstairs so I could spend the 8+ hour work days in better light and the company of my family. It served well for 20 months and got me safely through the worst of the dislocation.

In that time, I worked well and read a lot but did not write much. I told myself it was the stress of everything that kept me from writing – the pandemic, abrupt changes to social and family structures, the eruption of long overdue social reckonings, an actual attempted coup on daytime television, my daughter being a teenager. Too many things to process. Systemic overwhelm. Except writing is usually how I deal with overwhelm, how I process the world and my place in it.

Stress is not a reason to stop writing. Stress is a reason to write.

I was finding it hard to write in the space where I also worked. It was also hard to write in the part of the house where so much of life happens — you know, the “living” room. Interestingly, it was also more difficult to write in the light.

Now, I have returned to the basement. I have carried my desk, computer and all my scattered accoutrements back downstairs. I am inviting the creative part of my psyche, the part that likes to make things, to follow me down here.

For creative work I prefer darkness, much like plants prefer to press roots into fertile, black loam. For creative work I prefer distance, a small sense of apartness from whatever else is happening in the house. For creative work, I need to step down the stairs, which feels like an act of intention, physically stepping down into the unknown spaces of my psyche, my wilder unruly mind.

And so, I am returning myself to see what happens. To refind my seat. To reclaim writing as a thing I do in times of stress and uncertainty. Because the times are always uncertain. The conditions always impossible. The effort always slightly absurd.

I am back in the basement.

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

Making Room: May It Be So

I started out today expecting to write the usual laundry list of ambitions, both petty and profound, and compose my thoughtful, well-intentioned game plan of  self-improvement, neatly ordered into checklists that can be efficiently scotched or unscotched as the days go by.

Instead, I found myself thinking about my grandmother. She died in July. It wasn’t COVID or anything dramatic. Time got her. She was 94 and lived independently in an apartment of her own until the final, frail weeks. My parents took her in, setting up the hospice bed in my old bedroom. My mom and dad and aunt and uncle and cousins took care of her. We visited most every day. My brothers came in to say their goodbyes. So did my cousins’ kids, my grandmother’s great-grandkids. During the 15ish months of relative isolation during the peak uncertainty of the pandemic, I saw my grandmother infrequently for fear of carrying the virus into her home.

And so it was tremendous relief when our families were able to gather together and help each other help my grandmother through her final weeks, days and hours of life. She died peacefully surrounded by people who loved her, the people she loved.

And I am thinking of her today instead of making my resolutions. I am thinking of the way she was able to love people so well. She was filled up with love, so much that it spilled out constantly. Her love was a bountiful abundance. She could not keep it to herself. She could not keep it inside.

None of us ever needed to wonder how she felt. She told us. She took interest and asked questions. She was curious about our lives and our doings. She was proud when we did something worthwhile and liked to celebrate every small success.

I am thinking of her today because her way of loving is my inheritance. It is the way I want to live my life. To spill over with curiosity and kindness for the people in my life. To give generously without reservation, nothing held back, nothing set aside. She was all in, always.

It doesn’t matter what goals I set myself for the coming year. I will set them and I will see them through. But the meditation is not for what I will do but for how I will do it. With kindness. With generosity. Ever curious. Ready to celebrate. Opening, always opening. Making room for everyone and everything.

This is my new year’s day meditation.

May it be so.

Document

Life is slippery. Even before the dying, the disease, the breakup, the catastrophic loss, there is the forgetting. The constant, unstoppable erosion of moments, hours, entire days washed out to sea. The shoreline is fragile. Even while standing in the shallows, looking up with occasional awe, thinking we must always remember this exactly as it is, entire months and years are pulled away from us and lost in dark tides.

Even as we tell ourselves we must bear witness, we cannot keep the sand at shore. The mind is not made to remember. The mind is made to forget.

Thus, the notebook. The notes we scribble ourselves. The journals. The commonplace book. The photographs. The social media posts. The stories and poems and jokes we share. The blog post. This blog.

The friends we find and those we keep. Communities. The document that is our lives. Reminding ourselves we were here. In this place. At this moment. Together.

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Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Goodreads Review)

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book within a book within a book. A family history wrapped in newspaper headlines. A love affair — real or imagined? Family dysfunction and obligation. The dead sister brought back to life through storytelling. A meditation on old age. Oh, and an alien planet of lizard people and torture porn.

Only Margaret Atwood is granted the indulgence of pushing these threads 450 pages before delivering the payoff. It does payoff.

I enjoyed this less than expected but an excellent example of the masterful storyteller as plate-spinner. No one spins plates like Margaret Atwood.

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Most Days It’s Dirt

Here’s a thing that helped me today:

“Songwriting’s a lot like being a miner. It’s solitary work. You’re alone in a dark cave, and you just chip away everyday and most days it’s dirt and sometimes it’s gold. But with songwriting you don’t always know.”

Jewel. “Jewel — You Were Meant for Me.” Song Exploder. 2020.12.02. https://podcast.app/jewel-you-were-meant-for-me-e123314125/?utm_source=ios&utm_medium=share