Linda M. Hasselstrom, spring 2014.
. . .
Celebrate Writing At the Spring Equinox: By Not Writing
A Home Page Message from Linda for Eostar, the Vernal Equinox.
March 20, 2014
I. On Not Writing a Poem
Recently, my friend Cathy, who is also a visual artist, sent me Spirit of Less
, a collection of her poems. Several of the poems struck chords in me, but the one that stayed longest in my mind was the final poem in the book. It was untitled, a practice I usually deplore. In this case, after considerable thought, I believe the poem’s title-- Untitled-- is a vital part of its message.
This is the poem:
Today I did not write a poem
I watched the rain
The rain was the poem
Over the next few days, the poem's words kept rising in my mind, seeming to echo the title of the book, the “spirit of less.” I was in the middle of a computer crisis, so I was unable to write for my usual two or three hours each morning; instead I took notes on scraps of paper.
I consider writing to be my job. The fact that my job is self-created and largely unpaid does not change the fact that I regard my writing occupation as seriously as any plumber or CEO. I am working by 9 a.m., often earlier; I aim to shut off my computer at 5 p.m. In between, I cook each day’s lunch and I may do other household tasks like laundry, but most of my day is devoted to some aspect of my work.
I love my job, but if I am not working, I feel guilty, an occupational hazard not shared by everyone. On days when I don't feel well, or am too tired to write, my rules require that I write anyway. Sometimes I write a letter or email, but I insist I do so as carefully as I write a poem or essay.
I’m my own boss, so I can make unreasonable rules. The constant writing, however, set against the guilt if I don’t write, can be exhausting.
The poem suggested to me that on some days I should not insist on writing but should simply watch the rain or the snow or the birds walking through the grass with their heads swiveling to see insects. Watch the way the light changes as the sun rises and moves across the sky. To see what the world is doing outside of writing is to refill the reservoir of writing and the well from which we draw our love of life, to remind ourselves why we live.
Most of us, habituated now to the nerve-wracking complexity we call "multitasking," may have a hard time sitting quietly for five minutes, let alone an entire day.
You must learn to be still in the midst of activity
and to be vibrantly alive in repose.
--- Indira Gandhi ---
I have had enough such days, some of them enforced by illness or other causes, so that I now believe that a day of relative inactivity, of choosing to Not Write, may do my writing good, may be better for my writing than continuing to pound away at mediocre words and phrases.
If you decide to have a day of Not Writing, turn off all electronic devices: Kindle, I-Pad, phone, television, even your watch if you have one. At first you may feel the silence is oppressive, but this state will not last long. Listen to the peace; sink into silence.
Most of us find it difficult to empty the mind completely; ask the Buddhists and others who meditate regularly. You might start by staring at a particular object: I like to use a crystal globe given me by a good friend years ago.
And Silence, like a poultice, comes
To heal the blows of sound.
--- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (1808-1894) ---
Linda's crystal globe.
Your mind will attempt to involve you in something besides silent meditation, juggling before you memories of petty tasks you should do, like dusting or editing the grocery list, or calling a friend or organizing your spice rack. Resist these impulses.
Sit. Lean back.
Let your eyes lose focus.
Stare at something without sharp edges: the sky, the moving ocean, grass blowing in the wind, blossoms in a cluster, snowdrifts.
Wait. Close out distractions by picturing yourself inside a shimmering bubble that lets in only what you want and need.
Celebrants of the Vernal Equinox often search for freedom in the four directions. Symbolically, we look to the east to free our minds; to the south to free our spirits; to the west to free our emotions, and to the north to free our bodies. I find it useful to sit alone outside, surrounded by the lively silence of the natural world. Once I have settled myself solidly on the grass or a rough hunk of limestone, I am “earthed and anchored.” I face each direction as I concentrate on relaxing each element of my being. I wait for a sense of calm to descend, like a dragonfly on my shoulder.
In a pond, koi can reach lengths of eighteen inches.
Linda and Toby ground themselves to the earth and let their senses fill their minds (2008).
Amazingly, when placed in a lake, koi can grow to three feet long.
The metaphor is obvious.
You are limited by how you see the world.
--- Vince Poscente, Olympian ---
Perhaps movement will help you empty your mind; take a long walk, or bicycle ride, or swim or even a drive-- with the radio off.
Look at what you see. Think only of what your senses report, what your feet and arm muscles and legs are doing. Become aware of the energy running from the earth up inside your body, out the top of your head. Realize too that energy runs from the sky down through your body and into the earth.
Or take along a dog to help you see the world as a canine does: sniff carefully (though perhaps not as closely!); study each object you encounter as though it is the most important thing you have ever seen. Trot with exuberance, as though your tail were a great waving plume. Prick your ears to catch every sound.
The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.
--- Flannery O'Connor ---
Here's the key part of this activity: if you can empty your mind long enough, allow your senses to fill you, the thoughts that arise will be more worthwhile. I can't tell you what these thoughts will be-- except that they will not be about grocery lists or FaceBook or Twitter. Nor can I tell you how you will recognize them. The poem, whether written or unwritten, will be your own.
II. On Discovering the Poem Not Written
Days pass. Cathy's poem remains in my mind. On a sunny day I take sheets to the bedroom and discover a poem as I pull the sheets tight at the corners. Outside the windows, the pillows lie on the deck in the sun, soaking up spring's fresh air. The duvet and comforter hang on the railing, distributing dog hair into the wind and drawing the sun's heat.
Tonight, I will slide between these sheets smelling of prairie grass. I will relax into the comfort of darkness. The dogs snoring will tell me I am at home. I will have been privileged to have spent the day largely following my own choices, mingling household chores like laundry and bed-making with writing to friends, writing paragraphs for a book, and cooking tasty, healthy food. These actions are today's poem.
Making the day a poem when the day is pleasant is not too difficult. Is it possible to make a poem of a rotten day?
Anyone might relax and rejuvenate in a gorgeous place, especially if you are waited on. This is one reason so-called spiritual retreats in exotic locations are so popular, and so costly. Considerably harder is to maintain or enhance your equilibrium in chaos; few retreats are held near expressways.
Recently, as I drove to town on the seventh day of what was apparently a complete computer meltdown, I wondered if I could create a better mood as I would create a poem. If I were writing a poem to counter the week’s frustrations, would it be a hymn or only a ranting diatribe?
I had already accomplished a worthwhile task that morning, prompted by knowing that my computer will be like new when I get it back, i.e., naked and without any of my files. I went through my collection of outdated passwords and created a new booklet to hold this vital information: I created a password poem.
So: how could I create a hymn from chaos? Straightening my spine, I glanced into my rear-view mirrors, then out at the tan landscape of early spring. Nothing green. But no snow, either.
That morning, I’d heard a redwing blackbird, one of the first of our native birds to arrive each year. The male, distinguished by his red and gold epaulets, sat in the top of a stark white dead cottonwood and trilled and trilled and trilled until we couldn’t help but laugh at his exuberance.
In a few days, more males and females will arrive and they will gather in noisy flocks in the tops of the cottonwoods and elms. A male will claim the top of the chimney on our house and declare his suitability for mating. Another will argue from the top of the nearby electric pole that no, he is the sexiest and biggest and baddest blackbird stud in the neighborhood. The modest females, meanwhile, will be gobbling insects in the grass, biding their time, not looking at the male, and perhaps twittering to one another about their preferences. Eventually they will select mates and start nesting in the tops of thistles and mullein and willows in the gully.
The nature of the world is to be calm, and enhance and support life, and evil is an absence of the inclination of matter to be at peace.
--- Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West ---
Yes; chaos is evil. Peace is the true nature of the world. Looking around as I drove, I saw baby calves bouncing in the sun, definitely a sonnet in motion.
Driving the speed limit, I poured my frustration into bawling with The Boss,
The highway's jammed with broken heroes
on a last chance power drive . . . .
Feeling more positive about my computer drive by the minute, in spite of the highway's disorderly drivers, I remembered my friend whose basement flooded last weekend and gave thanks that my basement is not flooded; surely a not-flooded basement is at least a limerick.
Earlier, as I tried to be cheerful about my computer problems, Jerry had said, “Neither of us has cancer.” Surely that reminder of good fortune deserves a ballad.
Linda "discovering the poetry in an ordinary day."
I opened the windows and took deep breaths of chilly air. On the interstate, I did not comment, even under my breath, when a speeding car ignored the "YIELD" sign and shot into the driving lane I was using. I put my energy into braking hard.
Thinking poetically, I contemplated the word “yield” as the speeding driver swerved around other cars. The dictionary definitions seem negative: “relent, bow, defer, submit, capitulate, and succumb.” No doubt the highway department’s officials considered alternatives.
The triangular YIELD sign was first used in 1938 (In Czechoslovakia) and appeared in the U.S. in 1952. Its current shape and red/white color was adopted in 1972-- sixty-two years ago! Perhaps language that was appropriate and clear fifty years ago no longer communicates with the current generation of drivers talking or texting on cell phones, so perhaps it’s time to find an alternate phrasing. In parts of the United Kingdom, the sign for how to merge into traffic is “Give Way.” Pure poetry but hardly likely to speak strongly enough to an American driver.
However, “yield” is a good word for discovering the poetry in an ordinary day; Yield
to the blue of the sky. Surrender
to the sun’s warmth, an ode to heat. Abandon
your smart phone to study the pattern of raindrops on the windshield, more complex than any clerihew. Relax
into the rhythmic rondel of a meadowlark’s song; obey
the temptation to have chocolate with your morning coffee.
As proof that my attempt to improve my mood was working, I even found something good to say about a subdivision: it’s very close to town, near the dump instead of obliterating good grazing in my neighborhood. The residents will be able to get to work and back in the daylight and they are clustered together closely so they are not ruining much wildlife habitat. I consider this thought an absolute triumph of mental attitude!
Thus, when I arrived at the computer store for the seventh time, I was able to smile as I greeted the repair agent, who appeared apprehensive. He was eager to solve my computer problems. I narrated my week of frustration and told him I hoped I was the worst thing that happened to him that day. I drove home smiling and singing with Paul Simon those fine lines,
“I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go
So what are you going to do about it
That’s what I want to know . . . .”
I really belted out,
“Believing I had supernatural powers
I slammed into a brick wall. . . .”
Some days we write the poem. Some days we watch it. Some days we eat it. (Cathy also gave me her puttanesca recipe, definitely a poem, possibly a villanelle.) Some days we observe it.
Every day is a poem if we allow it to be. And the day’s poem can be untitled; it needs no label to be true.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Eostar, The Vernal Equinox -- March 20, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
# # #
These Home Page Essays Are Archived ---
Linda posts a new message on her Home Page a number of times each year. We've archived the essays (click here)
so you can read the ones you missed and re-read the ones you enjoyed. Some of them include recipes or poems or writing suggestions. All of them have photos.
back to top