Day 211 1/29/14: Why I Write

I wrote this as an assignment in a workshop that I’m taking & thought I would share.

It’s interesting to remind myself why I continue to  write when I bitch about it constantly.


In adolescence, I felt driven by a mania to record, an anxiety about days slipping by. No experience had been fully lived until I transcribed it in my notebook. I remember the minutiae of make-out sessions, the margins full of life. Now at middle age I’m even more aware of time passing, but I’m gathering up all those journals I’ve kept since 13, choosing only a representational sentence or two from each year and throwing them away. I want to record my feelings about time.  Will tossing piles of antique store ledgers, cheesy clothbound “nothing” books will feel like liberation, or a bandage ripped off too soon?

I will write about the experience of turning many books into one.

            Writing is a way of seeing. I’m not a painter or a scientist, although like Keats said, I’m aware of how the poet inhabits other ways of seeing. Although I love painting, I don’t see the world in terms of line or color.  I love nature, but I am far too messy to be scientific.

I write because I’m haunted by language. Lines get stuck in my head. In the summer of 2001, I could not stop thinking: “Late at night, when the signal is clear….” I don’t think I ever used it, but it led me deeper into the experience of summer. The landscape seemed to conform to it. Through its effortless repetition in my head, I saw correspondences, communion where I might have simply seen house, grass, trees, stonewall. That thin fragment unified everything.

I can’t figure out why I’m alive, so I write to justify my existence. I agree with the philosopher who said, “We all come here with sealed instructions.” Mine must have to do with writing, since it is the only skill I have. Through willed ignorance, learned helplessness and genuine indifference, I can’t do much of anything else. I’m in awe of  friends who make clothes and fix sinks, dig gardens and train dogs. I think of a certain line over and over, wearing it down in my head until the marrow shines through, or let it drift so it retains its essential lightness on the page.

My brother can build a house. I construct and dismantle shelters of words. Leaky, eccentric, or structurally unsound, but still I build and rebuild. Sometimes I inhabit one for a while, but I never get too comfortable. In writing, there’s only a fleeting sense of “home.” But if I can articulate that absence incisively, or at least beautifully on the page, then at least I’ve created a temporary refuge.


Day 216 1/26/14: Urgent Action: Keep Shark Fin Bans Strong!

smoothhoundMaryland is proposing exceptions to the “landed with fins intact” law, weakening existing shark fin bans by allowing fishermen to remove the fins of smoothhound sharks at sea. The smoothhound exception could spell the beginning of the end of shark protection in the state.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources is taking comments TODAY only.

Please take action here. It will require less than five minutes. And please share!

Thanks to Southern Fried Science and shark hero Sarah Mucha for the alert.

Day 215 1/26/14: Roomba Jaws Cat

Is this cruelty to animals? I certainly hope not. I admit the hammerhead shark costume on this dog seems a tad tight, but I couldn’t resist the absurdity of the Roomba cat underscored by the gravity of the JAWS soundtrack. The cat seems to relish his role as shark, or at least not mind it, while the duck doesn’t know what the hell is going on….

Day 213 1/24/14: “A Breath of Fresh Air”

sharkptgIt’s a pretty big deal when someone paints a painting for you. So yesterday when my former student  Ani gifted me with this picture, I was, as they say in England, “dead chuffed.” Ani wasn’t even a “shark student” of mine, she took my literature class last fall. Like me, Ani loves the Beatles. Unlike me, she is incredibly together at 22 years old.  She runs a cake pop business with her sister. She writes poetry and has an untainted enthusiasm for language and literature that I admire, sometimes wistfully.

One day after class, Ani showed me a poem she was working on. The poem centered around a pomegranate, a powerful symbol of love, death, renewal and the feminine. I remembered that Pre-Raphaelite painting of Persephone holding the pomegranate in her hand. I recalled the pomegranates on the funerary sculpture of the unmarried women in Ancient Greece.   But Ani wasn’t thinking of all that symbolic stuff when she wrote the poem. She just wrote it. The poem had a lovely, strong female voice, both archetypal and modern.  It made me shiver a little. We talked about the poem for a while–about Persephone, about Armenian history, about images vs. words until afternoon shadows lengthened and it was time to go.

As soon as we stepped outside the classroom, we saw a young guy sitting on a bench. He pulled two pomegranates out of his sweater and handed them to a friend. Ani and I both shrieked with delight.

Had Ani’s poetic invocation caused them to surface in the real world? A correspondence between Ancient Greece and Glendale, California?

I like that this shark seems to be on some sort of dream stage, rising in front  of a curtain of blood. The title is “A Breath of Fresh Air.” The shark seems both to bringing this much-needed freshness to the world and rising out of this dark and light aqua sea in search of it. And the more I look at the deep, rich red background, the more I think of pomegranates and marvel at the palette of images, colors and words we share across time. I like to think of the language we employ and all the echoes it carries. Sometimes this echo is a burden, miring us in old stories we’d like to forget and other times that resonance is the tremor of eternity we need so language becomes a living thing, closer maybe to music.

Lovely things can happen when someone lets you into their poetic process. It doesn’t happen every day.

So thanks Ani, for the poem and for the picture.

Day 211 1/22/14: The White Shark in Literature Vol 1: Richard Wright

imagesI just discovered a great short story by Richard Wright (the last one he ever wrote) called “Big Black Good Man.” The main character is a white man named Olaf, a night porter in Copenhagen hotel. Olaf considers himself a broad-minded & fair sort of fellow until a sailor named Jim, “the biggest, strangest and blackest man” Olaf has ever seen, asks to rent a room.

I love literature that explores psychic states and attempts to imitate the impossible rhythms and trajectories of thought,  but I’ve never read a story that plunges straight into the fearful and obsessive nightmare of racism. Wright’s story has very little external action, but takes the reader on a twisted ride through Olaf’s paranoid imagination. After an extremely tense and bizarre encounter with Jim, Olaf curses and says, “I hope the ship he’s on sinks…I hope he drowns and the sharks eat ‘im.” That night Olaf lies awake in bed imagining that the freighter Jim is due to sail out on springs a leak:

“Ah, yes, the foamy surging waters would surprise that sleeping black bastard of a giant and he would drown, gasping and choking like a trapped rat, his tiny eyes bulging until they glittered red, the bitter water of the sea pounding his lungs until they ached and finally burst…The ship would sink slowly to the bottom of the cold, black, silent depths of these and a shark, a white one, would glide aimlessly about the shut  portholes until it found an open one and it would filter inside and nose about  until it found that swollen, rotten, stinking carcass of the black beast and it would then begin to nibble at the decomposing mass of tarlike flesh, eating the bones clean…Olaf always pictured the giant’s bones as being jet black and shining.

Once or twice, during these fantasies of cannibalistic revenge, Olaf felt a little guilty about all the many innocent people, women and children, all white and blonde who would have to go down into watery graves in order that that white shark could devour the evil giant’s black flesh…But, despite feelings of remorse, the fantasy lived persistently on, and when Olaf found himself alone, it would crowd and cloud his mind to the exclusion of all else, affording him the only revenge he knew.”

Wright’s italicizing of the word “white” makes the shark into an Aryan messenger of the deep, meting out the violent racial “justice” that the impotent Olaf cannot, and unfortunately killing a few innocent blondes in the process.  I’m sure some scholars find the anthropomorphism too extreme, but I like the shark-as-ethnic-cleanser metaphor. It’s original and eccentric, obvious and preachy at the same time. And do we know that “a white one” is actually a great white shark, or is it some super white albino style that is as white as Jim is black, the only creature capable of vanquishing this “mountain” of a man?

But however wild Olaf’s fantasies become,  Wright doesn’t really exaggerate the fear that drives them, and all the wild and furious ways that fear can metastasize. Thinking about racism led to thinking about speciesism and all the hate doled out to sharks in Australia, to the wolves of Idaho, all the creatures made “other” by human beings.  Alice Walker’s essay “Am I Blue?” is the first piece of lit I read that links racism and speciesism. Please check it out here.