Sunday, August 7, 2016

We have some things to talk about, yes?

February - my last post on this blog was in February.

A writers blog means a writer is writing about writing. So, where did it go?

Being a writer means there are times when you back off, get some distance, when you feel changes to which you need to pay attention. It's not that I'm not writing, it's that something about the writing, about being a writer, is changing.

The unraveling of the culture is having an impact. The outcome of years of this nation's glaring incapacity to SEE, much less ponder, discuss, reflect on the massive changes underway in our world is now clearly visible in this stunning political year. We see it now, this clinging to an old way of, of what? of feeling what it is to be a U.S. American, clinging to cultural identities that largely don't exist anymore.

One day white middle class Americans looked around and found their cultural geography completely altered. And no one has really wanted to talk much about why this has happened, the political, economic, demographic, and ecological shifts underway. One result is this awful political year we are enduring, the outcome of which we are also fearing, no matter what happens in November.

What's a writer to do? Keep writing. But it would be hugely helpful if writers and culture workers of all kinds would recognize this new turbulent context in which we do our work and help illuminate it, get some of the necessary discourse going, help encourage, inspire, clarify, reassure, challenge, and more to shake things up, see if we can't reverse some of the extreme fragmentation that has become a hallmark of a nation that really doesn't know what it is anymore.

Fortunately a lot of that good work is going on, and a lot of it is also being fiercely resisted. I have great hopes in the courage of many writers, artists, musicians who are working so hard to reveal us to ourselves.

I'm feeling like starting up a conversation about writing again. I'm feeling like this blog is one place where I can share some of my own thoughts about it all, especially from this specific vantage point of Milwaukee, which struggles mightily with realities of racism and segregation, deeply entrenched poverty that has gotten worse, not better, a city that has become an icon of structural injustice thanks to Matthew Desmond's critically important book, "Evicted - Poverty and Profit in the American City" - which just happens to be about Milwaukee.

Yeah, I'm going to be doing some thinking out loud here. I hope you will join me by subscribing to receive updates and add comments. Let's see what we're thinking about these days. Maybe that can help us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

And then emerging from the darkness...

Yeah, remember me? I last posted in October on the theme of "Writing in Darkness," and then I went dark - like the winter sun over our cold northern Great Lakes.
Steam rises off open water of Lake Michigan

I've been writing in the darkness - of early morning, of frigid cloudy days, of the late afternoon darkness that is so tough for a lot of us who live in the North. It's part of what makes us who we are, living through these cycles. It gives way to tremendous creative ferment, if one is not afraid of it, not afraid of the darkness - both without and within.

I again commit to keeping up with this blog. We'll try again.

It's not that I have stopped writing. Stoneboat, a literary journal based in Sheboygan, published one of my poems in their fall edition, "2070." It's one of my ecological poems, one of my apocalyptic poems. A lot of art these days is full of this foreboding, poetry included, or even especially. Also Hollywood films. We know what's coming. Whether conscious, deliberately unconscious, pushed back from our attention because it is too terrifying and the changes in our lives required to keep the worst from happening too unwanted - we all know... the seas rise, the storms rage, the droughts intensify, the Arctic melts, the climate refugees begin to leave their homelands, coral reefs die, and plastics fill our oceans. This past week we reached an average 405ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. 

Expect to see more of the theme in poems, essays, novels, fine arts of all kinds.
Lake Michigan winter sculpture

It's not all I write about. That would kill me, kill the spirit. While it is incumbent upon us to tell the truth about these things, it is also essential that we tell other truths - about love and fear and loss and joy and bliss and tragedy and all the rest.

Getting things ready for submission - that is always the challenge of the limited time most of us have, still needing to find other ways to make a living, so under-valued is the art of writing in this economically oriented culture of ours.

So, this blog emerges from darkness and comes back into the light of day. There is so much I want to share here.

Last word goes to Natalie Goldberg:

"Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life...our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist - the real truth of who we are..."

To which I offer my own resounding, YES!

Text and photos: Margaret Swedish 
Please visit the Stoneboat website and see all the good things going on there. And then maybe you want to order the Stoneboat 6.1 (Fall 2015) edition. It is full of great writing!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Writing in darkness

In darkness things merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological  and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you're doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that's where they may be seen by others, that's not where they're born.

~ Rebecca Solnit, in her magnificent book, The Faraway Nearby (p. 185)

This really struck a chord for me. Like a string instrument - a chord with a lingering resonance. It feels like the times we're in. It feels like our human moment.

We are dwelling in darkness. Some of that darkness is terrifying. We walk through it blindly. We don't know what's inside it, where the next step will lead us, or if our foot will land on anything solid, anything that can hold us up.

And what could be more terrifying than the thought that within that darkness we might merge - with the unknown, with what we cannot see, whether safety or threat, whether dreams fulfilled, or forebodings.

We are in a time of creation then, by Solnit's description. But to what are we giving birth? That's where the portends can make one shiver a bit with fear and anxiety. Something is ending, something huge, something that has formed an arc of meaning for western humans for a very long time. Religion wedded to philosophies wedded to old cosmologies that describe a world that no longer exists, that never existed except in human imagination as we tried to understand our surroundings, to make sense of the world around us - which in the span of only a few centuries has gone from an Earth-centered universe with a revolving sky, a ceiling, just above us, to unlimited vastness beyond our comprehension - all of that is collapsing upon itself under the weight of how much of it we now know is simply not true, not an accurate description of reality. All the culture is feeling it, from the most intimate places in our lives to the vast scale of the planet's eco-realities.
Hubble Deep Field

Shouldn't surprise us that there are so many millions of people that would rather cling to those old certain smaller cosmologies, thank you. I mean, if our worldviews are shattered beyond repair, how will we see our way forward? How can we manage THAT scale of darkness - infinite, infinite before we arrived here and infinite when we are long gone from here? The gods birthed in the old cosmologies are as shattered as the cosmologies themselves. Watching people struggle to salvage them - a god outside us, or acting from outside us, patriarchies built on that old god, religions bent on forcing our soaring human consciousness into the smallness of old orthodoxies - this is part of the long deep sorrow of our days.

Reading Solnit's book, I could not help but see our need to create stories inside this vastly expanding sense of time and space. But what do our own small personal stories mean in such a space? As she writes, and as Buddhists iterate, and as the new physics and new cosmologies indicate - when do the stories begin? when do they end? The best we can do, it seems, is to use our stories, those particular "locations" along the path of evolving existence, as our own unique lenses through which to view our utterly mysterious journey through space and time. In those locations we can converse with one another, share what is common and what is unique, perhaps identify with one another's suffering, pain, joy, exuberance and allow deep wells of compassion to open. I mean, we're all in this together, this one story emergent on the planet. We have both a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another (which can never be done by imposition or proclamation of a singular truth or worldview).

When does the "I" begin, this identity and narrative of my life that feels so important and crucial to me? and when does it end? What gave birth to the meaning framework into which I was born and what will end it - because that is always what happens, another form of extinction, an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. What is no longer needed or adapted to its environment tends to disappear. That is the nature of reality.

Did my mother end the day she died, the day I heard that last intake of breath that was never released? And yet I recently dreamed her entering through a portal into my being with what I can only try to approximate by saying that it was like rushing water pouring into my consciousness, that I could perceive, that I could hear. I can still call up the image, which is mostly sensation, and yet vivid as can be - to me.

I don't know what that is. I don't have the slightest clue what that is.

When I write, having no idea if the words will ever be read by anyone but me and a few chosen readers, I feel like I am writing in darkness wanting to bring the words into the light. I want to create, and in order to create, creation has to unfold within the world. We can decide to open to it, to allow it to unfold through us, to participate - or not.

To say we live in dark times has been said of many other times down through history. But this darkness of our time, this particular unknown, feels of a different magnitude. This time, as a species, we have no idea where this story is going. There are people trying to write one that keeps humans alive in the narrative, and there are those making a world in which that may not be possible. Is that an end? or is it just continuation without beginning or end: humans - here today, gone tomorrow?

There are those opening their arms to the Great Transition occurring whether we want it or not, believing that if we welcome and cooperate with what we cannot see, but which is intimated now in just about everything we do or don't do, we have a chance at still being a part of it, part of the story evolving on this planet; and there are those fiercely resisting because it is too damn frightening, too big, too overwhelming, because "I will not know who I am in it because all the ground I stand on, all the walls that hold me in place, all the signposts that tell me who I am, will collapse."

But they're going to anyway. With resistance, they will collapse in a world overtaken by fear (as is already occurring) and one that is well-armed. That kind of darkness I would prefer not experiencing. Fact is, destruction rather than creation comes out of that kind of darkness (think Syria or Iraq or Yemen; or Charleston or Sandy Hook Elementary School or Umpqua Community College in  Roseburg OR, or the Sikh Temple just down the road from me), though even that will someday yield to some new form of creation, but perhaps not one we'd like to live in.

"Merging is dangerous..." We are merged with our mother's bodies before birth. We merge back into the unknown at death; we dissolve back into the darkness because we can no longer be "seen" (though perhaps in our dreams, as with my mother, we can still be "sensed").

When I sit down to write something new, I am entering into a kind of darkness, yes. Solitude is a kind of darkness. Awaiting the words, or struggling to find them, is a kind of darkness. Poems and fine art, stories, memoirs like Solnit's - to write or create these things, one has to go into dark places and find them. This takes courage. Not everything wants to be faced. Not everything wants to be dug up, even some necessary things. You never know what lies underneath, what was buried for a reason, and then what lies underneath that...

When does the story begin and when does it end? Maybe when we realize there is no beginning or end, we can get over the need to "understand," even to forgive, and come to an acceptance of this difficult path that is all about the struggle of life to emerge, that was always painful and difficult, propelled by something that keeps pulling us on (I was going to say forward, but we don't know if that's true or what it means), that is the reason why we so often do not do well with our fears, form tribes, take it out on one another, feel threatened by those "other" than us that challenge our ephemeral certainties and belief systems and constructed identities.

Maybe as we draw water from those wells of compassion we would find that we drink in empathy, that we find the water is a common source of life and that we all need it, that more than anything that's what holds us, or could hold us together, that without it we have a world torn by divisions and violence against other humans, other sentient and non-sentient beings, and the very planet itself that gave birth to us.

Is writing my story, or any story, all that important in times like these? Maybe in times like these, our stories are more important than ever. Maybe that's where we begin to find our common bonds.

Solnit's quest in this book is a reminder that we are all just living in a continuum that we will never understand, of which we will never know the meaning, though we so strive to find it, to put layers and layers of understanding over the mystery so that it feels graspable, safer, comforting. But as soon as we do that, it makes the mystery or meaning smaller than us, small enough to contain within us - which means it is not ultimate, not the meaning, not the purpose, at all.

And maybe that means that finding some body of truth is not the essence of the human quest either, but the quest itself is the essence, which means engaging a path that will never take us to the light of any ultimate revelation or truth or meaning.

The purpose of story-telling then is to keep engaging the creative ferment of this darkness, because I'm telling you, after reading Solnit's book right after reading Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, after reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and then Lila, with some poetry mixed in there, like David Whyte and Linda Hogan and returning to Alicia Ostriker - the fact is that this quest, this search, this path into the unknown is more beautiful than all the answers humans have tried to lay over the world.

What could be more boring, what could be more fatal to the work of creation itself, to that magnificent gestation of darknesses and mergings and insights and living wisdom than thinking one has "found it?" The quest dies there.

So, back into the story-seeking quest, to the "amorous engagement with the unknown." It is so much more fun than the world of certainties that threaten to destroy us.

Margaret Swedish

About The Faraway Nearby

Fog, water & mother photos by M. Swedish

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

When the writer isn't blogging....

It's not because she isn't writing, only that life at times overwhelms and it's too easy to let the blogging go.

Why tonight? If you followed me in the past, you know I've been working on a book that emerged from my trip to Alberta - the Athabasca River, Rocky Mountains, boreal forest - and the industrial devastation of the tar sands region two years ago now. I think of it as my ecological lament, and it is that. The lamentation is rooted in the magnificence of the eco-community that is this river, the gorgeous glacial waters, the wildlife, the stunning star-filled night skies, all of which puts the oil sands into context, that accentuates the horror that we now can witness all around the planet as industrial civilization spreads it's tentacles everywhere, and most voraciously and destructively in the extraction and production of fossil fuels for that civilization to burn and burn and burn...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Writing in troubled, troubled times

I say this over and over again - among our most important humans in this time of deep crisis are our culture workers, our artists, poets, story-tellers, those with searing, truthful lenses through which to SEE our world, those with the imagination, the vision, the narratives that can help us imagine new ways of living - because we need them so badly now.

A little while ago I turned on the TV looking for news of Nepal and ran into live coverage of the violence in the streets of Baltimore. Rocks, bricks, and other objects have been hurled at police and several are injured, some with broken bones and one described as "unresponsive."

CNN and MSNBC have unfortunately decided to focus on a CVS pharmacy that is being looted, as if that's the point. Now a police car is in flames, and things are getting worse. Now other stores are being looted, more rocks being thrown...

A long legacy here, one I learned something about during the 25 years I lived in the DC area, in Maryland, just down the freeway from Baltimore,