Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What matters

That's one of the phrases I put in my blog description: the writing for me is about what matters. So much of what we read, view, entertain ourselves with just doesn't matter. Yet we live in a time when so much matters, so much of what we do, our life choices, how we go through our day, what we care about, what we pay attention to - really, really matters.

I don't mean that we should not experience laughter, lightness, pleasure, playfulness, and sheer joy. We should! Because these things matter - a lot. As a matter of fact, the dearth of authentic laughter, lightness, pleasure, playfulness, and joy is part of our cultural pathology. That's why we entertain ourselves in such manipulative, numbing ways, entertainment intended to deaden feelings, not awaken them, to hold authenticity at bay rather than delve into it for fear of what we might find there.

Those mystics, artists, and psychologists who have been saying for generations that we cannot experience joy if we cannot also experience sorrow, grief, and the rest have also been right for generations.

After the fire. Photo: Margaret Swedish
When a culture experiences such a vast emptiness in those spaces where we fully feel our humanity, it's not that those feelings or longings go away, they just get buried, repressed, forced down into some inner recesses where we hope we won't have to pay attention to them - because they might remind us of how unhappy and false we really are. I believe this - that much of our lives in this culture, what I often describe as a "culture of extraction, production, consumption, and waste," is deadening us in all the ways in which we need to be alive right now in order to save ourselves from real disaster - personal, national, and global.

And so the need to pay attention to what matters. I finished Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty Four Variations on Voice, over the weekend. She writes always about what matters. And it's that recognition, which often comes with a phrase or a metaphor or an insight that makes me catch my breath, that tells me there is something here to which we must pay attention. If you feel that, then don't run away too quickly from the page. Don't just move on to the next book or the next busy thing in your life. Sit with it. Pay attention. Behind the gasp, behind the sudden surge of emotion or insight, what gave rise to the gasp? What did you recognize - not within TTW, but within yourself? What did she stir?

It's also what great poets do - Jane Hirshfield and Alicia Suskin Ostriker come to mind immediately, two poets that have been very important to me over the years.
What we see is the paint.
Yet somehow the mind
knows the wall,
as the living know death.

That's Jane Hirshfield, from "Fifteen Pebbles," in her brilliant, Come, Thief.

Alicia Ostriker:
And better to write than to burn
And best to clear a path for the wind.
From "Tearing The Poem Up And Eating It," in No Heaven.

Well, the wind is coming. It is actually upon us, that kind of wind that will blow so much away - of what is familiar, of what we have clung to for far too long, the loosened soil and tumbleweeds of our interior wastelands, because of our wanton ways with the Earth and the great comeuppance now beginning to unfold. Think of it as one big interior version of the Great American Dust Bowl.

We forgot who we are, our place within the scheme of things.

So I try to write about what matters - not just the grand view, things like climate change, capitalist deception, and the loss of meaning, but sometimes the most intimate and personal matters of our lives, and the way these things, these narratives, phrases, images can open a clear-glass, undistorted window on the world.

I guess I marked those words on Alicia's poem because it occurred to me when I first read them that I would rather write than burn. And if my writing makes any contribution at all, I hope it would be that it connects with others, or helps awaken in others, that longing to find what one must, indeed needs to create out of the best gifts of one's life in order to avoid burning.

Most of all, I would like to help ease the fear of facing what matters - because it has become abundantly clear we have much more to fear from not facing it than looking it square in the eye. Actually, we would not be able to apply the paint if we could not see the wall. We see it. Now we have to live as if that is the case, as if that is what really matters.

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