You of all people

Like most writers, I hate rejections–those polite “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” emails. Another one of them came yesterday. I have cultivated a thick skin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

Then there are the prizes, which always seem to be won by someone else–usually somebody younger, which is objectively not surprising since I’m in my sixties. They have an edge of genius I lack. I’m mediocre.

Or sometimes: They have a spouse or partner whose income & presence allow them much more time to write & revise & learn than I have, being single.

There are also “self-rejection” moments when my struggle to make a poem find its path seems to be failing. Should I just give this up? Maybe I’ve reached the limits of my capacity.

Most of the time I manage to keep my eyes on the actual prize: making this poem or story better, trying a new subject or style, uncovering & strengthening the inherent rhythm of a piece.

But sometimes I really need encouragement from someone else. From June 2011 until her death in November 2015, Helen Degen Cohen was a poetry mentor to me, though we didn’t name the relationship in those terms.

Helen

Helen was brilliant & restless & insomniac & loving. She was a cofounder of the splendid RHINO Poetry annual, & she did win a number of distinguished prizes, residencies, & grants. She invited another poet, Susanna Lang, & me to form a critique group with her.

And one day, when I was beset by those doubts about the value of my work, Helen responded, “You of all people should not worry about that.”

Really? Of all people?

That in itself was a prize. Helen knew my work, understood what I was trying to do, & found it important.

So rejections come, but I keep writing. Our stories & poems & art can be part of something bigger than fame & recognition. And I want to be one of those “you of all people” encouragers who notice others’ work, affirm it, name what’s important in it. We really do need each other.


  • Thus far there’s one posthumous collection of Helen’s work, My Life on Film, and more are in the works. We’re going to have a big launch party for My Life on Film Sunday September 23, 3-5 p.m., at Facets Cinematheque–put it on your calendar if you’re in the Chicago area!

Helen cosmos flowersHelen adored gardening. This is one of her own photos.

To my loneliness

My spiritual director asked what colors I would use to paint you.

Indigo, brightening in places to cobalt. The deep poignant blue of a summer sky at twilight, what I used to call Maxfield Parrish blue.

Variegated with rich greens for life and fruitfulness. And pricked with reds and oranges, sharp but beautiful cuts.

Mostly I live in solitude, not loneliness. But the painful moments of aloneness come, and they no longer frighten me. You have become a kind of friend.

You are a hollow place inside me, and I meet God in that very emptiness. You are sorrow and loss, you are longing, hunger.

Without you, what art would I make, and who would I be?

I do not forget you

A year ago, a group of artists & I created a 34×34″ mosaic/collage as a kind of physical prayer for the city & people of Eastern Aleppo, Syria.

Aleppo

For years I had been agonizing over the news emerging from Syria’s war–which as far as I could tell was mostly a war of the regime against some of its people, the ones who wanted to see change in their country. Taking a mosaic workshop (my second–it’s a medium that fascinates me) inspired me to launch this project. Jason Brown laid out a sketch, based on an online photo that haunted me.

Aleppo war.jpg

It’s a tragic image of a city laid waste, but we didn’t want to communicate only despair. So as we began to fill out the sketch with tiles and broken ceramic pieces & fabric, we regularly included small bright objects: a beaded ring, earrings, a small red heart, unexpected bits of color. For some these symbolized precious lost things, but for me they stood for the spirited people of Aleppo & those who took great risks to help others: the doctors in underground hospitals, the White Helmets who hurried out to rescue those buried under rubble after a bombing raid.

I had learned a lot from Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based doctor who made multiple trips to Aleppo with the Syrian American Medical Society. So we decided to use the mosaic to raise funds for SAMS, along with the Syrian Community Network, founded by Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, which serves Syrian refugees in the Chicago area. A good friend offered his beautiful home for a gathering in March 2017; there we contemplated the mosaic, the Sahlouls talked to us about Syria, & we collected donations.

By then Eastern Aleppo had been evacuated for a few months: as the regime took over that sector, those wishing to leave had been bused to Idlib. There are other besieged & blockaded communities in Syria today, places where food, clean water & medical supplies are scarce. As I write, the Syrian regime’s army is advancing into Idlib Governate.

Our mosaic is called Aleppo Is My Breath Prayer, because sometimes the only prayer I could muster was “Aleppo, Aleppo,” whispered on rising & falling breath. In the Christian mystical tradition, a breath prayer is a word or phrase that you repeat quietly in the ordinary rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. Our work is an expression of our prayers for peace, justice, and restoration in the beautiful country of Syria. The piece hangs in the sanctuary of Living Water Community Church, to remind us to keep praying. A photo of it also appears on the back cover of the just-published anthology Carrying the Branch: Poets in Search of Peace (Glass Lyre Press).

I do not forget you, Syria.

***

Aleppo Is My Breath Prayer, 2017

Artists: Ruth Goring, Jason Brown, Emily Klein, Ainsley Fleetwood, Katherine Lamb, Rebecca Larsen, Olga Mest, Jamie Daniel, Emily Bynum
Mounting: Ronald Frantz

Materials: ceramics (both tiles and broken dishes), abalone tile, rocks from Lake Michigan, bones, gold, old jewelry, cotton fabric, shells, clear glass, smalti and other glass tiles, copper, other metals, alcohol-based paint, acrylic paint, adhesives, permanent marker, and grout on composition board

home & no home

My friend Jason Brown puts out an occasional gathering of writing & art, Home::Keep. The second installment, RE::DIS//MIS, was launched December 16. I am so grateful to be honored with a folio page for some of my Colombia poems & photos! Jason’s theme is home–our experience of it, our lack of it, our longing for it. Because about 7 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, the loss of home comes up again & again in my writing.

Folio :: Excavation // R Goring

054.JPG

Just one of the photos in the folio: my friend gazes at a galleon, replica of those on which her ancestors were forced to make the Middle Passage.

Desire in contested spaces

The reason we are not able to see God is the faintness of our desire.—Meister Eckhart

I’ve been thinking about desire—the different kinds of desire, what happens when we lack desire or mistrust it. I think desire is a great gift. Without it we are creatively blocked. Wanting and not (yet) having: that’s a tremendous force that lies behind all our risk-taking.

* * *

When I accompanied the Cacarica community in NW Colombia for six weeks in 2003, the army and paramilitary forces that had been harassing them chose not to make an appearance. We all remained on our guard, but there was time and space just to live—to cook, wash clothes, fish in the river, get to know one another.

Lillis for blog
It turned into a sort of artist’s retreat for me. Each day I spent at least an hour writing, recording interesting experiences and what I was learning of the community’s history. Further, I had brought along my chalk pastels and a couple of pads of drawing paper, and I let people know that I wanted to draw portraits of them. After I sought out the first couple of subjects and they saw I was serious, community members—especially children and teenage girls—flocked to the guesthouse porch every day saying, “Dibújame,” draw me. Some days I did as many as four portraits.

Jadir for blog
I had also brought a set of Prismacolor pencils and some card stock, and I used these to draw some of the plants native to that area of Chocó—one of the most biodiverse regions of the Western Hemisphere. On days when I was tense, I learned that focusing my consciousness on rendering the minute variegations of color and light on the surface of a leaf could bring me into a profound and healing silence. (Sorry, I’ll have to share one or two of those images later/elsewhere!)

Simultaneously I was giving the community protective presence and growing as an artist, feeding my hunger to capture the sheen of sunlight on dark skin or on a guinea leaf (a local name, pronounced with a hard g: gi-NEH-ah).

When I went to Jiguamiandó afterward, there was no opportunity to so much as open up my box of pencils. Paramilitaries were nearby and entering the Puerto Lleras settlement every day. We focused on survival; we listened to the community leaders’ anxious arguments about what to do; we gulped down our food and tried desperately to make satellite phone contact with a human rights office in Bogotá. It was decided that we would all evacuate.

girl with pots for blog
I didn’t draw (though some yellow plantain blooms begged to be interpreted), and I took time to scribble only a few words in my journal. I did roam Puerto Lleras with my camera, taking photos so the people would have some visual record of the thatch-roofed homes they were being forced to abandon. And on the last morning, between the paras’ unwelcome incursions, I sat with a circle of children and we taught each other favorite songs.
Puerto Lleras for blog

* * *
Sometimes—often—our deep desires conflict with each other because of circumstance. If we want well and love well, we can figure out what gift is to be given now, what must be left for another time, what can be sacrificed. We honor our deepest wants, make something holy by giving it up for love, and hope for God’s restoration, satisfying our needs in a parched land.

Incongruity

It was the weekend of Claire’s twelfth birthday, December 6. She had asked to take a few friends to an entertainment center. I was glad the girls were old enough not to need close supervision; I could give them money for tokens and let them take off to play electronic and carnival-style games while I sat in a booth and read. When they ran out of tokens they’d return and we’d order pizza.

Good books are worlds in which I happily become lost. I was on one of the final chapters of a book by Annie Dillard. I opened it up: the words took me surging, soaring, whitewater rafting.

I read the last page slowly and closed the book. My pulse was slightly elevated, breathing quickened. The air around me was warm, as if the booth had become a center of light in the large room.

I started to become aware of my surroundings. The booth was on the periphery of an open area full of tables. The noise was dense: children’s cries, adult conversations, music, distant beeps and clacks from the game area down the hall. Across the way from me was a performing combo: four or five life-sized electric bears, dressed for the holiday season, playing instruments and belting out Christmas carols.

“Deck the Halls” came to a close. The spotlight narrowed to focus on the tall bear sitting at the keyboard. In a rumbling bass voice and with a fixed, earnest grin he began performing a solo, “O Holy Night.”

Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine . . .

Bobbing over the keyboard, the bear sang, looking across the room with large, shiny eyes. The pompon on the tip of his Santa hat was firmly glued to his cheek.

I began scanning fellow guests. People were streaming into the room as if it held their heart’s desire. Parents escorted children to tables, talked to the wait staff, slid squares of steaming pizza onto plates. They neither fell on their knees nor laughed and pointed. No one even looked at the bears.