Catch and release

Think of any criticism,
Each little bit of feedback,
And every morsel of praise,
As a little fish
Swimming through a public pond.

You are the fisherman
Sitting in the boat above.

Some days, you might decide
To throw out a wide net
Scooping up as many scaly swimmers
As the knotted mesh can hold.

Other days, you may want
To cast a careful line
Dangling it lazily into the water,
Waiting for that single, perfect fish.

Every day is different,
As we are different.

You may emerge
Sweaty and callused
From the intensity 
Of your labour.

Or you may lay back
And stare dreamily
At the shapes 
The clouds make
In the sky,
Waiting for the tell-tale
Tug on the line.

Neither choice is wrong.
There are many ways to fish.

The main thing to remember
Is that no fisherman
Keeps every fish.

The real art of fishing
Isn't catching the fish.
It's deciding which ones to keep.

So, the next time
You encounter a baited barb
In the mouth of a steely-eyed fish
Or the flurry of excitement
In a swirling school,
Remember:

It is always a game
Of catch and release.

You can choose what you'd like
To take home and fry up for supper,
And what you would prefer
To let swim peacefully away.

Note: At the moment, I’m pretty obsessed with The Gift by Edith Eger, which I’m about a third of the way through. In the part I read last night, she makes a comment about how it’s important to always make the choice of whether to keep/use or whether to release feedback or criticism. I though this was going to be a more standard piece of writing about writing, but it came out as a poem instead.

Photo by Hunter Brumels on Unsplash

Skeleton Tree

Skeleton tree
Picked clean as a bone
Branches white against the darkening sky

High above
Birds are flying home
To hideaways where leaves still cling

Note: This was inspired by a tree I passed on a walk to Paddington Old Cemetery. Unfortunately none of my photos could do it justice.

In writing this poem, I found myself wondering about how poetry changes depending on whether it is meant to be heard, or silently read. So much of the poetic tradition is built on metre and carefully counted syllables – but for this one, I played instead with a visual scansion, increasing the number of words in the line rather than the number of syllables.

It would be interesting to think about whether this idea could be taken further – what if the letters need to loop up or down at the same places? What if the lines had to be the same length, or the same number of letters (assuming the font doesn’t use the same width for all characters)?

I suspect there is one out there that I haven’t yet stumbled across, but I’d be really interested in reading a new poetics of visual rhyme…

Photo by Dallas Reedy on Unsplash

Survival vs happiness in times of crisis

I remember at one point during my cancer treatment, one of my sisters said to me something along the lines of ‘I thought there was going to be a lot more watching movies and cuddling’. But I found the logistics of dealing with cancer with a baby in the house absolutely overwhelming. It didn’t feel like I had downtime. I was either so ill that all I could do was lie motionless in bed, or I was doing everything I could to protect and look after my family. There were some lovely glimpses of stillness, but for the most part, I was in survival mode.

It’s in these circumstances that the daily tasks we might normally take for granted (if we are lucky to have a certain level of financial stability) take incredible amounts of energy.

During chemo I had big eating problems. It can be hard to define what exactly this means, but for me, it felt a lot like the experience of being pregnant again. I had strange revulsions or desires, things didn’t taste the way they were supposed to. Sometimes I would sit and think for an hour to try to come up with something I thought I could eat and would just end up in tears because it all seemed so impossible and overwhelming.

With cancer, the issue is chronic. It’s not a day or a week of existential dread – it’s months or years of trying to manage this.

What does this mean for living during a pandemic?

I recognised feelings of stress that echoed the challenges I felt during cancer treatment. During the weeks of lockdown when the grocery store shelves were empty and supply chains were working overtime to catch up, I spent a LOT of time thinking about food. Did we have enough? Was it healthy? Could we afford it? Suddenly having to think about three meals a day for a family meant that considering what we would eat and when took a lot more work, and at times felt crushingly stressful.

Even for the folks lucky enough to have the level of financial security we have, there’s a kind of buzzing in the background, of the looming threat the pandemic represents.

I find myself flickering in and out of survival mode on a nearly daily basis.

But while I accept the necessity of putting survival first, I also think that staying in survival mode for these prolonged periods of time is dangerously stressful.

And one of the funny things I’ve discovered following treatment – even after the crisis is over, oftentimes the feelings of panic don’t go. It’s so easy to jump to the worst case scenario, as my mind tries to protect itself. Phantom problems become preoccupations. Legitimate concerns quickly spiral into something overwhelming.

And the problem is that in that mindset, I find myself losing the creativity, connection, and resourcefulness that will actually let me put together a better plan.

I’m trying to approach this back-and-forth with acceptance, recognising this cycling as a natural and necessary process of living in such strange times. This doesn’t come naturally.

But maybe happiness is just as essential for our wellbeing as all the things the fight or flight response is designed to protect. Without it, the road leads to obsession and despair.

I don’t have any answers for how we keep hold of joy during difficult times – but I’m certainly on the lookout.

Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

Cool things: magnetic page notebook

This popped up today in an email from uncommon goods – a magnetic notebook that lets you take pages out and move them around.

I’ve always leaned towards notebooks with tear out pages so I can more things around and group them where they actually go (rather than the order that ideas come out in.)

This is an absolutely genius idea, but I can’t totally decide whether I would enjoy using it, or whether the disposable feeling of paper from cheap notebooks imparts more freedom.

Regardless, I am sure there are plenty of writers out there who would be happy to know this exists!

https://www.uncommongoods.com/product/magnetic-notebook

How change happens: election thoughts

I remember when Colorado was a red state. It wasn’t so long ago.

When I was first able to vote, I cast my ballot knowing it likely wouldn’t make a bit of difference. It would just be lost in the bloodbath.

But now, Colorado doesn’t even seem to be a battleground. It is a lovely, light blue.

When I was 18 years old, I couldn’t imagine this.

Things have changed.

It’s hard not to feel a bit downhearted waiting for the news to play out. Because this doesn’t look like a landslide Biden win. We are holding our breaths, seeing how the states play out, one by one.

No matter the outcome, there are still millions of Americans that want the current jobholder (I don’t even want to write his name) as their President. They feel in some way that he represents their values – he represents them.

Whenever I get confused about how America can be the way it is, I remind myself that it was founded by a bunch of people who wanted the right to bear arms and less taxes – most of whom were too religiously extreme for the places they came from.

This may be history, but it is still our heritage.

Part of me was hoping for the blue wave, because it is so unthinkable to me how anyone can look past locking children in cages, or rape, or theft, or… the list is endless.

I try to remember that people on the other side feel the same way – that it is unthinkable to them that someone else can have other values.

On the one hand, these voters are endorsing cruelty. But there is a reason people are drawn to Trump. He represents ‘me-first’ politics – a push for individual self-interest instead of collective connection.

We all have both of these pieces inside us.

I went to the post office this week, and there was a homeless man sitting outside. He talked to each of the customers as they waited in line, asking if we had money to spare. The woman behind me said she would give him something on the way out – but once inside, she struck up a conversation with another woman about how it’s really the government who needs to sort it out, not her – “I feel sorry for him, but every penny counts.”

I understand how she feels. For all I know, she’s panicking about how she’s going to keep her own lights on. I got to give myself a little pat on the back for getting this man some drinks and snacks he requested – but I was in the fortunate position that getting these bits wasn’t a hardship for me.

Was she a bad person for feeling the way she did? And acting in according with these feelings? I don’t think so. It’s much more complicated than that.

I’m not entirely sure why this story kept coming to mind when thinking about the election, but I think it’s that I can’t bear to write off half of America as bad people, even though I am horrified by the Republican platform.

Some Republican voters are simply evil, and racist, and violent. But I think for others, the self-interest piece has kicked into overdrive. I have to imagine that by voting for the embodiment of narcissism, it feels like prioritising values of one’s own self-interest, even if the policy platform isn’t prioritising taking care of people.

I’m not a practiced activist, or a political expert. I’m feeling my way through this rather than working from a place of intellectual authority, and as a writer, I’m always drawn to look at the grey areas, the hypocrisies, the complications.

I am horrified at the conservative agenda that wants to limit people’s ability to live their lives – threatening civil liberties with marriage, women’s bodies, and in so many other ways. I feel like this control is wrong and coercive. But if we think of government as establishing the kind of communities we want to live in, I can start to grasp why these people feel they have the right – perhaps even the responsibility – to exert this kind of control.

What kind of America do we want to live in? There is no consensus.

So often, we don’t even agree with the other political side on what the big problems are – let alone on the solutions to them.

Politically, we need people who are ready to fight – but on a personal level, I also find myself wanting to ask, is there a way out of these culture wars that doesn’t involve fighting? Is it possible to be like water – slippery, and cool, and nourishing – slowly carving a canyon into the rock face of outdated values?

Fights will happen in courtrooms and government buildings. But in our daily lives, as we all rub up against near or distant neighbours with very different values, is there a way to reach for the humanity in these people, instead of seeing them as the enemy?

Sometimes change happens in sweeping bursts – like the way the coronavirus has transformed our world. But more often it happens inch by tiny inch, especially where people’s hearts are concerned. And cycles repeat, making it feel like any change has been lost.

But seeing that red state turn blue gives me hope.

And given the current state of the world, we’re all going to need as much hope as we can get.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The joy of writing poetry on a screen

I have a longstanding fascination with the physical process of writing. I think the tools that we use shape the way our brains work, and the kind of work that we can produce.

I’m not just sharing poetry on this blog – I am actively composing in the online space of WordPress.

There is a tendency to fetishise handwriting (Jordan Shapiro talks about our inbuilt resistance to technology in his book The New Childhood). I’ve always been a stationery enthusiast, so it was with some surprise that I’ve discovered that without a doubt, my favourite place to write poetry right now is on WordPress software.

Why?

The answer is simple: infinite scroll.

When I’m writing, I don’t encounter page breaks the way one days on a physical page, or even when writing in the most common layouts of software like Microsoft Word. The white page just keeps flowing as long as I need it to. Layout in poetry is so important, and somehow it feels like this has more control, because the page doesn’t impose the limit on breaking the thought – that is entirely up to me and where I place line breaks.

I suspect at some point the pendulum will swing the other way. The boundaries of the physical page have their own magic. It will be interesting to see what crops up when confined to that space.

Blogging software may not be as romantic as a quill pen, but when I am looking for a place to really get into the flow, WordPress software can’t be beat.

Note: I’m a Bookshop Affiliate, so if you purchase through this link I’ll receive a commission (but it won’t cost you anything extra!).

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Colour and pattern

The thing about knitting
Is you have to choose:
Colour or pattern?

A beautiful texture
Will only show
With a solid colour.
Likewise,
A vibrant, multicolour yarn
Will get lost
In a busy pattern.

I've learned this
From careful observation
And the sharp edge
Of experience.

No sweater
Can hold
Every colour
I think is beautiful;
Or every pattern
I want to see
Play out.
Trying to cram
Everything in
Only ends
In a tangled mess.

In my life,
There are so many
Things I want
To see,
To do,
To be,
To discover.

More often than not
I try to wedge
Them all in
Rushing about,
Hurried and stressed,
Confused about why
My nerves are jangled.

But it is simply
Colour and pattern
Clashing: 
Quietly,
Or violently.

I want to make
The perfect plan
Where everything fits.
But at some point
You have to just
Listen to the yarn.
It says:
There is always
Another sweater.

Sometimes ideas
Belong to
The next project.
It's the only way
Not to ruin the one
That's already
In your hands.

So when I start
To feel myself
Overfilling my existence,
Reaching for too many
Different skeins
Trying too many
Different stitches,
I will simply
Tell myself:
I am saving this
For my next life.

And even if
That other life
Turns out to be
Nothing more
Than a dream...

It still lets me
Fall in love again with
The colour and pattern
I have chosen
For this life;

And the yarn
Flowing through
My fingers
Right
Now.

Note: Today, I went on a Zoom silent meditation retreat as part of a course on Mindful Self-Compassion I am doing through a breast cancer charity. I was a bit apprehensive about spending a whole afternoon this way, but I found it incredibly moving. The exercise that touched me most was one where we focused on falling in love with all the little details of the things in the world around us. It was so beautiful to be in touch with that feeling of falling in love – what a light-giving energy to bring to life. It struck me that the key was slowness, and stillness, and following the instructions to focus one item at the time, before finishing with it and more on to the next. I chose to look at other things, but my knitting was sitting right next to me, in the corner of my peripheral vision. I wrote this poem on the tea break, just trying to capture some of the thoughts and feelings that came spilling out.

Photo by Jordan Bigelow on Unsplash

Another finish line

Cancer feels like it has so many finish lines and milestones – and each one opens up a whole range of feelings.

Tomorrow will be my last day as someone with a port.

I though this procedure would feel like an afterthought – but it’s actually hitting a nerve.

I was speaking about this today with my therapist, and she said that it seems like this is taking me out of limbo.

It does feel like closing a chapter – and it’s bringing up some many feelings.

I feel like I should be desensitised at this point – both physically and emotionally – but instead it feels like it picks up the echoes of everything that can before, both in my body and in my heart.

There is relief and gratitude – I still feel a certain sense of shock that I have made it to this point. I feel so lucky.

There is also fear – it feels really scary to be putting my body through yet another procedure. This is planned to be under local anaesthetic, so I will be awake. But even though it is comparatively minor to them, it feels like a big deal to me.

And as I discovered today, there is also a great deal of grief.

It’s opening the floodgates to release some of the feelings I hadn’t had the space or strength to work through just yet. There is grief over the things that have been lost – my breasts, my health, and a certain loss of innocence that I think always accompanies painful losses.

But I was surprised to discover that I also feel a certain sense of loss that this time is over, that this door is closing.

It seems absolutely insane to me that I feel this way, but it is the end of a season of my life, one laden with a huge amount of change and struggle. And even though this period in my life has been so hard, it has also had a lot of beauty and deepened my relationships with the people that I love most.

It feels strange and scary to be moving into an unknown future, aware that I have been transformed in ways that have not yet bubbled to the surface.

It is a peculiar thing to be getting this done during October, which as my Facebook feed constantly reminds me, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Just as the world is shouting about this disease, I am taking one step further away from it.

48 hours from now, I will no longer be hosting a foreign device in my body.

I will no longer be tethered.

Will I feel free?

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Writing hack: setting an intention

This isn’t a hack I’ve experimented yet – rather something that might be a really good idea, and I wanted to capture it while it’s fresh.

Today, I did an online yoga video where the instructor encouraged us at the beginning of the practice to set an intention. She explained that this served as a helpful container for the experience.

And it dawned on me that actually, this might come in really handy for writing.

Earlier today, I’d read a piece on Medium from Jessica Wildfire that talks about how sometimes talented people get so bogged down that they don’t finish projects and move on. (Most creatives I know can relate to this at some point in their lives.)

And these two pieces clicked together.

I wonder – what would it feel like to use this practice of setting an intention in the writing process?

It seems that this would be a really helpful tool for a number of reasons:

  1. To make sure I’m fully engaging with the artistic process, as well as thinking about the product;
  2. To know when a project is done;
  3. To find the right direction to keep moving during the inevitable moments when I feel discouraged, or that I’ve lost my way.

For a number of years I’ve used the trick of summing up the heart of my current piece on one sticky note and putting it over my desk.

But that’s something different – that’s about the work that I am writing.

Choosing intention is about me as an artist.

What do I want to accomplish? Why am I making this? Why does it matter to me? Why am I showing up to do this work at all?

It’s not necessary to find clever, or original, or complete answers to these questions. Just picking something and using that as a container for the experience is enough: a way to make sure I’m growing as an artist, and a helpful tool to know when a project has reached its end.

Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

Odds and Ends 6

How to Live in the Face of Fear: Lessons From a Cancer Survivor – an interview with Kate Bowler by Elizabeth Dias (from the NYT)

“There was a rhythm I got into with cancer that has served me well right now. Every day sort of has an arc to it. There’s a limited amount that you’re going to be able to face as you stare into the abyss. Being able over the course of the day to track your own resources will help you know how to spend them.

There’s just a minute where you know, OK, I’m starting to hit the wall. Time to turn the boat around. There’s only so much we can do, and in the face of unlimited need we have to not just wildly oscillate between sort of intense action and then narcolepsy.

How do we now feel the day and allow ourselves to be human inside of it? I think that’s really tricky work.”

ALSO:

“For me, part of the joy of prayer is having abandoned the formula. I have no expectation that prayer works in a direct way. But I do hope that every person, religious or not, feels the permission to say, “I’m at the edge of what I know. And in the face of the sea of abyss, someone out there please show me love.” Because that’s, to me, the only thing that fills up the darkness. It’s somehow in there, the feeling that I am not for no reason. And that doesn’t mean anything better is going to happen to me, but in the meantime that I will know that we all are deeply and profoundly loved. That’s my hope for everybody.”

7 Unconscious Behaviours That Are Delaying Your Success in Life by Brianna Wiest (from Medium)

“We cannot control everything. But if we could find more little moments to live for, those little shimmering glimpses of ease, maybe it would be a whole lot easier to keep moving forward.

Maybe what we’d find is that success was never anything more than being able to appreciate what we have while we have it.”

3 lessons of revolutionary love in a time of rage by Valarie Kaur (for TED)

“And so the mother in me asks, what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our future is not dead, but still waiting to be born? What if this is our great transition? Remember the wisdom of the midwife. “Breathe,” she says. And then — “push.” Because if we don’t push, we will die. If we don’t breathe, we will die.”

Hyperbole and a Half Creator Allie Brosh on Her New Book, Her Seven-Year Hiatus, and What the Heck Is Going on With Her Hotmail Account by Heather Schwedel (from Slate)

“It seemed like I needed to retreat back into myself for a little while. I was trying to write it at a stage in my life where I was, like, between. You know how there are pictures of you, like, between facial expressions? It felt like that type of thing, where it was this awkward transition where I was starting to have new kinds of thoughts and be new kinds of ways…

There’s a type of sharing that’s fun and feels like it’s like advancing your identity in some way, and then there’s a type of sharing that’s a little bit more honest and scary. I’ve been trying to learn how to do the second type more.”

The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories by Cory Doctorow (from Slate)

“When the lockdown went into effect, the mysterious gun stores on the main street near my house sprouted around-the-block lines of poorly distanced people lining up to buy handguns. I used to joke that they were planning to shoot the virus and that their marksmanship was not likely to be up to the task, but I knew what it was all about. They were buying guns because they’d told themselves a story: As soon as things went wrong, order would collapse, and their neighbors would turn on them.

Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel responsible. I’m a science-fiction writer, and I write a lot of disaster stories. Made-up stories, even stories of impossible things, are ways for us to mentally rehearse our responses to different social outcomes. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s conception of an intuition pump—“a thought experiment structured to allow the thinker to use their intuition to develop an answer to a problem”—suggests that fiction (which is, after all, an elaborate thought experiment) isn’t merely entertainment.*

That’s true. And it’s a problem.”

Does everything happen for a reason? by Kelly Corrigan (from Medium)

“And finally, we come apart all the time, but even an incomplete life story where the hero dies in the end can be beautiful.”

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash