Like most of us, my plans for Life And Things got disrupted by the pandemic. Don’t worry – I’m not here to talk about it. I think the issues and recommendations and politics are being discussed enough elsewhere.
I’d like to just muse poetic about the world, as it is right now.
Christina Rossetti was really well-situated in life – daughter of scholars and revolutionaries, sister of writers and artists, and a poet in her own right. She was in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which (love them or hate them) must have been an interesting place to be.
She’s the author of one of my favorite poems – The Goblin Market, which I like to reread in the fall. It’s allegorical and homoerotic and full of the kind of intense and near-fatal longing that good Romantic poetry should be.
She also wrote this tiny, understated gem, called The Rose:
The lily has a smooth stalk, Will never hurt your hand; But the rose upon her brier Is lady of the land.
There’s sweetness in an apple tree, And profit in the corn; But lady of all beauty Is a rose upon a thorn.
When with moss and honey She tips her bending brier, And half unfolds her glowing heart, She sets the world on fire.
It’s a simple poem; not the most impassioned thing she ever wrote, and even feels a bit unfinished, perhaps. But it has a certain message in keeping with the type of themes she tended to explore.
Rossetti’s poetry has been described as lyrical, and a lot of is has a structure that lends itself well to music. This poem has been translated into a song more than once, but I recently heard Ola Gjeilo’s version of it, and…oh. my. god. If you’re moved by chorale music or great piano pieces, give this a listen…
His album ‘Winter Songs’ also has an instrumental version of the song. I am obsessed. The music that Gjeilo wrote really gives these lyrics what they deserve – a sort of stark melancholy. He heard a certain melancholy here that I initially missed. This beautiful thing will hurt you. This fire it ignites comes with a price.
Sometimes less is more, and after a poem like The Goblin Market, this one does feel a bit bare. But if you can set aside that particular bias and appreciate the simplicity of The Rose, then what you’ve got is something actually quite powerful. It says something about beauty, and risk, and the value of things of life. It says a lot by saying very little. I admire that in a writer.
Over the fall, a friend suggested an outing to the Tower of Memories near Denver. It’s one of those strange local sites that I wasn’t even aware existed. We were there on a particularly hot day – it’s not unusual in Colorado for summer weather to continue well into fall. I found this place impressive, cinematic, unusual…and unsettling.
One of the things that’s been joyously freeing about my writing program is that we’re given permission to do something important: Write badly.
In order to create a sculpture, you have to start with a big block of clay, or a stone, or a chunk of wood. At first, you’re just hacking pieces away and getting it into the general shape. Over time, you add more details and then begin to polish it up.
In the beginning… Make a colossal, unapologetic mess. Write disconnected chunks of text and snippets of conversation. Let characters emerge without worrying too much about how they fit. Write cringe-inducing dialogue and scenes dripping with cliches. Just let the story emerge.
Once it’s emerged… Put it into some sort of order, know your characters and why they exist, but let the mistakes and gaps and bad dialogue and cliches stand. Just make a thing that has a beginning, middle, and end.
Then! Then you start cleaning it up. Then you start polishing. Then you pull out the sharper tools in your box and make your rough thing into something more artful.
For me, a first draft is an emergence. I have a pretty good grasp on my story, but it’s still revealing things to me. It’s still whispering its small confessions, and I’m still exploring all the different pieces of it.
Free yourself from expectations and pressures. Give yourself permission to be messy, and most importantly – write badly. Write badly as hard and painfully and truthfully as you can.
As a young child, I had a small music box that played Fur Elise. I carried it everywhere. It looked much like this…
My childhood one was smaller, and enclosed in plastic, but you get the idea.
A really nasty adult, who was irrationally upset by my innocent obsession, took it away from me. Years later she admitted to having thrown it out.
I can’t begin to speculate as to the motives of someone who takes a harmless, beloved toy from a child. What I can do is say that this tiny piece of heartbreak has been mended >30 years later, as I happened upon the small device pictured above and purchased it.
It’s cheaply made and slightly off-key. If you play it slowly enough, it sounds like the soundtrack of a bad horror movie trailer. But I don’t care – this silly little contraption with it’s high-pitched song has made that sad little child crying over the loss of her toy unbelievably happy. No longer a lost little ghost, that particular restless spirit-memory has been laid to rest.
It’s a small reminder that the person who took things from me can’t do so anymore. And while I can’t reclaim all that was list, I can and have recovered a lot.
Last night as I drove home from my writing class, there was a gentle, lackadaisical snow falling in Denver. The restaurant and microbrewery patios were empty. The homeless had taken shelter somewhere – at least I hope they did – as the temperature dropped. Less people roamed the sidewalks. It was quiet, in that beautiful but eerie way that only snowy nights can be.
I’d forgotten what it felt like to shiver. Suddenly I was reminded of winter, and it was jarring. Something about this past summer felt really long to me. Then September came, with its tidal waves of pumpkin spice, and I felt a dissonance – it *felt* like summer, even though people were embracing fall.
Now fall is here, and winter is creeping up behind it. I feel like I need to embrace every small moment of it, because it feels fleeting and malleable. I work in a field that deals with the effects of climate change, so I talk all day about ‘extreme weather events,’ even though sometimes none of us know for sure what that really means. Hurricanes, certainly. Extreme high temperatures, and extreme low temperatures. Increased precipitation.
I suppose I fear how we’re careening into a world where all of us will forget what it feels like to shiver. Perhaps not literally, but a world in which the changes aren’t slow, or subtle. A world that becomes drastically altered.
For now – there was some snow, and a shiver, and it felt gentle and safe and beautiful. And I want to hold on to that.