Today these peonies literally stopped me still in my tracks with their beauty. I’d gone to the grocery for avocados & strawberries & nine other things I forgot about for the near minute I stood staring at them. It must’ve been rather dramatic, because another woman, a stranger, stopped soon after me & exclaimed, “Peonies!” I said, “Right?” & she said, “I saw you stop & I had to know what you were looking at.”
We both left with bundles of them (though I took two).
I try to pay deep attention to the things that stop me, that take my breath. I reckon I am done with the heart, geographically speaking, & am much more attuned to the lungs as a place of power, as a litmus for the outside world. Ah, those peonies… would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star:
This past year cracked open in April. After a sneakily grueling legislative session, I’d taken a brief trip to see some ocean with a friend, & the time we spent was both ridiculously lovely & did not unfold as I wished it would’ve. I am not fond of goodbyes-as-occasion, but the way we left each other belongs on a cutting room floor, except that I can still replay it precisely in my mind. It was all busy street curb & car doors & darting-away-quick exits & fear & distance. A wave pulling away. The long drive back down I-95, I felt it full in my lungs. Gone-ness.
It truly started for me in late April, this past year. The opening months before that, and the last half of 2014—there is no other way to say this: I was in the muck of a depression. It is important for me to write that sentence explicitly, although I admit it is not a comfortable thing for me to write, even to look at just now as I’ve typed it. It was more than a melancholy, & less than clinical (although arguably I pushed my typical white-knuckle treatment to its limits in Summer 2014). It was dull & detached & punishing in a way that builds callous, not armor. I did not feel love for much, save family & dogs. Praise be for dogs.
But then that drive back down I-95, wherein I drank coffee & paid tolls & listened to Neko & more of the Stax collection in an effort to talk myself out of heartbreak & caught a rock on my windshield that began as the mere notion of a crack, but has since spiderveined across my road-view. I really need to have that replaced. April cracked open the year into a glorious summer. Whatever it was before then, I grew out of it.
By May, I was writing again. First, a few essays for online mags, but then in June: poems. I wrote for a long spell this year, turns out, & I am not afraid to say that I’m v. proud of all I produced & published. It all felt good. The tomatoes were bursting out on my porch, & the orchids were like Oz, & I worked very hard to make my body strong & healthy & sun-filled, & then July.
It feels so goofy to say this, but July was life-changing. I spent a week in Southwest Virginia volunteering at a Remote Area Medical clinic, a kind of pop-up health clinic set at an outdoor fairgrounds deep in rural Virginia coal country. I talked to people who slept in their cars for three days just to be sure to get an entry number so they could have all of their teeth extracted, & I talked to them after all those teeth were pulled. I talked to coal miners who’d just had a chest x-ray in the clinic’s tractor-trailer-turned-radiology-center & coal miners who refused the x-ray because they didn’t need a piece of film to tell them shit. I talked to a woman who walked 27 miles to the clinic for her health care because she had no other transportation, & would walk home after. I talked to a man on temporary release from prison in order to get new glasses—his pastor had arranged it—because he was getting out for good in a week (after 3 years) & needed to be able to work.
I thought then, & have been thinking a lot since, about disaster relief work. I mean about doing it. These clinics are different than that, but it’s what I can manage for now. For now. I met someone at a second clinic I did in Virginia’s Northern Neck in November—he does disaster relief on the regular, goes to places devastated by tsunamis & airplane crash sites & the like. The way he described it all, & even my own work at these clinics—it is the closest thing to purpose I’ve yet felt. I fell in love with him just hearing about it.
I’ve had the title of this post for quite a while—I’d planned to write about this idea of “balance” people seem to keep asking me about. How do I balance work and writing. How do I balance living in two worlds. How do I find time, or make it. The simple answer is that I do not, that balance is not really the goal. I cringe when I read—often young—writers talk about how they have to write, how they would die if they didn’t. How it isn’t a choice for them. It’s not that I don’t believe them, per se—it’s that it feels a bit contrived, melodramatic (I first typo’d this word as melogrammatic—almost left it as such). There are certainly times when it feels imminent or needed, something that’s coming on, like a storm. Times when I think I must be coming down with a cold or a tapeworm or something, but truly it’s just that I haven’t written in a month. But we all find a way, when we need it, or we don’t, & that is its own way. I don’t love writing 100% of the time. I often don’t even love it while I’m doing it. There are many, many times when my day job needs all of me, all. of. me., & there is nothing left, only my own white, whitening knuckles. You might need writing, but it doesn’t need you.
There is no balance, but I don’t work just to pay bills. I don’t work in order to fund my spare time for writing. I work because I love what I do, & I need that part of my life too—not all the time, but enough, & when I don’t love it, it’s usually because I’m trying to solve some difficult, frustrating, immense problem, which is a kind of love all its own. In less than a week, I’ll be hurtling myself into three months’ worth of that full-on hell-love as the new legislative session begins. White-knuckling my way through might not be the best prescription, but at least it also means you’re still holding on to something.
Sometimes you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, & there’s just no room to write. Other times you’re in the right place at the right time & there is frighteningly nothing there to write.
Sometimes you’re with the right person at the wrong time & there’s only room for the flash of a goodbye. Sometimes you’re with the right person.
In a way, balance is the opposite of happiness. I have never heard a definition of balance (or of happiness, fwiw) that wasn’t built using someone else’s blueprint. Balance is often about expectation, which is the death of happiness. The kind of balance I think people are asking me about, what everyone wants to know how to work towards, is how to find the openness to come back & try again—how to have the lungs that recognize the particular air they’re breathing as a message, a map. And then to follow it. How to pay attention to the things that stop you.
The fearlessness to stop & say to the right person, the right idea: come here.
Coda: What I always have, even when I don’t have work, or writing, or the right person’s attention, or even inspiration, is reading. So my sign-off to 2015 is thus: all the poems I shared over Twitter in 2015:
“Prayer“—Jorie Graham. [This one I read/share/cannot take my eyes off of at the start of every new year.]
“Flight“—James Tate. A tremendous loss this year.
“Ghazal for White Hen Pantry“—Jamila Woods
“In the Wheat Field“—Kevin Prufer
“A Short History of Migration“—Jane Yeh
“My Blindness“—Nick Flynn
“The Children“—TJ Jarrett
“Quick Trip“—Geoffrey G. O’Brien
“The Tradition“—Jericho Brown
“One Art“—Elizabeth Bishop [in my all-time Top 5 & the only poem I’ve ever considered incorporating into a tattoo…]
“By and By“—John Beer (juh-buh)
“And the Urge is Less“—Karen Volkman
“Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming“—Larry Levis
from “Repetition“—Rebecca Reilly
“Knocking or Nothing“—Mary Szybist
“The Forgotton Madmen of Menilmontant“—Frank Stanford
“Clear Night“—Charles Wright