“Introduction To Poetry”

On Saturday afternoon I head out for a walk under the guise of needing to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. I do, in fact, need to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, but Thomas and I both know that when I say I’m “going to walk to the pharmacy” that’s code for “I’m going out for a walk and there’s no knowing when I’ll be back.”

Needless to say, I take a slight detour at Pegasus Books on Shattuck. In my defense, it’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that Pegasus has been open for in-person browsing, and obviously I have to support my local bookstore (f*** Amazon!!!!!!!!!).

I spend thirty minutes browsing and in every section – philosophy, spirituality, literature, gardening, poetry, critical theory – I see a book I want to take home and spend the rest of the afternoon reading. I wish for not the first time that I had room in my apartment for more books, instead of the already-overflowing few shelves I hacked together in our bedroom. There’s a chance it collapses at some point soon; I keep stacking more and more books horizontally on the top shelf.

My book-browsing is interrupted by the realization that the pharmacy closes soon and if I don’t leave now I’ll fail to accomplish the actual task I set out to do. I hurriedly grab and pay for two of the used books I’ve had my eye on: Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring and Poetry 180, an anthology of contemporary poems.

The mini-haul.

On Tuesday morning I remember that, because Thomas is a student, we have a free subscription to The New York Times. I browse their website and come across this Letter of Recommendation that suggests you read the same poem every day for a month. While not a novel idea, I loved the author’s intention and practice behind it: “I always read my selected poem aloud, to hear the rhythm, and I like to read it first thing in the morning. Reading the poem at dawn, with my coffee, is a kind of meditation. And rereading the same poem forces me to slow down, to hone my observations.”

Over the past few months I’ve strayed further from starting my mornings in a meditative way. I used wake up and read or write; now, I immediately open my laptop to start work, or spend too long on Twitter catching up on the latest apocalyptic news. This letter feels timely – especially since I’d just bought a poetry anthology a few days prior. I resolve to start my next few mornings by reading a poem.

On Wednesday morning I wake up and open the anthology to the first poem, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”

“Introduction to Poetry”

I’ve read it before – shout-out to my favorite high-school English teacher who introduced me to some amazing poems – but poetry will always be better when chosen rather than assigned. In the words of Billy Collins himself: “High school is the place where poetry goes to die.” (I might be one of the few who gained a greater appreciation for poetry in an academic context. To all the high school teachers: don’t give up hope!)

I will spare everyone my commentary on the poem (which would also be ironic given its content) but here are two of my favorite Billy Collins verses I want to share in the hopes others enjoy them as much as I do:

“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

“And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches…”

My “chill out maddy” Spotify playlist didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

I spent the weekend trying to relax.

I didn’t go for any long bike rides or runs; instead, I went for short walks and took naps. I read an entire book. No, wait – two books. I made a playlist called “chill out maddy” and listened to it for a few hours. I meditated. I painted:

Manifesting my dream home in the Cotswolds, inspired by a photo Leslie took a few months ago.

Suffice it to say I was disappointed when I woke up at 4:13am this Monday morning with painful stomach cramps (diagnosed thus far as anxiety-related).

I’m not here to complain, though. I did have a relaxing weekend. I basked in the hot sun (but not in the red flag warnings reminding us that another fire season is on our heels). I made a picnic for me and Thomas which we enjoyed with a fancy bottle of rosé we purchased a few weeks ago in Mendocino as the sun set on Saturday night. I called my mom and spoke with some friends. My life is good; I am blessed in many ways.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how much I love California. I spend a lot of time thinking about that, actually. I browsed thrift store clothing racks in Oakland and imagined myself as a fashionable woman who put thought and intention into each of her outfits. I rolled my eyes at the obscenely long lines outside of “trendy” East Bay bakeries. I watched the first five minutes of four different Netflix shows.

I would also like to share the possibly hot take (given its Goodreads rating of 4.31) that I did not enjoy The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. The premise of the book – a girl named Addie makes a pact with the devil that means she will live forever, but she will be forgotten by everyone – was too obvious of a metaphor for me. Passages and quotes that clearly resonated with many readers (e.g., “Do you think a life has any value if one doesn’t leave some mark upon the world?”) felt…basic and silly. Maybe I’m too cynical but I found myself rolling my eyes frequently as I kept being hit over the head with thinly-veiled metaphors about the meaning of life.

(I did, however, enjoy The Incendiaries, probably because I have a fascination for cults and enjoy mysterious characters.)

As I’ve now successfully wasted these pre-sunrise hours sharing my ramblings, I want to wish each and every one of you a joyous Monday. Since I am now a self-proclaimed “breakfast person,” I am going to make myself some breakfast. And by “make breakfast,” I mean I am going to microwave one of the frozen breakfast sandwiches that I bought in bulk from Safeway. Please comment below with your favorite breakfast and/or a book that I can read so I don’t have to rely on (disappointingly incorrect) Goodreads reviews.

The world is a beautiful place

I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry in AP Literature my senior year of high school. I can’t remember which of his poems we read (was it “Sometime During Eternity“? “Constantly Risking Absurdity“?); since then I’ve read his poems so many times that most of the words seem familiar.

When I moved to San Francisco I started seeing a therapist whose office was in North Beach. Every week after our session I would walk from her office to City Lights Bookstore and spend as long as I could among its shelves before walking the next few blocks to my office downtown. That was always a jarring transition: from the quiet of therapy and a bookstore to the noisy, crowded office.

For Christmas two years ago my mom got me a copy of Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems. I didn’t remember telling her about any of his poems that I loved, or all the hours I’d spent kneeling by the shelves in the cramped basement of City Lights.

I took the book with me down to Ocean Beach one day and read my favorite of his poems, “The world is a beautiful place,” by the water. It begins:

And then, later:

I read of Ferlinghetti’s death in between meetings yesterday afternoon, during a five minute break in which I was scrolling through Twitter.

In the evening, after work, I took the book of his poems and went out for a walk. I looked at everything and smelled the flowers.

I Don’t Always Cry…

…but when I do, it’s because I am out on a walk and the sun is setting on a cool fall evening and I am listening to David Gray and am overwhelmed by the beauty of the golden light caught in the tops of the trees, and the sadness hanging in the dry air, and the love of the father holding his son’s hand as they cross the street, and the calm of the lone pink rose on a bush on someone’s lawn, and the grace of the setting sun disappearing behind the houses.

Sometimes I don’t know what else to do with myself besides go for a walk. When my heart gets so full and heavy that it feels like it might burst and nothing makes sense but at the same time everything becomes so simple.

Is it weird that I am sharing a picture of myself crying? Probably. But unfortunately my writing isn’t good enough to capture all that emotion and so we return to the old adage: “a picture is worth a thousand words.” (A picture might be worth 2,000 words if you’re a bad writer, and only 500 if you’re a good one. That would be a funny metric by which to judge authors: how many of their words is a picture worth?)

I came home and ate pumpkin curry and rice and finished reading Louise Edrich’s The Night Watchman while Thomas watched Sunday Night Football.

“The sun was low in the sky, casting slant regal light. As they plodded along, the golden radiance intensified until it seemed to emanate from every feature of the land. Trees, brush, snow, hills. She couldn’t stop looking. The road led past frozen sloughs that bristled with scorched reeds. Clutches of red willow burned. The fans and whips of branches glowed, alive. Winter clouds formed patterns against the fierce gray sky. Scales, looped ropes, the bones of fish. The world was tender with significance.”

Louise Edrich, The Night Watchman

I swear…this has happened multiple times now…I’ll be reading something that reflects almost exactly a thought or feeling I recently had. The above passage from The Night Watchman, for example, is a beautiful depiction of the way I felt earlier this evening. I am also confronted with the difference in ability between myself and a professional author because, in an ideal world, I would have crafted the sentence “The world was tender with significance” to describe my evening walk, but instead I shared a stupid meme and a picture of myself crying. Nice!

Anyway. I’m sure many similar sentiments have been described, but I’m reminded of a quote from author and philosopher Alain de Botton: “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.” I think it goes both ways, though: we can enjoy a book because we are reading it “at the right moment,” but also we can create new significance or meaning from a book that might not have seemed relevant at the outset. Does that make any sense?

It’s getting late; I will post this tomorrow morning after a cup of coffee and a good laugh at my sorry attempts at philosophizing.

Pizza Ponderings

I accidentally ordered buffalo chicken on my pizza this evening instead of barbecue chicken which, when eaten, is the equivalent of biting into a chocolate that you think is filled with caramel but is actually filled with raspberry, or eating a cookie that you think is chocolate chip but turns out to be oatmeal raisin. Disappointment across the board.

Aside from the chicken incident, the pizza tasted delicious, even more so because it marked the end of a long work week. There are few better feelings than sitting on the couch and eating pizza knowing you have absolutely nothing to do tomorrow. Similarly: getting into bed and not having to set an alarm.

Today was the culmination of months of work on a product our team has been building. When I heard we had “signed off” on the product this afternoon I was overwhelmed with relief. You know the feeling you get when you finish a school paper and then close out of the 30 research tabs you had open on your web browser? It felt like that. This evening I sat on the couch and opened the Notes app on my computer where I’d taken pages and pages of meeting notes about the project, jotted down unanswered questions, and listed out “action items” and “follow-ups.” I thought back to a few months ago when the project felt too enormous and complicated to tackle and every meeting seemed to end in more questions than answers…and yet, here we are, somehow having finished it. Another reminder (to myself, mostly) that things get done one day at a time, one answered question at a time, one small decision or task at a time.

I’m feeling extra grateful for Thomas this week, not because he’s done anything different than usual, but because of that. Because together we got through yet another long pandemic week and I know my mental health would be in a much worse place if it weren’t for him. No, wait – I take that back, he did do something different than usual this week: he did the dishes last night. Unprompted. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

On a related note: I’m baffled by how many dishes we go through each day now that we’re eating all of our meals at home. It feels like I’m doing a full sink’s worth of dishes multiple times a day, and we are going through dishwasher detergent like nobody’s business. I’m hoping – and this might just be my optimistic, make-myself-feel-better-about-all-the-dishes take – that our increase in dishes has meant a decrease in plastic packaging. I’ve been trying to be more mindful of our packaging consumption, which also became increasingly evident during the pandemic as we generated way too much recycling each week. It’s easier to forget all of the plastic-packaged salads and sandwiches I consumed at the office when the waste didn’t pile up in my own recycling.

Speaking of waste: Simplify the Holidays is a great resource I will be using to guide my celebrations and gift-giving this holiday season. I also loved this video:

Both Thomas and I have been busy with work lately so the quality time we spend together is usually an hour (two if we’re lucky) in the evening. My favorite nights are those on which we eat dinner together and then, just before bed, watch an episode of The Great British Baking Show. Over the past month, however, we’ve managed to watch every historical episode of GBBS and thus were in need of a new series to watch. After increasing pressure from my dad (he would text me once a day asking if we’d started watching yet), we decided on The Queen’s Gambit. “What could go wrong?” I thought. “Thomas is interested in chess and I love a good strong and complicated female character!”

What ended up happening, however, was that his inner chess nerd resurfaced (apparently he played competitively in high school???) and we had to pause the show every time the chess board was shown on screen so that he could analyze it. Exhibit A:

A few days ago I woke up to pee in the middle of the night and rolled over to find Thomas playing chess on his phone. I’m not sure he slept this week. Thanks a lot for the recommendation, Dad.

Pop Tv Thank You GIF by Schitt's Creek

Aside from finishing The Queen’s Gambit this week, I read Girl, Woman, Other. I enjoyed it, in particular the way the author portrays the changing face of feminism and what it means to be a woman through generations. It made me reflect both upon the progress we’re making in certain realms (from “white” feminism to intersectional feminism, for example), as well as how much perspectives are nuanced and a product of our context and environment. It made me think about the relationship between the past, the present, and the future, and how much each one should factor into our actions and experience. There were many passages and quotes that left me confused about how I felt or what I believed, which I appreciated – and in many ways see as the point of reading – buuuuuut I didn’t have anyone to discuss them with! So, if you’ve read the book, let me know! Some examples:

“she didn’t tell them she’d taken her father for granted and carried her blinkered, self-righteous perspective of him from childhood through to his death, when in fact he’d done nothing wrong except fail to live up to her feminist expectations of him.”

“I tell Mum she married a patriarch
Look at it this way, Amma, she says, your father was born male in Ghana in the 1920s whereas you were born female in London in the 1960s
And your point is?
You really can’t expect him to ‘get you’, as you put it
I let her know she’s an apologist for the patriarchy and complicit in a system that oppresses all women
She says human beings are complex
I tell her not patronize me”

“What matters most to me, is that I know how I feel, and the rest of the world might catch up one day, even if it’ll be a quiet revolution over longer than my lifetime, if it happens at all.”

“she runs for her life because to slip up is to begin descending the slippery slope to giving in to failure, to inertia, to feeling sorry for herself about that moment in her life which still creeps to the front of her memory when she least expects it”

There were also plenty of passages and quotes that made me think, “wow. yes” such as:

“ageing is nothing to be ashamed of especially when the entire human race is in it together”

“be a person with knowledge not just opinions”

“his bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? white people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race”

“I don’t want you to give in, I want you to change, to understand my reasoning at a deeper level and accept it as the truth.”

“We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings
How’s can we argue with that?”

ANYWAY. If you have read the book – or if these quotes intrigue you enough to read it- I would love to discuss. In the meantime, I will be selecting a new book to read while Thomas plays online chess.