This is Essay #1 of The 52 Essay challenge, a series in which I write a new essay each week for 2017.
The first day of a new year and I'm talking about the old days? It happens. We take inventory of the year that had just ended, wondering what to change, where to improve, what we missed, where we want to go. At least I do.
Yesterday was a friend's birthday. And I think about what that must be like: to celebrate your entrance to the world at the crossroads of beginnings and endings. As I write this, I'm reminded of his birth story, one filled with magic, one in which a midwife appeared out of nowhere to aid his mother in the birth (as no one was around - everyone was counting down to midnight) and then vanish.
I sent him birthday wishes and we ended up having a brief exchange over email. One comment he made was about missing the old days. Before social media. Before the hyper-careerism of creative writing. When writing workshops were all heart. When writing was all heart.
This made me think about my own writing. Is the heart still there? I'd like to think so but I'm not immune to the effects of careerism -- I see it everywhere and wonder if there's something to that. But then I look at the work that's being produced and realize: nah, there's nothing*. It's empty language. Slight of hand. Linguistic gymnastics. No heart. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about beginnings. And endings. And how I am nostalgic for a less complicated time.
(*Yes, grand sweeping generalization. We're adults. We know there are exceptions.)
A few days ago, a writer friend reminded me of our time at VONA when it was in San Francisco -- USF to be exact. He reminded me of skipping --SKIPPING!-- down the street, three of us locked arm in arm like kids, on our way to the Haight, singing Carpenters songs. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down, but that day it wasn't raining and I don't think it was a Monday, so I'm pretty sure it was spectacular.
This was before Facebook was born.
We were present. We engaged with each other: eye contact, small gestures of touching - an elbow cupped, a hand along the small of the back, linked arms. And dancing. Lots of dancing. So much fun, sweaty, barely-lit club dancing. We wrote hard, exposed-our-inner-souls kind of hard. And then we danced hard. We hardly slept. It's a wonder I survived those two weeks.
The USF Lone Mountain campus was a rapid changing climate (they say there's some crazy number of different micro-climates in the city of SF). The mornings were cold and full of fog. I imagined that London might be like this. By 2 o'clock, there was sun and clear blue sky as expansive as a blank page, a fresh notebook. And if we went to the Haight (which we often did), it was downright hot. After all, it was late June. Those mornings, I forgot it was summer at all.
In workshop, I'd hunker down to write at the start of each session with the given prompt. I was eager to get back to my poet self. I spent a year away from her, trying to turn her into an academic scholar in the PhD program at UC-Santa Cruz. I thought I could be both poet and scholar but by the end of that first year, I had left the poet behind in some ditch on the 17, that treacherous freeway of sharp curves and sudden climbs and drops through a mountain. A road upon which I took two fellow poets to the beach after our first VONA week. (Later, one told me that she feared for her life, gripping the passenger door's handle white-knuckle hard, as I took each curve with the approach of a NASCAR driver. I remember those adrenaline rushes, the control I wielded over my car. It was fun for me. Apparently not for my passengers.) I didn't know I had forgotten that poet self. Until VONA.
Each day of workshop, we'd write. We'd push ourselves to dig deeper. Our workshop facilitator, Ruth Forman, gave us no choice. She demanded it of us. Later, we'd look at the poems we brought, try to locate the heat, the core of each poem. We helped each other excavate. Uncover the farthest reaches, reveal glimmers of gold. So yes, there was plenty of crying. But more importantly, there was plenty of heart.
Now, a decade and a half later, I find myself missing those days when everything felt infinitely possible. Yes, things are still possible -- it just takes a little more effort on my part to see past the obstacles. And in this political climate, it's even more crucial to seize possibility, crack it open, and share it.
As the new year kicks off, I want to see if I can get back that bright-eyed possibility through the cold fog that 2016 left behind. To dig deeper into the work but also into my life. To be engaged with elbows and sweaty bodies dancing in the half-dark, small of the back guided by my heart. All heart. All. Heart.