You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing. ~ Winifred Gallagher
Now that it’s over I can bear to think
about my sex-starved youth,
when I read Shelley late at night
in lieu of committing suicide.
I read Shelley in last minutes before sleep,
knowing I would never drown –
the water would carry me
in its cool silk arms. My ambition
was to be loved for my mind.
That was before I found out,
if a man says, “You have a lovely mind,”
it’s the end of hope.
Only Shelley did not fail me,
Shelley with his girlish face,
falling on the thorns of life.
Still I wanted to tell him you never
battle against a wave,
but lie on it as on a beloved body.
I had only Shelley left --
my eyes closing, the lamp shedding
tired shadows, I held back
the sea of sleep
for one lyrical moment of belief.
In the morning I waited for the bus
in front of a beauty parlor
called “The House of Joy,”
reading for the thousandth time:
I went to work
with unimproved eyebrows,
past Golden State Auto Wrecking
and Wilmington Scrap.
Critics despised Shelley.
How can one respect
a poet who died an incompetent death?
My parents were ashamed of me –
I wasn’t getting a Ph.D.
and lived an incompetent life.
Only Shelley did not blame me,
only Shelley would outlast
the stench of oil refineries,
the wheezing pumps, the infernal
night-and-day burn-off flame
over the lovers’ lane on Signal Hill.
From there one could see
ten million city lights, Los Angeles
blazing with desire and despair.
I had only Shelley left, returning at night
to the dreamer who sought A splendour
among shadows, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.
Meanwhile I sent out my brief resumé.
On the backs of rejection slips
I scribbled words like fevered leaves.
Mad brother in the margins of clouds,
yours is not yet a dead language.
That’s why I keep the waves
moonlit, sometimes swim out so far,
I forgive everything,
teach my ghost to sing.
Glorious phantom: whom did you
read before falling asleep?
~ Oriana © 2013
I owe my minor success in life to the practice of doing something for one hour a day, every day. It wasn’t always the right choice -- Shelley was not really the right poet in the sense of providing a matrix for modern poetry -- but drowning in the moonlight of Selected Shelley was deep and calming, as opposed to simply flitting through sound bytes in popular magazines.
Now, minor success may not sound like much, but it is, next to being an utter failure with unimproved eyebrows. Seriously, what could be more tragic than squandering one’s unique and only existence? And I know more than one person with a high IQ and splendid education who ended up doing nothing more splendid in life than writing email and cruising Facebook.
(A digression I can’t resist: one ruinous factor is having a trust fund -- even a small one that makes the person live in squalor. I’ve met one life-squanderer who slept in his car! During the day he sat in various cafés like Encinita's "Swami's," reading newspapers and free New Age magazines).
But the practice of “one hour every day” not about “success.” It’s about depth. Given my curiosity and the great pleasure I take in learning about a great variety of subjects, I could browse my way through life, or I could live deeply and learn to do a few things at the level of excellence.
GONE WITH THE WIND, OR HOW I DISCOVERED THE SECRET
Winifred Gallagher, the author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, recommends deliberately training yourself to be more focused. In this age of mania and short attention span, try this: “for one hour a day, do just one thing.” This “attention training exercise” really hit home, because that’s exactly how I mastered English (while still in Warsaw). For one hour each afternoon, I plodded through Gone with the Wind, a heavy Polish-English dictionary at my side.
I need to explain that I already had some foundation, some basic vocabulary, even if I was confused by the alien grammar, the odd excess of tenses. That foundation was hardly adequate for tackling a long novel (with stretches of black dialect besides!) But, guess what . . . I didn’t know that I wasn’t “ready” for Gone with the Wind. No one told me it was too advanced for me.
No one told me -- because I told no one! I read the novel in secret for one hour every day after school, and Sunday at a similar time. Oh those golden Sunday afternoons when instead of enjoying whatever sunshine could be had under Warsaw’s turbulent skies, I communed with Scarlett O’Hara, who was no angel. For the first three months, my reading speed hovered around ten pages an hour, and afterwards I had a tension headache. Every time.
By the end of the semester, I was up to twenty-five pages an hour, the headache was replaced by pleasure, and my reading knowledge of English was near-perfect. But there was yet another effect. That year was the happiest year of my life.
I know that the slow, torturous-at-first reading of Gone with the Wind wasn’t the only factor. But it was a significant one. Without it I wouldn’t have had the safe harbor of that one hour of intense attention. That Scarlett was no angel was astonishing enough; that I could concentrate so totally on phrases such as “white trash” and “I’ll think about it tomorrow,” was also amazing. But the most amazing part was the sheer pleasure that I eventually began to experience when I reached the reading speed of 16-17 pages an hour.
Looking back, whenever I was happy in a reliable manner (I know that “reliable happiness” sounds like an oxymoron), it was always connected with intense mental work. Almost always that work involved very slow reading, as if I were trying to acquire a language (be it English or the terms used in endocrinology). I felt happy in libraries, especially college libraries where the reading was more difficult, forced more slowness.
So I had learned my secret, but the whirlwind of life took me far away, and I wasn’t in Warsaw anymore. I resumed my practice of slow reading only during what might be euphemistically called my “Shelley years.” It wasn’t quite an hour, but I did indeed have a bedtime ritual of reading poetry. For a while it was Shelley, but eventually Wordsworth suited me more, being that rarity among the great Romantics, a poet of tranquility. Later I discovered Dickinson, Eliot, and more. When I discovered Rilke, my life changed. Rilke taught me seriousness -- but that’s a separate topic.
Still, Shelley has remained especially dear to me -- my mad brother, a paradoxically soothing companion through the years of despair. The ungainly wreck of Ozymandias and the glacial pyramid of Mont Blanc loom forever in my mind.
Why this ghostly lingering? Just as a novelist creates unforgettable characters, a great poet creates unforgettable iconic images. Coleridge naturally gives us the Ancient Mariner with an albatross hung around his neck; it takes some intellectual heavy lifting to dispose of the giant bird and see instead the wind harp, and all of humanity as aeolian harps. From Keats I take the Grecian Urn. From Blake I take the Tiger, which makes god not an answer, but a question.
Definitely NOT Blake’s tigers
Later there was an interlude in which my solitary therapy turned out to be reading a fairly mediocre and soon forgotten book of literary criticism on Hardy’s poetry. The content didn’t matter, only the fact that it was challenging enough to make me sink into slow reading as a nun sinks into contemplative prayer. After much turbulence, the healing sense of peace I experienced while reading that non-brilliant book, fortunately complex enough to provide a mental workout, is all I really remember of the experience.
Later yet I managed to survive a distressful year by reading Wallace Stevens every night. The woman who strolled along the beach singing “beyond the genius of the sea” strolled regularly through my mind, her small but persistent melody reassuring me that at least singing remained. Stevens demanded so much concentration that he saved my sanity when I felt within inches of running out into the street screaming before being dragged off to a locked ward.
When I first read these lines in “Broom,” a poem by Deborah Digges, I couldn’t get them out of my mind:
I asked myself, when was I happy?
When did the light hold me and I didn't struggle?
The question hit deep. And the answer came in two parts, related in a surprising (at first glance) way. Dear old Sigi [Freud], here we go again: “love and work.” Like most women, I have some romantic memories I treasure, but that realm seems terribly uncontrollable, and ultimately full of frustration. Still, I can say, "Whenever I fell in love, I felt happy.” Ecstatic even, if we omit the agony part.
But not only. I had periods of happiness in my life when I wasn't seeing anyone -- nor did I wish to. Reliable happiness has come from the quieting and centering power of deliberate attention. For me, most serene happiness has come from work, not love.
And that's perhaps where I differ from most women, and I suspect that you fall in the same general category. Romantic love cannot sustain us for long, and anyway, romantic love must die to make room for long-term attachment. And motherhood, I've been told, "is like marriage; it’s not like romance."
Or, as one man described his lover who also happened to be my only and unreliable woman friend: “Sweet, but trouble.”
ONE THING FOR ONE HOUR EVERY DAY
Poetry forces slowness due to its density of images and ideas. If you let your mind drift for even one minute, you have to start all over again. Reading Deborah Digges is slow work since her poems are complex web of interlacing images (in less successful poems such density becomes a clutter). It’s not a transparent narrative that reads as easily as good fiction. “Why would I want to read anything written in such a contrived way?” someone once asked me. The best answer might be: because it’s attention training.
The image I take from Digges? The “greeter of souls.”
Perhaps every poet worth reading is a greeter of souls: a portal to entering depth through slowness.
I don't know how to classify writing poetry, as opposed to reading it. I think it's more like being in love -- the uncontrollable aspect is exciting, inspiration is a high -- but the process is also fraught with anguish and frustration. For one thing, writing poetry involves a lot of decisions about word choice -- and choice is stress.
Also, inspiration is often partial. Imagine ten or even twenty years of knowing that a certain ending is weak. Now I'm finally learning to let go, knowing that something better will come later -- and if it won't, that's not so terrible. A friend’s “It’s only a poem" -- rejected by me at first -- is a pearl of rare price. When Megan first said it, I wanted to kill her: what desecration! A few years later, knowing that “it’s only a poem” saved my life again and again.
Contrary to the idea of “poetry as therapy,” writing poetry is NOT therapy. READING great poetry can be very effective therapy; my blog is devoted to this idea. If you need emotional healing, I don’t recommend writing poetry, especially I you are an advanced poet who understands the enormous demands of the art: it’s too devouring. But slowly reading great poetry will create a beautiful calm.
So we are back to the “reliable happiness” that results from intense, deliberate attention related to slow reading. Better than chanting or repeating mantras, it was always slow reading that calmed me down and centered me. Every day I had this refuge, whether Gone with the Wind, Chomsky's essays on linguistics (quiet ecstasy in the library!), The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, or -- I am not making this up -- articles in The Journal of Experimental and Clinical Endocrinology. The subject didn't matter, only the slowness of the reading, and doing it again and again.
Whenever I had this center, the rest of my life was easier to take. If I happened to have a relationship, I could ride the ups and downs better than if I didn't have that intense quiet focus (which made everything else less important). In my recent reading of both Deborah Digges and my friends’ work, I saw this meticulous accretion of images, and had to pay intense attention. And I recognized that familiar feeling of peaceful happiness.
CAN YOU DO TWO THINGS INSTEAD OF JUST ONE?
In theory, it sounds easy. Why not even three things? Wouldn’t it be three times as good?
In practice, just doing one thing for one hour every day is challenging enough. “We manage best when we manage small”~ Linda Gregg.
Listen: it’s hard enough to do one thing every day for just ten minutes. I remember what a lapsed Catholic friend told me: “I decided I’d say this one particular prayer every day for nine days. I thought it would be very easy. In fact it turned out to be very, very hard.”
Yes, doing just one attention-demanding thing every day is difficult enough. Most lives are so cluttered and scattered that nothing is ever done slowly and well, much less at the level of excellence.
Cultivate one garden. Focus on one poet. Choose just one exercise.
Just one. Focus, focus, focus.
Everyone knows the saying, “Less is more.” It goes farther than that: more -- abundance, mastery, peace, happiness -- begins with less. I’m stealing this motto --
MORE BEGINS WITH LESS -- from the life coach Janet Luhrs.
Let me steal one more thing:
THE STRAWBERRY JAM RULE: THE THINNER YOU SPREAD YOURSELF, THE LESS GOOD YOU CAN DO.
Far more than you realize, your experience, your world, and even your self are the creations of what you focus on . . . Targets of your attention are the building blocks of your life.
I still say that in great matters -- who we fall in love with, for instance -- we have no conscious control unless to run away, but some temptations are so great the only thing to do is to yield to them, as Oscar Wilde said. Factors such as the person's physical resemblance to someone we loved in childhood may be primary. But when it comes to daily activities, the practice of voluntary attention -- doing just one thing for one hour every day -- gives us a certain realm of control.
It was a sheer good luck that Gone with the Wind in English happened to be available to me in Warsaw, and not, say, How to Be a Successful Teenager -- the latter didn’t fall into my hands until I arrived in Milwaukee. Fate spared me blithe simplicity. Let me reiterate: anything that I achieved in life I achieved by doing it every day.
When was I happy? Unreliably and with anguish, whenever I fell in love. Reliably and without anguish, whenever I engaged in mental work requiring intense attention. That's WHEN THE LIGHT HELD ME AND I DIDN'T STRUGGLE.
ADDENDUM, SEPTEMBER 1, 2013
THIS KEEPS COMING BACK: PRACTICE RATHER THAN “TALENT” -- BUT PASSION AND INTRINSIC INTEREST MUST BE THERE
I’m not sure if we can dismiss genetics: my cousin Ewa showed a talent for mathematics already in grade school: she went for beyond assignments and solved math problems for fun. I, on the other hand, read voraciously, played with words, created new ones, dove into the archaic, and learned languages with ease (this became obvious to my first English teacher after only a single lesson). Ewa became a professor of mathematics at the University of Lodz. I can boast of only moderate success as a poet and writer, but given that I’m an introvert who never went after “connections,” I didn’t entirely fail either.
In terms of talent running in the family, my father (Ewa’s uncle) was a mathematician, while three of his sisters had literary talent and did publish; one was more into mathematics.
But patience and persistence have to be there too. I showed some mathematical ability (I loved algebra), but did not have the patience for complicated problems. But I did have infinite patience (and passion) when it came to learning a language. I discovered the miracle of daily practice in my teens (a tad late, but I didn’t have a mentor).
Below is a quotation from an article that tries to debunk the concept of talent. Practice is all, it says. Again, I don't completely agree with this, but I do know the power of practice. And I agree that you have to do the boring part of practice, not just the fun part. The capacity to sustain boring practice is probably largely genetic.
“People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success.
The elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.
K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort (which I describe below). Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent.
Elite performers also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time. Ericsson says that “elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount EVERY DAY INCLUDING WEEKENDS.” Spending a half hour jogging over the weekend isn’t going to make you a great runner, but training every day might. Dabbling with your paints every once in awhile isn’t going to make you a great artist, but practicing your drawing every day for a decade might.
Favorite lines in "Shelley":
From there one could see
ten million city lights, Los Angeles
blazing with desire and despair.
An hour a day of slow reading is great practice in growth and developing depth.
"No one told me it was too advanced for me" was a very touching line.
Your workouts of concentrating on complex books reminds me of my wind sprint workouts at night. Almost nobody can do that either.
Lot of wisdom here:
"Contrary to the idea of “poetry as therapy,” writing poetry is NOT therapy. READING great poetry can be very effective therapy; my blog is devoted to this idea. If you need emotional healing, I don’t recommend writing poetry, especially if you are an advanced poet who understands the enormous demands of the art: it’s too devouring. But slowly reading great poetry will create a beautiful calm."
Several people singled out the lines about Los Angeles. I know I was projecting my own emotional state on the city, but the city itself seemed to contain the extremes of hope and despair. The “factory of dreams”: great expectations, and then, much of the time, the shattering of those expectations. It rings true of all great cities, as contrasted with little towns (though little towns can be outposts of despair).
But the lights, the lights! There’s something magnificent about a huge field of city lights. Magnificent and frightening, the definition of the sublime.
As for reading complex material, to this day I remember the high I felt after reading Chomsky’s ideas on linguistics. Wading through all the complexity made me almost eerily happy. It’s amazing what intense focus can do. I wouldn’t risk my life the way people who engage in extreme sports do, but I think I understand why they love it.
At the same time I realize that I may be creating some confusion here. There is a high that results from the so-called “hyperfocus,” but ideally “calm focus” is the best and most beneficial mental state. It’s more like meditation, without the obsessiveness and burnout that can be the dark side of prolonged hyperfocus. What I love best is not excitement, but a very deep calm.