The last three weeks have been a bit of a blur for me. The restaurant at Duke reopened with the new semester and there were still things to do at the Durham restaurant beyond my usual responsibilities, leaving me with one day off in the last twenty or so days until today. Things have gone well. Business is better at Duke than it was this time last year, our staff is working well, and I’m feeling good about the way things are going – and I am going non stop. In the meantime, my writing has been more private than usual, consisting mostly of my doing my best to stick with my Morning Pages; far too many nights I have chosen to sleep rather than post here, which is not an easy choice because it leaves me feeling lopsided and out of balance.
Mary Oliver says, “Writing a poem is making and keeping appointments between the heart and the learned skills of the conscious mind.”
By that definition, life is poetry: it’s all about keeping those same appointments between head and heart, between being and doing, and stepping into the traffic of the intersection where all those things meet to see how we might keep things flowing, rather than ending up in gridlock.
I’m aware these days, in my aching feet and tired bones, of the unity of our created beings, the oneness of body, mind, and spirit that give our words physicality and turn our actions into language. How I am able to think and feel and write is never separated from my body, even when I try to disconnect them. Oliver, again:
Language is rich and malleable. It is a living, vibrant, material, and every part of a poem works with every other part – the content, the pace, the diction, the rhythm, the tone – as well as the very sliding, floating, thumping, rapping sounds of it.
Ginger and I took Ella, our youngest Schnauzer, out for a walk this afternoon. Actually, I should say I joined the two of them on their regular outing since I was not at work. Walking has been a connecting activity for us over the years. There’s something about talking about thoughts and feelings as your feet pound the pavement that is both literally and figuratively grounding. We were talking about some of the choices we are making these days and how they are making us feel more responsible. She used the word first and it brought back something I have either heard or read (the source now lost in the file cabinets of my mind) about the way that word breaks down: response + ability – the ability to respond. The dictionary says the seven hundred year old roots of respond lie in answer, reply, and promise.
To live responsibly, then, we might say is living in a way that lets me keep my promises. When I let life get lopsided, I lose sight of the way in which, like poetry, every part of life works with every other part and I am not able to respond appropriately, by which I mean to answer life as an integrated being who has a sense of what is at stake in the slightest of encounters.
After our walk, we dropped Ella back at the house and took ourselves to dinner at Chubby’s Tacos, to use up the remnants of a gift certificate. The woman who appeared to be the manager, based on all the stuff she was trying to do during a very busy dinner rush, was task-oriented and terse, as I have experienced her on our other visits to the restaurant. She was not rude or unprofessional, but she seemed to be wearing her best relational Teflon so nothing would stick to her for long. The restaurant is small and our table was right next to the cash register. The manager was taking orders and we could see a large tattoo of a large dog on her calf. The woman stepped away from the register to do something else and Ginger asked if that was her dog.
“Yes,” she said. “We have four of them at our house.” The next thing I knew, the nonstick coating had fallen away and the woman came over to our table with some pictures she had pulled out from under the counter to show us photographs of her dogs, all of which had been rescued in one way or another. Ginger’s question had given the woman room to respond, to keep the promises we make to be human to one another, even as Ginger had kept hers by asking in the first place.
“The goal,” says Mary Oliver, “is to write memorably.”
Another +able words: able, in this case, to be remembered. The call, in this poem we call life, is to live memorably, responsibly – to keep our promises by fleshing out the details in such a way that the content, pace, diction, rhythm, and tone make more of our days than a recitation of what is wrong or what we wish would happen, and offer a slice of the story that belongs to and connects all of us.
When my life gets lopsided, I lose sight of my ability to respond, to answer, to play my part in the call and response of our existence and too easily convince myself that I am a solitary poet, composing a life that is mostly about me. The rhythm of life too quickly sounds more like metronome than melody and my words monosyllabic. When I choose to keep my promise to respond to the God who breathed me into existence, to Ginger who loves me unfailingly, to my singing Cuban dishwasher, to my tail-wagging Schnauzers, to those I pass in the traffic of life, I begin to remember I have one small part in a far larger work of poetic genius that calls me to be responsible, to keep my promises, and to live memorably.