walking as writing practice: warts and all

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I’ve been going in literal circles, many days walking two or three miles around a short loop. The reason for the repetitive route is that it’s mostly void of traffic. Instead of worrying about cars, I let my guard down, get lost in thought, concentrate on podcasts or audiobooks, pay close attention to scenery. It started as a way to get more exercise, but it’s also turning out to be creative fuel. Walking as writing practice, I’m finding. Again. I was closer to this idea back when I was running regularly. If the blank page freaked me out, it often meant I needed to pound some pavement. I am forgetful. The upside is it allows for frequent rediscovery.

The other day, as I was finishing my walk, I noticed a broken birdhouse on the grass. How had I, on so many previous trips around the block the same day, overlooked something so peculiar? Yes, a broken birdhouse is a pretty simple thing. I don’t mean to imply it’s a strange phenomenon. But had I ever seen one? And why did I feel disturbed by it?

It may be easier right now to list what doesn’t disturb me; my general anxiety/alert level is I THINK THERE’S SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE. So, yes, even the birdhouse upset me. At first, I imagined some violence. A rowdy squirrel. A hungry cat. But weather and time are just as likely to have exacted their own slow violence.

Or maybe I was disturbed because the collapsed structure was a metaphor (likely, for democracy, LOL). But seriously: It fell to pieces. It is personal failure, terrific disappointment, ousting. Something has been yanked away.

Or maybe it just felt dark compared with the ideal I hold. When I picture a birdhouse, it’s being made: a child’s small hands, popsicle sticks, sloppy paint, cheerful colors. Or it’s already installed, proud in its right angles and tiny details. Scalloped edges along the roof line, maybe. A thin dowel for perching near the entry. A birdhouse is a way to take great care with small things. It’s a symbol of tenderness and hope.

If this blog is about something other than poetry, it’s about how difficult I find it to __________. Difficult to navigate the world. Difficult to carry The Things. Difficult to meet demands. Difficult to juggle. Difficult to rest. Difficult to strive. Difficult to cope with long winters, the grind and toxic positivity. Difficult to keep up. Difficult to be an anxious person. Difficult to feel alive. To shake off dread. To wake up. To fall asleep. To connect. To breathe. To thrive function. To parent, daughter, sister, wife, woman, citizen.

Difficult to find my way.

Recently, via email, someone mocked me for these feelings, suggesting that being “overwhelmed” (the word I’d given it) was just an excuse, some kind of lie, a front. It was easy to see the author’s pain inside the note’s nasty tone. If anything, it supports what I say about how difficult it is to be in a difficult world with difficult problems and difficult people. (We’re all difficult, by the way. You. Me. All of us. Everyone.) We need grace, not judgment, and I wish healing for all of us, including the emailer. But since I’ve seen this movie before, as they say, I gave myself the grace the emailer failed to and removed myself from their orbit. I did not find it difficult.

Though most of my walking route is quiet, a small stretch falls on a major thoroughfare. Through town, the speed limit is 35, but most cars disregard it. There are no sidewalks, and the shoulder is narrow. I have to be alert here, which mostly translates into glaring at cars that refuse to slow down or create a safe distance when they pass.

Over the course of a recent week, I conducted a very unscientific study and found that only about a third of cars offer this buffer. However, a disproportionate number of those are Subarus. It seems clear, based on this “research,” that Subaru drivers are considerate and careful. Or maybe that’s what I observe because I also drive a Subaru and want to think highly of the way I move in the world.

Someone (maybe Mary Karr?) says that in writing memoir, you should be hardest on yourself. So here’s my confession: Not all parts of me vote for grace in the face of aggression. Not all of me wants to give a wide berth. Some of me pickets on the street outside the Establishment of Politeness carrying signs about smashing down the patriarchy / the birdhouse / the expectation that we owe one another anything.

C’est la vie. Just out here doing my best. Warts and all.

C’est la vie. What a delightful phrase to stumble upon as I write this post. It’s such a contrast to difficult, a word that gets stranger and stranger the more you say or write it. Difficult. Difficult. Difficult.


It even looks like a harsh landscape.

But c’est la vie? Smooth and sexy. Team Difficult vs. Team C’est La Vie? No contest. Clear choice.

If only it were like that. I don’t hang onto difficulty on purpose. I am aware that by struggling with the struggling I make things more of a struggle, a statement that leads me to give a shout out to Glennon Doyle, a fellow deep feeler and author of many very good books. In Untamed she writes, “Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because you’re doing it right.”

And so while it’s not c’est la vie sexy, my struggle is my struggle. And anyway, I’m not on a hero’s journey. Instead, I’m just over here spinning the numbers in search of the right combo for unlocking contentment. Or, absent contentment, for something a few sediment layers above plain old survival. Spin and spin. Take a lap. Warts and all.

If this blog is about something other than poetry, I believe it also points to beauty and light and making peace with things. Team C’est La Vie in the house. Sometimes.

For example, these are the recent accomplishments of our poet: She successfully works “f*ck around and find out” into a poem; makes a smoothie with tofu taste like pumpkin pie; states, for the record, the indoor plants aren’t dead yet; pulls the room together with a carpet from Wayfair; loves, with all her heart, several large goofballs, including the sons, the hubz, the greyhound. She still loathes chasing a step count but admits that, over the course of a week, the walking delivers lines for poems and starters for essays by the handful. She’s writing when she’s not writing.

It’s not just the birdhouse that shows itself. One morning, despite strong sun, fog lingers on top of the hill; a teenager buried under the covers, it sleeps the day away. In a neighbor’s yard, a pair of dogs does not rest. They keep watch. As I pass, the one that looks like a bloodhound mix barks its head off while the black lab warns me by taking its feelings out on the blue plush toy in its mouth. A chain link fence confines them in a space slightly behind and to the right. An asterisk to the house. A note giving us more information.

A different house has decorated for Halloween, depicting on its lawn the aftermath of some massacre. Bodies cover the grass. Most figures wear old blue jeans and flannel shirts. They have stuffed plastic shopping bags for heads. When I look closer, though not on the first lap or the third or the fifteenth, I notice that one head is actually a teddy bear mask. That fallen body sports a pair of black Keds. Everything is sprayed with red paint, which I guess represents blood and gore. A disturbance. The “F*ck Biden” flag on the porch is not part of the seasonal decor. It’s been flapping for months. Across the street, a skeleton with a brown cowboy hat waves from its perch on an antique tractor.

I fall in love with some detail at each house: a cluster of dwarfs like my mom painted one year in a ceramics class; a blue canoe, upside down; children’s drawings in a front window, including a large pane with a crayon portrait of a cat named Serenity. Think I can get away with that in a poem?

This new walking practice is also proving helpful in acclimating to my new neighborhood and new life phase. In their prose poem “Index,” Kell Connor writes, “Sharp air. Marigold, the scent of the other world, the underworld, on a clear day. … At a certain point a sense of place just assembles from thin air. I am inside my arrival, …”

A couple of months in, I am very much arriving still. It’s difficult for me (no surprise there) to find a sense of belonging, to allow myself to put down roots, to feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. For a lot of my life, I’ve been restless. I’ve craved escape. But I’m learning that there’s a romance in arriving. In learning how the light behaves in the new house at every time of day and in each new season. In learning that the growling I hear some evenings is just neighbors rolling garbage to the road. In learning to tell time by church bells and fire signals. In learning that even here I’m a person who lives out of a laundry basket but nitpicks when others are messy. Forget. Rediscover. Wherever you go, there you are. Warts and all.

I’m grateful for these new windows into where I am and who I am, which means I must also be grateful, I suppose, for all the sorting and processing I do. I go ’round and ’round. It’s difficult at times, but inside this particular arrival, I’m trying to be more gentle. Thank you, Glennon. Thank you, therapy. I’m not always successful, but my approach is much less combative — both inwardly and externally — than it used to be. There’s less kicking and screaming. More walking. More laughing, including (and especially), laughing at myself. C’est la vie.

Wouldn’t it be funny, for example, if the person who sent me that email drove a Subaru? My theories are likely hilarious to the universe. And that’s one thing I’m loving about this particular arriving: I’ve circled it enough times to see the folly in insisting upon, with 100% certainty, my version of anything. Built into that is a kind of forgiveness. How careful or careless we are depends on the day we’re having.

The day after I stumbled upon the broken birdhouse, I noticed — a few feet away in the very same yard — a different birdhouse. Weathered, like the other, but continuing.

Wrapped in brown tendrils and crafty green leaves, it survives. I have no idea if it’s welcoming to birds, but it gives my metaphor for tenderness and hope a place to live. I was delighted to spot it well after the fact of the other. It gave me time with deflation and disturbance, which had something to show me. “Once awake, I tend to like it,” writes Dobby Gibson in the opening line of “Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lurks the Will to Survive.”

One step in front of the other, kids. There’s a reason repetition is critical to this work.

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