Most often, I don’t. I watch basketball instead. I check my e-mail. I cook dinner and make love to my girlfriend and read magazine articles about the financial crisis. I move constantly, from Brooklyn, New York, to the Pacific coast of Mexico, to Portland, Oregon, to the rural South, to Portland again, and now to upstate New York, all in a period of a little over three years.
Meanwhile, my writing gets neglected. The novel I began in Brooklyn languishes on my desktop. The poems I write intermittently recede from my consciousness. Published critical essays fade into the Internet ether. The writing life I once imagined for myself seems to slip further and further away.
What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does gets done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry.
I moved from Brooklyn to Mexico to work at a holistic hotel, with the idea that I would be able to use my free time to expand on my novel. Instead, I spent most of it walking to the nearest town and back, paddling in the ocean, and smoking a lot of unfiltered cigarettes. Finally, shortly before I was scheduled to leave, I sat down on the sand and opened my notebook. The waves here lap against the beach like a neighborhood cop /making the rounds, I wrote. The mosquitoes come to visit / at night like old friends / and leave with a little blood / like old friends. The dogs are at peace /with their fleas.
Soon after, I moved to Portland with my girlfriend, where we lived in a small apartment augmented, inexplicably, by a clique of closets. I made one of them into my writing room, outfitting it with books, pencils, notebooks and even a wooden sculpture of a man carrying a basket on his back—a man working!—in the hope that it might motivate me. In the end, though, I spent more time in the chair by the window smoking cigarettes and surfing job postings than fleshing out my novel. Barista, waiter, dishwasher, bartender, I eventually, morosely, wrote, pizza delivery man, basketball referee—you name it, I’ve applied. Nobody ever writes you back. And it’s not like you wanted any of those jobs anyway.
In those months, while my girlfriend worked, I began a series of love poems, a genre I had heretofore ignored. Honey, one began, there is no end for us / not that I can see. / Call me, if you must, a denier of catastrophe. / But your body and your body and your body and—
I used to do dirty things, I confessed in another, shameful. / But this was before I knew you / before we built the apartment on Fargo street / where so much has flowered / gone right for us / even if we are poor and sometimes bored.
The next summer, we moved to Alabama where we lived briefly as apprentices to cash-strapped organic farmers. One afternoon, on a water break, I retreated to our trailer. Intelligence not / in service of love, I wrote, is useless, at best, / and at worst destructive. On another farm in Texas a few weeks later, I began a prose piece, a version of which was later published in an Oregon newspaper, that described asparagus stalks poking from the soil like the crooked fingers of a hand with the palm submerged and celebrated squash blossoms spread open and lovely in the early dawn.
After we moved back to Portland in the fall, I found work as a caregiver for people with disabilities. One of my clients, a forty something with cerebral palsy, liked to blast the Christmas songs on her radio all day to help with the silence that creeps in / like a caregiver’s hand / during changing time. Another lady who revered the Brady Bunch and the card game Uno I could never bring myself to write about, perhaps because she brought me too much joy. “When are you coming back?” she asked me on my last day, as she always did. “Soon,” I told her.
After that I became a union organizer, writing an essay about labor for an upstart political website. We must learn to tell better stories, I implored, to reclaim the sacred narrative of work and struggle, of justice and equality and worker solidarity.
Three months later, my language had grown considerably less lofty. My job, as I now saw it, was to remind poor people / the outrage of their circumstance. / My job to tally the troops. / No one knows / I have a secret / poet living inside of me. / No one hears / the music burning me up.
Now I live on a farm in upstate New York. We moved here two weeks ago for a joint summer internship. Every morning I am up by six and in the greenhouses by seven—clipping up tomato plants, transplanting baby eggplant, harvesting zucchini, scallions, cucumbers. I’ve done a lot, but until I began this piece I had yet to write a word.
Then, while pulling spinach out of raised beds this morning, ratty-looking stuff headed for the compost, suddenly I heard sentences again, phrases reverberating through my head loud enough to render my headphones irrelevant. I had no pen on me, no paper, only a pair of pruners and a bucket of plastic clips. For the next two hours, I yanked spinach and sang language, repeating the words to myself so I would not forget.
Rumpus original art by Paul Dobry.