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Door into Change: A Blog about Blogging (3/13/21)

I don’t know how to blog. This is clear to me, 2 months into the idea.

It was an idea. Born of a lifelong impulse to express, to share, to live true to my, um, special purpose. Our human condition. Likely amplified by a pandemically isolated sense of self and sensory experience.

My secret-identity, if not my work-a-day one, involves putting words together. I’ve been only occasionally published and paid mostly via contributors’ copies. I’m terrible at putting my writing out there; years go by without my sending off a single submission. This is how not to be considered a writer, outside of an intimate self-identity. And I’ve earned way more bank by singing, acting, drawing/painting, schmoozing at or planning meetings, edumacating, and more.

Downstairs, though! Got a binder full of personal, thoughtful, and meaningful rejection letters from senior editors of my favorite literary sources (The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Missouri Review). And those personal letters are worth more to my spirit than any salary or bonus. If only letters paid the mortgage.

Self-cursed, I am. Like a lover on a Grecian urn. Never quite reaching exactly what I want most to touch. Distracted, in 70-80-hour-work-weeks, by earning actual salary to stay housed, watered, fed.

(In fairness, I earn that salary in part by using words, some written – imagining patients with full lives around them as medical cases, for others to bring to life, from page to stage. No small joy or satisfaction, when students feel they’ve had a meaningful human interaction, afterward.)

Yet feeling out of touch, with the process of publication for my own writing, 23 years past my MFA degree. Any extra energies after work I reserve for my actual writing, not for promoting that writing. Works that have stayed locked inside laptops, or pen-scratched into notebooks gathering dust, or trapped in unplayable “floppy disks.” Unheard.

Comes a time (quaran-time winter break, tumbling into 2021) when this made sense:

1) remember there’s a thing called the Interwebs;

2) pry open just enough research on how to launch a blog/website, at your advanced age;

3) ignore your own lack of a clue or help.

So here I am “blogging” posts I have trouble understanding myself. At least some posts, with sentences and intentions I have trouble understanding myself.

An early misfire: the vague notion that a blog was like a newspaper column. If not a daily assignment, then about matters-of-the-day. Maybe weekly. Likely “topical,” and politically infused, given where I live now (Washington, DC area), commentary, opinion, free-form journalism. To blog correctly, I thought I had to write fast, edit fast, then publish myself, without the seasoned revisiting and clarifying -- over many days, weeks, or years -- that my writerly constitution would prefer.

And I knew better! Writing only initiates a conversation between a writer and the writing, once it’s outside a self. Then you start to figure out what you’re writing about. Which is often not at all what you had thought. It’s the fun part, where you listen, ask questions, walk alongside in silence, circle back to one of those questions with a follow-up. Like any relationship, this takes time and can’t be hurried, and will be worth the time it takes. I could never sustain a daily news-column. Same way I know I’m not a sprinter, but in it, whatever it is, for the long haul.

Especially when my true hope, as our plague celebrates its paper/clock-anniversary – was to understand myself better, and possibly, to be understood better.

The date of our own last breath is a mystery. And my boxes and files full of writing, or ideas for writing, might stay buried forever. If I could summon extra energy to find a literary agent, at least I’d have a bit more to point toward, I thought. Meanwhile, stories from my own life, ones even close family haven’t heard, might reach a handful of ears beyond my own memories.

Also have to concede: Who has time to read, anyway?

No one. Reading more than a page or so of words is a freakin’ miracle. (See also: paper/clock anniversary with plague-partner; brain-fog; overwhelm.)

If lucky enough to telework, who wants to sit even longer, or find the reading glasses we just took off, having stared at a screen all day, to read a paper-based magazine or book, much less even more screenery, and for some novitiate’s under-processed and prematurely ‘published’ posts?

Agreed. I’ve edited some posts here, but even that wears me out. The left side of my brain, the verbal or “digital” brain, as they say, feels like it’s run a marathon every day.

I want art. And music. And moving around. As creative, even professional efforts, these pulled me down their paths only slightly less so than writing did.

A curious truth I have to remind myself about writing – word-painting, -sculpting, -syncopating, -chanting? Words are only symbols. Little drawings, scratches of pen or keyboard. Shapes, once pictographic symbols with important references. Or sounds, by way of singing, and rhythm.

Easy to forget how words hold no meaning, that they’re art or music, themselves. We give them meaning, and we don’t always share an understood vocabulary. Blessed and cursed, we are, to need to use words. Even without our Grecian urns awaiting us to fill them, as cinders.

Pretty cool, though: how words cross from our left, verbal brains into the right, artsy, intuitive sides. We just have to remember where words came from, how they pulled art and music across a thick corpus callosum, and how art and music pull them back into word-less-land, again and again, an expressive dance. This land is our land. Darn old brain-land, of story and fingerpaint, of stalks pressed into shapes in soft clay. Shapes that may trick us, that they hold content unto themselves.

At a rare dinner out (8 mouths on the check, please) after my high-school graduation ceremony, my father plopped a heavy bag by my plate. “I figured you could make good use of these in college.” New, hardbound copies of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Roget’s Thesaurus. I felt incredibly grateful to have editions to keep, and promised I would make good use of them.

The bindings are now weak and some of the letters along the edge have escaped their half-moon moorings.

Over the years, I’ve tried to update both books with newer editions, but these are still the ones I haul from a shelf and leaf through. They’re not trying to be abridged or condensed or concise. They want to retain the deep stories of words, including archaic understandings. Even the deep stories of letters themselves.

Each alphabetic section of my worn dictionary opens with a pictorial and brief bio about the character. A shape from the Phoenicians, usually thousands of years BCE, at far left, starts somersaulting across the page. (And it descended from even older, Canaanite shapes.) Its angles soften into curves as it reaches the right side, the way we recognize it. Before any word entries that start with that letter, we learn the earliest known pronunciation of the original shape, what it “stood for” and how it evolved over thousands of years, as cultures rose and fell. Many letters symbolized parts of the body, or valued assets, like livestock.

Take the “A” – meaning OX. We’re told this oxenly A, if spoken by a New Yorker today, would sound like the vowel in “bottle.” The ox drawing, resting on each side in turn, as centuries and conquerors passed, kept its horns until it became cursive. If we flipped the ox (letter A) on its head even now, the horns would still be clear.

Take “P” – which meant MOUTH. Same tumble, head over heels. (Had to laugh when I revisited that tonight, inside my ancient American Heritage. P became the sound Pi, and pie-hole is one of my favorite synonyms for mouth, also the name of a fictional bakery on a TV show called “Pushing Daisies” that looked, sounded and felt like no other, a show I still miss.)

“S” – TOOTH. Or “D” – DOOR, originally. Important enough, the idea of door, to hold a stylized shape no less valued than a body part, or ox. I love that Door morphed into Delta, symbolizing CHANGE. Change from door, a portal into something different -- we get it. The Delta shape of a delta, where any freshwater merges with the sea, that state of transition. And can’t ignore, the triangle shape of a door into exquisitely intense, sensory moments. Also an egress, for the transition into breathing on one's own, a literal birth.

Any word carries in its DNA those headstands, side-sleepers, cartwheels and original values – with meanings.

Some human, a teacher, had to pass along a current understanding of those drawings and sounds, so their contours or phonemes carried ‘content’. Someone had to have a conversation about how to converse using shapes of conversation. How to get an understanding across the space-between.

Without a shared understanding of meaning, all kinds of misfires – some downright dangerous – can result, not just in (foreign) translation. The meanings of words still evolve across the space between a speaker and hearer, or any two generations within a culture. (I wonder what the letter “A” will look like a thousand years from now, if there are even people here to ‘write’ it, or oxen to embody its ancient history.)

Can’t take this for granted, shared meaning. Any more than an actor on stage can take for granted a feeling of joy or confusion or sympathy or shock … she has to get those feelings across the space between herself and an audience, who must receive and understand her felt intention. An actor, singer, dancer also has to relate to his own expression underway. We’re taught to keep 10% of ourselves on-stage (whatever medium, or size) observing and calibrating our own performance. The meaning of any part of speech or small action, sits alone in each seat.

To web-log, I’ll have to let go of what I thought “deadline” meant. Maybe my “time” is “short,” but one never knows, do one? How dead is a deadline anyway? With later editions, corrections, updates, echoes of its words’ deepest origins, once pressed into clay? The dead and living parts of me will be somewhere, no matter what I write tonight or when I click “publish,” or fill an urn, or a field somewhere, my harder angles softening as they move through time.

A few days ago in a med-student group debrief, after they’d delivered difficult news for a patient, my Zoom poll showed their ‘skill I most intend to work on now’ involved using medical jargon. Such a challenge, as a learner absorbing all the Latin words, to keep translating words-of-the-field into those a patient could understand. (Even a patient I had first imagined onto paper.)

One courageous student raised her Zoom hand (pic in a corner).

“It happens with my friends, too. I told someone I was thinking about going into GI and she said ‘what’s that?’ so I spelled it out [gastro …] but she still said ‘what’s that?’ so I heard myself say, ‘Well, the stomach … and more stuff.’” Exactly, my wonderful future doctor. Those weren’t meaningless words. And, keep searching for more stuff.

I had to applaud her awareness at an early stage of training, and assure them all they’d reach a “fluent” level like their supervisors, with many more years of practice in translation. Awareness is at least half the battle, in trying to turn (ancient) letter-shaped words into other words so someone else (not a doctor) could understand.

Gratefully, as my old dictionary reminds me, there are also Phoenician letters like “O” – for EYE – which keep their fundamental shape across eras of humans who said, literally, “Oh …” at the sight of certain eyes. Somehow that letter comforts me, an eyeball shape that held its eye and didn’t flinch, in the face of countless eras of tumbling doors and change and mouths and teeth and oxen.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how to measure the worth of a whole word of pictures? Our English word DOOR, for example, carries encoded DNA: “Door-Eye-Eye-Head (R)”. Or in other words, “Change-Eye-Eye-Head.”

Change eye-eye head sounds like my process of writing anything, a door into some change.

Where am I going with all this? Your guess is as good as mine. None the wiser, here. And doing it still seems important! Diving in, deep, seems important, even if my audience of hearers has a small venue.

Equally important: taking a break from words. Every 5 years or so, I try to give my right-sided brain special attention, by taking a weekend art class.

“Draw 9 squares on a page. Go outside and sketch quickly 9 things you find in storefront windows, including 1 letter, 1 animal, and 1 natural object. We’ll add color when you’re back in the studio. You’ve got 20 minutes. Get outside!”

Or a ceramics workshop, to manually build and shape a miniature clay pitcher. Decide to scratch it up so it's not perfect and can grab onto some of the glaze and see what happens, color-wise. But fashion a usable spout and attach and smooth a handle so you might actually pour out a bit of cream someday. Then just hope it doesn’t explode in their kiln after you leave for the day, to survive until you can come back and bring it home.

It's a vacation, making art! Keeping the conversation to the eye and hand.

And yet -- darn that callosum. Most of my sketched art for the past 25 years?

You might have already noticed with the blue hat above: a combination of pictures and hand-written text.

A wonderful art teacher, Susan Abbott, holds a weekend intensive called “Traveling with Your Sketchbook.” Immeasurably helpful before I began a 3-week western-U.S. adventure via Amtrak, after my MFA graduation, and ever since.

The words – describing details of the day – simply become another graphic element on the page. (Only tonight do I appreciate that lesson, in a new way.)

Maybe, after all, the structural division between left- and right-brain is only as meaningful as any era’s boundaries, ever-changing over time, travel, influence, a search for resources and meaningful life – the human story. All animals’ story. Maybe all of life’s story, wherever life be found. Including my own wee life out of billions, on the third mess-of-coalesced-elements from the sun of a suburb in a single solar-system among a trillion trillion systems.

Getting a bit Twilight Zone on myself. I’m tired. Only meant to say, many words ago, that I’m immensely grateful to anyone who’s read one of this early-stage learner’s posts. That already keeps me company, as I wonder which gift to offer my pandemic-shutdown anniversary tonight: paper, (traditional) or a clock (modern-era)?

If I never figure out how to blog, I guess I’m okay with that. Been writing -- to try to know myself, from the space outside myself -- way before there was a Web to log onto for logging thoughts of a day. I’ve been trying to reach beyond to your understanding, whoever you are, and seriously, thank you!

You might already guess whether I’d choose the gift of paper (pulp shards glinting, recyclable or even – oh – maybe with seeds of flowers embedded, so you just have to add water, soil, a close star and patience?) or a clock (as if time were a left-brain, digital construct, reaching across history and thought into analog; as if time were that-than-which no greater can be conceived?).

But now I really digress. At some point, we have to draw a (dead)line, however temporal, so I’ll call this a post.

(and Happy Pandemiversary, gentle reader)

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