I am trying to write a poem. I’m sure that’s terribly surprising.
I spent the last two weeks working on an essay, a memoir piece that attempts to juggle three different narratives until they cohere, each discrete section emerging as part of a whole. It was a difficult piece to write. For one, I’ve been through the stories so often in my head that I found it difficult to approach them cold, from a reader’s perspective; I’m still not sure that I’ve made the whole make sense in terms of chronology, or if I’ve made apparent the connections that now feel so glaringly obvious to the person who spent years trying to find them. And it was emotionally draining—not so much a result of the subjects, which I felt able to approach with relative objectivity, the surgical feeling I get when I have the distance I need to see things clearly. It was difficult precisely because of that clarity.
In a creative nonfiction course I took as an undergrad—a course so good that I found few to rival it in seven years of graduate study—we opened the semester by exploring, via Montaigne, the roots of the essay as a form. “Essay” is derived from the French assay, meaning ‘to attempt’. An essay attempts meaning, attempts clarity, attempts resolution, which means one must go into the writing of such a creature without an end in mind; otherwise, it’s not an essay, but a report on something that’s already decided. Forster’s famous line comes to mind: “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said?” The idea in essay-writing, for me at least, is to let go of whatever inhibitions—mostly fear, mostly of rejection—keep you from telling the truth about what you think. The problem with this particular essay is that I’m not terribly happy about what, it turns out, I think: that hurt people hurt others—not out of malice or premeditation, but simply out of the instinct to survive. Not every hurt person, and not all the time; sometimes we’re self-aware, conscious of our wounds and capable of acting from a place of love, rather than anger or fear. But no one succeeds in doing so all the time, even when we ought to know better, a fact I proved to myself simply by writing one of those three stories, a narrative that had me researching defamation lawsuits when I considered the damage the essay might do if I published it. Faced with the choice to protect someone who’d hurt me deeply or to tell the truth about how I felt, I consciously chose myself.
So I finished a draft and sent it off to my writing group (hi writing group!) and for a couple of days I felt good: I’d let myself say things I’d needed to say for a very long time. Suddenly the manuscript of poems I’ve been working on snapped into focus; I could see the big picture; I no longer felt like I had to tell this particular story, fantastically unsuited to poetry, in a poem; I’d already told it. I guess I needed to get it out of my system and I’m glad that I did. But I keep thinking about Tolstoy and Gardner and morality. I agree; art should be moral. Is a selfish act ever moral? At this moment—in this attempt—I think not.
When I started the essay, I was recently back from a few glorious days in Philadelphia, the happy recipient of travel funds from a supportive English department, where I wandered the museum district’s endless blossoming trees and tried very hard not to drool on anything in the Rodin Museum. One afternoon I was met by an old friend, my college roommate, who’d snuck off from her medical practice so we could spend a few hours together. She was the person who’d introduced me to Rodin’s work. We were eighteen. She was the first person my own age I’d ever met who was as passionate about art as I was, and though we were randomly assigned as roommates by the housing board, we became immediate friends. A musician, she taught me how to listen to classical music—with your heart and your gut, not your head. She taught me a lot about drama; I’d never have read—or loved—The Lion in Winter were it not for her, or quite understood Hamlet without her impassioned defence of Kenneth Branagh’s film. And she showed me a photo of her favourite sculpture, Rodin’s Cathedral, which became a central image in one of my first poems. Later that year, we took the train to 30th Street Station to see the Rodin. That was fifteen years ago, years during which our lives changed as the lives of young people always do: cross-country moves and graduate programs and husbands and more moves and children and houses and dying parents and jobs. And coming to terms with the past, over and over again, because it’s never dead. Or more accurately: it’s never dead as long as you’re not. As long as you’re still learning and thinking, adjusting the lens through which you view it. We sat in the garden and talked for hours about the things that had happened to us when we were 18 and 19 and 20 and 21 and I marvelled as I always do about the restorative power of an old friend, the one who confirms your memory and thereby affirms your self. Seeing her, particularly seeing her there, a place so entangled with my memories of what would become a very difficult time in my life, something about which I’d never dared to write, was like being given permission to exist as a whole, breathing person, instead of what I’d been: a statue half-formed from clay.
On Tuesday I did threshold intervals: four eight-minute nuggets of agony, with eight minutes of rest in between. I was still tired from the weekend’s endurance ride, so the first one was tough to grind out. I was fully warmed up by the second and had a tailwind, then met an old teammate halfway through the interval; chatting with him took my mind off the pain and I recorded my best power for the workout. Numbers three and four came after the turnaround and into a tough headwind. I put my head down and made the decision to grind it out no matter what. Towards the end of the third interval I felt, for the first time and with surprising precision, the exact point where the muscle is missing from my left leg. For two and a half years I’ve experienced varying amounts of weakness and pain: first pain, obviously, from the surgery, which was intense for a few days and then surprisingly mild. Then weakness; I remember the triumph of walking to the end of the block for the first time, a trip that took me about a week to build up to. I was on my bike two months after the surgery, when the illusion of muscular balance I’d built up through physio was exposed by how quickly the leg fatigued. When I started to make gains, they were incredibly quick: huge jumps—10 or 15%—in average power over the course of a month. I was constantly building strength and usually in pain: muscle soreness or adhesion in the fascia, both of which my massage therapist was able to manage pretty brilliantly—though that hurt quite a lot, too. Now I have bouts of bad pain, particularly when there’s a low-pressure system moving in, and days at a time with none at all. I’ve reached what I’d estimate, based on my weight-training, to be 95% strength, which seems to mean that I’m strong enough to finally feel what’s missing. It’s not weakness of the existing muscle that feels like a sudden dead spot at the bottom of my pedal stroke but the absence of muscle. I wouldn’t dream of letting that 5% keep me from doing, well, anything, even though some things that are lost stay lost.