Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Warm Room

Until not so recently, I spent a lot of time around the holiday season waiting in train stations, bus stations and I even camped out for four days, (yes, four days ) in an airport terminal waiting for a storm to pass. Luckily, the four day hiatus was post-Christmas and it did not look like this train station. Most people I know find waiting in random locations tiresome and annoying. Franky, I miss it terribly. Yes, I miss even places like this train station in Poland where the task of traveling sometimes felt more like an act of faith than an activity. Traveling in Poland was more of a crap shot as to where you might really end up, but even more improbable to predict was the duration of time it would take to go anywhere. Thankfully, a lot of places I ended up looked like this.
This is the place I wish all trains would end up. Maybe they do. Maybe in the locomotives of our minds we each have some preordained destination where one day at random like the Polish train system we will crank open the doors and find a spring field and one bold poppy, waiting. Just like us. Just like us.

And this is why I like waiting at stations, somehow it's like a democratic purgatory of sorts where everyone is alike, everyone waits just like everyone else. No one can out wait another or one up someone's ability to wait. Although I recall watching a group of Serbian men one New Year's try to out wait the world by singing the longest song that latest seven days. They seem to have been seated in a warm room of an Austrian train station for a entire week or seven bottles of vodka which ever came first, just waiting. Perhaps they were waiting for a train that would take them to some other time and not just some distant town.

I've also witnessed people who think they can out wit waiting. A cellphone in hand and one in a protected pocket and laptop in tow, shouting into one of their cellphones to some poor customer service person at an airline company. I've heard sentences shouted, such as, "Do you have any idea who I am," while not so secretly purchasing a ticket on sidestep.com. These people are amazing to watch and I cannot believe their hasn't been a coffee table book of photos taken at airports, to show the agony of defeat or the triumph of home comings. I guess there are just some moments of vulnerability that are just too much to see.

And odd as it might sound, maybe it is just the vulnerability of waiting that I like, the fact that people will strike up conversations with you and openly discuss their views of politics or hope to exchange personal philosophies and all with or without knowing each others first names. My fondest of conversations happen when both parties were speaking different languages and somehow, something got communicated. I recall getting relationship advice once by a man who only spoke Hungarian, I don't speak Hungarian. But somehow, we managed to find ways to learn about each other. It's amazing what you can only learn from hand gestures. I'm sure if any of you who are reading this are mimes then you can really back me up here. I quietly applaud you.

But sometimes, all it has to be is a phrase, a simple gesture that you hold on to. So I send this poem to you as a reminder. If you get stuck somewhere this holiday season, look around, take off your i-pod and maybe you'll have your own moment in limbo that feels surreal and thankfully a gift from the warm waiting room. Happy Holidays. I hope all of your travels end up in a field or as least may it feel like it. Enjoy.

Stop Request

You wouldn’t mistake your mother

for a woman who walks through glass

and sits beside your book.

So you pass the time and frame

the woman’s face, the one who

isn’t your mother. She’s like a Budapest tram

ticket you carry in your wallet

next to the taste of oranges

shared with a boy whose name

you don’t remember. You watch her hands brush

a bit of hair away from her brow while she opens

a can of beer. Not cheap beer either

and rinses her teeth. The warm yeast fills

the room like the smell of sex on cotton. She spits

on the floor. In that moment you love her

more than your mother, who would never spit.

When you leave the room, she shouts

Happy New Year in German. And you believe her.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SkiJøring for Sissies

I've never felt bad about using the word sissy. Sure, I've been known to enforce word restrictions in class, but sissy has never been one of them. Perhaps it says more about me and my desire to be willing to jump into any physical test or at least try--even if it is badminton. I cannot say I was born an athlete, nor would I say I was born a poet, but it's surprising how little talent you need to actually feel good about just giving something a try--be it writing or flailing your body. Even if it is as odd as being pulled by a small dog in arctic temperatures around a snow-filled golf course, attempting a sport directly translated from Norwegian to mean "ski driving," Skijøring, I must admit, is very inspiring. Plus, you get to use such strange letters as the sliced o to make you feel better about your linguistic skills if you aren't that sporty.

And in the history of poetry, you rarely hear about sporty poets climbing mountains or circumnavigating anything but their own brains in search of themselves. The Hemingways of this world seem suited to fiction, riding out their days in Western backdrops along the backs of horses or venturing off for years on end whale hunting, sailing, pirating with nothing but bags of wind and the hope to return to stable shores and typewriters. Their romance with taming nature resembles the task of trying to tell a good story--a long affair of battling odds and time. Included above is my own (failed) attempt to look like I know what I am doing with a gun. I know, I will stick to a pencil.

But poets? We are an odd bunch. We usually work erratically spending long hours of the day or night alone, then sleep it off and go to our jobs that might not resemble anything poetic in hopes that we'll feel like writing again. If we were to be put in some sort of police line-up, a poet might be hard to identify. Minus the tendency towards tweed, poets are really hard to sum up physically. It's not like some genetic disposition like basketball or swimming where the body might guide the path. No, poetry doesn't work like that. I cannot recall hearing someone examine a baby's hands or feet and claiming their destiny, "My that furrowed brow will make him a fine thinker, maybe he'll be a writer?"

Nor is it as mysterious or mythical as some might try to persuade. Actually, if anything being a poet is like being a farmer. Seriously. There needs to be a whole lot of faith in something as temperamental as the weather and a stubborn and sometimes overly prideful belief in your efforts amounting into something, if anything at all. Yet in the case of poets, not farmers, the faith lies in something even more elusive than rain, ( I shyly pause before saying this to not sound too trite), you have to have faith in inspiration and your own capabilities to find it--even in the dark. I like when asked if Faulkner wrote everyday he said, "I only write when I'm inspired, and frankly, I get inspired everyday." Sure, he wrote fiction, but some of the most poetic fiction, so I think it works.

But what works the most for inspiration, isn't waiting for it to come or chasing it across lands and sea, I like to use the analogy of skijoring. Skijoring is a sport based upon a simple principle. You have a harness, the dog has a harness and both of your harnesses are connected and if you move fast enough on your skis and the dog moves fast enough pulling you, you'll find an odd rhythm. Sure, you have sort of forced this rhythm, but it feels somewhat liberating and endless all at the same time.

Now, unlike my husband who holds a world cup in Skijoring, I recently tried it for the first time. I must admit I was oddly displacing my memory of learning to water ski with the idea of skate skiing behind a dog that resembles the size and appearance of a juvenile seal. I had these visions of being pulled into snow banks and being drowned in cold temperatures and arctic winds. Thankfully, I was wrong. I was gracefully given a small female dog, named Mabel, and we were harnessed up and after thorough instruction such as, "Just keep skating. If you fall, the dog will stop." I shyly called, "okay Mabel, lets....um..go?" And that's all it took. Suddenly, this seal leaped and we took off with a short tug and oddly enough some sort of rhythm began.

As I've stated previously, I really cannot claim any physical talent in sports, but I can occasionally keep rhythm and in the bitter cold and still skies of Fairbanks, Alaska little Mabel and myself started moving, together. Yes, I did fall. And yes, Mabel did stop. But we got up and kept going, kept trying to tap into that feeling of some closeness to breath, beat and bray of our hearts pounding under all those layers, skating away from all that disbelief. I wanted to keep doing laps around that golf course or really I felt inspired despite all the doubt and darkness.

And that's what poetry does or tries to do at its best. It can take the simplest of situations and turn them into moments you keep as coveted memories, to tap into, to get close enough to feeling your heart and head aren't at odds, but simply a harness connecting them, moving together in hopes your efforts might just move or inspire. But the real task? It isn't just feeling this, it's trying to put this rhythm into words in the hope you can do it well enough to also inspire someone else. I hope I am not too much of a sissy to keep trying myself.