Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. Though you will be reading this a day or two or three into Ziigwan (spring), I begin the writing this final night of Biboon (winter) where, at 50° and falling, it is still about 70° warmer than it was the first night of winter. We have all weathered a lot this past season, no matter where we are, and much as I love the cold and dark part of the year I’m as eager for the change as just about anyone. And tonight I heard sandhill cranes! I didn’t think we ever really had them here much outside of summer. What a gift!
You know what else is a gift? Your support! Explaining how my living is cobbled together last time must have been the encouragement a number of folks needed to cancel because there’s been a greater than usual exodus post-publication. I’m equal parts amused and chagrined, but also not surprised – it is renewal season for a huge percentage of people who initially signed up, and interests change. I get it. That said, if what happens here means anything at all to you, and you can afford a few dollars here and there, I’ll try and keep making it worth your while.
A couple days ago I spent 45 minutes outside my Westside Missoula lair sitting on the tailgate of my truck while eating my lunch and reading a book. A friend of minewho shares a space in the same tumbledown old warehouse where I toil in service to writing happened by. When I asked her how it’s going, in answer she turned and pointed at the sun and then turned back to me with a big smile. “I think I got my first sunburn last weekend!” she said. The sunlight does feel good, especially on such a day, where it is bright and warm but also still chilly enough not to feel oppressive. It was a warm exchange, literally and figuratively, during a time when there just really hasn’t been enough of those. She went on about her business and I, after concluding my break, returned to mine.
I was reading Living Off the Country: Essays on Poetry and Place by John Haines, published in 1982, which had just arrived in the mail. Here is the official description of the book from the University of Michigan Press:
When he was a homesteader in Alaska, poet John Haines moved away from language and institutions to an older and simpler existence. In solitude, listening to his own voice, the events of his life reached into the past and the future.
In the spectacular essay that opens the collection, “The Writer as Alaskan”, Haines writes of establishing himself there:
I had when younger a habit of mind, of dreaminess, a vague drifting through the world. I was naturally observant, but unfocused. Living as I did there at Richardson, limited by circumstances to a small area, I found it necessary to learn more and more about it in order to get a living from it. I was forced to pay attention, to learn in detail many things of a kind I could not have learned if I had stayed only briefly in the country or had lived there in easier circumstances. I learned quickly, because it was an adventure for me, a young person from the city unused to knowing any place intimately, to distinguish actual things, particular and exact, from the vague and general character of the world.
Words began to fasten themselves to what I saw. I learned the names of the things to be found there, characteristic of the subarctic the world over: the forest trees and shrubs, their kinds and uses, what made good building material or fuel, and what did not; what could be eaten, preserved, and put up for later use. I began for the first time to make things for myself, to build shelters, to weave nets, to make sleds and harness, and to train animals for work. I learned to hunt, to watch, and to listen. to think like a moose, if need be, or a marten, or a lynx. I watched the river, and saw in its gray and swirling water, heavy with silt, the probable trace of salmon, and knew where to set my nets. I read the snow and what was written there. I became familiar with the forms of frost, the seeding of the grasses, the early swelling of the birch leaves. I watched a tree, no bigger than my wrist when I first built there, grow tenfold over the years, until I had to cut away its branches from the rain gutters of the house.
Haines details more of what he learned to do, then drops this (bold emphasis mine) 💣:
I learned that it is land, place, that makes people, provides for them the possibilities they will have of becoming something more than mere lumps of sucking matter. We today who live so much from the inheritance of land and culture do not understand this as well as we need to. Few of us these days are really residents anywhere, in the deep sense of that term. We live off the surface of things and places, the culture as well as the land; ours is a derivative life: we take what we find without thought, without regard for origin or consequences, unaware for the most part that the resources, both natural and cultural, are fast diminishing.
He’s writing about the greater We more than forty years ago, and things have only gotten worse, haven’t they? Haines wasn’t a poet when he dug in in Alaska. But he certainly emerged as one.
The season for teaching poetry on the reservation is winding down. My final day in Ronan was yesterday, though I still have a couple weeks to go in Dixon. This is always a bittersweet time. By the time 12+ weeks have concluded I’m eager to have it all behind me and my days back for other things but it’s also difficult. With the exception of the kids in Dixon, it’s possible I won’t ever see most of these kids again and that is a little sad. I don’t know how teachers do it. I don’t know how teachers manage to do most of what they are responsible to do, frankly. And if it is a particularly challenging year for me, a part-timer – and this one was! – then I really don’t know how the day in, day out teachers survive it. There are moments in their eyes where I see what I can only call desperation and I wish there was something I could do about it.
I don’t feel like I reached the kids very well this year. Were they less attentive? Was I off my game? Is all the Stuff weighing down the rest of us weighing them down too? Probably all of the above. I just know that last week when we were doing a wrap-up of what we have been trying to do all year with our poetry efforts, I felt like the ultimate goal – the need to pay attention – didn’t really sink in. That seems different from years past, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this is simply my overwrought perception because I have been thinking so much about distraction in my own life.
But how can they – these overwhelmed students – really be expected to pay attention? I noticed more than ever this year the abundance of interruptions students and teachers endure. There are constantly noisy hallways – rectified by closing the door, sure, which then gets opened and closed every five or ten minutes to accomodate the various comings and goings for the rest of the period for who knows why – and staggered recess hours that lead to hubbub and mayhem just beyond the windows. Random bells and buzzers that go off, some seeming to indicate one thing or other and others seeming to just … go off. Kids in and out of the classroom for special classes or attention, I don’t know. Phones ringing. Then there are the water bottles on every student’s desk, which means any given moment two or three might clatter to the floor. Not to mention one class careening into the next without regard for so much as a few minutes of in-between resettling. It is relentless! A surging maelstrom of distraction and borderline panic state. Every single one brings whatever flow is happening in the room to a crashing halt, the same way a ping or buzz or any other notification we’ve selected for incoming alerts, texts, emails, whatevers from our damnable devices does to whatever we are doing.
If there is anyone to blame, though, it is the same We that Haines was talking about. We have let the education system we have unfold under our very noses. It is such an important part of our future and yet … oof. It’s amazing our public school system does as good a job as it does – and the system really, really does do an impossibly good job anyway, regardless of what a bunch of dipshits who haven’t been near one in thirty years have to say about it – given the utter lack of resources. Nor are there enough teachers to meet the needs of the students, a third of who in every class, it seems to me, need some degree of special, devoted attention. Why would there be? I’m surprised we have any teachers at all! What a tragically underserved part of our society. It breaks my heart.
“My writing depends on unproductivity. It needs abundant space around it to throw out roots, and it’s my duty to make a buffer between it and the hostile realm of emails and meetings.”
I have been fighting a mighty struggle with distractions against my own attention, and much of it, the struggle, was going on without me realizing it. I just knew something was wrong without being able to really identify it. Or I did know but was still being distracted away from properly dealing with it. That is how insidious it is when there are billions and billions of dollars of effort being made against our efforts to pay attention to our lives. I’m not alone in this. My friend Katrin wrote wonderfully of her struggles last week. Thomas touched on it this week. Just this morning, when I should have been finishing this newsletter, Katherine May was also in the neighborhood of the subject.
I’ve read books about it. Like this one. And this one. And I just finished this one, whose author, Oliver Burkeman, echoes Mary Oliver saying, “Attention is the beginning of devotion”, and Annie Dillard saying, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, when he says, “What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.” And now this one just came out and I bought it and can’t wait to dig in. All of this reading is probably a bit obsessive on my part; there is plenty of overlap from book to book but I’ve gleaned something valuable and unique from each one.
The John Haines excerpts above are literal examples of how he needed to immerse himself, his attention, in Alaska to survive there as a greenhorn in a wild and unforgiving place. But it is also a metaphor for my view of the world and how I need to live in it to do what I do. For example, in writing Becoming Little Shell I had to immerse deeply not just in the history of the land and how it shaped me and my people but how it still does; I had to go deep into my own head and memory in ways I didn’t expect to, and the struggle against doing that while also being relentlessly distracted is largely why no one has that book in their hands yet. Moving forward, to do anything meaningful in my creative life, I have to struggle against the tsunami of bells and whistles and demands constantly hammering at the gates of my awareness. It isn’t easy.
To that end, I’ve mothballed all my social media accounts and removed the apps from my devices. I’ve taken email apps off my phone. I’ve turned off all notifications and moved the message app off the home screen. Anything I can do to just keep my eyes and ears away from these things is necessary. Half-a-century of living with myself has taught me what I am capable of. It’s not about willpower. At the tail end of a workout I have the willpower to farmer carry 40# dumbbells in each hand around the walking track without stopping even when my arms and legs and core are screaming, but put a big bowl of cookies on the table and I am not going to eat just two. It doesn’t matter if I have a personal pizza in front of me or a large one, I’m eating the whole thing. So I avoid cookies and pizza unless I’m prepared for the consequences. Same with social media and streaming services and anywhere-all-the-time-whenever-someone-feels-like-it communication: some of it just has to go because it’s not good for me, and some of it needs to be essentially unreachable until I am prepared to give it my full attention.
It’s about the full attention!
It’s not that I don’t like to communicate with people – texts, email, whatever – it’s that I want to do it consciously, not when I am actually doing something else and neither thing is getting what it deserves from me, or when they are. I’m old enough to remember when “call waiting” first became a thing and how irritated I would get when I was talking to someone and, inevitably, I got shoved aside while they took another call. Then I’d have to wait and sometimes the person would come back and we’d have to pick up where we left off (or not) or sometimes I’d get tired of waiting and just hang up. Carrying on multiple tasks and conversations at once is just something I don’t want to embrace in the way the modern world seems to be forcing us to, because I feel awful when I try. I prefer to lean on Simone Weil’s remark that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”, and I love Thich Nhat Hanh reminder that, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” I want to be generous with my time and attention with others because I know how precious it is to me.
Keep in mind I’m talking about me and my life and my work. You do whatever you need to do to be happy. I happen to like sitting in complete, blissful, unimpeded-on disconnect whenever I possibly can. And I also like attentive, intimate interactions with others. The world of at least the last couple centuries seems hell bent on unecessarily complicating things though, doesn’t it? One may begin to think that if we weren’t so compelled to be busy all the time, we might find time to realize there are a few rich, lever-pulling a-holes who need banishment from the world as a sure means to improvement.
I love all my relatives, human and otherwise! I just don’t want to be forced to adopt bullshit I think sucks and makes our interactions worse.
Speaking of metaphors. A while back on the recommendation of a couple friends I watched the movie The Banshees of Inisherin. You’ve probably heard of it. Here’s the trailer if you haven’t:
It’s beautifully shot and brilliantly acted and does have some clever humor here and there but to be honest, I will not be recommending it to anyone. It’s too sad for me. In the same way I can’t stomach gratuitous violence anymore, I can’t abide such deep, all encompassing sorrow either. It all but pushed me over the edge for several days in the aftermath. I’m still hungover from it and even just writing about it brings the ache up from my heart into my throat, and the anxiety gets to gurgling in my low belly. I would not want to cause anyone similar suffering.
I bring the film up at all – and risk turning the comments section of this newsletter into copious counter opinions regarding the movie and proclamations on why I’m wrong and “You’ve gone too far this time! I’ve unsubscribed!” and all that and I really hope it doesn’t come to that and if your experience with Banshees was different then I’m happy for you and may we please just leave it at that? – because, like all good art (which this is despite my regrets over enduring it) it makes a person think. It’s possible its metaphor, alleged by some to be about the Irish Civil War, hits a little close to home for me to be a passive observer of it.
SPOILER AND MELODRAMA ALERT
In a nutshell, Brendan Gleeson’s character is depressed and recognizing his own mortality and how much time he’s “wasted” rather than write music, so that is what makes him decide to divorce himself from the relationship he has with Colin Farrell’s character. It is Colm Doherty, Gleeson’s character, I relate to the most. I am well aware of how much time I’ve surrendered to distraction. I am well aware of my own mortality; if I live to my father’s age, I’ve less than two decades left, only slightly longer if I reach my grandfather’s age. Now I am definitely healthier than either man was at my current age, I suspect; I don’t drink and the idea of either of them spending time at a gym or hiking up and down mountains is laughable, but there could be some malignant time bomb ticking away inside me that I don’t even know about. That’s how it is for all of us, though.
When Pádraig, Farrell’s character, struggles with Colm Doherty’s insistence to not talk to him anymore, Colm ups the ante by telling Pádraig that if he doesn’t comply, Colm will begin cutting off his own fingers, which he does. There are terrible, unforeseen additional outcomes related to this. That is the metaphor I worry about. Is the canceling of every social media account, or every long overdue email response (not to mention the unreturned ones), or denied request for coffee or beer or whatever a metaphorical severing of one of my own digits until none remain? Colm cutting his fingers off means he can’t play his fiddle anymore, he can’t make the music he has tried to eliminate distractions keeping him from devoting himself to, defeating the entire purpose of his withdrawal from that friendship. Does a certain amount of withdrawal then doom my writing life, such as it is, that requires a certain amount of social interaction? This is oversimplifying things, yes, but it is also a torment to think about and I often struggle with it.
I’ve written about my 1000 Hours Outside efforts. They continue and I love the time outside and what it is doing to reconnect me to the world. It is also where I am chiefly able to recognize these distractions because I generally make sure I don’t have them when I am out. It is glorious. The alone time – the vast majority of my outside time has been spent in solitude – is glorious. But it is also maybe not always the best thing for me because it is very easy for me to slide into complete withdrawal. On one shoulder a sulky demon cries, “Oh, this beautiful being alone! I don’t need anyone after all!” and from the other shoulder there is a lot of eyerolling and exasperation and, “Don’t be dumb, La Tray, of course you do!” commentary. It is a constant, lifelong wrestling match with the world as it is vs. the world as I would like it to be, a regular reference made in this newsletter.
Just because I don’t want to participate without question in our always available culture doesn’t mean I don’t want to interact. I love all my relatives, human and otherwise! I just don’t want to be forced to adopt bullshit I think sucks and makes our interactions worse.
But spring is here, and a welcome distraction happens to be manifesting as birds thronging noisily outside my window, with trills and whistles and shrieks and sqwawks that are anything but electronic in origin. I love every note. It seems as good a time as any to stop with this nonsense, at least for now, because despite what you’ve read I’m in a decent mood.
This is happening this Sunday evening via zoom and anyone is welcome to attend. I think it will be recorded for the YouTube too, if I’m not mistaken.
HERE IS THE ZOOM LINK IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ATTEND!
Friends, I hyperlinked to these excellent newsletter posts in the body of the newsletter and here they are again in case you’ve forgotten or haven’t clicked. I want to draw attention not just to these particular pieces, though, but also the excellent work being done by the folks who wrote them, in hopes you’ll give them a follow. Well worth your time, every one.
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A wonderful person who used to be one of my yoga instructors and also spends her summers working in solitude as a fire watcher in a forest service lookout, my dream job.
It’s a small school and I teach multiple grades, 3 – 8, so unless they move it’s largely the same crew until they promote out after 8th grade.
"Is the canceling of every social media account, or every long overdue email response (not to mention the unreturned ones), or denied request for coffee or beer or whatever a metaphorical severing of one of my own digits until none remain?"
I'm not going to be watching this movie (I just can't anymore; there's too much sorrow every day as it is), but it feels like ... no? Though it's hard to say without seeing the full context. Deleting all my social media definitely affected my work, how it reaches people (or doesn't), how I can talk about it, who gives it attention. I knew that going in, though I didn't know how *much* it would affect all of that (a lot more than I realized). Even if I had, though, I don't regret it a bit. Not having that reach doesn't affect my ability to write, while interacting with social media in any way affected, for the worse, *everything* about my life including writing. I have to rely more on friends and connections spreading my work, and on my own voice, which maybe isn't a bad thing even if it doesn't go as far. No matter what, though, it's worth it to feel like I'm alive rather than half-dead, curating a self for an algorithm. In either case, I'll be dead and forgotten someday. I'd rather live life while it has me.
Everyone's relationship to these things is different, as you point out.
Plenty of other choices affect these things, too, though. Even choosing to live away from any real writer community makes a big difference in opportunity. But there are so many things that I do with my time that I wouldn't if I had more of those opportunities. I don't know that it's the worst thing in the world to be forced to ask what makes us feel alive, even if we don't have an opportunity to do it as fully as Haines did.
Teachers appreciate the guests who visit our classrooms, the new perspective our students get to have as a result, and the wisdom of poets. Thank you for doing that work of love.