This Is Not A Final Statement by Miriam Sagan

This Is Not A Final Statement

I cut red paper. Then, open the envelope full of bills and accounts preserved from 1975. My father records and saves all the hospital bills of my near death and extensive hospitalization. I have the flu, pleurisy, a collapsed lung, empyema.
He writes down taxi fares: $30.00. Tolls: $3.00. Is this how he is making sense of the situation in which his eldest child is dying?
I add black ink. I’m not trained in the spontaneous gestural way of sumi. But I can slash.
I cut up the hospital bills, the endless listing of X-rays. My father’s absurd ledger.
No doubt this is because—since I will live and not die—he will take me as a tax deduction. I am 21 years old and without health insurance.
Decades later, my therapist has evinced surprise. “ A Jewish family? Middle class? No health insurance? What were they thinking?” Apparently that I was grown up and gone. But I was only the latter. I was gone, but soon I was almost…totally gone. Preserved in the black and white snapshot like someone headed for the Mekong or an overdose. Gone. And not remembered as any sort of real person.
And my father kept everything. In a manila envelope that comes to me after his death, found by my sister going through the file cabinets.
I try adding words to the collages but they don’t really work. “You’re ambivalent about your handwriting,” my daughter says as we work together on adjacent studio tables.
My handwriting.
My scar.
My body.
The fact that I’m alive at all.

Apocalypse Every Five Seconds by Miriam Sagan

Apocalypse Every Five Seconds

I should get off Facebook, but I don’t. I click on articles about how the end of this or that or everything is coming. Economy. Food supply. Education. It’s over. And non-advice. Like—get ready.
I’m as prone to panic as the next person. But I’m not at all prone to the belief or experience that:

A. Everything in the U.S.A was once fine but
B. Now the apocalypse is coming.

I was raised with a historical view, by my Marxist father. Right this very minute my husband Rich is sitting on the couch reading a book about the internment camps for Japanese-Americans. One was located in Santa Fe, walking distance from this very house. The book is about non-Japanese Americans, often Quakers, who worked to help the internees. Good and evil behavior co-exist so closely in this—as in most—situations—that human nature is truly baffling.

We can’t see the future. I don’t like that at all, but it is true. Karl Marx couldn’t see the future—and neither can Sister Rosa Fortune Teller who is also walking distance from my house. Actually, Ursula Le Guin said NOT being able to see the future is what makes human life bearable. I’m going to buy into that. Pundits or philosophers who predict the future haven’t been to enough horse races, (which I enjoy at our state fair).

The random quality of the universe—which again, no one likes—accounts for some unpredictability. And so does the fact that we can’t always see where cause and effect is going, or even coming from—the chains may be too long for us to observe. Who sits at a nice wedding and can correctly predict if the happy couple will divorce? Who looks into the face of a baby and sees the baby’s fate? Who looked at collapse of the Soviet Union and saw Putin? Not me.

Fear of the future is not the best motivator to do something positive in the present. Disaster may strike, it may not, or something unimaginable may happen.

Here is what I know. People don’t survive alone, despite movies about canned goods stashes and zombies. My only advice to myself—or to you—is to keep relationships with others as cleaned up and positive as possible. To not neglect communities you are already part of. To build connection where you can. But I’d believe this if I was going to live to be a hundred and two in utopia.

Devon Miller-Duggan Turns 64 and Reflects on That and More

This Week

I turned 64. I like that I have now reached the age when I don’t have to ask my husband “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me when I’m 64?” mostly because I have a year in which I’m a line in a Beatles song. I’m not sure why that amuses me so much, but it does, and I’m not inclined to expend much energy figuring it out. Maybe one of these days, we’ll rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight. If it’s not too dear…

I saw a list on line the other day of Beatles songs John Lennon didn’t like. A handful of my favorites are on the list. Either I have given up on being edgy/with-it, or it’s possible that Lennon and I don’t have to agree. I have friends who know and like my poems who are fondest of poems I think are mediocre, and I know for certain that I have given up fretting about this. Anything I can manage to give up fretting about is a good thing.

And my husband did feed me, in fact. I bought the steaks and peas and potatoes and Boursin (for the potatoes), but he cooked. And, besides, I was doing the weekly grocery shopping for my mother, so I had time to noodle around in the store thinking about whether I wanted steak or king crab. He likes to cook more than I do these days, and he got everything done perfectly.

I don’t particularly like it when my birthday coincides with Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about both, and having them happen together just seems like too much to process in one day. So I did the morning routine for my mother (tough to schedule an aide on the holiday), went to church, probably let myself get talked into helping with an internet book club set up between young South African women and young American women, shopped for my mother (who was aware neither of my birthday, nor of Mother’s Day, which was okay with me) took a nap, did some submissions stuff, played Words with Friends, and spent the rest of the day either crocheting or eating and watching TV with my husband. The highlight of the day was probably when I told my 18-month-old-grand-daughter I loved her and she came over and kissed me (a first—she’s plenty affectionate, but this sort of specificity is new, and she chirps/sings as she walks, which is pretty wonderful to live with).

It’s been a complicated semester. I had a kidney stone early on and have never quite felt like I’ve gotten my feet under me. I’m teaching a new course—typically, I came up with a nifty idea about doing imitations of a bunch of poets, but only semi thought it through—this is one of the parts where being an experiential learner doesn’t always work out for the best. The course will be better next time I teach it, but seems to have not been a disaster, as nearly as I can tell, this time ‘round. My other two classes had big, tough issues I’ve never dealt with before, neither of which should go in a blog–one a headbanger, one a heartbreaker. And I lost 30-40 hours at the beginning of the semester to a new Faculty Evaluation System put in place at Pretty Good U that is a total POS (it has, for instance, gone down in the middle of contract renewal system, of course). And I’m pretty ticked that I am going to start having an actual attendance policy in classes (I’ve done quite nicely for years with one that consisted of “You expect me to be here, don’t you? I expect the same.”), but absences have gotten way out of hand. I blame the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, my mother’s slide downward has picked up speed—she’s almost out of language, and has begun to be seriously short of breath. And I have been trying to get her whole home-health-aide situation re-settled since the week between Xmas and New Year’s, when we found out that the coordinating insurer had pulled out of the market, and the new one won’t deal with Home Instead. In the northern of Delaware’s 3 counties. Just the one. Meanwhile, I am trying to coordinate between 4 companies/agencies. Much of this would be resolved by paying home-health-aides living wages, but they’re all for-profit companies, so…

The yard’s a mess, though it’s full of flowers. It’s been a weird, long, cold spring, so some things hung on forever. I’ve never had daffodils still blooming when irises came up. It was pretty. The stripey pale pink azalea has been in bloom for ages. But it got stinky hot just in time to fry the lilacs the day after they bloomed. I haven’t walked the back yard for several weeks. I’m betting there’s some poison ivy out there somewhere. And I think I’ve decided to forgo the fancy wood play-set-with-house-and-climbing-wall that seems to be the suburban standard in favor of an old-fashioned swing set. But the poison ivy will have to be dealt with first.

Our cello prof tends to favor 20th/21st c. music, so I don’t often go hear him (I’m fond of some, especially of the elegiac sort, but often feel like I’m wearing uncomfortable underwear when listening to much of it), but he did a 2-night recital of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites several weeks back. It was imperfect and glorious and made me so goofily happy that I email fan-girl-ed him. We’re going to try to have coffee. There’s much too little cross-departmental conversation around here, just because depts. are so big and we’re all so separate, so that’s kind of nice.

Last day of class tomorrow. Mostly, my students will be reciting the poems they’ve chosen to memorize. That’s nice, too. And it’s looking like I’ll survive to teach another semester. The summer’s big projects include reading all the books of poetry I haven’t gotten to all year and re-organizing the bookshelves. Could definitely be worse, which, these days, is saying a lot.

This Week: Some Moments in Time

This Week

Rich brought me a rose. We’d met up at our seats to see the simulcast opera. He’d just come from working a fundraising event, and filched the red rose from a table setting to save it from being thrown out. I put it in my purse. All evening I felt special. My husband gave me a rose.

We went to Costco. Albuquerque was too hot already. We got a good deal deal on discount coupons and went to Yannis, my favorite. Campus was deserted. The city had that slightly sad quality of loneliness, mixed in with its usual pleasant bustle. We sat on the patio. I drank a glass of retsina and thought about how I’d rather drink a glass of peasant wine than fancy. I think I don’t care about wine, but this tasted like that late afternoon—faintly bitter. I could feel the world spinning around as if I were at the center.

A friend was looking at my back garden. He’d said no, he’d just had lunch, no need for a snack. He reached out and pulled one small leaf off the glorious hanging nasturtium. And ate it. I didn’t ask, but I know it tasted fresh and peppery. I’d been meaning to add them to salad, and his spontaneous gesture reminded me.

More orange things appear in the back yard. An orange cat eats a mourning dove, fights with another cat, and digs in my flower bed. I go out to scold the cat. But I end up petting him, saying how beautiful he is, praising him from growing up from a kitten. He wears a little collar, but we seem to be in his turf, too.

I have been reading the collected Czeslaw Milosz for almost a year and a half. Or pretending to read it. It sits in the pile and I skip over the poems in search of more narrative. I’ve read well over a hundred books instead of finishing it. I am now on page 566. It says: “I describe this for I have learned to doubt philosophy/And the visible world is all that remains.”

States of Mind by Miriam Sagan

Feels like a season to take stock. My 64th birthday has passed, and I’ve been “retired” for almost a year and a half. I’ve been thinking about the mental states that compose my day—my life—and want to try and understand them here.
Balance is something I strive for, but it does elude me. Balance between what and what? In asking that question, I came up with six categories.

1. Chaos. This is my least favorite state. It is when someone you love is suffering. It is sitting outside the ICU. It is the state that cries out for the first of the twelve steps—I am powerless over…heroin, my drunk uncle, a broken heart, you name it. Each person will have his or her scary things. Mine include medical procedures, and embarrassingly, even having my teeth cleaned. I don’t think I ever say—give me more chaos. Rather, I’m apt to limit my exposure. When I was widowed, I did not get my teeth cleaned. I’m not suggesting this as a good habit, just being honest.

2. Emergency. I think of this as the kind of chaos I can respond to positively. A sick child. A distraught friend. A financial crisis. An injured cat. This is where I have the skill set to cope. I like to limit my emergencies too—not take on someone else’s unless I have it to give. Emergency can devolve into chaos, or solidify into the next state—work.

3. Work. This is what I am supposedly retired from, but that isn’t really true. Work is what we do for money, or necessity. I count all of (traditionally) women’s unpaid domestic tasks as work. For if we didn’t do it, someone would get paid to. But much of work is satisfying, because here effort really pays off. Unless you have a soul-numbing or body destroying job, I suspect most people enjoy feeling competent and the sense of a job well done. I don’t mind work, but I don’t adore it. However, it turns out I do need some of it.

4. Play. This is a purposive activity that doesn’t produce something salable in our culture. Obviously the line between work and play is malleable. Creating a beautiful garden or writing a novel can go back and forth between work and play. Sometimes there can be emergencies or chaos in there as well. Sports the same. A good job will have elements of play. As a poet, I feel odd saying “I’m working” on a poem. I might be partially, but Im also playing.

5. Focus. Technically this might be samadhi, a state of focused attention. I associate it with meditation, but it can appear in almost any situation of work or play. It is a great asset in an emergency—and I suspect the EMTs I’ve known often benefit from it. It is probably my favorite state of mind. I like to write in the state of flow, throwing in bits of play and work as needed. In fact, all will go well with a poem in samadhi—until it doesn’t. That’s when work comes in, consciously looking at technical problems and solutions.

6. Moments of Awareness. Like chaos, this tends to take us unawares. It can be anything from an existential instant of being to a Zen-like awakening to the nature of things or a child-like sense of wonder that erases self-consciousness. You can find it in psychedelic drugs, solitude, nature, and spiritual pursuits. Actually, you can find it in giant Walmart too—because awareness tends to find us as much as we find it. It is good for writing—and emotional health—but it doesn’t actually create anything unless you bring it back to play or work.

I hope to write a bit more about this in the next few days—and welcome your comments.

Hello From Spring

It’s been a very mixed day. Last night hail arrived raucuously like a convocation of unwanted door to door salesmen. Today the clouds of apricot and peach blossoms seem untouched. Studying some torah, I just felt very sad about part of the story of our foremothers, who were essentially bought and sold. But what woman on earth can claim her ancestresses were free people?
I had lunch yesterday with two Zen Buddhist priests–women teachers. I felt a bit better about the world, because they were old friends who had found their path. There is little I enjoy more than a certain kind of intimate conversation–about what happened to everyone, who died, who lived, who failed, who triumphed. It gives me a pure and abiding sense of connection to the world. Call it gossip if you like–it is gospel to me.
My daughter Isabel and I went to Tune-Up. I ate chile rellenos. For many years I felt I had to skip them because I didn’t want to agitate my gallstones. I haven’t had an attack in almost thirty years, and I’ll eat that fried pepper now (knock wood). We worked on our renga–linked Japanese poem. We started this one very traditionally, by translating a haiku by Basho. That way neither of us had to start–the great Basho started for us.

First cherry blossom
This very moment
A good day
-Basho translation 

I’m cooking brisket for tomorrow night’s seder. My mother did not really cook, nor did her mother. So I have no traditional recipe. I use a variation of what poet Joan Logghe taught me. I’m feeling sad about several things–mostly squabbles and situations that don’t directly involve me, but impact me nonetheless. I’m very happy about other things–including that I’m re-reading Trollop and loving it. I also have a beautiful rosemary plant that came through the winter very nicely in my sunniest room.

2 Second Fix: I Don’t Want To Work At Love by Miriam Sagan

2 Second Fix: I Don’t Want To Work At Love

I always start to feel bad when folks talk about “working” on relationships. I’ve never been a huge fan of work. It implies making an effort I wouldn’t otherwise for a monetary pay off. I’d rather play. Or engage in an activity for itself. I’ve certainly worked—heck, I’ve got a pension—but I don’t want to “work” on my marriage.
I’d rather play. I do put a lot of time and energy into the relationship. It’s pretty much my fave activity, my best hobby. I try to be entertaining, and thought provoking, friendly, supportive. I like to flirt. I try to not just wear schmattas around the house. I want to be honest, and even uncomfortable in my pursuit of intimacy. To let things change. Develop. Experiment.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, for inventing a planet where the word for “work” and “play” are the same.