What I did Instead of Writing

posted Jan 8, 2018, 10:48 AM by Pat Riviere-Seel

    Weymouth Center in Southern Pines is where I go to write.  It is my creative place, the gracious rambling house and formal gardens where the beauty, the history, the friendly ghosts of literary giants permeate every corner of the house and float through the gardens, out into an open field and into Weymouth Woods. Here I find solitude and uninterrupted time for creative work. I carefully protect my writing time here. It is a gift, free of the distractions of everyday living, to write, to dream, to walk and run and to go deep into my chosen craft. It is a time of deliberate and focused attention. This is a place where I am fed.

    But last September when a friend who had disappeared from my life for 14 years reappeared and wanted to have lunch, I readily agreed. Nothing was more important for that afternoon than to reconnect with someone I thought I had lost.

    M. is a writer and a poet, a kindred soul. We met in a poetry class in the early 1990s in Asheville. I had believed that she would always be part of my life. Then she moved away from Asheville. She had good reasons for moving and I know that long distance relationships require extra effort. But I thought we would stay in touch. She was going through a rough patch in her life, some of it all too familiar to me and some her unique struggles and demons.

    “I did you a favor. Trust me,” she said about her 14-year absence from my life. I’m sure she believed that. I was not convinced.

    Last  summer was a season of hard losses. Three close friends, all 72-year-old women, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Hardly had I begun to adjust to a world without the first when 20 days later the second died. I was buying toothpaste when I learned of her death. Two months later, a friend from my years in Annapolis died. Our letters and phone calls had become Christmas card notes, and I had not answered her cheery note in last year’s card.

    So when M. reappeared, I greeted her with all the joy of a resurrection. 

    Over lunch at Sweet Basil’s, we talked about writing, about our lives, our country, and our world. We dispensed with the difficult stuff early.

    “I’m a conservative,” she said. I’m a Christian and I watch Fox News.”

    “I’m a liberal and I’m a Christian. I watch CNN. Fox makes me crazy,” I said.

    “As CNN does me,” she laughed. I laughed. We continued eating and talking. We laughed a lot.

    We didn’t raise our voices. We didn’t blame or accuse anyone. We didn’t talk about ideology or politics. We talked about our concerns and fears about the world we live in. We listened. We heard each other.

      "So you’re just content to sit here while a nuclear bomb may be exploding even as we speak?” M. asked, startled that I did not share her fear of the “end times.”

    “There’s nothing I can do to stop a crazy man from detonating a nuclear bomb,” I said. “If I die right now I’ll die knowing I’m doing what gives my life meaning.”

    If there is one thing that I have learned from the year’s losses it is that I don’t know anything. It’s stunning and humbling to admit: I don’t know. That’s why I write. And read. And make time for the people I love, the friends and the friendless. That’s why I try to be kind and love the people I love as best I can. But, like most of us, I am deeply flawed. I am rarely successful. Still I try. And the words of Ranier Maria Rilke return to me:

    Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them and the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

    That’s all I can do: keep asking the questions, keep writing the poems that need to be written and now the prose that is forcing me into dark places and raising questions I may never be able to answer.

    Yes, I contact my elected representatives and let them know my thoughts on issues. I protest. I resist. I give money to the organizations and the people who are doing the important work for social justice that I believe in. But more important for me is learning to love the questions and to love the world, ferociously and unconditionally in all its glory and ugliness.

    My retreat time in September was filled with solitude and productive work. It was also been a time of deep conversations and connections with friends, old and new. I worshiped with strangers and felt the familiar bond with unknown people all over the world who were hearing the same liturgy and lessons. I wandered the trails in Weymouth Woods and sat on a fallen log listening to the sharp hooves of unseen deer break twigs. I spent an afternoon with a friend I thought I had lost.

    This summer when I asked a dear friend what I could do for her now that the worst thing had happened, she replied, stay in touch. Stay. Touch. Risk loving the world and letting it break your heart.


I Moved My Blog

posted Oct 18, 2016, 10:46 AM by Pat Riviere-Seel   [ updated Oct 18, 2016, 10:48 AM ]

I decided to be more social and find a place where we could play, so I moved my blog so you can leave comments, questions or musings. 

Holding on, Letting Go

posted Sep 29, 2016, 11:18 AM by Pat Riviere-Seel   [ updated Sep 30, 2016, 7:11 AM by Britt Kaufmann ]

September 30, 2016

 “Hold on! Don’t let go,” the ski instructor shouted as we beginners crouched over our skis and grasped the rope that would pull us to the top of the bunny slope where we would try the skills he had demonstrated on the flat, packed snow. 

I held on as if my very life depended on my clinging to that rope. I held on when we reached the top and the person in front of me let go and stood up. I tried to hold on even when I found myself tumbling down the other side of the little hill. 

“Why didn’t you let go?” The astonished ski instructor asked after determining that I was unhurt. I had no good answer. It’s not that I always do as I am told. Far from it. But holding on is something I tend to do even when all the evidence and good sense indicates that I need to let go. 

I was 43 years old when I took that first ski lesson, old enough to know a metaphor for my life when I fell into one. I had moved to rural Yancey County the year before after holding on to a life in Annapolis, Maryland that I could not afford, either financially or emotionally. I let go of a lot in that move: antiques I loved and my little home, a beach cottage on the South River. I left a community of friends and runners, work I enjoyed (that was no longer paying the bills) and the daily walks and talks with my best friend who lived just down the road. 

Looking back at that move now, 24 years later, I realize that I should have left Maryland several years before I made the move. But I held on. The forced letting go also meant that I had to let go of a way of life. I had always lived in urban areas. Suddenly I found myself living in a rural area in an old farmhouse heated with wood. I had a washing machine with cold water in an unheated outbuilding and a cloths line. I exchanged my dresses and heels for jeans and boots and traded in my Hyundi sedan for a four-wheel drive truck. I became a mountain woman. To my surprise I embraced this new life and felt more at home and happier than I had ever been. I had come home, home to myself, home to the way I wanted to live. 

But letting go of the things I use to define myself is always a struggle. Last year I began the process of letting go of one of my most defining characteristics: my auburn hair. I’ve always been a redhead. As a child, my hair was bright red, short, kinky-curly and so thick my mother could not get a brush through it without me wailing as if she were killing me. 

I dreamed of being a strawberry blond, like my pretty and popular friend. But I was a redhead and neither pretty nor popular. My hair color made me unique. Still, for years I fought my hair, tried to straighten it, ironed it, set it on rollers the size of juice cans. A few drops of rain and the hair reverted into a mass of frizz. Finally, I accepted it and celebrated my unique hair. 

When my hair began to turn gray, I colored it the familiar shade of auburn. I never thought about what I would look like if it turned gray any more than I thought about what life would be like after age 65. I don’t want to try to defy or deny aging. I just don’t known how to do it. Next month I will celebrate my 67th birthday and I’ve had to admit that I am in the last third of my life. I’m still passionate about life, about writing, running. There is still so much to explore, to learn, to do. But now the question of how I want to spend my time becomes more important.

I no longer want to spend precious time and money coloring my hair.

It’s time for me to lighten up and let go of the physical image that has defined me. The one thing I’ve said to my hair stylists for years is, “I don’t want to look like an old woman who is trying to look young.” I don’t want to grow into a caricature of myself.

My mother colored her hair and kept it an unnatural looking “shoe polish black” for years. Her natural color was a deep chestnut, thick and wavy. When she finally let a stylist turn her hair a beautiful silver, my mother looked years younger. It softened her whole appearance. She looked lighter, more real. Her personality seemed to lighten also. 

Last year I began the tentative steps of letting my color grow out, letting the silver strands begin to take over. My stylist helped with the transition by using a lighter color, allowing my hair to become strawberry blond, blending the colors. I would like to say I’m completely comfortable with the process but I’m not there yet. I’m still too vain, still a bit amused when I look at my graying hair in the mirror. I wonder if people will recognize me. I wonder if I will become one of the “invisible” gray-haired women, easy for the younger generation to dismiss.

My hair color has been key to the narrative I’ve used to define myself all my life. I’m a redhead. Who am I when my hair is no longer red?

“Redhead is a state of mind, not a hair color,” my astute husband, Ed, told me. “You’ll always be a redhead.” He also broke his own long-standing rule of never offering an opinion about a woman’s hair and said he likes my evolving hair color. I believe him. He’s as honest as he is compassionate and we’ve known each other for more than 35 years. 

Maybe allowing my hair to be its natural color is just another act of rebellion, another way of defying expectations. I’ve read that “granny hair” is fashionable in some circles, thanks to the growing number of us Baby Boomers. 

I take comfort in knowing that if I decide I want my auburn hair back, there’s a quick fix. Better living through chemistry. But for now, this rebellious redhead is letting her silver shine. 

Always a New Adventure

posted Aug 31, 2016, 1:23 PM by Pat Riviere-Seel   [ updated Aug 31, 2016, 1:27 PM ]

Gray, muggy morning

a cloud

of goldfinches rises

into the wild cherry

leaves already camouflage

I wrote those lines earlier this month after a morning run, delighted to see leaves beginning to yellow. All summer I watched the wild green growth, watched the temperatures rise to record heat. I watched the weeds overtake the landscape; watched the play of sunlight and shadow in the dense woods outside my office window. Summer’s outrageous growth overwhelms me. I become lethargic and procrastinate even more than usual.

But the first hint of fall, with the promise of a messy season of kaleidoscopic colors renews me. I’m ready to refocus my energies, begin new projects. Although I no longer run the first thing every morning or cultivate a large garden, my body is still tuned to rhythms of the seasons. By the first of August, the dark lingers past 6 a.m. By the end of August there is the first hint of a chill in the air.

The last years I lived in Annapolis, Maryland, I ran the Annapolis 10-mile race the last Sunday in August. That race marked the end of summer and the beginning of fall for me. The second year I ran the race I was training for my first marathon and when I crossed the finish line I knew I looked a bit goofy and very pleased with myself. One of the runner’s working the finish line greeted me, “If endorphins were illegal, you’d be locked up for life!” Indeed. I had misinterpreted the marathon training schedule and run 16 miles with my training group the day before the 10-mile race. It was only later that week that Ben Moore, our retired Marine Corps leader, clarified that the scheduled called for running either the usual 16 mile Saturday or the 10-mile race, not two long runs on consecutive days.  But I had done something that I never thought I could do. 

The year I moved to Yancey County in August 1992, I went back to Annapolis to run the race. When I returned to the mountains the ironweed and goldenrod were blooming along with other wildflowers I did not recognize. The early morning chill I sensed in Annapolis was a palpable change in the mountains. I asked a neighbor for help splitting firewood to heat my home for the winter. Heating with wood was another first for me, a woman accustomed to central heating and air conditioning.

It’s been more than a year since I’ve raced. I’ve slowed down, cut back my mileage and frequency of runs after bunion surgery three years ago. I’ve developed new interests and I’ve spent more time promoting my work, especially my poetry collection, Nothing Below but Air published in 2014. The Serial Killer’s Daughter, the 2009 collection, has been turned into a one-act play and will be performed again next year. I still consider that work unfinished. Will I finish it? Will I run another race? I hope to, but for now I’m happy to run three days a week, work out in spin classes 2-3 mornings a week, walk, and garden as I discover what’s next.

This blog is one of my new beginnings this season. I’ve decided to write a memoir and the idea of committing prose after years of poetry scares the hell out of me. That’s reason enough to continue. So, this blog is a way of practicing prose and reaching out in conversation. I’ve always felt that poetry is a conversation between writer and reader, a way to connect, to say what needs to be said when prose is inadequate.

As summer ends and a new season begins, I continue asking the same question I’ve been asking for almost a year now:

                How do you want to live you life? What are you willing to do to live the life you want?

It’s a lot like the question a student in one of my poetry classes once asked. “How do you write a good poem? Just tell me how to write a good poem and I’ll write one,” she said. Easy enough. Just choose the best word in the best order – every time. Of course the best word and the best order depend on numerous factors, including sound, rhythm, form among others. Every poem is different.

Every day is different. I try to follow Rilke’s advice to a young poet and love the questions themselves, to remain content with the questions without needing – or forcing – answers. The answers will come.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. – Rainer Maria Rilke

Promises of more...

posted Aug 30, 2016, 8:10 AM by Britt Kaufmann   [ updated Aug 31, 2016, 3:11 PM by Pat Riviere-Seel ]

Always a new adventure...
This is Hannah Clare, one of two kittens we adopted in May 2015 from Brother Wolf, a no-kill shelter in Asheville.

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