am teaching a three-day workshop called teacher as writer. I have come over-prepared with a stack of hand-outs and a head filled with tired old ideas and
too many books of poetry. It is a class filled with women, younger than me, but
not too young, women with teen-aged children and busy lives, women who do not
share my self-indulgent compulsion to document everything but who are sitting
here bravely writing. They are kind women; I do not feel judged. It is a gift
to be here, really. I am a rusty door opening slowly.
Rather than driving home each night, I've been staying in a motel, a vintage 1960s sort of dump right on the main drag. The word that comes to mind is seedy. A big-bellied man in a tee-shirt is standing on the balcony smoking cigarettes, television noises are emanating from various rooms, and three intrepid guests are bobbing around at dusk in a hot tub adjacent to the parking lot. Now and then a train rumbles by and the whole place seems to vibrate.
On the first night I wake up feeling as though I am suffocating. I cannot open the window and I cannot get the air conditioning on. Finally at 1 a.m. I call the front desk and ask for advice. A young woman in a ponytail appears within moments, and together we unjam the window. She shows me the secret of the air conditioner too, but I prefer real air, the kind that enters directly through the screened window.
"Then keep those curtains sealed shut," she warns me as she leaves. "This place is filled with oil workers."
I lie in bed thinking about oil workers and wondering if there is something especially dangerous about them.
When I fall asleep, I dream that I have been stopped by a cop for driving too slowly.
"You're overcompensating," he says.
"I'm only being cautious," I tell him. "Since when is cautiousness a crime?"
Back at the workshop, the women are becoming familiar to me. The points of their pencils lead to children in Oklahoma, Red Sox games at Fenway Park, a mother's sewing room, a pale blue nightgown, the house in summer of someone dearly loved. There are births and anniversaries, partings and discoveries, commonalities and differences. We feel safe here. We share our stories and we share a Granny apple covered with caramel and pecan, and we share a bit of laughter, and occasionally some tears. A couple of the women have felt intimidated about writing and are surprised to discover how much they have to say, and how much it needed saying, and how real their voices are.
Later I walk around the downtown area and poke into the thrift shops half-heartedly, but it's not nearly as much fun as it was with my girlfriends last month. I pause to look at a classic old theater and take a picture of the vintage neon sign above the Star Lounge. "You should come back tonight and see it lit up," says a friendly patron on her way in. A homeless man pushes along a cart piled high with stuff. A store called Wild Planet has its doors open and the fragrance of patchouli oil rushes at me like the ghost of 1969. I buy Thai food to-go and carry it back to the motel. I am starting to feel in my element.
Still, there is a certain desolation when I shut the door behind me.
Oh yes, I know this feeling. The Bleaks.
I've been here before.
It helps that there's a wi-fi connection, which in my mind is no small miracle. Cornelia has sent me a message from Berlin where she, too, is staying in a dump, and it makes me feel we're sort of traveling together. Vickie checks in. Even Naomi reminds me that we are all part of a larger family, especially when washed up at The Bleaks, for at any given moment a lot of folks are there.
In the morning a thin slice of light cuts through the narrow space between those drapes I should have sealed more tightly shut, and a man and a woman are bickering right outside my window, and I consider the possibility of scrambled eggs and bacon at the restaurant on the other side of the parking lot, just to say I ate there. I find I'm in a Rumi frame of mind: There is a community of the spirit/join it and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street/and being the noise.
I am feeling contentedly common and unsung.
I am just the sort of person who would stay in this motel.
Back at the workshop, we talk about teaching and exchange ideas and email addresses, but mostly we write, and we see how writing quenches rather than depletes us, and we hope to give this secret to our students.
On the board I leave a parting message, a poem by William Stafford (yeah, him again) called When I Met My Muse. It concludes:
"I am your own
way of looking at things," she said. "When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation." And I took her hand.
And I'm thinking that when it comes to riding out The Bleaks, I'm a rodeo star.