Dispatch From the Measureless Theater

MARCH 5, 2023

Fingerless gloves, check. Hot coffee with a shot of oat milk, check. Beeswax candle, picture of my children on the porch when they were small, check..”

It’s how I began the entry in my journal one year ago today, when I arranged my desk at the Rice Place along the Clackamas River and settled down to write. It was a productive and lovely week, with many pages written by hand and on a laptop, walks by the river bank and encounters with a buxom gold chicken with an extravagant red comb that hung over one eye like a fancy hat.

Back then, the invasion of Ukraine was fresh and unbelievable and I followed news of it with dread. I shared the poem “The End and the Beginning” by Wisława Szymborska and I’m afraid it’s even more relevant now. I wrote then of turning away from news of the war reluctantly, as though my watching it unfold meant having some kind of control over the outcome. But I also knew that it’s vital to occasionally turn away from the calamitous world and carve out time for quieting the mind and putting pen to paper. I quoted my writer friend Sarah Sentilles and her essay about how it’s revolutionary to “take back your mind, your energy, your focus, your inner emotional landscape..” (see links below)

The year since I last posted has been full of birds I tried to pay better attention to, (hello Cactus Wren in Arizona, hello Northern Cardinal in Massachusetts), and moments of awe experienced in the natural world. A couple of favorites: Getting soaked to the skin in a torrential summer rain storm on a bike ride from the Whitney museum in New York City with my daughter. Sitting on the beach next to my son who has fallen asleep in the sand, while a seagull we named Lance lingers nearby, hoping for a pinch from my sandwich. The year has also been a time of reckoning a bit more closely with my own mortality, with a cancer diagnosis and surgery in December. I continue to recover and heal, and am apparently in the clear now, but it’s given me a more expansive awareness than I had before: gratitude for this body inside what Szymborska calls the “measureless theater,” whose tickets come with a built-in expiration date. She writes about this in the lecture she gave upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996:

The world – whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing.

Wisława Szymborska

Outside there is the hint of spring in the wet air, the crocuses have begun their spread under the old Maple tree. Wherever this post finds you, I hope that you are well and finding moments of astonishment inside the shape of your days. I took a break from teaching this spring, but dearly miss it. I’ll be in touch soon with information about a DIY version of my Art of the Letter workshop (with an opportunity to write letters for National Letter/Card writing month in April).

Last note: One of my favorite topics to teach/research/read about has to do with the erosion of our collective and individual ability to focus, (just ask my children, when they wake up and I’ve hidden their phones again). It’s made me more aware of how jittery and distractible my own brain can be and for that reason, I’m experimenting with clean opportunities for people to read a text without distraction. This is why I’m listing links below instead embedding them inside the above document. Have any tricks or practices you’ve developed for staying hyper-focused? Feel free to send them along and I’ll share them around.

The End and the Beginning, Wisława Szymborska

Creation Stories: The World-Making Power of Art, by Sarah Sentilles

Nobel Lecture, Wisława Szymborska

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