When I told my friend Dorothy I was trying to overcome my muteness, she wrote to me about white lilacs. In their brief season, she said, they are “white like brides, with less than a month of blooming, not questioning their right to express themselves, to invite visitations.”
But it wasn’t that I was questioning my right to express myself, just doubting that I have anything new to say, and so I’ve fallen silent. Dorothy imagined the mute ones asking ourselves: “Should I try to say something? Is this the truth? Why bother? Who cares?”
I suppose I should write because I care, and not whether anyone else does. I should write because writing is a railing along a rough and precipitous trail. Writing is exploring, gaining my footing, leaving behind some markers, maybe even a map.
I feel lost. Is writing a way to be found?
This morning I went for a walk at low tide. The beach was scoured, rocky surfaces exposed. Everything looked tired and blank in the glare of the sun. Now I sit at my computer screen and its open page looks blank.
“We stare at the blankness,” Dorothy said, “and listen to some inner dictionary.”
Or listen for it.
“Once planted,” Dorothy mused encouragingly, “if tended, how many stanzas or paragraphs could sing in the air, be entered, and flown to another field, maybe turn into honey, maybe tempt a mute to belt out a tune?”
Mine would be a blues song, or a mournful lament. Who would want to hear it? Sometimes my sorrow is the only thing I feel, even when I know my life is beautiful. My greatest sins are the things I didn’t do, and then it was too late. Can I quell the pain by writing through it? Would someone learn from my confessions? Sometimes for a moment I subtract the me from what I see, finally free of my history, and it seems that I could simply be.
I’m wasting time. My own face is becoming unfamiliar to me, distorted with the jokes age plays upon us all, vulnerable and funny. What will I do with the precious next?
Dorothy recommends that I read a particular essay by Jane Hirshfield in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Hirshfield talks about perceptibility (as opposed to perception, or attentiveness) by which she means the ability to be known, to recognize that what we look at also sees us, and that the way one looks at a thing also determines what one will see. She quotes Ortega y Gassett:
There is a whole portion of reality which is offered to us without our making any special effort beyond opening our eyes and ears, and this we call the world of pure impressions. But there is another world built of structures of impressions, which though hidden, is none the less real. If this other world is to exist for us, we need to open something more than our physical eyes, and to undertake a greater kind of effort.
And here’s Emily Dickinson, who says it more succinctly: “Not Revelation’–‘tis– that waits,/But our unfinished eyes–”
Ah, my unfinished eyes, with their cataract-clouds of confounding connections! I need to find a different way of seeing the world and listening to it. “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves…” as Robinson Jeffers put it. Tall order, but knowing even this much is a start.
“Each poet,” writes Hirshfield, and I suppose she means each writer too, “in his own language, states that the basic matter of poetry comes not from the self, but from the world. From Things, which will speak to us on their own terms and with their own wisdom, but only when approached with our full and unselfish attention.”
The hills today are tinged with yellow mustard flowers, and there’s a haze of brush and branch and yes, white lilac, where the grassland shifts to chaparral. At my elbow a cup of tea grows tepid, and there are tulips in a vase nearby, their red so bright it almost vibrates. Parallelograms of sunlight adorn the faded rug. I can hear a motorized buzz outside as my industrious husband whips weeds on a hillside behind the orchard.
Everything has led me to this moment. What more do I want? Why must I analyze, apologize, and relentlessly strive to reconcile?
It reminds me of a poem by William Stafford, which asks:
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
I have no better thoughts. White lilacs for now will suffice, and the monotone buzz of the weed whacker, and the shifting angles of sunlight that have turned the heart-shaped leaves of the philodendron the most luminous of green.