My skull is filled with alphabet soup. Occasionally the letters make a word, but mostly they slosh around, defeating my every attempt to make sense of them. It wasn’t always this way. My brain used to be a series of filing cabinets. The drawers were shallow but numerous; an inch of information about any particular subject, miles of breadth. Just enough knowledge to stay in most conversations, not enough to truly master any one subject. That was fine. I liked that. A friend called it “librarian brain.” Who doesn’t like librarians? But “soup brain”? That has neither the same ring nor the same positive connotation. Soup brain means never quite having the details at my fingertips; a blank spot on the tip of my tongue. I don’t think it’s a sign of disease. Rather, it’s a symptom of discombobulation. The circumstances of my external world are so disordered that my internal landscape can’t help but reflect them. My prediction is that the presence of family and friends, along with a place to live and a more stable life, will slowly drain the soup, revealing the long rows of shallow cabinets that have been there all along.
The idea of living in the present moment is central to Buddhist practice, which I’ve been trying my hand at for more than two decades. As I’ve come to understand it, the basic concept is that the past has passed and the future is unknowable, so the only time with which we can interact is this moment right now. And right now. And … you get it.
The instruction to remain centered in the present is one of my favorite parts of Buddhist philosophy. It’s also remarkably difficult to do, at least for me. No matter how much the present might be demanding my attention, I still find myself caught up in memories and daydreams, returning to past successes and failures, and turning over future visions in my mind.
Poetry can be an aid to present-minded living, serving as it does — or at least as it can — as a textual photograph of a moment. This is supposed to be one of the main methods of creating haiku, for example, though I find even in that form I am often mired in the past. The more I deviate from the nature-word-plus-present-description method of haiku, the more likely it is that my tiny poems will contain sharply pointed thorns of memory.
I overheard one of my coworkers this morning talking about an “on this day” post they’d received on Facebook and how it had dredged up difficult memories. I’m glad to not be on Facebook, because I have too many memories I’d prefer to avoid. And yet, when left to its own devices, the Zuckerberg in my skull is all too happy to pull up some scene I’d sooner escape.
Perhaps one problem, if that’s the word, is that my current life is — or seems — very small. I work in an office during the day. After work I retreat to the 32 square feet of my van, which is where I spend most of my non-work time. This might be an excuse, but I feel like these circumstances don’t lend themselves to the kind of noticing so fundamental to poetry. So instead of seeing things in the world around me, I mine the shafts in my brain for the ore I need to write.
That last paragraph does feel like an excuse now that I read it again. Noticing can happen in any circumstances, and the present moment is the present moment, no matter what it contains. Maybe this whole essay can serve as a call to action for my own writing (I accidentally typed “righting” — a useful accident?); a reminder to pay closer attention to what might seem mundane or confined. I guess we’ll all find out together whether I heed that call in the weeks and months ahead.
In about 1977, my mom bought me a bag of popcorn from this cart, and then we walked into England Brothers department store, in front of which it was parked. There was an escalator, and as my mom and I went up it I was eating fresh popcorn from my bag. Near the top of the escalator I lost my balance and tumbled all the way to the bottom, popcorn flying everywhere.
From that day onward, I could never eat popcorn without feeling nauseous. I tried many times. My family loved popcorn and made it frequently. I tried when I’d go to the movies with friends. Every single time, I’d take a handful and immediately start feeling sick. That lasted until my early 40s, when I ate some popcorn with no ill effects. I can still eat it today, though I spent so many years avoiding it that I usually forget it exists until I go to a movie.
I took the photo above during my lunch break today. I’m not sure if this is the exact same cart or a replica, but it sure looks the same as the one in my memory. I’m also not sure if this cart is still open for business. There was nobody in it today, but perhaps it’s only open on certain days or at certain times. England Brothers, where my grandmother worked for years, was razed during Pittsfield’s urban renewal.
On April 11, I started a new life in Pittsfield, MA. That was the first day of my new office job, my first day living in my van again after five weeks staying with family, and my first day living in a new town where I don’t know anyone. (I was born in Pittsfield and consider nearby Lenox my hometown, but I no longer know people in either place.)
As I left work on that first day and got into the driver’s seat of my van, I faced the largest anxiety attack I’ve had in a long time. The trifecta of no home/no friends/office job hit me hard, and within minutes I was in tears. I drove to a nearby marsh that has a walking path. I walked to the end of the boardwalk and watched the geese and ducks as I got my emotions under control. When my heart rate had slowed a bit, I found a bench and meditated.
That was the beginning of two very dark weeks. I burst into tears at some point nearly every day and found myself in thought spirals every night. As the second week dragged on, I started to worry about how long it would be possible to operate at the level of distress I was experiencing.
One complicating factor was that I had stopped taking antidepressants in 2021, working with my nurse practitioner in Vermont to wean myself off them. I’d been fine since then, and in fact I was very much enjoying a renewed sense of connection to my emotions — a connection that had been dulled for the decade or more I’d been on meds.
When this latest dark period struck, the intensity took me totally by surprise. I’d certainly had dark periods before; 2020, for example, saw the end of what I thought would be a lifelong relationship and the start of my life in a van. But this was something different. It was debilitating in a way I hadn’t experienced since the breakdown that put me on meds in the first place.
This period also coincided with National Poetry Writing Month, aka NaPoWriMo. I decided to participate. Over the years I’ve likened poetry and Buddhist practice, in that both help you see the world as it is. That can be great, but when the world is a pile of poop, writing a poem every day is less about observation and more about being slowly buried. Art can amplify the bad as well as the good. Looking back at most of the poems I wrote in April, I can see a terrifying darkness and despair. And I wonder whether writing a poem every day was about wallowing rather than processing.
Somehow, for reasons I can’t even begin to name, that dark blanket lifted after two weeks, and I’m doing much, much better now. I’ve accepted the reality that I’ll have to live in my van until summer, when I can afford to rent an apartment. I’ve begun to adjust to my office job, and even to find comfort in the nice folks with whom I work and the access to a bathroom and a tea kettle and a paycheck. I can look ahead to a time when I’ve got my own place and feel more stable and secure.
This year’s NaPoWriMo gave me a lot to think about concerning the relationship between my writing and my state of mind. I’ll definitely exercise more caution if this happens again, and I’ll try to pay more attention to the interplay between art and emotion.
This sticker (and the similar “Good Vibes Only”) are not the way to go. Your friends need to know that they can count on you when they’re down, not just when everything is smooth and easy. Life has bad vibes sometimes, and when we refuse to acknowledge that, we do a disservice to ourselves and the people who need us.
I’ve been trying to write a poem about tea but I really can’t do better than Douglas Adams did. [UPDATE: I wrote one anyway.] Here’s just one example.
“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple…. All I want … is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”
And he sat. He told the Nutro-Matic about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon. He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun. He told it about silver teapots. He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn. He told it about putting the milk in before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded. He even told it (briefly) about the East India Trading Company.
“So that’s it, is it?” said the Nutro-Matic when he had finished.
“Yes,” said Arthur. “That is what I want.”
“You want the taste of dried leaves boiled in water?”
During these times, many of us would have been far happier as trout making occasional little jumps up above the water’s surface for the view of the carnage. Has my country become a pack of wild hogs bent on eating the world? … Certain members of my family, in the midst of the usual Nordic emotional squalor, used to say, “It’s always darkest before it gets darker.”
— from “Paris Rebellion” in Jim Harrison’s book A Really Big Lunch
After 836 days, I finally met a New York Times crossword puzzle I couldn’t solve. I got everything but the final isolated word, which was the name of an Egyptian pharaoh. When I finally gave up, pressed “reveal puzzle,” and saw the correct answer, it was a name I couldn’t have ever come up with. And since it was isolated from all the other puzzle answers, you had to know it. There was no way to guess. Looks like I’m starting a new streak with the next puzzle.