Advice to Myself
by Louise Erdrich
(from “Original Fire: Selected and New Poems”)
Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic – decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paperclips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
Who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or
this ruse you can necessity.
|Louise Erdrich, left, talking with guests before her reading in Moorhead, Minn., Aug. 23|
I'd heard she was coming to town, this woman writer I'd first learned about in my college creative writing class.
That was around 1990. The instructor's name was Mark Vinz; the same teacher she'd had once. I'd written a poem called "Puppy Stew" based on my days on the Fort Peck Reservation, and something about it struck him. Was I familiar with Louise Erdrich's work? he'd asked. I wasn't, yet. He wrote down her name and encouraged me to seek out her work. Even after the note had floated away with the rest of my backpack-bottom muck, I remembered the name.
Soon thereafter, we moved West. My professional writing life grew. In time, motherhood arrived. We moved back to North Dakota, and among the things I found waiting for me here was Louise. After all, she'd grown up just 40 miles south of Fargo, the daughter of a mother of French/Chippewa descent and a father of German origin. Like my parents, hers were teachers, and like my father, hers was in love with words.
Though I haven't read everything of hers, I've enjoyed what of it I have, as well as learning a little about the person behind the words. I've met another of her writer sisters, too, and have heard plenty about another. The writing gene runs thick in their family. As does the observation gene -- something the writer must possess to do her job well.
And so I paid attention when the article came out in the paper, reminding me she'd be here as part of a symposium sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council. Thursday night was the evening she was slated as guest speaker to read publicly from her work on an outdoor stage just over the river.
My daughter and I, upon arriving at the event, headed straight to the bathroom at my insistence. From what I could tell, we were the only ones in need, except for another woman and her daughter. I was shocked, as we drew closer to them, to see it was Louise and her youngest, Cage. The four of us headed into the bathroom together, quietly; they went right; we, left. It seemed surreal to me, and I'm sure, to them, completely uneventful.
The written word can have quite a powerful, personal effect on the reader. When we discover someone whose expressions resonate with ours, we feel somehow that we know them, even though we don't, and certainly, they haven't a clue about us.
But writing is an intimate medium. Most often than not we will never meet the people whose words most affect us. But sometimes, on a golden night, out of the blue -- or pink, more like it (the sun was just about to set) -- that rare chance appears, unexpectedly.
Determining where she might begin in sharing her work, Louise heard a dog yelp from the audience. She quickly interpreted this as a request to read a piece written in the voice of a dog. The poem, "Almost Soup," was about...guess what? Puppy Soup.
And then, as she began to read the above reflection, I felt my tired self becoming alert as I suddenly recognized my ways in her words. She read. I smiled. I poked my daughter. "That's me." She nodded, knowing it was true.
The writing may have been for me but the lesson was for my daughter. She's the one who scorns the hairballs, even as I welcome them.
Q4U: What new life forms have you met recently?