A Crow Not Settled
Almost every Thursday for the past four years I have driven north across the Golden Gate Bridge to attend a writing workshop in the quaint village of Mill Valley. A group of nine—sometimes ten—women, we have come to know each other intimately. Deepest secrets and family skeletons are sometimes let out of the closet in this confidential setting. Settled into our favorite chairs, with slatted light through venetian blinds striping our shoulders and the notebooks in our laps, we write. We read aloud what we have written. We give each other feedback and encouragement. Among us there are novelists, memoirists, essayists, poets—but never, until now, a haiku writer.
It was only ten months ago that haiku came into my life. A friend read me Bashô’s “A crow/has settled on a bare branch—/autumn evening.” I knew I was supposed to react in some intense visceral way that I simply could not manage. My failure to appreciate the poetry of the master just made me feel stupid—somehow inadequate. When the friend offered up some haiku of his own, I nodded my head sagely and said “Mmmm.” Or perhaps “Ahhh.” The truth was, I simply didn’t get it.
Then one day it dawned on me that a short poem I had written was sort of haiku-ish. I tried it out on him.
the wind and I
pass by the tree together
blossoms in my hair
“Yeah, that’s haiku,” he said. And I was, inexplicably, far more excited than I dared let on. I went home and started scribbling more “haiku”—most of them dreadful. But my curiosity was piqued. I made a trip to the bookstore and bought everything with “haiku” in its title—both the old masters and contemporary poets. I sent away for back issues of haiku journals and read them over and over. I wrote more poems of my own. I learned the name of a local poet and practically begged her to take me on as a pupil. She offered both advice and friendship (for which I am so grateful). “That’s it—you’ve got it!” she’d sometimes say. But more often it was, “So? Where’s the haiku moment?” Back to the drawing board I’d go. When finally I got up enough nerve to send “the wind and I” (and several other poems) to an editor, it came back with a note saying “Sorry.” I tried again. And again.
Soon I was writing nothing but haiku and senryu. I was attending haiku meetings and haiku workshops. I was writing linked verses with local haiku poets. And every Thursday I was bringing haiku to my writing workshop and asking my old writing pals for their feedback. Predictably, they said “Hmmm.” And “Ahhh.” And they squirmed in their chairs not knowing what more to say. They asked how I’d like them to respond to these little poems. And what is a haiku anyway? And, knowing so little myself, I hardly knew what to tell them. And I felt guilty for causing them perhaps to feel a little stupid, a little inadequate.
Still, week after week I brought my haiku offerings to my Mill Valley group. Over time they became less intimidated and felt more comfortable saying “I like this because . . .” or “I don’t respond to this because . . .” But I felt like I was torturing them. One week, during our check-in, I said, “Well, for a while I wasn’t writing. But now I am again.” One of my pals responded gleefully, “I’m so glad you’re back to writing stories!” It wasn’t hard to figure out that to her (perhaps to all of them) “not writing” meant writing haiku; “writing” meant memoirs or stories or lyric poems. And I knew then that I should consider leaving this group—release them from this haiku bondage—and immerse myself fully in the haiku-writing world. But considering was as much as I was able to manage. I have, in fact, been considering this option for months now. While still in the process of considering, I have come with my Mill Valley group to a long-planned four day writing retreat. My goals: (1) to write haiku, (2) to try to write haibun (as a way to combine my prose and poetry), and (3) to finally make the big decision.
St. Dorothy’s Rest is a beautiful camp nestled in the redwoods of Camp Meeker, California. Lydia House, where we are lodged, has huge, redwood paneled rooms and arched, mullioned windows that look out over evergreen-studded hillsides on clear days, and into mist shrouded, dripping trees when it rains. We have had both—sun and rain—and it is glorious.
Our days are structured. Awake at 7 o’clock (an hour before my usual rising) but to bed by 10 o’clock or so (three hours before my normal bedtime). Heartier souls than I are on their yoga mats by 7:30, or have finished invigorating hikes by the time I am just stumbling bleary eyed into the shower.
the morning starts
At 8 o’clock we straggle to Main House for a hearty breakfast prepared by the friendly kitchen staff. By choice we begin the day in silence and maintain that silence through the morning meal.
on the path
the dog from
last night’s dream
smell of burnt toast—
in a white dish
Back at Lydia House we settle onto generously cushioned wicker furniture and continue to write our novels or our stories or our poems until the writing exercises begin. “Write down ten characters who affect your character’s life. Then write a few sentences describing them and their core beliefs.” These are the characters who will people our freewriting assignments for the next three days. But because I am no longer writing fiction, because I have no interest in the characters I invented (it seems so long ago), my characters are my family. And the main character is me. And with every assignment I think, Oh no, not my mother again! Not my father again! But dutifully I write without stopping, without picking my pen up from the paper for the assigned 15 or 20 minutes, and it seems like an hour, and it feels like my wrist will break and my hand will fall off. I have not written anything longer than a haiku for so long.
And after each freewrite, we read to each other what we have written. And I am sort of interested in what others have written—and sort of not; surprised and delighted sometimes by what their characters are up to now—but sometimes not. And I wonder again what am I doing here.
Before I can answer my own question, it is lunch time. We don our rain gear and head down to Main House again. Along the way I stop to inspect the rain beads cradled in cobweb slings along on the fence and the moss on the trees and the tanoak leaves that cushion the path. In the rain the evenly veined leaves look like so many fossils, or the shiny black backs of beetles. It is cold and wet and wonderful.
warm in my hands
The afternoon (until four o’clock) is free time—a silent time to contemplate, or read, or write, or explore. I do some of each. Several of us head down the trail to investigate this site.
bootprints fill with
Back at Lydia House I try to read a novel but keep putting it aside and picking up haiku anthologies instead. And next thing I know, I am putting the books down and picking up my notebook and scribbling poems about what I have just seen. And I find myself feeling a little annoyed when it is time for us to gather around the wicker coffee table for more writing assignments. We each pour ourselves a glass of water from the lopsided white porcelain pitcher with green vines crawling up its sides. We plump pillows behind our backs. We riffle through our notebooks till we find a blank page. We listen to instructions. For a moment there are puzzled, contemplative looks on faces around the room, then, finally, the furious scritching of pens.
the wicker chair groans
with the weight of her story
An hour of writing. And then dinner time at last. (How wonderful to be fed three times a day without having to give it a moment’s thought!) And when the meal is over, we make our way back to Lydia House once more (this time with the aid of our feeble flashlights). Out of our rain gear. Into our slippers. Then we gather around the enormous fireplace and read to one another—inspiring pieces by our favorite authors.
in the lodge
ten women writers—
stoking the fire
I read from Jim Kacian’s Six Directions—both the prose and the poetry, hoping to help my friends understand what haiku is all about. Though I hear them make appreciative sounds in the backs of their throats, I stop short of using all of my allotted time, afraid to overload them with haiku and make them uncomfortable again. Instead, I take this opportunity to ask them how they feel about having to read and respond to haiku every week. When I suggest that I am thinking of leaving the group, they are kind and generous (as I knew they would be) and say that they like reading my poems; that they are learning along with me.
The third day is much like the second. Three more good meals. More writing assignments—with which I am becoming more and more impatient, disgruntled. The more prose I am required to write, the more I resist it, and the more I want to be left to my own devices—to observe and write my observations in three short lines. I can hardly wait to get out of doors to seek out the treasures this place holds.
on the fence posts
tumbling pine cone
down the path
faster than I
On the fourth and final day, soon after breakfast we gather around the fireplace. We are each to read something we have written during the past three days—then give each other written feedback. My plan is to read my haiku. Before bedtime the night before, I collect them into one manuscript and am happy to find more than twenty. I read them aloud that last morning.
Back at home, I read the comments from my women friends, my writing pals. Again they are generous and encouraging. These are among the best you have written, they say. You are part of the group. Please stay.
Today I am leaning more toward leaving than toward staying— almost ready to follow my head rather than my heart. Or is it just the other way around? I don’t know the answer to that, and therein lies the problem. When I went on this retreat, I had three goals: to write haiku, to compose haibun, and to finally make the big decision. I accomplished the first. I am working on the second. Perhaps that is all I can ask of myself right now.
between the screen
and the window