Last year, I was invited to give a reading at my alma mater in honor of my mentor, the poet Robert Cording, who was retiring after nearly 40 years of preaching the beauty of poetry.
I thought back to my senior year at the College of the Holy Cross and a creative writing honors project with Bob. It was one of the peak experiences of my life.
After all, I lived with my best friends in an apartment above an Indian restaurant. I began my life as a poet, edited a literary journal and volunteered at a soup kitchen. Our intramural basketball squad went undefeated.
I had a handful of crushes, one of which ended up being the love of my life. I also got a fellowship to study abroad in Russia, which would utterly change my life. In short: It was a great year.
As part of my nostalgia trip, I hauled up a battered box of college journals from the recesses of our basement and rifled through the musty and yellowed pages, stinging my nose with their scent. I’d started keeping a journal as a teen, fancied myself a poet and numbered every new poem until I’d reached the many hundreds. In between what I’d hoped were my immortal words, journal entries peppered the page.
What I found in those journals shocked me.
In the fall, according to the notebooks, I couldn’t write a poem to save my life. After one meeting with Bob, I felt “very depressed and inadequate.” Later, I scribbled, “I’ve been pounding my head against a wall.” A few pages later: “I’m currently in one of the darkest moods I’ve ever experienced.”
It wasn’t just difficulty writing. I recounted a series of failed first dates and my dread for the future with no idea what would happen upon graduation. “I wallow in self-pity,” I scrawled one day.
Then, just to show my poetry chops: “Last night the melancholy seeped into my bones.”
“My spirits have reached lows,” I wrote, and “lows” is underlined twice, “that I cannot reach out of. There’s the sense that the best plan is just to ride out the waves and just wait.”
Once, I wrote something about my honors project, which echoes differently to me now: “I also feel that the coming task will be somewhat daunting and a little scary, and I just don’t know what to expect. I ought to let things flow and not punish myself like I do.”
I was talking about a writing project, but I could have been talking about anything.
Later, Bob suggested that I try changing my approach to writing, focusing on the language itself — word by word, line by line — rather than the story I was trying to tell.
“I looked at him and was amazed, because I didn’t understand a damned thing he was saying,” I wrote. “On one level I could comprehend him, but on another I was completely lost. He said, just go with it, and I guess I will.”
I had forgotten so much. Of course, everyone forgets — that’s how we live. But my memory had erased the turbulence of that year, the depths of my struggle in favor of a narrative of gratitude.
Around that time, I was reading Letters to a Young Poet. In response to a younger writer’s questions, poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
This idea, living the question, flooded me with relief. I didn’t need to have all the answers. I just needed to be patient. To live the questions. It rhymed with John Keats’ idea of “negative capability” — that capacity to live amid “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
We could stand in the great turbulence of unknowing, without grabbing at the first thing that came by.
When I think back to that year, I see it now with new eyes. I remember both the mountain highs and valley lows. Between the low times I’d written about in the journal, I had euphorias, crushes, enthusiasms, awe and pure joy.
Of course, only some of it made it into the journal. I “fell in love” quite a few times. There was one girl that I was in love with, but I had absolutely no memory of her. (I’m sorry, Liddy, whoever you are.)
But reading that journal and wrestling with my tricky memory, reminded me of what my John Carroll University students are going through as they sit in my class and wrestle with telling their own stories and finding their own voices.
“There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen once sang, “that’s how the light gets in.”
I was riddled with fissures then. I have new ones now, as we all do, but writing is still the main way I have to drain the dark and let the light take its place.
Every day I can, I write in another notebook, setting off into the unknown, from what I know (or think I know) toward what I don’t yet know, and what, no doubt, I’ll remember differently than it was.