Almanac of Last Things: Write from Your Now
The first year Jesse and I lived in Washington, D.C., I signed up for a poetry workshop that was held inside the instructor’s apartment in Adams Morgan. For two hours every Sunday about five of us crammed into her living room and read, talked about, and wrote poetry. We stopped midway for cookies and tea.
It was absolutely not the writing workshop I wanted to take. I wanted to take a workshop where, you know, we actually wrote. In my wisdom and arrogance at the ripe old age of 25, I was confident that writing a lot of words equalled superb writing. But I went every Sunday, and every Sunday I came home proclaiming, “I’m outta here just as soon as I find a fiction workshop,” while at the same time being aware (and a little disturbed) of how alert my senses became after having spent time with poetry.
My fantasies of a writing life were not the only thing I was a tad mixed up about. I imagined (actually assumed) we’d live in a row house in Georgetown when we moved to DC. Surely it can’t be that much more expensive than living in South Bend. So we’d cut back on eating out, and OK, I’d stop going to Target. The reality was that Jesse and I could only afford a garden apartment (that should really be called a “dungeon apartment”) with an oven door that couldn’t open all the way on account of the fact that it hit the kitchen wall and a bathroom that was communal.
I do not think “communal” and “bathroom” should ever be used in the same sentence.
We settled on a 900-square-foot apartment on Connecticut Avenue. We were within walking distance of the Red Line and the Politics and Prose bookstore. We had a rooftop deck and a porch that faced the building’s courtyard. Our neighbor was a retired woman whose husband had died and left her with a three-bedroom, windows in every room, corner apartment. She was a docent at the National Zoo and just as chipper as could be.
I was not friendly to her. I was not actively mean, but every time she poked her head out of her apartment to say hello, all that light and space that came roaring out with her perky self made me angry.
I do not wear jealousy well. It also takes me a quite a long time to accept that I won’t always get precisely what I want.
One of the poems my writing group studied was Linda Pastan’s The Almanac of Last Things, a five-stanza poem proclaiming what she’d choose to hold onto and why: a spider lily “for the grace of its brief blossom.” January’s “chill lessons of patience and despair.” She chooses evening because the light she notices at her window tells her of the tension and beauty there is in something ready to go forward and something ready to be extinguished.
Our writing prompt was to do as Pastan did: What would we choose from the almanac of last things and why? The instructor, a woman who was in a wheelchair and would always be in a wheelchair, encouraged us to write from our “now.” That is, don’t consider what we’d take from our past, rather, what from our collection of moments in our present would we cling to? (Actually, she told us to do this. This woman was not an encourager.)
We were to write and then share — an exercise that stressed me out because, for one thing, I can’t write in front of people. For another thing, what if I have nothing to say? Or what if I do have something to say, but I can’t say it well? Plus, I didn’t want to choose to cling to my present moment. I wanted to cling to my two-bedroom apartment with the bay windows in South Bend, the bike rides along the St. Joseph River, the football games at Notre Dame.
“Five senses,” she said after what felt like three days of silence. I looked up from my very blank page, and she and I made eye contact. “Put yourself in your home and take what you hear, what you smell, what you see, what you taste, and what you touch with you.” Her arms and legs were crooked and didn’t have much muscle control. Her voice, though, was strong and clear. “Tell us,” she said.
I don’t want to write about the coffee
that fills this space
with its aroma
its way into me every morning
“It’s OK,” and,
Our landlord showed off
the mirror wall
“to create the illusion of space,”
and I don’t want
to write about the bookshelves
we placed in front of all those mirrors
that reflected nothing –
but the books took me anywhere.
I will not write
that the Metro
sounded like howling wind
when it approached
I’ve travelled on
the Chicago el
the NYC subway
but I liked the DC metro best
for its rules
and its order
“When will we get a bigger place?”
I asked Jesse
sprinkling Old Bay Seasoning
over crab cakes
and I don’t want
that it tasted
like a salty summer day
like the ocean
its rip current
pulsing at the side of my body:
“If only you could make this place your home.”
After a hurricane,
a roach climbed up our living room window,
it was pouring down rain
to the walls,
my hair and skin
I saw the bug
and cried, “I want to go home!”
“We are home,” Jesse said,
I don’t want to write about that.
Try It: Almanac of Last Things
Write your own “Almanac of Last Things,” a five-stanza poem proclaiming what you would choose to hold onto and why. In the words of my first ever poetry instructor: Take your “now” — what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell — and tell us.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s one from Katie Spivey Brewster we enjoyed:
bright blossoms, green leaves
bursts of color, shiny light
all from planted seeds
water helps them grow
plants above, roots below
sun, soil, air and light
gently sew and tend
watch as they rise above ground
reaching for the sun
—Katie Spivey Brewster
Browse more poetry prompts
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.
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