December 7th, as many of us know by heart, is Pearl Harbor Day. It’s also Willa Cather’s birthday (1873). If you want a poetry prompt, I’d say open to page 96 of one of her novels—the closest to hand will do—and, using only the words on that page, write a love poem to someone who never understood you.
This morning was bitterly cold. My phone told me that it was 18 degrees, but the wind that was gusting off the river made it much colder. My dog Bailey, who loves to walk, today gave me the look that meant Holy Crap, let’s go back. I agreed. He half-ran all the way back, pulling my fat monkey-related flesh behind him like a millstone. Yesterday I saw a whole tree full of puffed-up, slightly sad robins, but today I don’t think I saw a single bird. Certainly none were singing. I’m hoping they all found warm chimneys or vents to huddle near.
Even the heron who usually fishes near the 40th Street Bridge has disappeared. The whole stony bank where I used to see her has been scoured and changed by the river, which swelled with runoff last week. Gone are the floating branches and the great fallen tree where I’d seen her standing for much of November. The river water is still thick and brown with mud. Here is the last picture I have of her.
For those of us who play what I still call video games (although technically they’re called MMORPGs-- massively multiplayer online role-playing games), the new expansion of World of Warcraft is out. I’ve been playing for about five years now. I first got involved in it when a long term real-life relationship was breaking up and I couldn’t otherwise do anything. I didn’t want to even get off the couch. We both had to live together until one of us found a new place. I was depressed. But I could play the game and that helped move my attention off my own sadness. I had direction of sorts from the quests my character had to do, problems to solve, things to collect and assemble.
I dove right in. I’ve always loved fantasy. I learned to read by reading Marvel Comics, which led me to Greek and Norse mythology, which led me to just about everything else. In the game, I made friends with other players. We teamed up, we joked around, we challenged each other, we joined guilds, which are larger groups of players. It was an imaginary world to make up for the imagined world I was losing. We did not talk about real-life, which was a real blessing then.
Literary friends furrowed their brows at the news. They were sure it was just a phase in my grieving process. Which was partly true. Sooner or later, they were sure, I’d come out of it and want to join the real human race again. They were patient.
After the first few months of playing, mostly at night instead of watching television, I did get on with my life of course. But it did give me a space to practice being myself again. I don't tell anyone I teach or write poems. I don’t know what other players do in real life either. I don’t ask. You pay attention to behavior to know whether you like someone or not. The guild I’m in is made up of “mature” players, including their spouses, their kids, and their friends. It can be quite sweet. When one person lost his job and wouldn’t be able to afford to play, other people got in touch with him and helped him out. There are thirteen year olds, forty year olds, grandmothers, grandfathers; some voted for Obama, some not; some players live in Ohio, some in Ottawa, some in Puerto Rico. We all get along. It’s an interesting world. You get to kill monsters too. Sometimes it gets boring and you stop for a while.
I read the other day that there’s a whole guild of writers who were participating in National Novel Writing Month, who would meet in the game to talk about something other than writing and all its attendant anxieties. It’s not a replacement obviously for therapy but I don’t think I even had the strength to find a therapist when I started. I know I didn't have the strength to read or write poems. Frankly, the game helped get me moving again.
And it’s turned out to be a lot cheaper than paying for cable, I tell those people who like to think practically.
So, thinking about complicated transformations, I’d like to post a poem by the British poet Selima Hill. I love the ending.
I want to be a cow
and not my mother’s daughter.
I want to be a cow
and not in love with you.
I want to feel free to feel calm.
I want to be a cow who never knows
the kind of love you ‘fall in love with’ with;
a queenly cow, with hips as big and sound
as a department store,
a cow the farmer milks on bended knee,
who when she dies will feel dawn
bending over her like lawn to wet her lips.
I want to be a cow,
nothing fancy –
a cargo of grass,
a hammock of soupy milk
whose floating and rocking and dribbling’s undisturbed
by the echo of hooves to the city;
of crunching boots;
of suspicious-looking trailers parked on verges;
of unscrupulous restaurant-owners
who stumble, pink-eyed, from stale beds
into a world of lobsters and warm telephones;
of streamlined Japanese freighters
ironing the night,
heavy with sweet desire like bowls of jam.
The Tibetans have 85 words for states of consciousness.
This dozy cow I want to be has none.
She doesn’t speak.
She doesn’t do housework or worry about her appearance.
She doesn’t roam.
Safe in her fleet
of shorn-white-bowl-like friends,
she needs, and loves, and’s loved by,
only this –
the farm I want to be a cow on too.
Don’t come looking for me.
Don’t come walking out into the bright sunlight
looking for me,
black in your gloves and stockings and sleeves
and large hat.
Don’t call the tractorman.
Don’t call the neighbours.
Don’t make a special fruit-cake for when I come home:
I’m not coming home.
I’m going to be a cowman’s counted cow.
I’m going to be a cow
and you won’t know me.