RWW Soundings

The Welcome Mat:
How Chaos Encouraged My Outside Experience(s)

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thepinkdoorMerriam Webster defines havoc as “wide and general destruction” and a “great confusion and disorder.”To put it lightly, havoc does not have what one would consider positive connotations. I, for one, would never want to be associated with such chaos. But I am. You see, havoc has always been an unwanted guest in my house. A guest that shows up uninvited and never leaves on time. Sure, there are moments I think the coast is clear, when I kick back, put up my feet and breathe a sweet sigh of relief for a blessed moment of quiet. And then. The familiar knock. More like a banging, really. Havoc is at the door again, impatient, now scuttling up it like an un-killable roach, dropping down to the floor, scurrying around like a frantic mouse.

Most days, I accept havoc less as an invasive critter and more like a crazy aunt who can’t stop squawking. You see, for better or worse, havoc and I are family. We accept each other, even though we don’t get along. When I look in the mirror, I can’t help but see havoc’s reflection. It most definitely resides in my blood and undeniably in my brain.

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Thompson, PennsylvaniaLast year, as I was deciding how to spend those precious one hundred hours that made up my Outside Experience, havoc lent a helping hand. I had ideas, or rather it had ideas. Ideas that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. But they were ideas and this, after all, was havoc’s doing. I would go to Thompson, Pennsylvania to visit my childhood home! I would go to a women’s writing retreat! I would go to a Franciscan abbey and take a vow of silence to see what would happen to the havoc in my head when I deprive it of the noise it feeds on! I would! I would! I would!

Or not.

I really couldn’t decide. There was too much in the world I wanted to do, and only so much time to do it. Luckily, an opportunity to work as guest poetry editor for the online journal A River & Sound Review was offered, and gratefully I accepted. Founded by RWW alum Jay Bates (Class of 2007) as his own Outside Experience and run like a tight ship, albeit with the atmosphere of a Mardi-Gras-themed cruise by the fun-loving, über-talented captain-at-helm Michael Schmeltzer (Class of 2007), my experience editing for A River and Sound Review was a privilege and honor that had a direct impact on my writing life. As I read through the hundreds of submissions that came in, I was not only helping to select poetry for the next issue, I was also chiseling away at a definition of my own poetic aesthetics. I was able to more clearly define what I wanted present in poems – and, to be more specifically crucial about my own singular choices in my poems.

I also learned that the havoc of the life of an editor does not stop upon viewing a submission. To put it bluntly, I learned to read fast. The harsh reality is I didn’t edit like I set out to – optimistically bright-eyed and willing to spend quality time with each and every poem that came through the jetsam. In fact, this high-flying notion crashed quicker than a paper airplane missing wings. The havoc that is life intruded upon the smooth jet-stream of my intentions, and before I knew it I was dismissing poems that did not interest me within the first few lines. And yes, this is also true: I dismissed poems based on font. I am not saying what I did was right, but it was necessary. There are only so many hours in a day. Comic Sans? Please. Regardless of my blunders, it was a learning experience that surpassed, that went outside, one could say, my original intention.

childhood-homeIn fact, this experience immersed me so fully into the writing life that I did invest in other experiences. I did go spend a weekend at my childhood home, I did go to that women’s writing retreat, and, in the midst of all the mayhem I was creating, I actually did go to the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York and took a vow of silence for four days. My personal stay against havoc. Never in my life has the onslaught of the world’s noise remained so muted.

Some facts: The abbey invites any guest regardless of denomination to stay at any one ofthree retreat houses. The abodes are humble, modest, comfortable. Meals are served in silence, and consist, most notably, of bread baked on-site. The setting? Indubitably bucolic. Rolling green hills banked by the mighty Genesee. I saw a fox. A deer. Some avian thing, either pheasant or grouse. Slow time was a luxury coveted. I wanted to know where my head would go when it was cleared of obligation, duty, distraction. I read more than I wrote. I walked. I admired wildflowers buffeting roads. I amused myself amongst corn stalks, sat by a lily pond.

I wrote only one poem.

And that was right before I left; a day earlier than intended.

Yes. I failed.

I fled the quiet for the noise of the world again. I wasn’t cut out for the silence. Upon failing, idioms of the wise would not vacate my mind. Only boring people get bored. Fail again, fail better. No man ever steps in the same river twice. Don’t let the silence do the talking.

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The etymology of havoc leads us to the Anglo-French word havot, meaning to plunder. Definition of plunder? To take. But there’s more: to make extensive use of.

"Abby of the Genesee"I am sure to fail again, but I’ve realized, thanks to these Outside Experiences, that I want to make extensive use of havoc. To be honest, it is paradoxically both irritating and fulfilling. Time is ticking. Life in this modern world is busy, busy, busy. But you know what? I think I like it. I’ve always admired the monks. I’ve always thought I was missing out on clarity of mind through participating in the havoc of the world. But I realized this past year that I want to plunder experience. Maybe, this miasma of sound is the stuff of poetry. Maybe, I don’t want to shut myself off from havoc. Maybe I’ll sit down, shut up, hear more than just the first few lines, because havoc is engaging, because havoc can’t get rid of me as I take chaos and turn it into poetry, because the next time it comes uninvited to my door, instead of bolting the locks and muting its sound I’ll put out the welcome mat. I’ll invite havoc in. I’ll listen.

“Sometimes the most powerful thing you can say is nothing at all” – Mandy Hale

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it . . .” – Joan Didion

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