This piece was written in response to the poem, “Begin Again,” by Brendan Kennelly (see the poem below). I often use poems as prompts; this one sparked a memorable run-in with an old friend, and will most likely be part of a book about my writing life, which is still in the planning stages. (Stay tuned.)
by Brendan Kennelly
Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark determination
and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and the future
old friends passing through with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.
Best to begin with a story. About a friend from graduate school, who told me one day in a craft class (many years ago), that my short piece emulating Nabokov was the sexiest piece of writing he’d heard in a long time.
When I heard his name called out recently during roll call for jury duty, I searched the room for that curly strawberry blonde, trying to find the young man who had graduated with me thirteen years ago. At the lunch break, we found one another, and I was struck by the lines on his forehead, and the way his hair had turned a dark grey.
In the Mediterranean cafe near the courthouse, he told me that he didn’t particularly like his job, but with two young children at home, he couldn’t quit, nor did he have the energy to look for new work.
“Do you have time to write?” I asked, and his answer was a surprisingly sad, “Not really.”
When the conversation turned to me, I felt a little embarrassed. My life now revolved completely around writing, around other people’s stories, and traveling to beautiful places. I complained about the essays I bring home from my Composition classes, the end of my recent leave of absence from the university, the loneliness I sometimes feel being single and living on my own.
But I felt lucky. Because for the first time I saw that the work I do with writing groups has always been the path that I was on, and a year after our graduation, I began facilitating writing workshops in my home. It was work that I began twenty years ago as a twenty-something, idealistic, undergrad who wanted to bring people together to write. I felt—really, for the first time—fortunate that I hadn’t had children, or taken a safe job with good benefits.
Our conversation wound around to grief, and the absence of our parents, especially in the lives of his children. And I found myself inviting him to come write with us, to consider a grief retreat.
“Has it helped, writing about it?” he asked.
“It’s changed my relationship with grief,” I said. “I understand it better now.”
We spoke of sitting Shiva, and the year anniversary of a loved one’s death, the unveiling of the tombstone. I spoke of Day of the Dead altars, and visiting graves, and how the living have to deal with this privilege—I almost wrote “responsibility”—yes, the privilege AND the responsibility of being alive. It’s a lot of work, being alive, striving to be happy and authentic. It’s a lot of work.
And it certainly isn’t a competition. But being with my old friend, remembering our early thirties, the little group of us who met after class on Wednesday nights for $2.00 Stella Artois on draft at the Blue Danube, I couldn’t help but feel thankful, again, for this life I’ve created, and the wonderful family of writers I belong to now.