Why Being Present is the Hardest and Most Rewarding Thing You Can Do

If you are a parent inclined to take your kids to Disney World, as I do on occasion with my three-year-old daughter down in Florida, listen a little harder to the banter among surrounding people as you wait in lines for rides. You too may be surprised by how frequently their discussion turns to questions about what time they have reserved their next ride through something called “FastPass,” an app that allows park-goers to avoid longer waits by reserving rides in advance. After hearing this sort of back-and-forth among people in line after line, day after day, over the course of three or four Disney visits per year, the irony of Disney’s FastPass feature occurred to me: The very technology designed to enhance one’s experience of the present moment inflames a human tendency to resist embracing the present moment. The greater allure for too many of us is to always be looking beyond it. Something as superficial as an amusement park app turns out to underscore something far more troubling: the inconsolable restlessness at the core of our being.

I say this not in judgment of anyone but rather out of recognition of this shortcoming in myself. I myself often am this person who merely exists in the present moment instead of actually being present, someone who just as frequently as anyone else counts down the hours until the end of a workday, the days until the next paycheck, the weeks or months until the next vacation. The “now” in which I am typing this races through our lives unnoticed, or it is noticed only to the extent that we regard its passing as the gateway to whatever it is we anticipate. Walt Disney saw his parks as opportunities for people to “escape the everyday world—the strife and struggle.” No working parent has to be sold on the appeal of such an escape, even though a Disney trip with small children sometimes can feel like an extension of the struggle back home. The notion that may be harder to sell to working parents such as myself, but one that ultimately may be more powerful than any fleeting getaway, is the magic of embracing the present moment—however loaded it may be with the anxiety, stress, worry, uncertainty, unfairness, embitterments, angers, slights, pettiness, or ennui from which Disney sought to provide an “escape.” In fact, especially because it is loaded with the off-putting realities of the mundane.

Consider the courage it takes to embrace those banalities as ardently as we cherish the anticipated moments of our lives, to practice what Pema Chodron describes in her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, as “relaxing with the present moment.” Especially since, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that the majority of the things in which we invest a great deal of hope or anticipation are things that don’t linger with us for much longer than the time it takes to experience them—the moment that next paycheck arrives in your bank account, the one “parents’ night out” at your kid’s preschool during which you’ll enjoy an hour or two of uninterrupted adult conversation over a decent meal somewhere or, yes, the next ride you’ve punched into a day’s itinerary at an amusement park in a land of sea and sunshine. What if we don’t need an “escape” so much as we need to liberate ourselves from the desire for one? What if that is how actual contentment is found? What if daring ourselves to be at ease with the present moment is at once the most challenging and the most rewarding endeavor we can pursue amid the insane turbulence of our daily lives?

Instead, for most of us, the present moment is an inconvenience we nudge out of the way. Chodron argues that the reasons for this are “rooted in our fear of death,” which she says is the reason “why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives.” Whatever the reason, the present moment is something we live through the way we live through our exasperation at the old lady laboring over a checkbook in the grocery store line as others roll their eyes because now they’ll get home three minutes later than planned. We pummel ourselves with a frenzy of anticipations, the plans we have made for the “nexts” and needs and wants with which we shoo away our lives like some housefly fizzing in a windowpane. As the old John Lennon lines goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” If we’re too busy making other plans even as we experience the very things we’ve planned, as is the case with folks pulling up FastPass itineraries on their iPhones while flying Dumbos revolve overhead amid the shrieks and giggles of toddlers, then maybe technology has thrust us into a world even Lennon—even Disney—could not have imagined.

What is the source of this discontent? What is our problem? Maybe Chodron’s answer is the right one. Or maybe Douglas Coupland was on to something when he wrote during a recent stint in rehab, “I think data consumption has replaced organic experience as the measure by which our bodies perceive the passing of time.” True as that may be, how much more disturbing is it that “data consumption”—folks flipping through their phones to memorize the details of the day they have planned instead of actually experiencing the day they have panned—has replaced not just organic experience, but even the synthetic experience one has within a stultifyingly manicured place like Disney World? What I’ve been telling myself lately is this: Stop it. Stop yearning. Stop desiring. Stop anticipating. Be. Just be. I know I am not alone when I concede to the unlikelihood that I ever fully will rise to that challenge. I also know this: What’s worth trying is worth trying.

–Gianmarc Manzione

 

Why Contemporary American Poetry is Diminished by the Poems About Donald Trump Already Appearing in Various Literary Journals

I’m probably in the minority on this among my poet friends but it’s really bugging me: I think contemporary American poetry is diminished by the number of poems about Donald Trump I’m seeing in the latest issues of various literary journals. I’m not interested in calling out any particular poet or journal; I’ll leave that to Trump’s next undisciplined and embarrassing tweet. But here’s the problem . . .

Trump has been president for four weeks; he hasn’t even been on the national political scene for more than 18 months, and he didn’t emerge as a formidable contender for the White House until maybe a year ago. That means in most cases these poems couldn’t have been conceived more than 12 months ago, give or take, no less gone through many drafts or revisions. I don’t know who exactly it was that advised leaving a new poem in a drawer for a year without looking at it, then taking it out to see what you may have on your hands. But it’s good advice. Only then can you objectively evaluate your own work, and in almost every case, the objectivity one only achieves with the passage of time makes the new poem’s flaws glaringly obvious, and revision begins. How can a poem about Trump conceived before he even became president possibly have gone through such a process?

I felt exactly this way when Galway Kinnell’s poem “When the Towers Fell” appeared in The New Yorker a year after the 9-11 attacks. There was no way to have achieved an objective distance from that atrocity within 12 months of its occurrence, and therefore no way to process it meaningfully into art. Not yet. Kinnell’s poem, and indeed these Trump poems popping up now in a variety of journals, could have benefited from the patient scrutiny that yields great literature.

The urgency of this moment in our politics demands that poets–and editors, for that matter–practice that patience and discipline more rigorously than ever before. I know we all are in a hasty and emotional rush to have something to say about the strange and unruly moment we’re living through, but that is exactly why we, and perhaps most of all our poets, should guard against becoming unruly ourselves. Literary journals are not blogs.

My Poetry Chapbook, ‘The Panic inside the Stars,’ Wins Second Honorable Mention from Comstock Review

Well, the agony and the ecstasy, I guess.

I’ll be honest: I really, really wish I had won this one. Last October, I submitted my poetry chapbook, The Panic inside the Stars, to The Comstock Review’s “Writers Group 2016 Chapbook Contest.” A poet whose work I adored when I was a graduate student, and one who has won the Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate of the United States, won the competition. His name is Ted Kooser, and his winning chapbook is called At Home.

As someone who is very familiar with Kooser’s work–its voice, its pervading preoccupations, the unassuming tone and precision of its language–I think the title suits perfectly the kind of note Kooser has been striking for many years now. His work always takes you home and keeps you there; often, his poems obsess beautifully on the most mundane, and, yes, domestic, scenes and objects. This is a guy who does what Rilke sought rather deliberately to do in some of his work; he makes the ordinary things of your daily experience more vivid to you than ever before by “defamiliarizing” them. You’ve never seen the things Kooser captures as vividly as you will inside a Ted Kooser poem, and you’ll never see them the same again.

I’m thrilled to be able to say I won “Second Honorable Mention” in this contest:

TedIIAs I said to Betsy Anderson, the Comstock Review co-managing editor who notified me of this, I think I can live with losing a chapbook contest to a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work I know well and respect. Kooser’s chapbook has just been released, and it’s available to order here: https://comstockreview.submittable.com/submit/77278/ted-kooser-new-chapbook-at-home.

The reason I say I really wish I had won this one is–well, there are several, really. Most obviously, it’s pretty damned thrilling to win a chapbook contest. What will be just as obvious to those who take a gander at the winning chapbook’s design is this: It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. See? . . .

TedObviously, Comstock Review has served these poems with tremendous affection and attentiveness to detail, and I eagerly look forward to getting my copy of this chapbook. Thirdly, I’ve been laboring over the poems in my chapbook for more than a decade; some of the poems therein are pushing 15 years old. Some poets talk about their poems as their “babies.” At this point, I’ve got teenagers. A gaggle of restless ones, pining for a home. I do hope they find one soon. Here’s hoping the next chapbook contest I send them off to will be–pardon the pun, Ted–home.

PIN ACTION Now Available in Paperback!

Found a nice little surprise on my doorstep yesterday–a box-load of paperback editions of my book, PIN ACTION! Sweetness. The paperback edition is gorgeous, as I would expect of my publisher, Pegasus, which always has treated this project with care and class. Check out the blurbs that fill in the top of the bowling pin on the cover. Come on. That’s awesome.

PinActionPaperback

Well, it is late. I am exhausted. My lovely two-year-old Ellianna, the greatest gift life ever has or will afford me, is sleeping with her “baby dolla” as she calls it, as well as, of course, with her special froggie puppet and her papa bear puppet as well. Because it’s just not sleep until your are watched over in the night by the mindful eyes of the fake but furry animals of this strange world. Which is all to say I am experiencing the crippling exhaustion a dad endures at the end of a day packed by work, caring for a toddler, doing the dishes, keeping this house clean and the kitties fed and my daughter bathed and tucked into “jammies” and whastever the hell else I somehow have accomplished in a single day. Which is to say I am too tired to say much else. Except I guess these couple of things: I did a bunch of podcasts from the 51st PBA Tournament of Champions last month, which you can find on Bowlers Journal’s website here and listen:

http://www.bowlersjournal.com/?page_id=10742

Also, I got to be a featured reader at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading last fall. That was an amazing experience. The room for my reading was packed. And people actually stuck around to ask questions! And get books signed! It was like I was an author or something. Big thanks to the TB Times folks for having me aboard for that amazing event.

Also, guess who got to have a pizza date with the sunshine of his life the other day? Yep. This guy. One of my Facebook friends said to me one day that Ellianna is the finest poem I’ve ever produced. Well, look at those electric blue eyes and that flaming bush of blonde hair. How can I disagree?

And, as you can see, she may be tiny but girl can pound down some pizza. OK.

Elli