Friday, December 10, 2010

Letter from Uncle Dean

Over the past 16 years, I've carried on a letter exchange with my uncle Dean. In these letters, Dean introduced me to the life of a poet--to the challenges, and surprises, and victories of the writing life. I still read some of the early letters Dean wrote, back when I was just beginning to write, for guidance and inspiration. Below is a letter he sent me when I was 21. I had just left college with a vague plan to travel and write.

Deano is facing an enormous challenge right now. He needs a new heart. If you've been touched by Dean's poetry or teaching, please consider donating to his cause. Additionally, Anna Clark wrote a blog yesterday, detailing other means of support. Finally, please do send your well-wishes to Deano personally:

Dean Young
2809 French Place
Austin, TX 78722-2235

Update: Dean received his transplant and is currently thriving with his new heart. 



Dear Seth,

I was very happy to get your letter, and my mom sent me your story which I want to get to but things have been so busy lately, what with school here and all those demands, and I've been flying around doing readings, and always feeling that I'm not devoting enough time to anything, even my cat, I figured I'd better write you soon, even if it was before reading your story, because I guess you're off across the seas soon. I don't know if I can really help you through your uncertainties, but I think I understand what you're feeling, and wondering, and maybe doubting. As far as missing out on life because of devoting your time to writing, I don't think you need to worry about that: life will happen to you no matter what you do. There will be joys and celebrations. There will be nights crossing bridges you don't know the name of when some unspeakable beauty envelopes you. There will be nights looking from windows upon the staggered lights of some town when some unspeakable sadness envelopes you. There will be people you love who you can no longer find your way to. There will be new discoveries, new clouds that resemble strange and terrible things, tangerines and hangovers, and long, long telephone calls made of almost entirely silence. There will be enormous pains and small pains that are almost pleasurable. There will be haiku that suddenly make sense, and the feeling that something has been taken from you, and songs, always songs. So don't worry about missing life, it's like missing the sky, you can't, you'll always be under it and in it and sometimes high in it, but often just on the ground, moving from thing to do to, needing, crying, making people laugh, although it's hard to tell what they're laughing about because it seems you were just talking about how terrible life is. But one thing that won't just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you'll never become the writer you want to become. And there's a funny thing about that, too. One is that you'll never become the writer you want to become. You'll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good. You'll never be certain. I mean to you it probably seems I have some sort of certainty, I've published some books which sometimes show up in used bookstores right down there with Yeats and John Yau (who?) and just in the last couple of years or so people have started to hear of my work, of me, and now I'm teaching at this la de da writing program and poets who I think of as giants are treating me as a friend, which is, I admit, great, but there is flattery and there is the truth and one can never tell where one stops and one begins. My own sense of my own writing is what have I done lately? It's the writing-nowness of it that matters, and in that we're all equals in the fog, each of us with a single flashlight with the batteries only lasting so long and we're not sure if we should signaling to some landing airplane or is that the galloping of horses we hear coming our way, or should we be just trying to find house again, that place where we were born, where some huge, beneficent force would lift us from our groggy tatters and fit us into a voluminous bed. So don't worry, Seth, you're feeling what you have to feel, and as John Ashbery says, The reasons that religions are great is that they are founded on doubt. So you have to be the religion of yourself, which surely Walt Whitman said somewhere, and it sounds like you're finding your way. Because it has to be YOUR way. Certainly there are teachers who can help you with things like dependent clauses and plot formation and run-on sentences (yikes), but all the hard play and work you must do yourself, which means above all else doing it. In my experience, the people who become writers are the ones who keep writing through the yards of silence and the years of discouragement. I think you may be worrying about things more then I did when I was your age. At least about writing. I knew it was a thing I did. I started writing poems in the third grade, and although I'm disappointed I'm not a lot better, it is something I do and therefore part of who I am, and cannot be reft from me. Perhaps I was too stupid or stoned or drunk or distracted or comfortable, or it was another world of skinny-dipping in the Bloomington quarries with a group of friends most of whom were trying to write well, with stupid jobs, and reading Frank O'Hara. I guess it was something I had faith in. It was later, by the time I was in graduate school, that the real ambitions (and poisons) of trying to get published and all that came into play. By then, well, it was too late. It was what I did. Remember, Seth, you can't sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here's the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It's not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears. Go back to college. It is a good place to try to teach yourself to write and to be surrounded by fellow blockheads that love books. Now I must get back to working on a poem I have no hope for because it is important to keep writing even when you aren't writing worth shit. There's a lot of luck involved in being struck by lightening, so you want to make sure you're holding a pen when it happens. Write again soon, dear nephew. Allow yourself to be uncertain, but don't let your uncertainty turn to despair. It can be wonderful to write when you're sad and full of the dark bouquet of doubt, but misery leads itself to silence and one must get out of bed every morning and prepare for the great celebration of one's own imagination, even if it doesn't happen that day.



Sunday, June 27, 2010

Seth's Yogurt Mask

Regular readers might remember my post: What This Hideous Rash on my Face Taught Me. I talked about a rash--what I had thought was seborrheic dermatitis.

Taking steroids to treat that rash, I inadvertently created another problem: perioral dermatitis--an angry, hard-to-treat red rash seething around my nose and mouth. It lasted three months, and it seriously undermined my sense of self-confidence.

When faced with a health challenge, I read every bit of information available on-line and in print. (Hypochondria? Or supreme attentiveness?)

What I learned about POD, as it's so referred to by the woman who suffer it (women suffer POD in much greater numbers than men), is that it's often a result of skin sensitivities.

On my favored message board, Earth Clinic, many people suggested a simple cure for POD: Don't do anything. Don't use any soap. Don't use anything. Maybe just a little apple cider vinegar. Or yogurt.

Now I had been using Mychelle Dermacueticals for years with great success. I trusted these plant-based products. (Still do). And yet, I spent about $25-$30 a month on my skin and I was still having major problems. So I stopped. I stopped washing my face. I stopped everything.

  I haven't touched one skin-care product since. Except yogurt.

I now spend maybe $2 a week on skin care. I slather yogurt on my face everyday; sometimes, I slather it on my body. I believe anyone could benefit form this mask--it's gentle, yet effective. Milk has been used for thousands of years as a skin softener and nourishing agent; and the good bacteria in yogurt fight the bad bacteria that cause blemishes. Simple, right?

Try it. I think you'll love it!

Seth's Yogurt Mask
I add probiotics to the yogurt to amplify the effects of the good bacteria. Full-fat yogurt is best. And Greek yogurt is a must--other, less thick yogurts, sort of just slide off your face. This recipe is good for a week's supply.

1 7 oz. container Fage Total Yogurt (full fat Greek Yogurt is best)
1-2 probiotic capsules, such as Primal Defense Ultra

Place yogurt in a small bowl or Pyrex container. Empty probiotic capsules into yogurt and stir to combine. Refrigerate. Lasts about two weeks.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tu Fu's "By the Winding River"

This is from Kenneth Rexroth's wonderful book of translations, One Hundred Poems From the Chinese. I keep the book around like a talisman, and take it out when I feel lonesome. Something about Tu Fu, the way he celebrates sadness--something about his joyful melancholy speaks to me, especially now, as I struggle to maintain my health in the face of illness.

I've discovered that my illness speaks, if I let it. What does my illness say? It issues a challenge: to live, even as I feel death; to try, as hard as I can, to feel joy--a joy that maintains sadness, even as it yearns to for happiness.

By the Winding River

Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who have lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again.
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?

~Tu Fu

Monday, May 31, 2010


I've been thinking about death lately--not thinking, but feeling death, deeply at times, in my heart and gut. For the last six weeks, I've battled an ulcerative colitis flare. The symptoms are scary; naturally, they often inspire dark feelings.

In the past, whenever my illness has flared, I've battled, angrily, against what I perceived to be life's cruel injustice. Recently, when I've experience symptoms, I flop on the couch, take a nap. Waking up, I feel successful, as if my purpose, all along, had been naps, and the recent flare a timely jolt, pointing me to that gilded road.

Of course, for better or worse, I like to think my true purpose is language. And in this, as in my gut, I'm feeling inflamed. Writing recently, when I can, I've felt immeasurably confident, as if some mythological force were rising up inside of me; as if, in writing, I was boxing illness.

Which makes me wonder: Do I welcome illness, like fuel?

I can't possibly be doing so on a conscious level. I desperately do not want to feel ill. I want to feel healthy, alive, summery. And yet, when I do feel healthy, I also feel less obliged to work, less inflamed in my work.

I'm writing from my father's beach house, in Brigantine, NJ. The place is packed with family: parents, siblings, nieces, nephews. I'm sitting on the deck, now, outside my room's sliding glass door. From my seat, I hear the waves crashing on the beach. I haven't slept much since coming down. I've drank too much wine. And yet, I do feel revivified by the weekend's images.

I discovered this picture, as I did the picture below,
on my friend, Luke Storm'sfacebook profile.

On Friday, at home, we glimpsed the season's first fireflies. We were sitting on the porch, at dusk, when we glimpsed one, two, three lime-green lights floating in the air.

On Saturday, after work, we zoomed here, to my Dad's place at the beach, just in time to eat a late dinner and catch the last innings of Roy Halladay's perfect game. There have been twenty perfect games in professional baseball's long, long history. I've shared two with my Dad.

The first, on July 19, 1999, was a hot and humid Sunday. The day had started with grief. Earlier that week, my father’s best friend of forty-five years had ended his own life. The funeral was a small, irreligious affair at my his daughter’s house. We huddled in a small room and remembered my father's best friend in stories and song. When my father spoke, we huddled around him in fierce protection. He laughed. He cried. I had never seen my father so aggrieved. I had never admired him so much—his grace, his equanimity. That day, on the ride home, we caught the Yankees game on the radio. David Cone was pitching a perfect game. We drove home, listening to the radio in rapt attention, and then, at home, we huddled around the television. When Cone threw the final pitch, my father shouted, "Yes!"

The second perfect game was Halladay's. Coming, as it did, on my first beach night of the season, it felt like a glorious prelude, and I couldn't help but think of Cone's game, and feel a bit hopeful, as I pumped my fist, and shouted, "Yes."

Yesterday, Sunday, we took a boat ride along the waterways, in and out of the canals, from Somers Point to Brigantine, and then a swift ride back to Somers Point on the open sea. Zooming by, I looked right, to the red and yellow and blue umbrellas dotting the beach, and left, to that point on the horizon where sky meets water: the immense blueness.

Debra Bloomfield - Squall, 2005;
from the series Oceanscapeschromogenic print, 9 x 9.

On board, I read Moby Dick on my iPhone.

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

Speaking of Moby Dick, and other diffuse novels, my friend Josh Billings once wrote: "Their hidden gift to the reader is not a plot, but the capacity for plotmaking - that is, the ability to find significance in our lives and  knit ourselves up into novels of meaning and passion and interest."

I think the images from this weekend, in part, seem meaningful to me because I've read and welcomed a book like Moby Dick into my heart. I agree, there is meaning, in plotmaking. My duty, I believe, is to discover meaning, in reading and living and writing.

Sometimes meaning smacks me in the face. Roy Halladay's perfect game seemed like a perfect symbol: The beginning of a perfect summer.

Sometimes meaning remains vague. How do I find meaning in the failures of my body?

I’m tired of illness. The way it captivates me, like cinema. The way it makes me feel everything in life is nothing, that life is, after all, meant for naps. And sometimes I think: I’m done with illness--tonight, tomorrow, forever! Bring on the wine nights of the past, bring on the guitar, bring on 3 a.m.! I’m bursting back on the scene, like Dionysus, born twice, from the flesh of my own gut.

And yet, I'm not sure I'd feel so inflamed without illness. It's like a red-hot prod, poking me. I mean, why do this weekend's images move me to fist-pumping hope? What am I hoping against? I can't begin to answer these questions, now.

I can only do what I do: write, read, flop down and take a nap.