The Operating System



Marie Howe. Photo by Bill Hayward, 1997, from the Bad Behavior series.

It is a Saturday, and I am kneading bread in a little kitchen in rural South Dakota. I am a month away from getting kicked out by my boyfriend’s parents, who own the place, because he is leaving to start a new life and I am not going with him. We had big plans. We were going to have babies and garden beds. We even took straight jobs teaching at the school in town. He was paying off debts and I was building a nest egg. Then he changed his mind, so he is west right now, visiting another woman, and I am alone.
It’s almost spring. I’ve opened the front door to let in the wind and dust, and the scent of mud. I used to sing for a living and now I am scared to hear the sound of my own voice; I know it will sound like rusted wire and I am too tired to stomach another disappointment. I have left my career, my family, my friends — my whole history lays hundreds of miles to the east – because I don’t know who I am. But I love this place like it is a person, and I don’t want to leave. Plus, I am sick of moving. I am at the end of something bigger than a star-crossed romance, something I can’t even begin to name. I am scared that what I am at the end of is me.
So I clean, do chores, and I listen to the radio. The smells of bread and brown earth, the feeling of slick linoleum, the hushed murmur of storytellers, are like roots binding me to something knowable. These things, along with the chinook, are not cold comforts. They feel real and sturdy. I spent most of my youth adrift, so I no longer crave the sensation of coming unmoored.
I look up a podcast of “On Being” with Krista Tippett. I like her because her voice is smooth and soothing, the background music always sounds like vistas, and because it makes me feel like I have gone to church or like I have done something good.
The guest is Marie Howe, a poet I’ve never heard of. It’s not surprising, I don’t know that much about poetry. I don’t know that much about anything, really. I’ve always sacrificed breadth for depth, and by depth I mean sheer repetition, as if listening to the same album, or reading the same novel over and over, will lead, eventually, to a new destination. Also, it helps that I have a terrible memory. Almost everything seems new to me. It’s a blessing and a curse.
The program is starting. My bread is rising. I shoo a dog off the wet floor. They are talking about religion and Marie Howe says, “I was always interested in the world inside the world.” What? Yes. How have a never heard it described this way before? It is as though something has been instantly resolved. A tiny fissure in the logic of my life cleaves together leaving behind something level and polished. The timer for the bread dings. The dog barks. I sit down in a sunlit square on the kitchen floor and listen to Marie Howe tell the story of my life.

Turns out she was once a school teacher too. English, same as me. And she was terrible at it because all she wanted to do was read poetry and Shakespeare. Yes, I say again, this time out loud. Her relationship with her lover was disintegrating and she was old enough that she didn’t know how to keep being so lost. After the death of her father, she was given the advice to learn something new, and found herself in a poetry class.
[box]“Poetry holds what can’t be said. It’s a song. The great poetry I love, holds the mystery of being alive. Holds it in a basket of words that feels inevitable,” she tells Krista. They laugh. [/box]
I am right there with them.
She reads her poetry. She tells the story of adopting her daughter when she was 52 years old. She speaks of the soul and then says, “All I know is that some things have happened that I don’t understand. And they’re the most true things I’ve known. That’s all. That’s finally all I can say.”
A blessing by John O’Donahue suddenly springs like a well into my mind:
[box] “It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world.” [/box]
And just like that the dusty winds in my mind settle. Who can, truly, explain themselves to the world – the inner or outer world? Yet, we keep trying. It is sacred work. It is important and beautiful and nourishing work. Also, it is inevitable. It is luck and a blessing to find myself again and again at the crossroads of my own undoing. To see it so clearly that I cannot mistake its magnitude, nor its simplicity. Who am I? I am flesh. I am spirit. I am a basket woven by things I cannot understand, but I am in love with them, as with the grass, glowing and tall on the western prairie.
I heard that podcast a year ago almost exactly. I still live in western South Dakota, just outside the same tiny sage brushed town. My closest neighbors are cattle and sheep and horses. I regularly experience bouts of ecstasy at the transporting beauty of the sunrise and sunset. What a show! I would be embarrassed to call myself a poet in a professional sense, but Marie Howe has given the work of my soul a name and my wildness a purpose. I don’t write or sing for anybody but myself these days, and I still teach school, at least for a little longer. Those facts, like a suit of armor, are easily shed. What will remain are the chores sewn into the seasons of my everyday life, and the words that serve as seams to bind them together. I shake out stories like a dusty patchwork quilt, and I thank Marie Howe, and all the others who have spoken their own unknowing in a way that has become my truth.

[textwrap_image align=”right”][/textwrap_image]Bio: Eliza Blue is a folk singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Trained as a classical violinist, Eliza grew up listening to jazz and the blues, and both genres can be heard in her soulful tunes, though she is most often compared to Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch. She has received national press, including write-ups in the New York Times blog and Minneapolis Star Tribune, and has shared the stage with such greats as Billy Bragg and Kelly Jo Phelps. Eliza is active as a touring performer as well as teacher, and has toured from coast to coast many times. After being an urbanite for most of her life, Eliza now resides in Perkins County, South Dakota, herding sheep, raising chickens, and writing poetry.

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