A few weeks ago, my wireless connection stopped working. The router was "unavailable," or so the little red hat said in the tool bar on the lower edge of the screen. The little hat is green when the router is available. My husband Kenneth and I discussed it all at great length, he checked my computer, I checked my computer; we couldn't figure it out. I thought maybe it had something to do with the robbery we had here before we went on vacation to Denmark. Did the thieves wreck the router connection when they stole Kenneth's computers? For some reason, they didn't steal my computer, but maybe they ruined the connection. Kenneth had bought a new computer, and he brought it up from his office downstairs where he has cable, and the router worked for him. The router was working; just not on my computer.
I teach four classes online right now, so I was upset by this turn of events, particularly this one day when I had four deadlines to meet for my classes. I finally got a connection-my neighbors' wireless next door. The parents were both at work, their kids at school, so I had some time to use it before everyone got home.
All week long, I couldn't get the router to work. It was not a banner week. I'd received news about my poetry book manuscript. A year ago now, the editor had loved the first eleven poems I'd sent him. He wanted the manuscript. But not for six months, he said--he didn't have time to read it. Six months passed. I wrote him. Send the manuscript. I sent it and waited another six months. I had such high hopes: this is a great press. I wrote an email, finally. I had to find out. A year had passed; I had to move on. He said he'd just sent me a letter, unfortunately a no. He thought the book was one of the rarest to ever come across his desk; a book of poetry that made him laugh all the way through. But upon subsequent readings, "the humor gave me pause." He just didn't feel it would be as "long-lasting" as he would like. And he had so many other manuscripts he wanted to publish.
I've had plenty of rejection: I didn't publish my first book of poetry until I was 48. It took four years of sending it out before it won the Four Way Books contest, Intro Prize, selected out of over 1,000 manuscripts submitted. It is very difficult to get a book of poetry published, or at least, this has been my experience. Many have experienced the struggle. But this particular rejection hurt. Badly. Half the poems in the manuscript have already been published in well-respected literary magazines. I really didn't understand the editor's reason for not publishing the book. "Ouch," I wrote back.
So my book, for him, didn't work. My wireless wasn't working. Then the new alarm system we had put in after the robbery failed to work one day, and I set off the alarm. The bell was so loud, I couldn't take my hands off my ears to try to punch in another code to stop it. That doesn't work anyway, I found out later from the tech who called to see if it was a false alarm or not. Once the bell goes off, that's it. BLARRRRRE! Until it stops. At least I know the alarm works. I'm glad my eardrums weren't shattered, and my neighbors weren't home.
I worked on my first novel for six years. I wrote three novels to get one that I think works. Then I worked for another eight months with notes from an editor/novelist. I paid seven dollars a page to help me revise the novel into the best shape possible. Two agents have had the book for over five months. Another agent kept it for three months, and then said she liked the first half, not the second. Another agent kept it for two months. She liked the second half, but not the first. I don't know now whether it works or not or how to fix it if it doesn't work because I like both the first and second halves. Now I'm working on my third manuscript of poetry and a non-fiction narrative. I keep working whether anything works or not, but I've been feeling very low about it.
The same week the router malfunctioned, my nephew walked out on his three month rehab program with two weeks to go, went to a bar with his roommate and got drunk. He has put the family through the doesn't-work mill, so I don't feel as badly for him as I do his mother, my sister. Her husband died from alcohol abuse when he was fifty-seven. His death was a long painful series of years of nothing working.
Many situations in my life have not worked. I once taught a class that would not work, no matter what I did. I tried everything. Whatever I did was a dud. Most of the students were non-native speakers, and, granted, this was a remedial English class, but they wouldn't speak a word. It was a very quiet, dull 90 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday. And one of the two American students who could speak English should have kept his mouth closed. He prided himself on racism and being a smart-ass. The other American student played with action figures on his desk. I told him to please put his action figures away. And he would, but then they'd be in his lap, battling away on his crotch. About once every two weeks, I'd drive by the college parking lot and keep going. I'd call in sick and go to a movie instead. One time, I watched the movie twice in a row. My life was not working, so sitting in the dark must have seemed a good choice until I could face the world again.
My relationships with men did not work for many years, including my relationship with my father. Then one day, a friendship didn't work anymore. I was stunned. I'd never had that happen. Friendships were made in heaven or somewhere sacred; they were beyond the usual conflicts in relationships. I don't know how I got that idea, but I found out I was wrong. This was not the gradual fading out of a close friendship, over a period of time and distance. No, this friendship hurt to lose. It just didn't work for either of us, so we let it go.
Yes, sometimes it just won't work, no matter what you do.
And sometimes you can fix it. I fixed the router. I finally discovered I had to re-set it. Why I would have to re-set it is still a mystery. Sometimes you never figure out why something starts working again. My friendship that I lost years ago is now working again. I really don't know why. Did we re-set it without knowing it? It's a very different friendship, however. I'm different, and so is my friend. My relationship with my father works now. But I'm not the same daughter. My father is almost entirely changed. He has gone through the working mill of becoming human. We have more of a friendship now than a father/daughter relationship. This feels good. It might have gone another way. I no longer feel that if you work really, really hard at something it will work out. Not necessarily. And you must decide if that's what you want to do with your brief time on earth.
Everything is precarious. Each day is like an egg balanced on top of an egg. Anything can happen. The other night, a friend dropped me off in front of my house after a night out. I needed to get my coat out of the trunk. She has a new car, and wasn't quite sure why the trunk wasn't opening. We were parked in the street, and the streets in my neighborhood are narrow. I also live right around a curve. Later on, I thought how a car could have come up fast around that curve and hit us as we stood there, trying to get the trunk open. We could have been killed or busted to pieces. We weren't. We got my coat out of the car and went into what we think are our safe homes. They are not safe, either, as I found out first hand when I came home the other day to find two doors broken down and everything I think I "own" thrown on the floor.
My mother died driving to the Factory Stores in Vacaville to buy towels on sale. A tire on her car was faulty; it imploded. She tried to get off the freeway and was hit by a lumber truck coming up in the slow lane. A month after she died, I drove out Pedrick Road, off of Highway 80 and into a yard where wrecked cars are kept behind a chain link fence. I walked the rows and rows of bashed in cars, cars that no one got out of alive, looking for my mother's Chrysler. And there it was, the roof smashed down to the seats, the doors hanging open or ripped away, the glass broken out of the windows, tiny pieces of glass like pulverized diamonds burning in the hot sun.
My mother had fastened her seatbelt.
There is no safety. There are no guarantees. This is hard. But why, as one of my students wrote in an essay this week, "trouble the troubles?" She said that is a Chinese saying, "Don't trouble the troubles." There are so many serious troubles, so many things don't work. Why trouble them further? And ultimately, one day, nothing will work. As the poet Nazim Hikmet who spent seventeen years in prison for his political beliefs, says,
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars,
and one of the smallest-
a gilded mote on the blue velvet, I mean,
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a heap of ice,
or a dead cloud even,
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space...
You must grieve for this right now,
you have to feel this sorrow now
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say, "I lived."
So what if it doesn't work, sometimes, whatever you do? Don't trouble the troubles. I'm writing what I want to write, what is mine to write. I have decided not to feel badly about the publishing world's whims and rejections. When things don't work out, maybe they will work later. I will continue working whether it works out or not. Like the router on my computer, I'm re-setting myself. I'm balancing an egg upon an egg in pitch-black space. I'm living.
More lines from Nazim Hikmet's poem, "On Living:"
Let's say you're seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told...
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind--
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society