In the author’s note for Live or Die, Anne Sexton apologized for the order of the poems, arranged as they were, in the chronological sequence in which they were written. She conceded “that they read like a fever chart for a bad case of melancholy.” She then quoted the French author, André Gide, who said, “Despite every resolution of optimism, melancholy occasionally wins out.”
The book that unfolds is an internal struggled rendered in verbs. She has to will herself to live, and the indifference of her family, the nagging feelings of abandonment, shade every poem in the book. It’s a document of anguish and occasional triumph. Yet each page groans with the postscript that she committed suicide not long after she finished the book. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die in 1967, posthumously.
Among the many things my graduate work in English challenged me to do was to figure out my literary heritage. Who, among the canon of poets, was my father, my grandfather or grandmother? I was in New England in part because it had proven to be such a fertile territory for poets. It was the spiritual home to the Confessional Poets, among whom Robert Lowell (arguably the movement’s founder), Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were pivotal figures. Sexton was my maternal muse, Plath the aunt I couldn’t wait to see. Lowell taught a workshop in Boston and counted Sexton and Plath as students. Because I couldn’t study under any of them, I studied with a classmate of Sexton and Plath, Don Junkins.
The Confessionals inspired in me a kind of fearlessness to write about subjects close to me, about events so intensely unique and personal that somehow the universal could be discovered within. They could walk through the city square, naked, at the height of rush hour, with the calm of a bomb technician.
This time last year Bicycling Magazine green-lighted a feature I pitched them on going to Japan and following the route of the Zen Buddhist 88 Temple Pilgrimage, a walking tour around the island of Shikoku. At the time, I told my editor, Gloria Liu, “I just need one day to get sideways. I need to be separated from the group, lost, bonking, the sun going down and faced with the choice of eating fish heads … or continuing to bonk.”
She surprised me and said, “We want to know why you want to follow this tour.” Although I ignored the signs, this was my first indication that I was about to write a feature very different from the one I pitched.
That story is out now. It appears in the March issue of Bicycling. It has the headline, “Ride Free,” and is tagged “the confessions issue.” Well this is one helluva confession.
I’ve heard from some of you who have read the feature already; thank you for what you have shared.
This is a chance for me to publicly praise Features Editor Gloria Liu and Editor-in-Chief Leah Flickinger for the attention they gave this endeavor. It was Flickinger who could see that I was being evasive and attempting to write around what I was actually wrestling with during the trip. As a result, it’s no ordinary travelogue. Liu deserves a week on Tahiti for the lengths she went to tease the story out of me. She made herself vulnerable to me, giving me reasons to trust her as I worked through the feature’s toughest passages. Hers was a generosity of spirit that I will treasure for the rest of my days.
Not too many months ago I told a counselor, “Look I was never a very good bike racer, but I was a bike racer. I know what it means to suffer, to work hard. I’m not afraid of the hard work.”
Somewhere between my Confessional Poet lineage and bike racing emerged my willingness to look at myself mercilessly. This is easily the most honest thing I’ve ever written, and for that, it scares the hell out of me. It is also a prosecution with no defense.
Bicycling took a big chance with me on this feature. The writing and editing of the piece was so intense I didn’t give myself room to think about how unusual it was for a bike magazine to want an author to go deeper, more personal.
Brian Vernor, the man behind the lens who can be credited for creating Rapha’s storied black and white look, joined us on our trip to document the experience. The photos here are outtakes from his many images taken during the trip.
Writing and editing this article has been a lot like a bike race. I’ve suffered through the process, on two occasions getting off the phone with Gloria only to break down and cry, and not because of anything she did. The process has not been the least bit fun, but on reflection frequently exhilarating.
I’m amazed and humbled by Bicycling, Flickinger and Liu. I’m wowed that they would go into such territory, and stunned that they would trust me to lead you through the experience.
Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to my former teammate Eric Romney, the owner of Japan Cycling Tours, and his wife Soco, who organized and led the trip. Eric was implacable even in the most challenging circumstances and gave me a lens through which to view Japan as one giant delicacy. Our other compatriot on the trip, Eric Smith, has been a friend for nearly 10 years and made the philosophical end of our adventure part of every day’s fabric.
I hope you’ll show your support for my work by going out and buying a copy and then subscribing to Bicycling.
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