‘We are both creatures on the same green-and-blue planet’: An Interview with Morgan Bielawski
By Kristin Heng Schanke
Edited by Annabel Wearring-Smith
Ahead of the release of the next letter here at The Letters Page, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing the author herself. Morgan Bielawski and I talked about grounding gardens, human nature and innate connections.
Morgan P. H. Bielawski, the author of our next letter, is based in Nashville. She has had work published in The Documentarian, Lux and Sui Generis. She also holds a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College in Upstate New York. Morgan tells me she has been interested in storytelling and writing all her life, and so I was curious about how her interest turned career has developed over time.
‘Many kids, first discovering that their brains go on and on the farther they crawl into them, fall into storytelling. I found myself as a small kid telling stories on the bus on the way home from school—I made up limitless sagas for bus riders who were keen to listen—that was the first time I really got interested in telling stories.’
Morgan’s interest in writing has fluctuated in form over the years, enjoying everything from fiction to creative essays. Writing in letter form in particular though isn’t new to Morgan. As a kid, after school she would pen letters to friends that she’d see the very next day.
‘To this day, I love to send and receive things in the mail. One of my closest friends sent me a package of treasures with a handwritten note for my birthday—what a quick way to make someone’s day, one of however many or few we have. I still send letters to my Great Aunt in Alyth, Scotland—postcards from Mammoth State Park, polaroids of her father’s violin, letters of condolences. The connective tissue between modern people can be quite thin at times, and writing a letter or posting a package is a simple but tangible way to show someone that they mean something to you, that you care. I frequent the postbox, to be sure.’
As most writers can attest to, the people in your life are often sources of inspiration and influence. Morgan speaks enthusiastically of the people who have inspired her.
‘In elementary school I occasionally got in trouble with my writing for leaving articles out of sentences due to the fact that I admired and learned so much from my Polish Grandfather; he didn’t use articles, so clearly they were superfluous.’
‘I had the very good fortune to study with Lucy Sante during undergrad. Her office was in a strange little building that felt somewhat like a lighthouse. The architecture made it feel that way—the winding staircase in a thin building with angular sides—and so did all the “lost ships” floating in and out of the bay, young writers searching for their voices. Lucy helped me finish my senior project by reading and making suggestions about my writing, yes, but also by assuring me, in unspoken terms, that I wasn’t completely nuts. At least not yet. The project was a selection of short stories, and one Russian-to-English translation, called Bound to Rise.’
Morgan is an avid storyteller, a crisis counsellor who works on a suicide helpline, and also has a bit of a green thumb. Morgan grew up tending vineyards and has spent time working with dairy goats. She’s planted, processed, and harvested vegetables for a CSA farm in Tennessee, and says gardens are quite different to tend. In the letter that she penned to us she writes of her experiences working on a suicide helpline. Her letter speaks unflinchingly about life and death, and about nature and humanity. It got me curious about how a letter with such heavy subject matters could focus so much on gardening and nature. Was there a connection?
‘In undergraduate school in Texas, my partner raised his hand during a class discussion on sexuality and reproduction; his professor asked: “who here grew up on a farm?” To him, she continued, “then you learned about sex, birth, growth, and death differently, didn’t you.” Anyone who spends the year primarily outdoors is steeped in the life cycle. Outside, our world is constantly changing. The sunshine, water, warmth and cold air trigger plants and animals to wake up at the right time, perform their duties, and eventually retire. Budbreak—happening now in Tennessee—never fails to delight me, like the subtle beginning of music from an orchestra that silently held its instruments at the ready for a long, quiet winter. On the one hand I think this proximity to the life cycle of nature imbues me with a sense that life is very short anyway, why exit early? (I say that not in judgement of those who have left us already, but in urging those who are still with us to consider staying). On the other hand, I think the sheer, simple beauty of nurturing plants and seeing them thrive, regardless of how the world outside them carries on, is incredibly renewing.’
The garden described in the letter seems an amalgamation of personal grounding and outward reflection of life, and when asked about her green thumb, Morgan replies warmly.
‘One of my favorite (ancient) poets wrote around a few central themes—wine, love, religiosity, and hypocrisy, to name a few. Occasionally he wrote about gardens. Hafez wrote about gardens with the same romance that he writes about intoxication or the scent of a lover’s hair. I, too, find my little garden to be a gorgeous, meaningful refuge from the occasionally unattractive, sometimes aggravating bureaucracy of modern life.’
‘In mine I grow kale, chard, tomatoes, hot peppers, cucumbers, and many herbs including basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary, and (as a good person of polish heritage) dill. This season, I’m trying out a basket full of dahlia tubers (wish me luck).’
‘I’m also fascinated by companion planting—plants that, when situated near each other, benefit one another. Companion plants can repel pests, attract pollinators, suppress weeds, improve the fertility of soil, and even, in some cases, improve the flavor of your harvest. Perhaps the most famous companion planting duo is marigolds and tomatoes: marigolds protect tomato plants from root-knot nematodes, little infectious worms that live in the soil, by secreting a chemical called alpha-terthienyl, which prohibits nematode eggs from developing. Companion planting is the offspring of generations of folk wisdom, recently attested by various botanical studies. It demonstrates how beautiful mutual reliance can be.’
“Relationships are integral to human happiness.– Morgan Bielawski, ‘dear caller’
& yet, we refuse the vulnerability required to make them.”
The connection between humans, and between humans and nature, are imbued throughout Morgan’s letter. Nature becomes a grounding space both mentally and physically. I asked Morgan about the comfort that can be found in your surroundings, and how it mirrors the connection between humans.
‘Your question about my surroundings reminds me of the 54321 Grounding Technique in which you name five things you can see around you, four things you can touch or feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This technique is often used for anxiety and can be extremely helpful during a panic attack (particularly, I find, at the beginning of one to potentially avoid the thing altogether, or when someone is over the peak of discomfort and ready to begin the descent from activation). Grounding techniques use the purposeful direction of attention to find the present moment, even when everything seems to be moving at 100 miles an hour.’’
‘Despite the fact that we live in the “real world”, we usually live in our heads. Our brains tune out all of that sensory information—the green plants outside your window, the t-shirt on your back, the bird chirping somewhere outside, cut-grass smell wafting in, and the minerally taste of your mouth after that sip of water—in favor of more “important” information, like how much you absolutely have to get done in this exact moment. Finding that information, those sensory details about your surroundings, can not only be grounding, but can add to that sense of just being one more remarkable and unremarkable living thing on Earth.’
‘Does nature provide a comfort similar to human connection: I find the evidence I reach for to substantiate my “yes” in the many handwritten letters I’ve collected over the years in antique shops and garage sales between couples who talk about the same moon and stars they share even when they are apart. While I am nowhere near the people I’m talking to on the hotline, we are both creatures on the same green-and-blue planet.’
On the topic of comfort, as a fellow writer I am attuned to the notion that writing itself is a kind of solace. I was curious about Morgan’s thoughts on writing as a place of self-compassion.
‘The more I learn about how your relationship with yourself is the foundation of your relationship with all other people, the more I am tempted to say that writing provides comfort in providing the possibility of self-acceptance. Alone, on the page, you can find the words to name your real feelings, your real intentions, your real fears. There begins the opportunity, not necessarily to love those things, but to simply accept them. It doesn’t always happen.’
‘While a pen touched to paper doesn’t always result in that kind of catharsis—oftentimes we cage ourselves as much as we imagine that other people do— sometimes some sort of truth slips by the “superego”, and we are able to welcome ourselves. It’s possible that there is no greater comfort than that.’
The idea of caging oneself stuck out to me, and the idea is alluded to in Morgan’s letter as well. One line asks; ‘who would you be if you were here for a moment?’. I was intrigued by what Morgan would reply to that herself.
‘The line you chose from my submission was inspired by a line from a song my partner wrote. His line is, “that’s what I’d tell myself if I were here right now.” So, what would I tell myself? Who would I be if I were here for a moment? That sentence was inspired by a feeling we are often convinced of: that life is a rushing river—we can’t stop it and we dare not step out of it to take a breath because who knows what we will have missed or what will have surpassed us while we’ve been gone. I intended it as a gentle reminder, to myself, first and foremost, to be here now, or to “be here to love me” as Townes van Zandt would put it.’
‘I am reminded of the Taoist proverb attributed to Lao Tzu that I repeat to myself often: “Nature never rushes, and yet everything is accomplished.” If I were here right now, I would remind myself to crawl down from the safety of the reading room of my mind and live in my body for the joy of life, not just the study of it. If I could be here for a moment, I would be a grateful traveller, happy to be here with all of you.’
Morgan’s letter will be published and sent out in a few weeks’ time. If you would like to read it, it’s not too late to write to us! And if you’ve already written to us, an aerogramme will be in your post-boxes in the near future.
The Letters Page team are back in the office, and ready to read your real letters again. We publish stories, essays, poems, memoir, reportage, criticism, recipes, travelogue, and any hybrid forms, so long as they come to us in the form of a letter. We are looking for writers of all nationalities and ages, both established and emerging.
Your letter must be sent in the post, to :
The Letters Page, School of English, University of Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK.
See our submissions page for more information.
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