Saturday, December 17, 2011

Guided By the Unmighty


I have been reading a poem by Bill Olsen, “Human Ashes.”

At night in bed when my husband is away, I fear his death. This has something to do with pregnancy. Where will I go? I think. How will I survive? Morbidity is not such a bad thing, I decide and remember once telling him that he had to find me after he died, we had to find each other again. Today I wanted to tell him something as cheesy as, “If I die, remember, I will always be with you.” But then I thought if I die so will his child, and if I say that, he’ll think I’ve really lost it, not just sort of lost it, which is where he’s at right now.

About that poem: I’ve seen Bill Olsen read and give a lecture and roam around the VCFA campus, so it’s hard for me when reading his work, not to see him there writing it at a desk somewhere in Michigan. I see his slouched shoulders and hear his distant voice. His sauntering around the cafeteria with a tray, or in lecture refusing to offer up any easy answers to questions of poetry that perhaps haunt him.

Recently he published an essay on one of my favorite literary websites, Numero Cinq, titled “On the Prayerful in Poetry.” Even his picture, a man on a park bench in casual clothes that do not quite fit all the way….reminding me of the composer’s hair, offers up a mysterious creature of a poet.



The Poet William Olsen

It is not those who try for mystery that accomplish it, of course, but those who are so enveloped in their own mystery that their outward-ness has no attempted composition. Dg calls the essay one of the most moving published on NC, and it is, especially this line:

Poetry obligates a measure of freedom: prayer obligates a measure of surrender.

And what does it mean to surrender? Or, what of poetry and freedom?

Olsen then writes, “I can only be guided by the unmighty, by those who relinquish any authority ordained by cultural identification, those confident enough to surrender confidence, or assumed power.”

How true, I think, and then, it is also true that a poet must be a lover of freedom for only in freedom can we find the brutal honesty that poetry calls us to—its task and potency.

Haven’t we always been guided by the unmighty? Not always, but, at least the unmighty have been marked as leaders we most loved. Those who stood in truth, unwavering, and offered no force, they are the beloved of the people.

And here is that poem I’ve been reading:

Human Ashes

Even if we are
     what we were,
our senses,

     our crying,
laughing,
     so many downs,

such long nights,
     so many
dreams and wishes,

     even if fulfillment
betrayed longing,
     even if it didn’t,

even if what we
      are is joy
that loves itself

     and sorrow
is a way of
     seeming free

from any vanishing,
     even if we are
creatures with pasts,

     beasts with prayers,
even if some
     lasting aspect

of our essence
     is beyond
its sad occasion,

     what part
was strong then, what
     part weak,
     what part
as a child
     did I touch,

     whatever part
placed my head
     in its hands

and soothed me
     and whatever
part loathed

     the rest to death
doesn’t anymore
     feel that discrepancy

between the fire
     and ash,
love or lost love.

It is in “doesn’t anymore/ feel that discrepancy,” built with the beautiful image of the child’s head being soothed by hands, and the touch of the child, that something frees and perhaps it is only because something was surrendered, that such a line could be created.
In the morning when I wake, the sun is not exactly out there in a blue sky, but there is light. I feel less morbid and fearful. I sleep on for as long as I can manage—hips soar, neck kinked. In the quiet of the apartment, I hear the clock tick or the water dripping from the faucet.

Please see “On the Prayerful in Poetry.” It's really an amazing essay.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What are Marshmallows Made of?


Corn syrup: Such a naughty ingredient that it’s trying to change its name. I wanted to change my name to Estella Louise, once. I carved the name on a picnic table the summer I was twenty-one.

Sugar: Equals love.

Dextrose: This is definitely a diet aid.

Modified Food Starch (Corn): We roasted marshmallows over the campfire on sticks. I was always afraid that someone’s flaming mallow would land in my eye; perhaps I saw this on a movie. Marshmallows are actually really gross when you think about it; it’s like eating someone’s science project. But roasting them over the campfire is an American pastime. Who invented the marshmallow?

Water: According to WikiAnswers, there’s a plant called Marsh-Mallow that grows in salt marshes on banks near large bodies of water…and Marshmallow candy dates back to ancient Egypt.

Gelatin: That stuff made of horse hooves.

Natural and Artificial Flavor: Everything comes from something, doesn’t it?

Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate: A myth about dinosaurs written by ancient Egyptians in pictures carved on cave walls near a special tomb.

Blue 1: The first stage of post-marshmallow consumption starting about fifteen minutes post-inhalation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

...

Procrastinating on finishing thesis projects in two genres:

n. | Finished mnemonic order of papers laid out before me.

v. | Child’s feet pattering; losing time to daydreams; resounding of voices unseen; sun lighting November skies; painters scraping paint from the porch wall adjacent to my kitchen while listening to pop radio station and talking about love relations.

adj. | Child in me moving during entire holiday job training; thinking of finished papers laid out before me; sudden fear of finishing, which requires eventual starting again.



...

Monday, November 7, 2011

New Home and Honey

My dreams here are violent; every night a new battle with guns in my pockets, fear that someone will take my baby, that the guns in my pockets will go off and shoot me in the leg. I cuddle a plump infant to my chest, kiss her soft cheek.

All these weeks since she’s passed, her green-colored house runs through my mind. I walk over the brown plaid carpet and into the kitchen where the linoleum floor is a pattern that reminds me of small stones fitted together. On the lower shelf the copper thinking men bookends, goodies in the cabinet, the toaster and TV next to the breakfast table where grandpa sat watching the news and burning his toast.

I move into the past as I move into the future, never sure where one begins or ends. My grandmother dies while I am pregnant with my first child, her third great-grandchild. But she would not have known him had she lived; she no longer knew me. The last time I saw her she lay sleeping in her bed at the nursing home—Heritage Manor. Her body a shell of its former self and her hand clawed up like the tight fist of an infant. I pried it open and put my hand in hers—she held on. I sat there looking at her hand for a while. The knuckles like chicken bones, the two gold rings—one, her wedding band and the other a ring my grandfather had given her in recent years—slipped, threatening to slide right off had she not insisted on curling her fingers up in a fist.


Now this layer of the past begins to slip away, this generation, as in me a new one begins. I wonder if my child will know the walls and corners, the floor patterns and nooks of my parents’ house as I do my grandparents. We live fully in the rooms of our houses; our memories play like shadow puppetry against their walls. I watch the sunlight on a tiny plant in my kitchen and wonder why this is joyful to me—the bright green color, the life.


Asa, our friends’ son, sits on the floor painting. I give him the packing tape and he can’t get enough of it—he pulls and pulls and sticks his art to the radiator and the stove. Josh says he’s doing an installation. In him—a kindness and imagination—I imagine my own son. My longing to hold, to cuddle children overwhelms me—I am like an ancient auntie pinching cheeks.


The leaves are nearly gone from the tree in the backyard where Josh spent Sunday afternoon raking. The sky is a gray wash—November skies, a color in the paint chart I’ve examined all week, does not mollify my desire for darkness overcome. It is this first darkness I love, like the first blanket of night dreams, or the past walking in—so unexpected, the photo ID card of Hannah (my sister) from the London metro in 2000, she was 18 years old, surfacing in the move. Then I remember all over again her dearness to me and how I miss—

I can't stop walking through Grandma Honey's house. I smell the roast in the oven and the scalloped potatoes it took decades for me to enjoy. I feel the rug under my bare feet as I take the stairs, and at the turn of the staircase, a window—is this right—two or three more steps and I am on the second floor. There in the bathroom of peaches and pinks and cream colors, I look inside the mirror cabinet. I lift the lotion from the shelf and smell it. I touch each bottle of nail polish, all a shade of blush. I climb up onto the bathtub then onto the counter—if I reach up I can get ahold of the Styrofoam cup on top of the cabinet in which my grandfather keeps his lost teeth. I take it down, amazed at the size of the teeth. In my own home, the floors are bare wood, the walls need paint, there are chips and cracks and my husband won’t let me paint anything pink or peach or blush, though I’d adore an enormous pastel pink bathroom in honor of my Honey. I know I am like her in my desire to nest—she had seven children—in my desire for matching plush towels and soft sofa cushions, for comfort, and in my need to keep an orderly house; this I think is how she lives on in me.  



Saturday, October 29, 2011

Moses

1. Ultima Thule: a place beyond the known borders of the [world]. There are those who don’t believe in the outer rim of the known world, those who have not thought of it, and those, like me, who in longing for the beyond, come to believe. It is the practice of longing that makes us believe.



2. I walk along the shore in late October. My eyes follow the hedge of horizon across the lake, along the ridge of the mountains. Beneath the blue-gray sky the last colors of fall emerge…a wash of orange-brown-yellow fading into the clay-mud color of earth. Clouds no longer reflect in the choppy waters, black as stone, the night falls.



3. Limit and limitlessness occurs in all things, thoughts and ideas.



4. I move through the forest, my breath heavy with child. My heart pumps twice as much blood to keep my son safe in his cozy home. Soon he will fatten and his feet, elbows, bottom will protrude from my belly. Soon he will begin to descend into the passage to the world beyond—then gravity will take him, unravel his floating universe of complete warmth. He will feel the weight of his body, of his living. The trees with leaves burn orange to red, the floor of the forest softens underfoot from those already fallen. We pass an old farmstead, and follow a stone wall made of the rocks settlers two centuries earlier cleared from the field. I am hot and then cold; my body is not my own.



5. Everything about the modern world has to do with control; the desire to control the chaos of variables leads to all sorts of undoing—such as the cutting of babies from the womb. But what proof do I have?



6. In the dream you are many people at once asking me for my love. I follow you, crying out, stop. I wrote a poem about the dream on the back of a bill, waiting for you to return from the market. I wake from the dream and look at you—you are the same you, safe, tidy—I close my eyes and return to the dream where you won’t love me…you have so many lovers in the dream I tell you to stop recounting them all. I always thought I wasn’t a jealous person. I know, when awake, you will not leave me. Our lives are twined like rooted trees—there is a freedom that grows of such commitment.



7. The cold settles us. November will arrive, a fresh, dark magic. First though, all the tiny goblins come out. Candy galore. Will I dress you, son, as a creature and take you door to door? You, my first born son who I will name Moses: the one who brings law to the land, the one who wanders—his holiness an offering.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Revolution at Home

"We all need to go down and join the occupation -- and not just by "liking" it on Facebook, signing a petition or retweeting protest photos."


Alternet: On the Wall Street Occupation http://www.alternet.org/vision/152557/the_revolution_begins_at_home%3A_a_clarion_call_to_join_the_wall_street_protests/

from alternet.org
As my husband and I watch the video of two women being tear gassed, a young man with a professional video camera being thrown against a parked car, and an innocent woman being ripped from the crowd and thrown down onto the street by a police Sargent--all during a peaceful march on Wall Street--I rub my belly of baby and think about how I have an obligation to do something, anything at all, to change the country I live in. It sounds so melodramatic, I know, but I grew-up in the 90s when things were so damn cushy we all decided it would be fun to wear grungy clothes we found at thrift shops for a buck (now you can buy these same style T-shirts at Urban Outfitters for $30 and still look cool). I spent my twenties educating myself, watching a televised war that felt totally alien to me, listening to the Bush-era jargon of complete lies, and dealing with a father who thinks the wealthy have to pay too much money in taxes. Too much money in taxes!! Now, the GOP won't stop complaining about Obama's request to have the wealthiest Americans return to paying a fair income tax--as though these wealthy elite can't afford to pay more in taxes. Rather, the GOP thinks that we should tax Americans who make less than $22,000/ year for supporting a family of 4 ( they call this "broadening the tax base") Okay, when I was single, this amount of money did not cover my expenses, so how we came up with the idea that a family of four could live--not in poverty--on, say, $25,000/ year, is completely beyond me. Even in an incredibly rural part of the country I feel like this would be extrememly difficult.
 
*
 
I found my liberalism in the institution of higher education which filled me with rage for the injustices that I had grown-up sheltered from. Then I tried to work on some political campaigns, attended the usual protests and rallies surrounding liberal arts colleges, before I decided to run away to Vermont where I became an extreme liberal, and a crunchie, striped sock wearing, wine drinking, potluck loving oh I don't know what. Vermont is a strange place to grow into adulthood because all of your liberalism and progressive politics are heavily supported--we have BERNIE SANDERS for a senator! We all know how corrupt capitalism is, we love to work for barter, live under the so-called poverty line, and we never ask each other "what do you do?" upon meeting for the first time, rather, we say things like, "what are you into?" or "what are you up to?" OK, I could go on, we love our organic vegetables grown on the edge of town and sold in the Food Co-Op, our local meat farmers, our Saturday afternoon Farmer's Market, our political puppets and parades, and so on.
 
For years now, however, I have felt disempowered as a generation by the political, social, capitalist machine that rules my world. I've felt that protesting doesn't work, that government doesn't work, that everything good in America has been thrown under the bus. Slowly, I've grown to realize that really, really, and truly the middle class is being systematically destroyed and education is becoming a joke. Slowly I've realized that almost everything is about making money, especially health care, higher education, and media. Media, remember, is supposed to be the watch-dog of the political machine and when it's owned by the political machine it can't really do it's job. Remember, education--real education that isn't about passing a dumb test or getting a job--is what makes democracy work. Recall, (as though we're not constantly dealing with the stress of it) most industrialized nations provide health-care (as a human right) for all their citizens.
 
What I came here to say is that though we all can't be at the Wall Street Occupation, we can find ways to support this revolutionary action.
 
I hope that all of my NYC friends will find some way to get involved.
 
My fellow Vermonters have planned a solidarity protest in Burlington this Sunday: https://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=251658048203937 

Sponsor an unemployed friend to go down to the occupation!
 
Voice support for the occupation of wall street and fair media coverage in whatever way you can.
 
Links:
Feed the Protest: http://www.feedtheprotest.com/node/224
 
The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/blog/163626/correcting-abysmal-new-york-times-coverage-occupy-wall-street
 
Video of Police Brutality: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgr3DiqWYCI&feature=share
 

Monday, September 26, 2011

The If Onlys

There, is the woman with the feet that turn inward

Walking across the road to the park. Sometimes

She gets stuck in the meridian, tottering as she does

on the outside of her feet—Hers is a hobble

that looks painful and trying. Cars whizzing by on both sides.



I watch from my window as she crosses

Thinking about her life and my own, in which

My soles paddle the ground lightly and I have

Been given, at times, to speed.



My four sisters call my feet water-skis—

Too long, too flat! They cry, pointing

At my poor and blameless feet.



In the Second grade, I picked out a pair of white

Puffy sneakers for school. Once home, I realized

They made my feet look like enormous albino tacos.

I ran outside and threw myself down on the ground

Under a pine in the yard, sniveling.



I was not dainty! I was dreadful!



There began my girl’s life of if onlys—

How much better I would be if I didn’t have

These freckles, this haircut, these thighs...

If I had boobs, a boyfriend, more money.



I have mostly recovered from the if onlys,

But some days, watching her cross to the park,

They return, and I let myself wonder how her life

And my own, might have been different.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

The House is a Nest for Dreaming: "Letting Go and Making Way" by Sarah Twombly

No matter what my step-father says, I am not a hoarder. Listen to my mother; I'm a nester.

Growing up, my family spent as much time moving as we did in any given house. A summer here, three years there, we were nomadic but mostly happy. Michael Martone writes that “On one hand we have a desire to be rooted, to belong—literally to be long—in a place. On the other hand, we wish to be free of those connections, to keep moving through.” The only attachments my family made were to each other, and to the things we carried. We packed carefully, more scared by the thought of our possessions breaking than of the move itself. Box by cardboard box, we arranged, organized and taped shut the contents of our lives, always neatly labeled for easy unpacking later on.

I have never been long in a place. One house for six years feels an eternity. I get restless, anxious to pack, to unpack, to have the fresh feeling of a new place, a new room, a new opportunity to nest.

A house never felt like home until my mother's school house clock had been hung in the kitchen. Even though the insistent tick tock, tick tock drove me mad, even though its hourly chimes were so loud they woke me in the middle of the night and on more than one occasion I tip-toed into the kitchen, opened the glass casing, and stopped the pendulum, I needed that clock to hang. I have more memories of that clock than any single house I’ve ever lived in.

My mother was the expert unpacker, but my father was the consummate nester. With three hours, a hammer and some picture wire, he could work magic. And every move he refined his skills, until the transition from one place to another was seamless. The photo collage hung on the wall of one house miraculously reappeared, slightly altered, on some wall of the next. We packed these pictures so carefully, each frame individually wrapped in a large sheet of packing paper, tucked in a box upright, not flat the way you’d think. Upright and face to face was sturdier, we’d learned.

My favorite photo was of me in my mother's lap the day of my christening. My mother’s cheeks are still round with the weight from her pregnancy, and my father is sitting beside her with a tired but joyful grin on his face. My brother stands between them, his head cocked proudly, as though fascinated by his new found status as the eldest. It is summer and we are heaped on the slope of a front lawn, one of the many I’d come to know. I don't know who took the picture, but I imagine my father set the timer and ran back to us before the shutter clicked, the way he would do for years to come. We have that disheveled look to us, even me in my white, lace bonnet, that comes from hurrying to catch the flash.

Like the clock, seeing this picture safely hung meant we'd made it through another move intact. Unbroken.
But over the years we have had to learn, every member of my family, how to let these things go. Clocks and photos and collections of every kind and creed, the flotsam we’d collected in lieu of a home became too much to carry, a comfort-cum-burden.

When I was twenty and my brother twenty-four, my parents divorced. They spent months amicably dividing their properties. No one argued. No one protested. Quickly and quietly the cargo of our lives was organized, packed, and shipped—to my father's in Virginia or my mother's in Maine. A few things my brother took for his new apartment. Others, like my childhood blanky, I brought to college for safekeeping. As always, we moved efficiently, like the gears in one of my mother's clocks. Our choices were precise and measured. In the throes of a move we were decisive to a fault.

A few months later, after the boxes had been unpacked, the goodwill trips finished, the castoffs hauled to the dump, we were half the people we had once been. Half the people living in half the space with half the stuff, and nowhere felt like home. We would spend the rest of our lives learning how to live and how to nest without the objects, those things that had held us together for so long.

It's been ten years. We have, my mother, brother, father and I, moved no less than four times each, and we are still learning.

My father's new partner, George, once gave away almost everything he owned—a mahogany dining table, a grandfather clock, a bed, a dresser, oil paintings, everything. It was liberating, he says. I was traumatized by the story. Before my father moved in, George's house was a kind of homage to Georgia O'Keeffe—a chair, a bed, and a pitcher of water on an Amish-style nightstand. He likes space. Breathing room, he said. I called it optical quiet.

But my father moved in and worked his magic, and now there are pictures and art on almost every wall. But not like the walls of my childhood. My father has honed his skills. Over the intervening years he has refined his aesthetic so that, with a single painting he can manage an affect that once took dozens. He no longer has a storage space brimming with ancestral artifacts too precious, too dear, to let go of. He will always be a nester, but he has found that the sticks and grasses at hand offer a freedom he’d never been able to find in a cardboard box. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that George has come to enjoy the whimsy of artfully placed bibelot, the comfort of a photograph.

My mother has had a harder time, her learning curve an elongated parabola, but she is making headway. Every year she lets go of something. Last year it was the stuffed animals from my and my brother's childhood. This year it was her house. She and Drew, my step-father, a man as reticent to let go as she, have been forced to find common ground and pare down, their new houses being smaller than their last. Unlike my father and George, my mother and Drew enjoy the melange of a wall hung with a dozen photos, the constant surprise of alighting on one image then another, re-remembering, rediscovering.

Someday I imagine my mother will bring our library of picture books to goodwill, but for now, they nestle on a homemade bookshelf in the basement where she can crouch and pull them out, one by one, remembering how she'd read them to my brother and I, and how, eventually, we'd read them to ourselves, over and over again, until the spines were creased and the pages dog-eared. She is the protector of things, the one who remembers, the one who will always have what you’re looking for.

There’s a fine line between hoarding and holding on. I find myself attached to objects, obsessed with them, really, as my friends will attest. I have a need to feel, to hold, to smell the relics of my life. These objects—the wooden buddha my brother and sister-in-law, AJ, carried across the Pacific Ocean for me, the clock with the face that says "Keep Writing", given by a dear friend—they inspire. They incite in me a deep-seeded longing memory alone could not manage. But I have seen objects, their cumbersome weight, bury the ones I love. If you want to hold on, be ready to sacrifice your life for it.

These days, living in a New York City apartment, my belongings are precious few. I have no desire to part with any of them, but when the time comes I will find a way. How else to make way for what’s to come?

My mother's school-house clock may still hang in her kitchen, but that picture from my christening has long since disappeared. And I like to think we’re all the better for it.


Sarah Twombly is a writer and literary agent living in NYC. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I first met her at VCFA as my roommate during her first residency. Instantly charmed by Sarah's passion, energy, kindness, and talent, I became one of her biggest fans.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"The Brevity and Expansiveness of Time"


Fall in Vermont
I am thinking of Andrea Modica's photographs of wild apple trees in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Pastoral writes, "In Northeast Kingdom, (Modica) has perhaps created an awareness of both the brevity and expansiveness of time and what it means to hang onto it."

I first encountered Modica's photos one autumn when I worked on a farm. We took turns driving a tractor with a wagon attached to the back to and from the farmyard and welcome center, picking up children and their keepers, driving them over the turning landscape to the farmyard where animals calmly waited behind fences to be pet and cooed over. One afternoon, the leaves had just started to turn, I flipped through a journal at the welcome center while I waited for my wagon to fill. Near the end, I found some of Modica's photos from her Portfolio Northeast Kingdom. How I was drawn to those black and white photos of wild apple trees.

No one tended those trees, harvested their bitter fruit or trimmed back their branches when they began to droop against the earth. Modica, as her photos seem to explain, was drawn to her abandoned subject as a symbol of time, change, growth, death and loss. The pictures are often out of focus except for one small circular patch caught in the detail of her lens. They seem to spiral or swirl out, creating an orbiting blur that frames fine and delicate detail. Modica said, the apples hung on even into the wintry cold, through the ice, to spring. One photo (shown above) catches a shriveled apple the size of a plum hanging from a long and slender thread of branch. In another, the alchemy of shadow and distance sweep across an orchard, smudging time, rendering the picture seasonless.  

I carried the dream of those photos with me as I drove the tractor out over the field, past the Canadian geese stopping to rest on their journey south, and the spring calves now grown and close to slaughter, up to the farmyard. The children shuffled off the wagon and, stretching their legs, ran towards the farmyard animals. When I could, I went back into the welcome center to comb through the four or five pages of photos. They fed me something that fall. I thought of the wild trees growing along a dirt road, the white bloom a shock of spring beauty, the full branches of fall beseeching a belief in nature's generosity. I dreamed of the icy branches to which a few lone apples clung on by a thread--I won't go, I won't go into the snow, they cried.

Of course, I gave the photos no meaning then; I simply looked at them, thought of them, and let them nurish me. It is only now, returning, that I find such meaning. I have since looked at the photographs, my husband eagerly peeking over my shoulder in the welcome center at the farm. "They still have this?" I whispered. It's still here.
         

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The House is a Nest for Dreaming: "The Sober Cabin" by Lois Minsky

The dream of a cabin over and over, in the woods, green gabled, dark with character. My mother was waiting for me there.


It was a home beyond any home I had ever known. A home with room enough for my thoughts. Shelves for my books. White scallop-edged curtains on every window.



The story theme of shyness and disability arranged in the corner table by a glass menagerie sitting on a rounded wood table in the corner of the room. It all looking to me like a diagram of what to figure out in this life, with elephants, ducks and horses patiently waiting. It was a place to be safe from all the storms. The basement grounded deep in the earth giving gravity to what moves inside. I am able to be still. I am a master of reflection here. It feeds me beyond bread. My heart can feel its beat.

Only I know what I overcame to belong here. The constant pounding thoughts, the hammering words given to children. "Stupid, Lazy, why did I have you? What are you good for? I hope God punishes you like he did me." The screams over a spoon left in the sink. The silence that holds no peace.

It was a cabin strong enough for my personal storms. Strong enough for love to enter. My mother waited for me there, years after dying and being reborn. The exhaustion I feel with each dream repeating itself over and over. My mother comes alive each time five years after her death and I must explain to everyone how this happens only to me - she is dead - she is alive, I must adjust and then she leaves again. Of her own choosing, gone with no known address, and again I grieve into exhaustion. Trying to explain how this keeps on happening in my soul : torrential storms that just pass over leaving every tree and branch bent under the weight of wind and water.

Lois Minsky lives with her golden retriever, Parker Quinn, in Burlington, Vermont where she reads, occasionally writes, and works. You can catch up with her at her blog: Not Sure Where I Am

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August in Minnesota: Perfect Day

Today will be a perfect day. The stillness and the color of light in the sky predict this. The sound of a motor over the lake dies away, another begins; the water is smooth, precise, breathless and without a ripple. I wake with so much love for Josh today, hold him tightly wrapped in my arms and legs. Later he looks for names for the baby in a book at the kitchen counter. Now only stillness, a fragile, quickly stolen noise keeps me company. How long was the longest silence? The waves from the motor boat wash against shore once, twice only. Over the dimpled sand of the beach shadows bend. I am blessed today with this solitary room and this window facing the shore of the lake, a beach I know well. A beach I ran across as a child.


What was it to be a child, so small in my body and big of mind with feeling spirit?

These are not sentences but interruptions that cut like a crosshatch[ed] pattern over an image of beauty. The lost sound of cut language enters here and we listen with our mouth with our body of skin, the mind rendered less useful. Posy ricochets off the page, which is no longer a page, no longer something one can keep between her fingers, before sleep touching her words, running her hand along the edge of her whole world. Now something else so easily misplaced so oddly wound together—up down—do I feel this language the same when it is no longer born out of a work of the body? When it is typed into space, empty of body? I scroll up and cut away an entire limb, scroll down and paste a face on the knee.

And what is my body? House for two. Our child so small it still lives between my hip bones after all these weeks, these three and a half months. People tell me (I don’t know, in joking) that I house a parasite. I am not offended or amused. This child is growing out of my body feeding on me; for the first time I am forced to wonder truly about the science of something after so many years of preferring my own stories.


What was it to be a child, to know so much and get away with your knowing as grownups have mostly forgotten?

The sound of a duck, quack quack, interrupts the carried away nature of my thoughts. How silly to hear a duck quack! The slightest breeze moves through my room. The quacking sounds horse now, a frog in the duck’s throat. Josh has gone for the day. Soon I will be called up to the house for pleasant conversation with my mother and company.

First, however, today will be a perfect day: a still thought will rise out of the quiet, clean sky and I will work to harness it, to give it skin and make it mine.


full term pregnancy


Monday, August 8, 2011

The House is a Nest for Dreaming: "Home" by Susan V. Weiss

If I say I’m going home after a slew of errands, I’m perfectly clear about where I’m headed: my little three-bedroom house with a yard the size of a playing card. But when prompted with the word “home”, I feel directionless, without route or destination. In the bigger picture, for most of my life, I suppose that “home” has been my family’s house in eastern Pennsylvania. Even though at some time during young adulthood I asserted to my parents, “This isn’t my home! Boston is my home now!” that was the place. The big womb. The X where gravity ended.

But that house is gone, now—gone, anyway, from my family universe like a star that has melted into darkness. I can’t quite separate the selling of that house from the decline of my parents and, finally, the death of my mom. I’m not homeless, though. I still have my own house in Vermont; in fact I’ve now lived here longer than I’ve lived in any of my other homes. And yet when the family home was sold in a panicked rush--so that we each had only one shot at grabbing whatever we wanted to salvage, as if we were contestants on a game show—I chose not to, or I forgot to, take things that I now miss: the doll dresses worn by my Shirley Temple doll that I would like to have hung on my bedroom wall; my mom’s ceramic mixing bowls; a carry-on suitcase. It was all hauled away in a big truck, sorted by hands that didn’t sense the softness of my mom’s sweaters or the smoothness of my dad’s belts. The hollowed out house is now inhabited by strangers.

These days, when I visit my father, who lives in a nursing home, I stay with a friend usually, or with one of my siblings. But during those visits, my feet never seem to touch ground. Where is the kitchen, my mother nervously preparing a dish that she worries will be too dry or not seasoned enough? What has become of the pink bathroom that seemed stopped in time way back in the sixties? Probably the new owners have gutted it and only pink shards remain, buried morsels to be some day unearthed by an archaeologist.

While some can claim to have more than one home—summer homes in warmer climates or vacation homes abroad—others have none. Two or three times a month, I volunteer for the local organization that serves the homeless in my community. Never once do I leave there any less than overwhelmed with gratitude that I don’t have to worry every day about where I’ll stash my stuff, where I’ll bathe, where I’ll lay my head that night. I can barely conceive of living in such circumstances. I have been compelled to think about a different sort of homelessness, too, after my experience teaching refugees: to be worlds away from the place that is home; to escape with just fragments of family; to hold onto no more than a language and customs, which often become impediments to creating a new home in a strange land.

Certainly I have lived in places that didn’t feel like home to me—after all, isn’t a home less a particular place than a relationship with that place, an attachment? Most of us release a little sigh—a good sigh--when we say the word “home”. Home with a capital “H”, not just the location where we plunk down our bag of groceries. But like all relationships, the relationship with a home can end. Even an attachment to a cardboard lean-to or the cold, hard ground can be forcibly terminated when the occupant is chased away by police or driven south by the weather.

My living situation seems so much more secure than the fragile stopping points of people banished from their homes by war, or by hunger and drought, and yet I know that no one is invulnerable to homelessness. I lost my home with the pink-bathroom, the kitchen, the fretful mother but am fortunate to have another. If any of us wants a guarantee of never being without a home or, better yet, of always feeling at home, we ought to start forming some kind of meaningful attachment to this great big world, the sky above us, the immovable earth below, and hope and pray that this, our biggest, most durable home won’t be snatched away from us and that we are the best tenants we can possibly be.

Susan V. Weiss lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she writes and teaches. Her novel will be published this September by Fomite. (Available through http://www.fomitepress.com/ or Amazon.com.) Check out Susan's website and blog: http://www.susanvweiss.com/.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

August in Minnesota: On the Road


photobones.com
 It happens in the town of Roscommon on our way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I notice a change of pace and a difference in the trees. The people are friendlier, less preoccupied. We drive into this town off Interstate 75 to use the restroom: a small bathroom with a toilet from who knows when—not the corporate layout of the highway gas stations. The woman behind the counter and her customer talk about the hot weather. As I leave I let loose an enormous yawn and she calls out, “Hey none of that in here, it’s contagious.” I smile as I walk sleepily out. We’ve been driving all day and we drove all day yesterday from Vermont to Michigan to our final destination of Minnesota. Roscommon, I say to myself as my husband drives us back out to the highway passing spruce trees and fir that spike high into the sky.


The trees here are Nordic trees—pines and birch, less hardwood, no lush undergrowth. We drive north towards the Mackinac Bridge—the third longest suspension bridge in the world—and the azure blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac, towards the sandy shores of Lake Superior and silent horizons fading into sky. I tell my husband people are nicer in the Midwest and he snorts. His loyalty to New England and his home state of Vermont remains watertight. But it’s true, I say, people are different here, they call you “honey” or “doll” and seem to genuinely care for you.

In Mackinaw City we stop at the Cunningham Restaurant for pancakes and eggs. The lady who takes our order, a middle-aged woman with a heavy tan and frosty eyelids, calls me “dear,” and I look over at my husband who is fiddling with his phone. “Hey, did you hear that,” I whisper after she’s left. He looks up at me, what? “I need to take your picture,” he says. “You look so lovely.”


"Big Mac"
 We cross the bridge as we did last summer and as we plan to do every summer on our way to visit my family in Minnesota. Its two towers make it look like the Golden Gate Bridge though it’s not quite as long. The water of the straits glistens greenish blue like a lagoon or southern ocean. We pass St. Ignace and drive northwest through the crinkly pine forests of the UP. I favor this northern terrain, the smell of pine and dry air, the yellow sand dunes of the lake. The coniferous forest of pine, spruce, fir and cedar, of birch, lichens and bogs composes the landscape of my Northern Minnesota home.


photo by Lee Frelich
 As we enter this world in Michigan, I begin to reflexively crave this landscape. In Vermont I am so taken with the deciduous forests of the Green Mountains that I forget the beauty of the pines. The landscape of Vermont is lush and dense, snaked with rushing streams rather than still lakes or bogs. Northeast Minnesota is home to berry picking while Vermont is known for its apples and maple syrup. As I write this my mother and sister are out berry picking this morning and a few days after we arrived, my sisters Bess and Hannah took me mushroom hunting in the forest.



There is something distinctly different about the way people here, specifically the northern part of the middle of the country, treat each other, as there is something specific and distinct to every region. But because I live in Vermont I naturally contrast Minnesota to the green mountain state. “Cold,” is the word I think of first when I recall New Englanders. Though, amusingly enough, Vermonters think of themselves as friendlier than New Yorkers or “flatlanders” (people who do not live in their state). Vermonters see themselves as living a slower life, but then maybe they’ve never been to the Midwest. If you want to live a slow life stop by Roscommon, I giggle to myself, or come to the Side Lake area where my family lives. Of course, I admit, I live in Burlington, Vermont’s largest metropolis, and not a small New England town. But even when I pass through the small towns of Vermont it isn’t like passing though the Northern Midwest where people will speak to you like they’ve known you forever.

I don’t necessarily want to go around chatting it up with everyone, even in the town where my siblings, cousins, and I went to school and I do know a good percentage of its 4500 residents from working at my grandfather’s and then my father’s pharmacy downtown, I mostly try to remain anonymous. Working behind the counter where I “run the till,” otherwise known as the cashier, I hope most customers will mistake me for one of my four blond sisters, though usually at least one of my sisters is also working with me and our father or our aunt. Why, I wonder do I prefer to listen to them and not tell them what it is I’m doing (the natural question to ask)? I like to hear what they’re doing, but I worry they won’t understand why someone would be tirelessly writing day after day, making a living working odd jobs at the age of 30 and frankly, I wonder this myself most of the time, so where would that conversation go—therapy session?

Back on the road through the UP, my husband wakes me from a nap to go swimming in Lake Superior. I’m leery of the water’s cold temperature but the sand is golden and plentiful and the lake is a spectacular Blue Grotto that rolls right into the spotless cerulean horizon. I lie in the sand while my husband wades in and dives under, waiting to hear the verdict on the water’s temperature. When he gives me the OK, I go down and step in the water—it’s chilly but tolerable. The waves lap against my shins as I wade in. At waist deep I plunge under; the cool water feels cleansing and I sense summer is only just beginning for me now, at the end of July.

We’ll make it to my parents’ by nine that night; our final road a small meandering driveway through the woods. We’ll sit glossy eyed on the sofa trying to unravel from the two days of driving. It will take me nearly a week to adjust and to return to my work, which looms in the back of my mind like an angry child longing for attention. The guilt becomes unbearable and so here I sit, again, writing it away. What a strange compulsion this has become. It happened in Roscommon, I think, the trees and the people changed. The longing for home, a place they say we only understand after we’ve left, grew up out of the craggy land, the pointed pines and cone shaped spruce, the bogs along the highway and the chilly sapphire waters of lake after lake after lake.


Sunset Cove


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The House is a Nest for Dreaming: Singing Bowl with Sage

“…the house is a nest for dreaming, a shelter for imagining…”

--From the forward to the 1994 addition of The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

This is a short series on images of home. If you are interested in contributing an image from your home along with a brief prose piece about it, please email me: emilyclairecasey@gmail.com.



One: Singing Bowl with Sage—

The rooms of my homes are filled with objects that keep company and communion with me. For the past ten years I’ve moved almost every year. How this happens I’m not sure. Does it have something to do with me, or is it just the luck I’ve had? Again I find myself in an apartment that I plan to leave. Though across the street there’s a park overlooking the lake, the apartment’s too small, there’s no backyard, and the traffic is loud.

This morning I could smell the earthy wetness of the lake in the breeze as I walked up the front steps. The scent invigorated me with both the memory of my childhood home on a lake in Minnesota and my secret future in the woods by a stream: a cabin in the woods and silence.

Philip Graham once told me that the objects in our homes reflect our psychological interior, something he wrote about in his collection of short stories, Interior Design. My husband gave me the singing bowl four years ago when we were dating. We burned the sage in the bowl at our wedding to cleanse our union. I don’t use the singing bowl or the sage, but it reminds of my desire for inner serenity. When I used to smoke I’d sometimes sneak cigarettes in the kitchen and burn the sage afterwards. No one was home but me. I always felt guilty burning the wedding sage to cover up the scent of my secret smoking. But if felt so me to do it.

If the objects of our homes reflect our inner states, is it the way we hope to be or the way we are that these objects are mirroring? It would be impossible to clear our homes of all the objects we felt didn’t properly reflect our interiors. The overflowing basket of shoes, the ugly handbag you can’t part with, a childhood toy you keep around for reasons you haven’t addressed, a stuffed bear your father sent you, the painting of squares your best friend made for you in her adult education painting class, your self-help books, the necklace your lover gave you that just isn’t quite right…

The rooms of all my many homes fade in and out. There are places I’d prefer not to remember and places I indulge in reverie over. The colors of the walls—red, turquoise blue, peach, golden yellow, sky blue—make a patch work of lost selfhood. These walls hold me in, safely store my memories, my desires, my grief and joy; they give comfort me with the solace of a space that is all my own. Bachelard would say the house frees us to dream and to remember.

I dream of the cabin in the woods by the brook, the small vegetable garden, the budding apple orchard, and the children. I dream of a small place, silent and serene, where all my objects come to rest, each in its proper place, reflecting my interior design.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The Minimal Limits of Identity": Is Bret Easton Ellis Worth Reading/Watching?

Bret Easton Ellis
Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times
Numéro Cinq's recent post “IN HELL WE WILL ALL BURN BRIGHTLY : Bret Easton Ellis’s Empire vs. Post-Empire”, By Brianna Berbenuik made me a bit uncomfortable as it started a course of thinking about how writers and artists go about the buisness of critiquing their culture. Berbenuik reviews Ellis's novel Imperial Bedrooms (Pub. June 2010--funny they thought it'd make a good summer read) a sequel to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero, highlighting the books’ theme of Empire and Post-Empire. This whole concept--though I may be misreading it--started to amuse and please me. Berbenuik writes:

"Ellis places Empire America circa 1945-2005. Empire is essentially complete delusion: misguided ideas and inordinate investment in the power of celebrity; patronizing political correctness that actually covers up insidious oppression and hides truly damaging opinions. An overall denial of the ultimate frailty and delicateness of human existence. An attitude of self-righteousness and indestructibility, hiding behind politically correct outrage.”

“The Empire is collapsing."

Berbenuik writes:

"Post-Empire is a new kind of realism. Calling bullshit as it is, stripping celebrity of its bulletproof myths, candidness, breakdowns, testing “politically correct” boundaries, irony, offensiveness in the face of a reserved attitude that hides insidious cultural uptightness for the last 60 years."



the Kardashians


"You may have noticed recently the internet exploding with “socially conscious youth” calling out establishments previously thought of as benevolent and beneficial as inherently racist and oppressive horseshit. This is Post Empire. Really believing “Multiculturalism” actually means colourblindess and equality is so very Empire.”



Have I noticed an explosion of socially conscious youth? In some ways, but it seems to me Empire and P-Empire have more to do with economic frailty in America, and then I suppose, yes, the outrageous lie of the American Dream, or at least the feeling that after being liberally educated I do know that certain people (which I confess I don't put myself in this category) have no access to the American Dream. In the P-Empire, if we believe in some version of it, not that we are meant to not that we need to, but in a way don't we long to, the outrageous lies of infallibility fall away....the American Dream is a form of comic relief.

Yet daily I hear the strangest news: politicians so severely stunted by bigotry becoming front-runners for the GOP (is this P-Empire or Empire?), corporate news moguls getting publicly pied (definitely P-Empire)...I dream of seeing the day when the rich fall, the wealthy and greedy and socially cruel are sent away to a place I don't have to think about...but such things would most likely be accompanied by severe poverty and devastation, a world where basic survival returned as our most pressing need. And why am I so angry at the rich the greedy the powerful? Are you?
                                                                                 *

The more I research this book and its author the less I want to enter the dark shrouded-ness of either one.
Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times wrote in a June 13, 2010 review of Ellis' book, going through a history of post-publishing of Less Than Zero, "Then "American Psycho" was dropped before publication by Simon & Schuster — a strong move against an established author — for its graphic, misogynistic violence. The book, released in 1991 by Vintage, was lambasted by Gloria Steinem and boycotted by other feminist leaders."

The line between promoting and condoning misogyny and critiquing it in the world of art, writing, film, is sometimes blurred.


Allison Kelly at the Observer writes of "American Psycho," "At the same time, critics rave about it, academics revel in its transgressive and postmodern qualities, and for all the angry charges of misogyny, it has prominent female defenders, including Fay Weldon, who called it "beautiful, careful, important" and (no arguing with this one) "seminal"."

Post and Non-Post Empire are sort of a pop-culturized form of Modernism and Post-Modernism and it is funny to try and point out what is what. However, Kelly insists that Ellis is going for deeper philosophical underpinnings:

 “… like it or not, the novel dabbles in philosophical waters. The thriller-style hints   and foreshadowings also form part of a metaphysical investigation. Here, as in Less Than Zero, Ellis is plumbing the depths of human nature, exposing it at its worst. His writing is existentialist to the extent that it confronts the minimal limits of identity. What does it take for a person to become subhuman, to die inside – for the self to disappear? Answering this question involves believing the evidence in front of you. A lesson to be learned equally by characters and readers (driven home by a pattern of facial references) is to take people at face value. Past actions hold the key to future behaviour: "You have a history of this, don't you?", a member of Clay's circle comments. Forget change, growth, self-reinvention: in Ellis's LA jungle the leopards never change their spots.”

What are the “minimal limits of identity”? Does a person really become “subhuman” or “die inside”? Is there a force of evil in the world or would we be crazy to even consider such a concept? I for one have been trained to view humanity through a psychological and sociological lens that has no room for “evil,” but I confess, not everything (perhaps even most of it) I learned in school, has over the course of the past decade stood up to the truth of lived experience.

American Psycho



Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Digress... The World of the Essay

Montaigne
I notice while writing essays my mind enters fully, another landscape. I am not talking about essay, essays—but the true essay, or personal essay, as Montaigne would have it, the essay as an attempt, a try. “I am myself the matter of my book,” he said. And, oh, let me digress…




I notice my mind is filled with thought—as though in trance—sky, bird, cloud, nothing. Rhythm. Silence is selected above all noise. Digress, digress, which is to wander amid the lines as they pile up, as I attempt to get at something, I don’t know yet what. This is essay. Let’s essay, Patrick Madden said during one of his lectures at VCFA, perhaps his first, perhaps it wasn’t even him, but none of this is about the facts, all of it is about experience, existing, being, and the way the work of writing can envelop us so completely that we forget we are merely crafting essays, finding meaning from the layers of our lives, we feel instead like we are more alive somehow, like we are poetic beings floating over summer streets, drifting amid the scents of greasy diner food, Chinese, hot-dog stand and the odd wafting sugary smell blasting out of the Ben & Jerry’s like a fog machine of scent.



Oh, I digress.

Ben & Jerry

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jess Row, "Dear Yale," and "Workshop-safe Writing": VCFA Summer Res 2011 Comes to a Close



In an interview with Guernica, Jess Row talks about the politics of elite American universities (in response to his story Dear Yale)....I admit I'm impressed with this under-40-something guy, particularly his politics and place as faculty at VCFA, thus my share. Here's a quote from the interview:

"Don’t get me wrong: I love universities. I loved my time in college. Before I went to Yale I had no idea what it meant to have an intellectual life. I tried, to the best of my abilities at the time, to make use of its immense, unbelievable resources. At the same time, I was deeply lazy and complacent. I took it for granted that because I was a Yalie certain things would come naturally to me—for example, that, without any training at all, I would be able to teach English grammar to speakers of Chinese. I lived under the sway of that immense collective narcissism until I graduated and it burst, and,  then I had, for all intents and purposes, a nervous breakdown. Which is not at all uncommon."

The interview ends with an important point about how we teach writing in contemporary American workshops and why we need, as writers, to continually question the walls and rules we accept and apply to our work. A rather poignant read as our 10-day Vermont College Writers Residency comes to a close and we return to our homes and families, our jobs and pets....I for one am interested in pushing the limits of my work to a place that is less than cozy.


"I think it’s also important to say—and maybe I didn’t make this clear enough in the Rumpus interview—that of course American fiction is full of fearsomely intellectual and cerebral writers, David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann being two obvious examples. But I think some writing workshop instructors would like to pretend that those writers don’t exist, because they are relatively hard to teach, and their methods (and, to be frank, their interests and intellectual range) are so far beyond the reach of many beginning writers. As a writing teacher, I’ve been trying steadily to raise the bar for my students over the years—to expose them to the full range of possibilities in contemporary prose, and ask them to participate in that universe. But it’s not easy. There is such a thing as workshop-safe writing, and many students (and teachers) want to cleave to it and not let go."


Happy writing....




Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Confucius Wept and Other Sorrows

Josh at a crossroads in Idaho.
Rainy night. I am reading Annie Dillard's "For the Time Being" and it's knocking my socks off. Really this book is written true to the form of essay I first fell in love with. It doesn't lead you, it leaps and trusts you know how to follow. She writes of the Xi'an soldiers buried with Emperor Qin...over 10,000 sculpted clay soldiers. "Before me, at my feet, the clay men swam fully formed from walls. Beyond me, in the distance, living farmers worked fields."

She speaks of the dead and the infant as the two ends that might save us but utterly fail. We follow her to a hospital where newborns are washed in conveyor belt fashion before being snugly wrapped and returned to their mothers.

And of death, everything in these first two chapters seems to be swirling softly like a certain river current around the topic.

"Confucius wept. Confucius, when he understood he would soon die, wept." Yes. As we all must.

So much can be said/known in this poetic form of essay; in seemingly abrupt changes of subject we're given the gift of following what I'd call "true-thought" patterns (not to be confused with unedited writing). The mind leaps and turns and curls back around and through this process it brings 'you' the truth of what it first set itself to knowing. Though of course 'you' are the mind. Or, the reader, in this case.

At the cross-roads stood an abandoned house with thorny vines growing up around its glassless windows. The land was too open and treeless, the highway too close, for the house to be any sort of teenager haven, though inside we found graffiti and a couple old beer bottles.

We were on our honey-moon. I was writing stories for Robin Hemley...one about a murdered girl too closely rendered to a sister of mine which Hemley suggested was "too much," the murdering, when in truth I was trying to hurt my father for some old sin of his I was still nurturing.

Two things: One, I briefly read Philip Graham's blog this morning Imaginary Social Worlds and realized that I do live in the past and in the imaginary future most of the day. There are a few exceptions to this, writing, for one. Admittedly, writers seem to be absorbed with imaginary social worlds but in fact I think a lot of writing has to do with creating necessary realities within the strange hodgepodge of our existence, creating truths, and I think in many ways this is a form of survival or a way of surviving.

The second thing: I also read woodbird this morning a blog by former VCFA MFA writing student and Vermonter: In Of One's Own Robin blogs about a cabin in the woods by her house that she built with her father as a 16 year-old. It reminded me of the journey to art that often takes a deeper form in our teenage years. I spent a lot of time painting, followed by a lot of time driving my red Ford Aspire down back-roads of back-roads where I'd just park and smoke cigarettes and write poems, alone. There was nothing else like it. I doubt, actually, there ever will be.

House at the cross-roads

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Poem that Takes a Lifetime—from Last Week


Lois tells me that a writer needs a husband who’s willing to act like a wife. She is from another era though she’d resent me saying so. Sometimes we bicker like sisters; other times she tells me she needs a daughter like me. A few weeks ago, we dug up the front yard and planted daisies, cosmos, tomatoes, basil, lavender, and marigolds to keep the bugs out. I transplanted a tiny rose bush growing in the middle of her front lawn like a tiny ship of briar and loveliness adrift on a sea of green. She says, “I like to put things in the middle of nowhere,” though, this year, she also wanted things to look “chic and sophisticated” in her little Vermont front lawn.

Lois has a long story about the history of things. She tells me she remembers before she was born: I did not want to enter the world, the one I was called into. At a young age she began stealing chocolate from the corner store and later other things just for the thrill of it. She has a picture of herself in a living room with Ray Carver; Tobias Wolff signed her thesis—a collection of beautiful rendered short stories in which she makes the complex simple. “I remember after I’d turned in my thesis and a week or so later Toby Wolff told me that one of the stories I’d written was pretty good, my body felt normal again and I thought this is the way normal people’s bodies feel.”

The first thing I remember her telling me, the thing she said that made me pay attention to her was “writing is really, really hard because it requires that you are emotionally honest with yourself, and that takes a lot out of you.” Yes, I thought, yes. How many more things has she told me… endless things… because there is an endless amount of struggle in this life but there are also endless books to read, poems to speak aloud.

I’m lying on my side snuffling, when she tells me how lucky I am to have a husband who will do the shopping and the laundry and the cooking at least half the time. To have a loving husband you will see is invaluable to a writer. I’m crying about failures and poverty and feeling depressed. I say, listen, I just turned in a thesis paper that I hate. And she says, you’re mourning the shitty little paper; even the shitty little paper we must mourn. I’m saying I’ll never have enough money and she says I have enough right now. Nothing will ever be enough if you let it. 

She has told me that some poems take a lifetime. You sit down and write a poem and it comes out just right, you don't understand how, but realize it took your entire life until now to write that poem.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mt. Washington Part I: Remembering the love my young parents had for each other while scarfing down a burger at Horse-Feathers

We head east towards Montpelier planning to go through St. Johnsbury and across the river into New Hampshire. Our destination: Mount Washington and North Conway, NH. We turn off 89 and head towards St. Jay; the towns grow smaller, less developed. The main streets still wooden storefront buildings that remind me of something out of “Fried Green Tomatoes” or the Old West. The rivers are high because we’ve had record rain this spring; I watch them longingly and think: river, lake, ocean—all water soothes me but moving water in particular has a vivid spirit. Lately—let’s say the past three weeks—I’ve felt like I’m treading water, my lips just above the surface. I’ve felt frantic and scattered so the rain and the rushing water seem both to free me from my feelings and to fit those feelings.

Everywhere brilliant, spring green explodes. The mountains grow deeper, closer; they converge with both road and sky. I point out the evergreens to my husband—they appear regal and of fairy tales with trolls and horsemen, with grandmother’s and fair maidens. Just past Marshfield we meet a “Road Closed” sign and Josh pulls over. We’re quiet. We don’t travel well together because we’re both moody travelers who want to exert different means of control—Josh always drives; I always want to stop for a variety of reasons, especially the bathroom. We return to Marshfield with its own rushing river that we spend a moment observing. In the general store the young woman behind the counter gives me a map when I ask for one and I make a mental note that Josh wouldn’t have asked and then I make a mental note to X that mental note because it’s too obvious a thing to note.

Josh re-routes us and we’re off. We drive in silence, the mountains soft giants standing in the mist. We cross the Connecticut River to enter New Hampshire and Josh says, “You can just tell it’s not Vermont now, at least it’s still the Red Sox Nation.”
“You can’t tell! How can you tell?” I protest, just to disagree.

But, maybe it does look different. We pass an old man sitting on a cement stoop and a girl with yellowish hair riding her bike along the uneven sidewalk. Pink streamers flutter from each handlebar.

There’s a carnival underway when we reach Lisbon—population 1,595—located along the Ammonoosuc River. Lisbon, we’ll find on our drive back, hosts a Lilac Festival every Memorial Day. The roads in New Hampshire, like in Vermont, are mostly two lane blacktops that turn into small town main streets, it’s like we’re driving through the tiny small-town carnival.  We pass the white tents selling Native American Art, ball caps, and pottery.  Metal arms with bucket hands jammed with coupled people locked behind a single bar, whirl. Carousel ponies move slowly on their poles, while a pin-striped candy-apple shack winks at a candy corn stand. We pull into the gas station adjacent to the small carnival. A woman paints black music notes on a gray-bearded man.
     “Let’ take pictures,” I say after I’ve returned from the Porta-Potti.
Josh’s hand is on the gear shift, ready, but he acquiesces and kills the engine.

There’s no fence keeping us in or out. First I try to photograph a child harnessed into a vertical sling-shot, but I’m too far away. I move quickly to the carousel, with its carefree, deliberate sluggishness—its loveliness a throwback from some other era that cared about beauty in something like a carnival ride. Finally I give the camera to Josh: you take better photos, I say. Get that lady with the big hat, that family, the little dog…The carnival is so small that it takes only five minutes to circle through it.



Round and round we go
A family waits in line for tickets


Back in the car, we eat a bag of chips, lick our fingers and roll down the windows.  I make a list of all the things I want to have occurred in ten years. I imagine—particularly if my mental health doesn’t improve—I’ll be making lists forever. Lists of what I need to do today, this week, this month, this year and in ten years. The ten-year list isn’t really a to-do list. More like a Hail-Mary in the game of impeding anxiety.  Josh says, “We want so many things it hurts sometimes.” We are like two over-sized children, wanting our own children to play with, and to remember by, because both of us have never been able to completely adjust to the reality of grown-up life, the idea of making money, the loss of toys and endless imagination.

This makes us sound ridiculous, but of course we are.

We reach our hotel and later we walk out over the sidewalks of North Conway to the central eatery, oddly named "Horse-Feathers," where we’re seated at a tiny round table in the middle of a room filled with middle-class families with young children.  I think of how silly my own family must have seemed to others when we went out to restaurants on vacation—the eight of us, all blonds except my father, all looking Norwegian, Swedish, something Scandinavian. I think of us piling into a booth, scarfing down burgers and salads and sodas. At any given moment one of us would have been going through some major phase of adolescence. I suppose all of adolescence is in a way a “major phase” of life.

I think suddenly of my mother and father diving into the waves on a beach in North Carolina. I would have been six or seven. We always went out walking after dark along the beach. There were only six of us then. The spring moon was out, the waves charged the shore—tumbling close and fast.
“Wanna go in?” My dad asked my mother.
She might have smiled, shrugged her shoulders, flirted. They used to like racing each other, taunting each other to competitions like who can swim the furthest underwater in the pool.
“You wanna?” Dad repeated.
“Are you serious?” She would have said, her two-year old daughter, Bess, with the white-blond curls, on her hip.
“Yeah, I’ll go.” She set Bess down. She handed Bess to me.

She might have taken her sweater off, rolled up her jean shorts, but they were basically dressed though shoeless when they ran together over the wet sand and dove into those waves. The four of us, my sisters and I, stood watching them. They dove over and over again into the hard crashing waves. They seemed to become water creatures that night, disappearing into the wild darkness of the ocean, time after time, like their bodies had endless energy, like they were diving something out of them.

Maybe they squeezed hands as we all traipsed back to our hotel. Maybe we had to enter the hotel lobby in two separate groups in order not to get caught having too many people staying in one hotel room. Or maybe, they didn’t care, they laughed passed the maître de, their bodies dripping with salt water and something else—something sweet and secret. Their four blond daughters trailed behind; me, rolling my eyes, sighing, embarrassed, and filled with longing for something distant, incomprehensible.

Josh and I walk back to our room after I track down the Ben and Jerry’s for Ice cream. Tomorrow we’ll hike Mt. Washington all the way to the top, something he’s been waiting to do since he was a child and got caught in a hail storm near the top that forced his family to turn back without reaching the summit. 
Me at Horse-Feathers