Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Sappho Poems & a little bit of Ramble

I've started writing a series of poems I've titled "The Sappho Poems" which as you might guess have to do with Sappho's fragments. Recently I got a translation by the poet Anne Carson. I am drawn to the fragments out of a sense of mystery, very little remains of her work. Only one poem in full. Tonight I read this poem (posted below) and before I read it I tried to explain to a small group of poetry lovers why I like to write poetry this time of year. It has to do with the barren landscape, the gray muddled sky, and the sensation of stark emptiness. The landscape of winter asks the poet to speak: to create the beauty of loss. I don't want to say, the poet writes herself into the landscape because there is this whole thing about projecting the self onto the world that can be in a way dangerous and ugly. But it is about having conversations with the landscape, about speaking and listening to the woods around me, the mountains in the distance.

The other day we were driving down Route 7 and the mountain looked so much like a sleeping animal dusted with snow. I could not get over my want to run my hand over its thick coat of fur. I knew that I would feel the warmth of its body as the snow melted in my hands. I dreamed a tiny dream of lying down beside the sleeping beast and listening to the mammoth heart beat of the mountain. This was the day after the shooting.

My heart was raw and wide open with this thought: this is what we have chosen, this is how we as Americans have chosen to live. We voted fair and square, majority wins. It is foolish to be surprised. But of course we are, how could we not be? How can we not reel with agony and terror? I did not start out to write about this. But here it is--as it seems to be everywhere, ever-present as we bake our holiday treats and wrap our gifts. I realize I have many things I want to say about the shooting, but my heart doesn't have the patience to endure composition.

Francesca Woodman

I will say this. Last night in class we discussed the Holocost; I realized my students didn't know the definition of democracy--like, I said, what is the definition of democracy? silcence; the Nazis were very ordinary people; if we paint evil as Other than, we fail to see the truth of human nature; the word "evil" is not the right word because it creates the binary that tricks us into believing that the shooter was different somehow--he was "Not Me"; Hannah Arendt wrote that lonliness could lead to treacherous behavior because it cuts the self off from common sense...thus, it cuts the self off from the truth of the world and the real consequences of one's actions; really, I just want to walk out on the frozen lake and smell the ice and listen to the whale sounds of it cracking...that is, I want to lie down and listen to the heart beat of the mountain.

Here is the poem.

Kitchen Song



] we live


] the opposite






In the kitchen, the wolves       

curl down between us

                                                among the wooden legs of chairs

            where the baby crawls

picking table scraps,   

starved for something more than milk—


a crust of moon at the windowsill   

                                    a sparrow on the porcelain edge, the faucet’s drip—


the white tails of deer bounding,

    the rabbit’s twitch and tender, a spray of grouse

                                                     & the baby, scooped up into your arms—


through the bramble of wild thorns, the garden untended

the old growth and new

through the mess of it all,

this life—

I want to say, I’m sorry I can’t give enough, I’m sorry it will come to an end,

sudden and ugly even if we last, especially if we last, until the body curls inward with age—


all one wants to say

all that hope

a million nights like this one will never be enough

but we don’t know it yet—


Tonight I hear you singing the White Album as you rock the sick baby down and I know you know

I love you, as I know you love me, and we love him—but still, still


                        In the kitchen the wolves curl down, restless, teeming,

the baby is fisting wet toast, cold egg, dust balls of hair, the doe grazes at your feet—

                                    we live

                             the opposite  


what do you see?

there, through the copse of birch 

through the thicket and bramble,

wild thorn, red berry


in the forest 

of our love

   what do you see that keeps you so close

to joy—like breath

on a winter’s window—

            I want to see it too.                               


Monday, December 10, 2012

Francesca Woodman's Photographs

Francesca Woodman
I have been staying up late. Unable to sleep. Anxious about this and that--the holidays? Maybe the collective energy of buying is driving me crazy. I'm writing this blog per my commitment stated in a previous post on rejection. Via hours of Xmas searching on Amazon I came across the book Francesca Woodman's Notebook and then looked up her photographs. She apparently committed suicide due to her failure as an artist (at a young age). I don't ever believe these sorts of reasons for suicide, but I find this one particularly annoying. I like the name Francesca. You see where I'm going with all this? Yes, no where, but this is an acceptable place I'll have you know.

Francesca Woodman
What is this all about? Tuning into the wall... the body of a young girl, most likely the artist. You can tell a woman's age by her belly. Class went well tonight. I adore Moses....is motherhood some sort of disease of the heart? I feel like there is a fable or tale or myth of mothers eating their babies and I get this...this want to eat him up.

On a different note, there is darkness in my outer family right now...the outer rim, really, of my beloveds. I am trying to shut it out I think. I shouldn't be writing about this after midnight when the mind begins to flood from over-use. But I'm thinking of it and, I think, I'm thinking of it....
I am grateful that I have survived the things I have and that I have my sweet Moses and my darling honey pie husband. But the darkness has a feeling that I don't want to feel, so I dream of other things like skating and the sound of skates on the lake and so on...

I always have winter fantacies that involve a cabin in the woods with a wood stove, cross country skiing, a skating pond, and lots of snow...so much that you have to walk through a tunnel to get to the pretend barn which I just might have read about in Little House on the Prairie--I can't even begin to explain how deeply those books impacted my childhood. Night night.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Speaking of Color on the Eve of the Solstice

Orchard in Winter

I think about color in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice. The days wane, darkness creeps up on the afternoon. The sky is colorless; a pallid, dull intrusion. The baby climbs up on my belly and we sleep in until 11:30. Through the back door and the clothes on the line in the enclosed porch, I watch the sky for the shadow of clouds, the clustering of color into plum, vermilion, cerulean blue. The baby at my hip.

His hair is a strawberry blond that shines like silk in the sun. I hear my husband call him “princess.” At ten months, the baby crawls back and forth across the apartment.  I watch him picking cheerios off the floor, then taking down books from the little shelf in his room. I call his name and when he does not turn I crawl down beside him, kiss his sticky cheek.

We go out walking in the dull gray of early December. He throws his head back and watches the sky. What do you see? I ask him. But he only smiles, knowingly. The trees are webbing at the sky. Their full architecture revealed in their nakedness. We walk towards the lake near dusk; I search the sky for December crows. The un-nested flock in neighborhood trees, their caws a phantom opera enough to drive some mad.

And madness homes itself in these dark days. I sense it. Someone flees by bus in the night; someone else winds up in jail. My husband is on the phone with the credit card company—can we pay part of our bill with our other credit card, no. I let my class out forty minutes early unable to go on talking about the loss of the American Dream (one student doggedly orating on its persistence like a true patriot, like one close in generation to arrival on these shores, and maybe he is right. I notice his skin as white as milk against chestnut hair).

Color exists most for me in home and nature (or, are these the two places where I exist most? where I most reflect/project myself?). The colors of my home create patterns of memory, of joy or sorrow or ease, of sacred and un-sacred enclosure. My husband finds this tick of mine exhausting, but I say this is the true spirit of homemaking--a longing for grace and beauty to envelop.

If I look closely at the color of a pear, holding it in the market, feeling its papery skin, I can imagine the same color in paint or fabric. Why do I love this?  

I think the wheat-hue of the field before snow, a gem contrast against the shadow of the mountain or the gray of the forest. I remember the red of a stuffed dog I cuddled as a child, the peaches and cream of my grandmother’s bathroom where in the cabinet she stacked fluffy towels all in the same shade of shell-pink (I want to be this woman, Honey, she was called—but such fluffy, well stocked towels are a full time job).

I think of pine trees in winter, thick with snow and of apple trees on a hill in the near distance, their curled finger boughs, their craggieness—the knotted mess of their limbs.

In this season—the season between fall and winter, as the light wanes—the scarcity of color makes me covet and seek out its rare displays. Along the street where we walk to town, I find wet red berries growing on a piny hedge. They seem to quiver. Somewhere in my childhood, the same berries, but where, I will never recover. I am reminded of a sidewalk in Summersville, West Virginia, leading up to the tiny duplex where we lived for three years. I suspect the same wet red berries quivered there. But I will never know.

In this same way my son will recall the objects of our apartment.  Not just in color. The smell of his father’s shaving cream (should he someday change it) or the scent of a shampoo, will conjure the space of this home—a watery, misshapen memory. Fleeting as a dream, never devisable.  A certain hairspray (I have not found in years) evokes Honey’s pink bathroom, and now I am remembering how I climbed up on the sink and found a Styrofoam cup of grandpa’s teeth hidden on top of the vanity.  I inspected them as I did the cherry red nail polishes and petal pink tubes of lipstick behind the vanity mirrors.

Last year at this time, two months before the birth of our son, we drove into the Vermont countryside. I kept my eyes on the wheat colored fields, thinking of my young sisters’ flaxen hair and how I braided it before church on Sundays. I was proud of the braids, though hair often escaped the grasp of the weave and the braids got loose. I was efficient as a child. Tidy and want for praise. Puberty changed me, but a love of order and applause remains. 

So the fields, and the plum hued mountains that reminded me of smoke from a fire, and the fog that sometimes cut through the middle of the mountain, last year as we drove, brought me joy though at the time I fretted over the birth of my son. I worried over his wrong positioning. At the time we were driving to Middlebury to see a doctor about delivering him breech. Now, that is another lifetime ago, as long away as my grandfather’s teeth, but I touch this memory easily through the colors of the cold lake, the sky pushing near, off in the distance the Adirondack Mountains I’ve never visited. I touch the memory in the contrasting colors, their scarcity in the ashen wash of the in-between season, so close to the turn of the solstice (in the café they are counting down to the apocalypse of 2012 to occur on the solstice, the end of the Mayan calendar: 16 days).

At home in the apartment I dream of Minnesota (where we will go for Christmas) at night. A long dream of a funeral of someone very wealthy, a hockey game and pictures of women hockey players wearing revealing knit underpants—why, I ask, and a woman tells me they wore them for pregnancy, they’ll expand around the belly. I say, they played hockey pregnant? Yes, yes, of course they did.

I dream of the sauna beside the frozen lake and the hardened yellow sand of the shore because there won’t be snow for long. I dream of skiing out across the lake towards grandpa and grandma’s old home, towards Miracle Bible Camp which we attended as girls, my four sisters and I. I dream of the sun angling over the wet ice, and my skate scraping and making a click, click sound as I try to plié or leap, as I tumble down. At Christmas, should we all still be here, the light will begin to wax and we will go out walking along the road, my sister and I with our babies. Our noses and cheeks will pink and we’ll wrap blankets around the babies. The sky will grow blue. Clouds will drift there above the tree line. At mother and father’s we will eat cookies with red and green sprinkles and wrap gifts in colored paper and boil water for tea poured in robin’s egg blue cups. The bowl on the table is always filled with dark chocolates--dark enough to make your mouth water a little with the bitterness before the sweet.

I sense these dreams live here with me in the present, making certain hours more tolerable, giving life its ardor and that color is a door into the netherworld of now and then and what will come. I am thinking once again of the crows tick, tick, ticking across the sky—they scatter, retreat and then bind together again. As in memory, as in dreams, we are drawn in and pushed out—we too wax and wane—black specs against the white sky, twirling, twirling.

Happy Stick Season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Breaking Free: Trisha Denton's Orkestrika's Box

Orkestrika in her music box.

This Sunday I attended one of the six performances of Orkestriska’s Box at the Black Box Theatre in Burlington. Trisha’s Denton creation lasts just one hour: her silent actors move to an original score by local musician Randal Pierce, while the music box dancer Orketriska looks on from a human-scale music box, a box which protects her from aging and from the elements, a box in which she performs the same routine day after day. The story is mythical in its simple charm and while the story drives the plot of this short tale, the magic of the work arrives from such details as the stop-motion animation depicting the dancer’s nightly dreams, the exquisite lighting, playful costumes, the soft and steady voice of Denton narrating Orketriska’s daily routine… wake, oil and perfume, house cleaning, stretching, scales….and then, tired, she sits to watch out her window.

The pitch-perfect acting of each scene offered a cabaret-like playfulness: the experience of listening to the music and watching the silent acting engages—I think—a different part of the mind and body. When we stop relying on the language of dialogue or narration, of the voice, we listen from a different place; perhaps a more magical, through the looking glass, sort of place, a place where one becomes engaged as more than witness or watcher (the eye of the gaze).
the actors of the world with Ork watching from her box

This is perhaps what I found most interesting post performance (because I was fully engaged for that one enchanted hour). For years people have been playing around with the idea of theater that engages the audience, that breaks the, I believe it’s called fourth wall. I find such attempts to engage the audience slightly trivial in that they mostly come from a noncommittal place—here, folks, get involved, they offer but the audience is never prepared for this or really actually able to engage and as quickly as the wall drops, it is replaced and we return to passive watcher. And, by the way, I’m fine with passive watcher. I realize that during movies I am identifying with characters and living vicariously through them. But, as a grown up, or maybe as an artist, I think of story more in terms of how I can steal it for my own art or reject it so as to render it not my competition.

Art like Orkestrika’s Box in Burlington, I wrote to Denton, makes me feel like I am right where I’m supposed to be in the world. At times, I admit, living in this smallish-town, I feel like I am made to watch one big fish in a little pond after the next, tossing off performances and art that lacks heart and risks nothing. But when I am given a gift such as Orkestrika’s Box, I am again reminded of the wealth of talent in my community along with the possibilities and potential that exists here for all of us.

 I am also reminded of how hard we must work to manifest those delicate dreams that come to us ever so slightly in the wee hours or odd gardens, here and there we catch a glimpse of our muse… but to harness our visions we, as Denton well knows, must expose ourselves, must risk the elements, must eat heartily of the table of creation, and work our mother-fucking asses off… that we might break down the walls of our safe and static beauty and create.
Stay tuned.... I am currently in the process of interviewing Trish Denton about this performance and her work as an artist.
Orkestrika breaking free

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rejected: A toast to rejection just in time for Thanksgiving

OK, I confess, I have been sending essays out for publication in literary journals. It’s not like a big confession. It’s a little confession or a let me get this off my chest confession. But obviously, writers send their work out. Every writer knows this is a daunting affair. I tell other writers all the time that The Help was reject 60 times before it was picked-up, published and eventually made into a major motion picture that grossed oodles of moola. I like this fact, but not because someone is going to publish my great American essay and I’ll break the bank. I just like to remember that rejection happens on every level in publishing and that as a writer I absolutely must stay dedicated to the work, the joy of the give and take, the push and pull, the struggle and elation of writing.


I go up and down on a weekly basis. This is not a disorder, I’ve learned—just a normal part of life, especially for a writer or someone who is hyper-conscious of avoiding activities that numb and nullify. I allow myself a night or two occasionally to roll around in the mud of self-obsessed self-hatred and abuse. I tell myself mean things from time to time, such as, “Oh, why don’t you just give up. You’re such a loser.” While such thoughts are passing fodder for the better days when I’m more on top of my game, my husband recently toasted at my birthday party, “Look around the room (pregnant pause). Emily sometimes thinks she doesn’t have any friends…but look at all of you…” I quit listening at that point because I had to focus on maintaining a smile rather than tackling him to the ground and shoving the last of the Chevre cheese down his lactose intolerant throat.  I can’t bear such exposure, even among the most intimate of friends. Though, I can, after the fact, revel in the humor of self-obsession, sort-of. My husband means well and has no problem with other people reading his intimate journals, even the ones from grad school when he was a total wack-o or the ones from when he first met me and fell-obsessed. He avoids humiliation by having no secrets, nothing to hide, and feeling no shame. I guess we could say, Yeah for you! You accept yourself, but he has his doubts just like the rest of us.


What I have learned from him, however, is that getting my fears out in the open, confessing my weaknesses to others, laughing at my fool heartedness, helps me feel OK and I think it helps others feel better too, because they can (mostly) relate to the quirks of my human condition (oxymoron).


As I was saying, I’ve been sending these hideous things out, begging literary journals to publish me and getting a few rejection emails in return. My frien Sarah Braud texted me back this morning to say I could expect 50 rejections to 1 publication. So, I’m keeping track. Right now, my post-graduate school count is at 10 rejections and 1 acceptance, with 8 pending. My goal is to write a post for every rejection (or acceptance) letter I receive and submit at least 50 times this year (also, not randomly submit everywhere, but in a well-researched  fashion, submit places where I think my work fits, etc.) I’m hoping this will help me to 1. Send out more work and 2. Keep up with my blog.


Posts your thoughts on rejection here…pretty please!

Love and Kisses,


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Trees of Yemen

from Orion

When I come across the photos of the trees in the journal, I hesitate, uncertain they are real. But the trees of the archipelago off the coast of Yemen in the Arabian Sea are real. Dragon’s blood trees, the photographer writes in Orion magazine. Trees with thick numerous branches growing in a mushroom cloud cluster. What is it about them that catches me? That I did not know such trees existed? That I remembered something of the world beyond the immediacy of my daily life with the baby? Life would exist again—somewhere, some day—in a place of quiet, hard-won contemplation. Life existed, vast and unrecognizable in the Haghier Mountains of the Island of Socrata.  

We drive down North Avenue to a friend’s barbeque and my husband asks me what’s wrong. I say, Nothing’s wrong, but I want to see the trees in Yemen.

On Saturday morning we drink coffee together in the living room while the baby plays on the floor. I hold the magazine in my hands, looking at the trees. Looking at the black and white photo I notice that upside-down, the branches of the tree look like shallow roots in the ground.

Finally, weeks later, I cut the picture of one tree out of the magazine and tack it to the bulletin board above my desk. In truth, I lugged the bulletin board out of storage so that I could tack the cut out picture to it. I will not remember the trees of Socrata three or five years from now, nor will I ever go to the island of Socrata.

I want to be honest. Many women write about the experience of having children. Many women artists and writers write about the experience of becoming a mother. I have read many an account and I know the theories of various incarnations of feminism on motherhood. I know too how quickly he will grow-up and it fills me with longing already. The kindness I afford my own mother-in-law comes partially from my fear of losing my son to another woman. But, it is painfully, painfully hard to be with my beloved baby boy all day; to nurse him through the night; to hold him all morning when he has a cold or is learning a new skill and needs to be coddled. I will not let him cry-it-out, it just isn’t in my nature. At the day’s end I feel as though I’ve run a marathon on speed with a hangover, all while speaking in the kindest, softest possible voice. When I explode on my husband it isn’t in response to anything he has done or said, rather it is me responding to the conversations I’ve been having with him in my head all afternoon.

In the spare hours of my week, I don’t want to be writing about this life. I want to write about the former lives, the former selves, the other-Me(s) that someday soon will return in their dubious forms. I run from the baby and my husband today, into the library and only leave my seat to gulp down the most delicious teeny-weenie cup of French pressed coffee and miniature salted caramel cupcake (how glorious!). I pour over the final essay in a deeply intellectual book that took me months to read. I look absent-mindedly at the sky only to note that the clouds are awash, borderless and fleshed out.

I yearn to see the trees of Yemen because traveling filled my soul, because being away from where I live in the world, fills me with awe and wonder. Don’t think I am not brimming with gratitude for this life, the small life I have carved out here in Vermont and for small bits of time in Minnesota. My gratitude sometimes brings me to my knees. But I am trying always to understand where I want to be, where I ought to be and I have come to understand these days that parts of me live on in other places. This, I owe to Andre Aciman andhis essays in Alibis.

I sense that a part of me has lived for nearly twelve years in Paris where I returned three times as a young girl traveling in Europe. I know that this girl lives alone in a small flat with a tiny balcony which affords a distant view of the Eiffel Tower. She lingers over glasses of wine, and spends entire days forgetting to speak out loud. She has taught a class on the works of James Baldwin for years.

Another Me lives beside the Pacific Ocean, walks the bluffs at sundown, climbs the redwoods in the name of science and mystery. Still another has never left Perch Lake, Minnesota. She lives on Perch Lake Road, a few cabins down from her sister. The two of them walk trails through the woods, stand for long minutes over the tomato garden, and contemplate getting chickens. The three of them sit beside the lake playing cards, the four, eat fresh bread from the stone hearth oven of my sister's husband, the baker. The five of them (I have four sisters) talk late into the night under the thick band of the Milky Way. Later, they swim out to float on their backs under the stars, their laughter echoes across the lake towards home.

I could go on.

I want to be honest. I find life without solitude, without time to reflect, to recollect and recreate that life, again and again and again, painful. If I long to return home to Minnesota, I long to return to a (perhaps) imaginary place where sisters and parents can take care of my son with me; I hope too for a Vermont where I might come to rely on the help of other parents and friends.  But I find it difficult to ask my friends--who themselves have precious few spare hours in their own days-- to watch my son for free.

I feel a deep sense of sorrow, of wonder, of awe, and of course, resentment towards motherhood. I feel alone even though I speak to Mamas with babies at least weekly if not daily. I feel isolated and disconnected from myself, the self that needs to long, that lives in the partial cusp of nostalgia for other worlds, other selves.

Last night I fell asleep on the couch. I dreamed something hollow and aching. I felt the slip of my body, alone, without a quilt, curling inward, away. I awoke to the startled cry of the baby at half past midnight.

For the tiny moment between the couch and the bed I felt again the singleness of my form, I felt not two, but one. Slowly, the body returns. The mind rebels. The heart leaps forth, savage and fearless, brimming.

There is yet another Me. She lives in the warm fog of afterbirth where—for the first time—she hears the mourning doves sing at her window. She longs for nothing. Sleep only comes like an avalanche, forceful, unrepentant. Her hand lies across the tiny body of her babe. His heart beats anew, no longer in the echo chambers of her womb. No longer side-by-side with her own.  There is nothing but the wet snow of February, the doves, and this child, and she cannot believe she will ever want anything else.


Friday, September 14, 2012

At Home With King Baby

Anything that will keep him busy for even two minutes is worth the world today. Though, when I snuggle him against my neck and smell his baby smell, and when I make a buzz buzz noise in his ear that tickles him and he laughs, I am again happy again in my role as personal entertainer, nurse-maid mother to King Baby.

Things in the room: Kermit puppet that Josh has had for countless years and uses to entertain children; red quilt made by my auntie for our wedding; meditating mama doll made by Wylie Sophia Garcia for Mama; blue Mickey Western chair; Taggie made by Hillary in Hilo; blue quilt made by my other auntie for our wedding; Steven King novel; Roger Bear; Mr. Moses Cavallo and his pet monkey.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Dog Days Are (Almost) Over

Each of us leaves one by one, my husband, my siblings, my son and I. In the end, my parents’ home will be empty of children for the first time in almost 33 years.

August is the month of dog days. Days so hot and humid that we give up trying to accomplish anything and sit with our feet in the water at the beach, our lawn chairs filled with tanned limbs, our broad hats tugged low, and our hands clutching the last summer novel or collection of stories or perhaps an old friend you’ve read a dozen times.  August should (yes I’m saying “should”) be spent at the beach or on the deck or patio or porch, in the backyard under the apple tree, and perhaps midmornings in the garden picking lush tomatoes or string beans, digging out potatoes for a cold dinner salad.  

Yesterday. My sister (eleven days past due) and I (with Mosey in his pack) walk through the planted rows of red pine forest. The sun lustrous, the clouds bulbous but scanty. Blue emanates, unites, then undoes me. I’m worn just a little around the edges, but Hannah’s frayed as a woman ought to be in waiting for her sweet babe to arrive. Hannah tells me she has renewed strength, I nod. I can hear it in her voice. She is vibrant, glowing, and ready. We cut off the path and tromp a ways into the forest. The two dogs scamper ahead of us, ducking in and out of the brush, darting in front of us, pleased with themselves. We stop, backtrack a ways, then start down another trail. We walk into the rows of pines where the moss grows thick and keeps away the brush and I stand there a minute thinking of the old fort we built together as girls in the boggy forest by the pond. I recall us trudging out there in winter to lay brush against our teepee fort—a wonderland of pine and fresh snow.

Days wander and I watch Hannah and my sisters and brother play round after round of cribbage to pass the time. My brother leaves for college in two days, perhaps now he won’t meet the new baby, the third born to our family this year. We walk along the trail in the forest nearly every day. We walk and walk and walk. Uncle Joe drives by when we're walking the road and waves, he calls to us, “you’re going to wear the road out!” and perhaps we would but it’s already pretty worn. We used to walk this road ten or so years ago; all summer we left after dark and traversed its long and narrow way. We talked about what we would do someday, who we’d become, and how. The stars cut through the sky above us; always midway in we’d grow amazed at the vast distance of the universe. It seemed like the future lay ahead of us, boundless and immeasurable, a thing to be obtained, to hold and to have; not water running through my fingers, not time dissolving like stars shooting—you blink, you blink.

The baby is bundled in primordial goo, its head pointing south, legs kicking. We walk our way out of the forest, past the berry patches, and turn towards home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Pickers: On running, berry picking, and losing an old friend

"It is the sea's reach and retreat that reminds me that we have been human for only a very short time." Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

From Mountain House Studios

I am thinking of my cruel heart when I pass the berry pickers on the road.

Running, I search the field for them and only catch a glimpse of bodies crouched low in the brush. Sometimes I want to close the door on something, someone...to shore against the chaos, to not have to think of or feel the sadness of loss. I don't lead a sad life. Little occurs here in the woods. I've jogged past tall pines on a forest path. Pines planted a long time ago, older than me, perhaps than my parents--their trunks reaching three stories before branching out. I love the feel of sweat over my forehead as my feet hit the sandy path. I don't exactly like running, yet I do. I like the power of it; I like the feel of my body in motion. And maybe, just a little, I like pushing through the pain. My thoughts collect there. Underfoot.

The pickers are a special people. They know the right picking weather; they have their spots. Some cultivate their own patches. They go in secret. Return filled with the joy of the scavenger.

The sky at night as I float on my back in the lake reminds me of insurmountable distances--lifetimes cast ashore, one's memories of childhood, the richness of God. Forgiveness. But I am just now learning to lose my old friend again. Just now, giving-up. It feels like a turning away from the sky...a silence like an open wound, and an emptying of blue.

Blue turns to red in the air, a warning aginst loss. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

10 Notes on the Meditative Essay

Vermont Summer

During my last VCFA workshop, Robert Vivian often sat in front of the window. Framed by the purplish hue of the waning winter afternoon, he quoted other writers as though inviting them into our discussions. He has a way of honoring the writing of a student by asking sincere questions of the work without agenda and with an open curiosity typical of his humble nature as a writer. Patrick Madden has always felt like an old friend to me.  Dressed in sporty shirts and slacks, he seems too young to be the father of six children. He asks the hard questions because I think he wants to push his students beyond the comfortable limits they’ve set for themselves. Pat has a special dedication to the history of the essay but is also a student of its current forms.
Eight months pregnant, I relished this workshop because both Pat and Bob approach the essay with due reverence for its vital need to lay bare the soul of its writer. The essay is a place where we meet our reader with more than courage, but with an enduring trust in her humanity. As Vivian writes in “The Essay as an Open Field,” “(T)he best essays function as places of intimate encounter as we get to know the “I,” the writer at a very deep level even as we come to a better understanding of ourselves.” Rereading my notes from their workshop on the meditative essay, I realized I’d jotted down a number of quotations that offer particular insight on the subject. Here is my top ten list:

10. “The meditative essay is a piece that allows us to think along with the author.”

9. “I like boring essay titles. There is a tradition of boring essay titles that start with ‘On’… such as On Lying in Bed, On Laziness, On Chasing After One’s Hat. Patrick Madden

8. “Perhaps the meditative essay is about observing or noticing more than it’s about ideas.”

7. “Loss becomes a form of longing.”  

6. “I’m not sure thinkers can experience awe.” Robert Vivian

5. “Begin by realizing that the world is in you, not you in the world.”

4. “The consciousness that said ‘I think’ is not the consciousness that said ‘I am’.” Sartre

3. “Start with something humble and small and see where it will take you.”

2. “People experience sacramental moments—moments that remain with us our whole lives.” Czeslaw Milosz

1. “Distance is the soul of beauty.” Simone Weil

For more on the meditative essay, see Robert Vivian's "Thoughts On the Meditative Essay"
An incredible library of essays can be found at Quotidana, Pat Madden's website

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Estimations: Between Now and the End of Summer

Household of 7 plus 1 baby

0: The number of dollars I’ll earn this summer

7: The collective average number of hours spent online per day

2: The average number of hours I’ll spend writing per day

3: The number of shots Moses will get this summer

15: The number of times I’ll question the risks of immunizing him but ultimately decide it’s the best choice

9: The number of household magazine subscriptions

12: The collective average number of cups of tea or coffee consumed per day

37: The number of saunas I’ll take at dusk

10: The number of times I’ll float on my back in the lake after sweating in the sauna, and look at the stars coming out and remember a line from a book by Terry Tempest Williams: City lights are a conspiracy against higher thought

34: The average number of hours Josh will spend working at Do It Best Hardware per week, located in the basement of the family drugstore

5: The number of Casey generations that have run the family drugstore in Chisholm, MN, Casey Drug

45: The number of times I’ll wash other peoples dishes as long as the dish washer remains broken

60: The number of hours planned to spend preparing for teaching a class at CCV

62: The collective average number of miles run per week

77: The average daily temperature in degrees Fahrenheit  

150: The number of times Moses will wake-up at night and want to nurse or be comforted

250: The number of bug bites I’ll get

300: The number of photographs we’ll take of Moses

350: The number in dollars spent in a week on food for 7 plus people

500: The number of times Moses will roll from his back to belly and decide he doesn’t like being on his belly but is unable to roll back

1000: The number of times I’ll think about how fast my son is growing up

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Small Lives -- A brief history of home

Minnesota, photo by Josh Martin

Northern Michigan opens like the gates to the kingdom of my Northern Minnesota childhood. This summer we drive with Moses in his car seat in the back. He is not so happy. Josh and I take turns sitting with him, making faces and cooing at him, playing little games until he falls to sleep. We head north out of Ann Arbor after a quick but much needed visit with my oldest friend, Jenny, and her husband, Cole. I watch for Rosscommon County, the county where the trees begin to turn coniferous and the humidity recedes. I also know that a former writing professor of mine, whom I admire greatly, keeps a cabin in Rosscommon County. I like to imagine him there, writing his beautiful essays in between working on novels. He is a kind and quiet man that most everyone adores, perhaps for his humility and self-deprecation as much as for his brilliant writing—humility and self-deprecating humor, being the inborn traits of most Midwesterners.

We cross the Mackinac Bridge with little fanfare this year and head toward the boondocks of Northern Wisconsin on Hwy 2. All along this highway we pass shabby houses, sometimes with neat lawns and gardens; we pass gas stations and the occasional cluster of bars; we glimpse the lake, magic and blue. I spend half my time wondering where the people in these houses buy groceries, work, go to school, socialize? I feel like we are in the middle of nowhere and my imagination gets the better of me. This is the third year we’ve driven out to Minnesota from Vermont to spend part of the summer with my family. I have a feeling that each year the same conversations will transpire: It’s weird here. Where do these people go? What do they do?

Josh, in his best red-neck Vermont accent: Hard tellin’ not knowin’.

I sigh. He is never interested in imagining other people’s lives in as much detail as I prefer. I had a friend who worked as a house cleaner; this seemed the ideal job for me and my fantasy world. I tried it but I wasn’t cut out for the unstructured nature of the work. I forgot to clean the main thing the guy wanted cleaning. I cleaned like I was cleaning my own home, arranging the plants and knickknacks for my eye, fascinated by the disaster of the master bedroom, that anyone could live in such sloth. I like to imagine fully the intricacies of others’ lives and I suppose this is why I like writing stories, but it’s also why I like having girlfriends.

We pass an old man riding a lawn mower. We pass the lake with the water that looks to be moving. Ashland, WI is considered a hip town. I once went to a Brandi Carlyle concert there. The college town of Marquette has a co-op where last year, pregnant, I bought organic fruit for a small fortune.

Along Hwy 2, I envision the inside of the small and lonely houses we pass. I imagine shelves of porcelain figurines, spoon collections, old lazy-boys with doilies on the arm cushions and grease stains where heads rests. My grandfather spent the last few years of his life in a blue lazy-boy, smoking cigarettes, drinking cans of beer, the television on all night. After we arrive in Minnesota, I return to my grandparents’ home, now empty. My aunt and mother are having a sale to get rid of the last objects that once occupied my grandparents’ lives. I run my hand along the oak dresser (a treasure) selling for $200 (a steal). I remember where the dresser stood in my grandma’s bedroom and I remember opening the first drawer to search for packs of pink chewing gum. I walk down the hallway upstairs and wonder how they once fit a book case in such a narrow space. On the back porch a pile of memorabilia Mom is sending to her brothers: I ask her if I can take the slides and try to get them transferred into DVDs. She says I can.

Objects have always possessed a life of their own for me and lately I’ve noticed essays and books on the subject: The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel, for example. Another teacher of mine wrote that the objects in our home reflect our interior, psychological space. I try to remember the way my grandma’s house looked after Grandpa died, before my aunt moved in. Often I can feel the brown marble colored carpet under my hand; I know the way my finger traced the inroads of that carpet as a child. I can smell the scent of the glass in the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, and see the snow-covered streets of Christmas. From here, I am with my father in that room, standing before a new easel I just received for Christmas. “Daddy, you draw,” I say. But he giggles and tells me that he can’t draw; I’m the drawer in the family. This old house is filled with multiple lifetimes just for me.
My mother's parents, Ray and Betty

This house was beautiful to me as a child. Now, walking through it, I doubt it’ll sell for the meager 68K it’s been priced at for two years. The rooms seem awkward and small, the hallway narrow, the bathroom, barely usable. At a certain point in my life, the house became an ugly, repulsive thing. I could no longer eat there because of the constant cigarette smoke, the dirty floors, the sticky counter tops, the mugs that were never quite clean. My grandma was getting old, she couldn’t keep up the house and even with my aunt there to help her, the place remained perpetually unkempt.

As I’ve grown older my mother’s family has become less and less a thing of comfort. Year by year the cracks, the soot, the ugliness, the irreparable brokenness of this family has made itself known to me. We’re not without our redeeming qualities, but sometimes I feel like that part of my family might better off exist in the reliquary of nostalgia in my mind: relics of a former life where poverty, disease, and self-destruction still lay dormant within. True of all families, every child who reaches adulthood begins to see realities they might have rather ignored. This first began for me in college when after a Thanksgiving dinner with my father’s family, I returned to my Minneapolis apartment only to feel a pervasive sense of distance between myself and my family. I remember calling my mother crying, inconsolable. She tried to figure out what was wrong with me but I couldn’t really articulate a feeling akin only to some creepy post-modern play in which noise is the culprit signifier of the true disconnection we feel as human beings, even and sometimes especially, with our families.
Moses at the beach, photo by Josh Martin

We stop at a beach in the UP, lured by the yellow sands and cool-blue waters that stretch to the horizon. I carry the baby down to the beach and lay him on the blanket to nurse. Josh braves the frigid waters which haven’t yet warmed-up, mid-June. I half want to follow him in but the idea of finding my swimsuit or rather the yoga gear I’m using for a swimsuit deters me. For a few minutes we try to battle the sandflies, but they get the better of me and I insist we return to the car where I finishing nursing Moses and then he plays on a pillow on my lap for a bit. Then it’s back on the road to burn through the UP under a broiling sun and blue skies, passing craggy pine forests.

As soon as we arrive in Minnesota Moses learns to roll over. He rolls from back to belly and gets stuck there. He dislikes flopping around on his belly and cries, so I flip him back, but his urge to roll overpowers him and he swings his legs up and throws his arm down and turns again. I let him grunt a while on his belly until it turns into a soft humming cry, then when I pick him up he wails. I comfort him as best I can, knowing that my voice and my touch are the best medicine I can offer. Along with this new passion for rolling, Moses begins teething. His first tooth cuts a week after we arrive. It all seems a fitting part of our transition to extended family life and a good way for him to keep me close. Babies are smart like that.

My grandma’s house on Third Avenue is painted a dull butter-yellow, with brown window trim. My aunt moved in about ten years ago after her divorce when she was going back to school. She took care of Grandma for a number of years during the time my grandma’s health was on the decline. Slowly, the house began to change along with my grandmother. The mirror over the mantle and the mirror in the stairwell were removed—I spent my whole adolescence into young adulthood, walking down the stairs, getting a foot by foot glimpse of myself in that stairwell mirror. It no longer felt like my grandma’s house when I walked down the stairs. My grandma’s bedroom became the room at the top of the stairs, the room where I used to sleep when I visited. She had a tiny TV in there but no chair for us to sit on when we came to visit her. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to her. She had quit smoking by then. I guess she eventually forgot that she smoked, and my aunt told her she had quit. Furniture was rearranged; new objects replaced the old steady objects that had been there for years. The carpets were torn out and the wood floors refinished. After my grandma passed away when the house became my aunt’s, she painted the walls wild colors that Grandma would have said looked like either a “gull bladder attack” or an “upset stomach.” I am comforted by these thoughts as I walk through the red-walled living room, into the kitchen with the pea-green cabinets. My grandmother’s coffee mug collection distributed amongst her offspring, lost.
My mother and her siblings: Mom, Kris, Dick, and Bob

I know my mother and aunt have similar nostalgia about the house. But my mother’s irritation with having to pay the second mortgage on it and keep up the place has made her want to be rid of it. No one wants to buy this house. No one wants to take on the project of it. There are too many houses like it in the town, and enough homes on the market that don’t need extensive remodeling and new heating systems, to make this old house almost worthless. And yet, in memory, it exists for many people (aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings) as a library of personal histories, a relic of time, a museum of nostalgia.

I imagine my grandparents, a school teacher and a nurse, buying the house on a corner lot with pride. I imagine my mother hiding in the upstairs bedroom while her hippy-brother threw a party, a butter knife stuck in the crack of the door to keep it locked. I remember running up the stairs the day my first sister, Hannah, was born. I remember sitting in the living room, the sheer curtain always drawn, holding my second sister, Alida, the day she came home from the hospital. I remember my grandfather sitting at the head of the kitchen table correcting Civics papers with a two-sided blue and red ink pen, and the pencil jar that was an old tin can covered in parchment paper that sat on top of the fridge. I remember the smell of my grandma’s caramel rolls in the morning and the taste of iced tea on hot summer afternoons.
my aunt and grandfather

Cancer kills us all, Josh says. That’s just what we die of now.

I don’t want to die. Death anguishes me. Josh says I have a disorder because I’m so bothered by death. He does not think of death; he calls death a new beginning.

I inherited my fear of death. My father fears death and disease, I think in part because as a pharmacist he sees so much of it. The nature of cancer terrifies us—its unpredictable course: will it return? Will it go away? Quickly or slowly? My aunt has terminal cancer. We have not known what course it will take, but so far, while it has ravished her life, she is able to live with it. She tells my mother that she doesn’t want to be known as a cancer patient, doesn’t want to attend support groups for cancer survivors. But she is a warrior everyday battling the pain, facing death. She doesn’t know when it will take her; she just knows that it will eventually. I don’t understand what it’s like for her to live this way. How could I? She has always been my second mother. I see her at the Moving Sale at Grandma’s house. Her hair is short and gray and her face has curled into the face of history, of time, and of her ancestors. She doesn’t look old, she looks young for gray hair, it’s more that in that face I can read things—lines like the inroads of the old carpet I played on, weaving story in and out. Our faces map us, they tell the stories we ourselves refuse to speak. I see pain in her face, and betrayal. I see determination too, and hope.

I lay close to my son as he falls asleep. I wrap my body around him like a shell. He breathes into me; it is my body—his former home—that comforts him. I watch him sleep. As his mother, I find him alarmingly beautiful. The lines of his face have a pleasure to them, and when I wake some mornings and see him sleeping beside me, curled into me with one little hand outstretched to rest on my arm, it’s a gift all over again. The physical work of caring for a child overwhelms the mind: it shuts down, it forces presence of being. My mother sits with Moses while he rolls over again and again. Cries until she picks him up and places him on his back again and then immediately rolls over. It’s exhausting just to watch him do it. But I marvel at his determination, unconnected to his mind, his body needs and longs to move in this way. His body knows that the more time spent on his stomach the easier this position becomes for him.

We all lead small lives in one way or another. Beauty or grandeur can mask this fact, but when I understand both the smallness and enormity of life I am most content. Grandma’s house is nearly empty now. My aunt has moved into her new apartment. Moses is asleep for the moment and I’m free to imagine the lives of those who live along Hwy 2 as beautiful or as small or as gracious as my mind will allow. We fly home in August. Josh will drive back two weeks before us and he’ll pass those houses and maybe if he’s lucky he’ll see the old man on the riding mower tending his square patch of lawn. But he won’t think much of it.  Poverty or hardship won’t make him think of death, as he zips by those little lawns and porches with the hanging baskets of dead flowers. He’ll be on his way home, back to his childhood with all its nostalgia and presence, its perseverance and impermanence.