Rain

On this #ThrowbackThursday, I’m thinking about my friends in Sioux Falls as news of the city’s coronavirus hot spot continues to highlight the problems that led to it. I’m broken-hearted for the people who work at Smithfield and their loved ones; i’m sad to see a city I love in such a position. This essay is from 2010, when I moved back to Sioux Falls from Chicago.

Beginning, again

Here I am once again, standing on the cusp of tomorrow.

Above me, the sky is full and dark, a charcoal wash smeared across a canvas. Hints of violet and eggplant blossom in the varying shades of dark, and if I let myself believe it, I think I could reach out and poke that fluffy moisture.

I have seen great mists blow in above the Mediterranean, storms that dazzle the coast with plum and ivory and gold.

I have danced with heavy drops in Chicago, downpours choked with smog and ozone and jazz in complex layers.

And now, I am back in South Dakota. I am glad to be here, but I wonder how it is that I’ve arrived to this place again, and what it is I’m doing. I came back because to some extent I do know what I’m doing—I’m trying to focus on my writing in this city that balances the rural and the urban—but I want answers and reassurance. This morning, however, the sky maintains its distance, and so far, I it offers nothing. I too am equally reserved, because this time, I want to be patient.  I want to find some self-restraint and take advantage of second chances.

***

Patience, I’ve heard, is one of life’s great virtues. It is the “companion of wisdom,” according to Saint Augustine, one of love’s great qualities; it is the ability, according to the dictionary, “to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” It is also one of the finer traits missing from my personality. My privileged upbringing did nothing to foster this quality within me, and sometimes I wish my parents would have been more disciplined with me, made me wait for things or work harder to get them. Today, when I bite my lip or tap a foot to silently pass the time between recognizing and obtaining something I desire, I remind myself that I am no longer a child. That I can’t always have my way has been a hard lesson to learn as an adult, but I am always trying to develop and grow. I have learned I cannot move forward if I don’t acknowledge a problem at all. So in my adult decisions, I work to build my tolerance for flaws and setbacks and ambiguity in situations and in people, myself included. And as eager as I am to establish myself as a writer, I’m trying to develop some persistence as I develop my prose.

***

I moved back to Sioux Falls two weeks ago, eager to set up a routine for my life and my writing, now that I’d gotten away from my desire to live at the bar. I’ve been holed up in my apartment since I moved back though, so company is always refreshing. I’d tried to establish order in my writing schedule when I left Chicago for Nebraska six months ago, but cloistered out on the farm, I was desperate for communion with others.

The writer Anais Nin said that her subject matter came not while seated at her desk, but while she was out in the world, living. This I understand. The social aspect of city life and the cosmopolitan culture I love are non-existent where I grew up, and this affects my writing. In Nebraska I can hunker down and immerse myself in the natural world in a way I couldn’t do in Chicago, but my mind grows restless without the challenge of other creative individuals. I need silly conversations, heated debates; most of all I need people who understand what it’s like to call oneself an artist. I need people who understand that like life, this too, is a process, that through art, we can both find and lose our selves.

Here, even though Sioux Falls is about one-fifth the size of Chicago, with 187,000 residents making up South Dakota’s largest city, I can find an appreciation for the slow pace of rural life because it is tempered by the energy of the city. There are poetry readings, a writer’s group, and other creative individuals here. As long as I don’t get hung up on everything that is missing, I tell myself, or fall into distracting ventures, it really is the perfect place to live and focus on my art. Yes, in my craft, too, I realize, I need more patience.

I realized that Sioux Falls really did have what I wanted—a community of friends and reasonably priced expenses for anything worth doing. It offered me the kind of life I could afford to live while trying to make good on all my plans. But in spite of this recognition, I wouldn’t be able to leave Chicago for another couple of years. With the wisdom of more time and the ability to reflect on my actions, at twenty-seven I recognize that my planning and my desire to know what’s coming sometimes eats away at my ability to be patient, to enjoy the moment.

Shaped by the land

Coming back to an appreciation of the outdoors, not just as place, but as neighbor. Here in Sioux Falls the prairie hugs up close to the pavement, and we are urban, but somehow, still wild. A spread of patchwork fields lines both sides of Interstate 90, and livestock discussions are as common as those regarding Sex in the City. There is a toughness of spirit in the minds and actions of the men and women who live here in the Midwest, and even little kids can be tough as crimped wire and sharper than the barbs upon it.

Once, when she was seven, my niece Katie shut her hand in the heavy, gray door of her father’s combine. The latching mechanism caught, holding Katie captive. She worked at the lever to release herself, she told us later, but when her brother Matt found her, she was still pinned at the fingers between combine frame and door. Without the use of her whole body to pull the lever open, she had to wait until Matt heard her holler and could free her. For days, Katie’s fingers were puffed up and purple, ridged like the edges of a lasagna noodle, yet she maintained her stance that using the hand didn’t bother her. Growing up and living in the rural Midwest instills a sense of determination, a sense of possibility in knowing that when things are rough, this too, shall pass.

***

Winters here are irritating, like dank, wet mittens, and by April, South Dakotans are eager for exploration and possibility. This is, I think, what I am after.

***

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” sang Janet Jackson in 1997, twenty-three years after Joni Mitchell lamented the loss of natural habitats in Hawaii. While Jackson turned Mitchell’s observation into a cry of longing for a former lover, today I make no distinction between the kind of bittersweet feelings one might have after losing either place or person. A hasty loss of place or person can haunt anyone.

When my mother and I visit Colombia, where she was born, I sense a combination of familiarity and panic exuding from her. Her country has changed so much since she left it, and while this is good news, it must be terribly disorienting. Sioux Falls has changed for me too, but I still know my way around and I still find that the love I had for this place still wells up in me at random moments. Especially when I’m downtown.

Downtown Sioux Falls is the Phillips Avenue Diner, Smoe’s Bar and the independent bookstores I’ve come to love. Downtown is the mist of the Big Sioux River and the John Morrell Processing Plant; it’s the smell of charbroiled pigs and unwashed bodies. Downtown is old men wrinkling up the library steps like cracks in a stone façade, their tired, slurred language a reminder of the problems all cities have in common.

“Hey, girl, you got a quarter? I’m hungry—wanna get some coffee.”

Downtown is Sioux Quartzite streets and rehab clinics; it is art galleries and Gothic architecture. I used to love walking down Phillips Avenue, the main artery of those cobbled blocks, when I was in college at Augustana. The cozy streets and small shops felt metropolitan and cultured. I know now what my friends who grew up here refer to when they talk about wanting “real culture,” because I’ve lived in other cities since I met them. But Sioux Falls was my first adult, urban love, the first city that drew me in and schooled me in what it means to leave behind a predetermined home and family and create these things out of nothing.

I think about this a lot when I’m with my friends here. Growing up, I thought that my childhood was normal: a mom, a dad, some fights, and some flared tempers. I didn’t realize until I moved away from my rural home that my childhood was idyllic, that most people don’t have what I did. I think about my friends who have cobbled together families out of bar friends and fellow students, how co-workers and running partners might often mean more to someone than her own brother.

Because I’ve left my family and my hometown, I’ve had to set up make-shift families wherever I go. In Chicago it was Biz and Sheila, Mary and Emily, Wes and Callie and Eric. As much as this works for me, over the past nine years I’ve realized that I’ve learned how easy it is to give up and walk away. Thus far I’ve been too selfish and ambitious to deal with imperfections in others, and too scattered to settle for any one thing—so I’ve been okay with the emptiness of this nomadic lifestyle. It made sense while I was completing college and moving around the country, but now that I’m back in Sioux Falls, I want to settle down. I want intimacy and love.

Committing

Settle down? A husband and babies? You?

My friends look amused when I tell them this, but I don’t exactly mean babies. I don’t know if I mean a husband. what I mean is I want to settle down into something meaningful, so I can develop a relationship with my work. I want to develop an eye for my stories and a voice that expresses the energy and emotion of my ideas.

I want to be dedicated to something.

For the first time since my undergrad years I feel as if I know what I am doing—at least in the sense that I am acting with intention—and I want to focus on that and establish a career before I sidetrack myself with wedding vows and bedtime stories. I want to be part of something that transcends my existence. I guess I want to belong. But what does it mean, to belong? What becomes of those we cut off who have no understanding of the how and why behind our wants? What happens to those we force out, into other places? What happens when people can no longer share the spaces they love and jealously cherish?

This question of belonging and displacement is one the United States has been dealing with—or not—for centuries, especially here in South Dakota, although I saw it uniquely flavored in other ways, in the D.C. or Chicago housing projects. What happens when we force others out and take over? What happens when we can no longer be in our home places? I think of all the homeless people I hurried past in Chicago, and I wonder if they too, were once as lost as I’ve been, but with fewer resources and memories of comfort to return to. In all reality, that’s why I left Chicago for Nebraska, then Sioux Falls. I wanted the sense of comfort I had in writing and in people and places I’d known before.

Return

“The literature of illumination reveals this above all,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”

It’s taken me four years to get back here, and when I think about how the stars have been up there, glowing and burning out for that entire time, I want to be more patient. I want to make things happen, but I’m learning that I can’t force them. I can’t force words or actions any more than I can force the sky to hang onto the rain, or to spill its stars.

***

It is 4 a.m, a warm, June morning.

Across from me, a friend lights a cigarette and his face is made sharp and shadowed by the red spark as it shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows. The light falls on his face in eerie patterns, a man-made optic trick that silences me. This illusion cast on a human face wonder if I’m being delusional in my own way, finding meaning—or worse, creating it—where there is none. Is South Dakota the answer? Do I see what’s really in front of me, as it is, or as I want it to be?

I sit in the draft of smoke, smelling carbon and sulfur for a couple of minutes, maybe longer.Then my friend becomes human, leaves his shadow.

“Mars,” he says, calling me. “Come over here for a minute. Listen. Close your eyes.”

I get up from the blue camp chair I’m warming and shuffle over to him, bare feet on rough concrete. It’s cool out now, and in my hoodie I shiver at the touch of skin to cold floor. My vision has adjusted to the soft, weird light around us, so when I am standing in front of this friend, I shut my eyes and wait for whatever is coming.

The space that fills me is empty. For a moment, this blackness consumes me, and silence floods in. I am standing in front of the patio’s wooden rail, fingertips touching wood, just barely, when  he takes my arm, and guides me.

“Breathe in,” he says, and as if in a trance, I inhale. These directions sharpen the small sounds around me, and for the second time tonight, I think I can hear the whisper of rain and wet tires. I don’t want to rely on my sense of hearing right now though, or any of the outward senses. What I want is to focus on the natural world around me.

In the blackness that holds me, I feel myself slow down, and I become something like a haze that drifts across water in the mornings. Behind closed eyes I see black, and in my body I sense it. In the breath of air that now fills me, I am aware of warm darkness and decomposition, of ozone. That of the earth around me. I want to be part of this earth, anchor myself to this spot and hold on forever. But I know better. I know that time will pass and I’ll want something new. I’ll want to go, a nomad again. The trick is, I’m learning, to be patient and wait for this yearning to move on. Or at the very least, to wait until I’ve learned the lessons I need to be prepared for whatever comes.

I try to shut out my other senses and focus only on that internal rhythm, but I can’t ignore the scents around me. There is the delicacy of cut grass, almost squelched by the rich carbon muddiness drifting up from the dirt below it. For years and years, this scent was all I had known, growing up on a farm, growing up in the middle of flat fields that left the earth overturned and exposed. I am more familiar with scents of the city now— the spew of mechanized traffic, the intersecting whiff of a passerby’s cologne and the rich scent of Thai or Indian food. But right now, this inebriation, this complete indulgence in the lush air of early morning is as sparkly as the dewy prairie spread out beyond us.

“Hey, I—“

“Shh, keep your eyes closed… listen.”

The silence has receded with this last instruction, and when I switch my focus from scent and memory to the rich fullness of this idea, to “listen,” I hear it.

The rain is falling again, harder than before, an andante across the shadows. I am like Barbara Kingsolver, who revels in the warmth of an Appalachian rain on her family’s farm. Like her, “I love this rain; my soul hankers for it.”

I become the landscape, a bed of parched soil; I allow my senses and pores the freedom to open and receive the moment and all it offers.

“Ahh…the rain,” I sigh, breathing slowly. As I regain my words and my body, a great flooding of emotion plants me in the moment.

I stand in the rain, caught up in murmurings of a waking world.

Much as I must wait to feel the promise in the storm clouds, wait for the champagne sunrise of morning, I must wait to see what comes with tomorrow. I cannot sense a rhythm in the patter of the drops around us, but what amazes me about the power of falling water, no matter where it enfolds me, is not that it bursts though the celestial ceiling with the force it has, but that that it can hover above us for hours, teasing, building slowly.

If patience is a learned art, a key to helping us be present in the world around us, whatever world it is, then understanding the process of waiting for the things to come will be my greatest lesson. I don’t know why we fall in love with a place or a craft or find safety in a person, but I know we do. I know it is these things that matter.

Page from a diary of escape

Escape. In these days of sheltering in place and self isolating, it is so desired it’s become even more of an opiate than usual — and perhaps harder to come by than a drug.

Today, my form of escape was pouring over some doctorate program info I’ve been back burner-ing off and on for a couple years. I’m not sure the work is something I want to put in, or maybe I haven’t found the right program. Or maybe I haven’t nailed down what I want to research for the next half decade. Something with digital activism and writing, but what? None of that mattered today though; wasting time looking at course lists and descriptions was a good escape.

Tonight, after staring my toddler down with the kind of anger-puckered face that comes from being hit by said toddler for the fourth time in five minutes, I blissfully escaped upstairs to my office. Because I’ve been depressed for the last 48 hours and didn’t do any work today, I wasn’t going to do any as I settled into my desk chair. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go. No escape.

I thought about having another good cry, but the emotion wasn’t there.  I swore a bit as I tried to write something, failed to organize my thoughts and thus felt worse. Finally, I opened up a browser and looked for something to read.

What I found was this piece in the Atlantic about feminism and the pandemic.  As I read it, the feeling of existential doom weaving about my feet all day curled up in my lap and made itself deeply at home.  I read that domestic and sexual abuse go up in times like these. Women with children do more work (surprise!!) during health crises like this, and all women don’t recover as quickly or as much as men do after a pandemic. Female  education and careers can be forever stunted by this type of crisis as well.

I read on feeling sad for my sisters around the world, and sad for myself, as a sense of survivor’s guilt joined existential doom on my lap. I still have a job. I don’t need another degree to keep what I have no or find more work in the future. I’m healthy, and so is my family. Even if I DO do more second shift work than the hubs, at least I have a partner to step in when I need him, like tonight. And we can afford to weather this storm for quite a while and have the space to do so.

So what right did I have to feel a sense of dread or sadness or doom, I wondered, reading and kneading tension knots in my neck. Why could I not just focus on the positive? I bounced into a new browser window and tried to find an article about why it’s hard to focus on the positive during moments like this, but there too, I failed. Finally, I quit reading the Atlantic piece. Yet there they were, those triplets of depression. I got away from my naughty child, but this triumvirate was just too much.

For the first time since shit started to get real, I felt like the world awaiting us on the other side of this reality will be so changed that nothing we do now, or are now, will matter.  And so here I am, trying to write it out yet again.  Yeah.

Remember that I said I failed at finding the piece I was looking for, the article that would help me explain why I was having a hard time feeling positive even though I knew I had lots to be positive about? Instead of that one, I found this, a piece from Mental Health America that explores how writing can help people get through tough times.

Yep. Writing. It doesn’t matter that these words aren’t inspiring or profound or even new.  They are all I can do to escape, if even for just a few minutes. This blog is nothing earth-shattering or special or even very well written, but like this post, it’s something I can do to put myself in a different place and a different way. It’s an escape.

What sort of escapes are you turning to?

The smell of memory

This week’s #ThrowbackThursday is brought to you by Colombia. I was supposed to be at my home-away-from-home when COVID-19 really ramped up, and I’ve been following news of Colombia more frequently lately, trying to get my fix in any way I can. This has me thinking about this piece of journaling from 2009.

San Francisco

As we round the rocky tumble of mountain struggling to meet up with the Andes, the buildings of San Francisco come poking up into view. Orange and vibrant among the greenery of banana trees and coffee farms, the rough ceramic roofs are scattered like tile chips abandoned and alone. As the chips become streets and homes and tiendas, I feel the rush of excitement that sometimes comes when reconnecting with the past. San Francisco is just 30 minutes (by car or an hour by bus) from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.  It’s a farm town, and it is just as much a part of me as the rural Nebraska farm town I once called home.

Even though the town is surrounded by mountains and is sinking into a riverbed somewhere below, it is hot here. Tropical, one could say.   The old road has been washed away by torrential rainfall several times, and even this road, paved and “new” is cracking and yawning in several places along the way.  I roll down my window get a better view of the first waterfall, and before I even see its streets, I can smell the town — and my childhood.

The memory is wet and fragrant, all sun-dappled green leaves and wet black earth. In contrast to the wind-beaten grit of sand and dirt blown dry and rough during summers in Nebraska, everything here is on the verge of molding. It’s a gentle, underlying hint of decay, like something rotting in the garden, but the beauty of what’s still living pushes  past this mossy atmosphere.

As we come out of the tree cover and pull into town, edging tires around gaps in the road that eat boulders like candy, the scent all but disappears. On rough roads cobbled and dry, the scent is replaced by arepas baking on the street and chicharrónes cooling on a table. These warm scents also have a place in my past, but it’s a place that feels like not-quite-home. That first whiff…the memory floods in once, and then the moment is gone, like  all the people I once knew that made this place feel like home.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

But that scent, and the memories — the moldy smell of my abuelo’s blankets as he lay dying in his bed, or the  sweet, light hint of flowers blossoming out of sight — they put my in the past again in that moment, if only for a fleeting second.

A garden of memories

I think of my abuelita and her garden, the garden that took up half the home’s space INSIDE the walls of the home and was both backyard and living room; the garden that sprung up where the final wall of the house had crumbled away; the garden in the home  that missing a section of roof. I remember how the house always smelled like orange peels and roses, but after a heavy rain, it would take on the additional scent of ground coffee.

I used to tell my friends stories about the banana trees growing in my grandma’s house, stories too great for their their little  seven- and eight-year-old minds. A garden IN a house? A banana tree growing from the ground next to the kitchen? No way.

I didn’t need to embellish things because my adventures were always otherworldy. Nothing like abuelita’s house existed in Nebraska; there, there was nothing like Colombia and its charms.

It’s almost haunting how a place I visit every few years retains such visceral memories. Some of these are fainter than others, much like the once vivid decorative patterns etched into the limestone of cobbled streets. There were rose vines and arabesque mosaics blasted into the sidewalks outside the houses I played in in San Francisco, but now, it takes a special eye (and maybe a bit of imagination?) to see them.

Some of these faded sidewalks include chips of memory too, like playing in front of that building for entire mornings then sharing Colombiana and bread with the kids inside. I barely remember that one of the girls was even named Colombia, a memory that comes only because I remember thinking as a child it would be weird to be named “America.”

These memories, the ones of playing with friends on the street, or watching my uncle play soccer until a sweat-soaked jersey was flung up into the stands at me, have their own odors. There’s the bread and chocolate of Colombia’s house, which was also a panaderia. Tio Jose’s sweaty, smelly hugs have only be duplicated a few times, after hugging a high school boyfriend stained and tired from chasing an American football up and down a field.

This journal entry ends abruptly; did I get sidetracked? Did I get up to get an arepa? Where was I as I wrote it? I can’t remember these things lost to the 11 years since I wrote this, but I’m OK with them being gone. What’s more important are the older memories. Today, as I long for family and familiarity — in Colombia or in my Minnesota home — I’m grateful I have those older memories to return to. 

What memories sustain you right now?

Another prompt poem

Well, I’ve continued to fall behind in my National Poetry Month prompts, but today I tried to combine poetry with a WordPress prompt. The folks at the WordPress Discover blog are offering a prompt a day throughout the month, and today’s prompt was “curve.”

I started out imagining the curve of my boy’s rump as it pushed against my belly when I was pregnant, then saw my husband holding the baby in his hands. He’s growing so fast now (as when I was pregnant!), and it seems as if someday soon he will be off and exploring the world away from our farm on his own. That’s both exciting and sobering, and good inspiration for a quick writing session.

To give this poem some structure, I threw in a four-syllable line count. And voila!  This isn’t anything special, but it was fun to follow a line of thought through to the end and come back from that musing with this.  Ooh, another curve that became a circle!

Horizons

Cupped and curved,
in his hands,
our boy, the world.
Life comes back ‘round
time and again,
with each season,
with each new dawn.
The horizon
isn’t curved
from my spot here,
the family farm —
and yet I hope
my boy, the world,
always returns.

Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.

 

 

 

2020 poetry challenge days 2 & 3

I just didn’t have time make time yesterday to check in on my poetry challenge, so today’s post includes two poems.

Day 2

Thursday’s form was the novem, which is a tercet with three words per line. Each line requires two monosyllabic words and one disyllabic word for a total of four syllables.

One of the things I love about forms is that they force me into structure. Free verse is fun and “easy,” but following patterns and rules makes for an delightful challenge — at least in poetry! Now, further complicating this poetic structure is guidance for where the 2-syllable word goes within the stanza:

  • In the first line, it is the last word.
  • In the middle line (line 2) the middle word.
  • In line three, the first word.

The final kicker is that each stanza needs to repeat one of the consonant sounds four times, minimum.

I wanted to write something all serious and strong (something about rules feels serious and strong) but because I’m behind, I wrote the first thing that came to mind.

Novem 1

Let me number
all endings
grateful for you

You can see I didn’t go beyond one stanza, and I do not have the four repeating consonant sounds. This was a tricky one! I find that when I write a villanelle or ghazal I need to spend some time thinking about the rules before I can come up with an idea that fits within the structure; seems that’s the case with this form too.  I’d like to come back to this structure at some point and play around with it when I’ve come up with an idea that “feels right” for it.

Day 3

Today was “free verse Friday,” and our prompt was “broken light bulbs.”

I’ve had this annoying wisp of a scratch in my throat all day, and the prompt gave me some room to put it into words.

For every idea
flashing bright
atop my head
in my throat
sharp shards
of broken glass

With the prompt and the real-life circumstance of the scratchy throat, this one was easy to write. Is it inspiring? No. But not every day will yield a gem, a form to play with or even an idea to further refine. And that’s OK. At least I’m writing!

If you are participating in a #NationalPoetryMonth challenge of some sort, how is your work going?

Poetry challenge 2020 – day 1

Finally! April is here and the Facebook poetry challenge I participate in each year is back on. It’s called Poetry Fun time (search for it if you want to join us!), and each day the group organizer posts a writing prompt and a form to follow. Sometimes the form is just free verse, and poets can always choose to follow both the prompt and form or one or the other.

The organizer often uses forms from Robert Lee Brewer and Writer’s Digest to guide our scribbling. Today’s form is the tricube. The prompt was “sunrise.”  I’ve had this idea for a poem kicking around in my head for a few days, so I ignored the sunrise prompt and put the idea into tricube form.

Magnificent leader

He wanted
to be God
so he chose

what to say
about death
and to whom

The streets
are full of
his silence

It’s National Poetry Month, and this group is a wonderful way for me to generate at least a few new poems during the month. Even if they suck, I’m still writing!

If Facebook isn’t your thing, Writer’s Digest run its own Poem a Day Challenge, drawing on Brewer for prompts.

Remembering Terri Schiavo

Small lights illuminate a star.

Photo by Elias Tigiser on Pexels.com

A brain goes rogue

on December 26, 2004, I experienced a major brain bleed that sent me into a coma and brain surgery. Up until that event, I had been a totally healthy 22-year-old. And then POP, just like that, what I knew of health and normal and independence vanished. Waking up was a two-day process after brain surgery. When I finally had my wits about me, I learned that I’d experienced a stroke, I couldn’t walk and might never live on my own again.

It would take another day for me to get up and test my legs — they worked— and months before I could drive again.  But I did it. In early 2005, I returned to some semblance of a normal life.

At the same time that I was gaining a sense of balance, both physical and metaphorical, another young woman was dealing with her own cerebrovascular event. In 1990, Terri Schiavo, then 26, had a heart attack and collapsed. The loss of oxygen to her brain sent her into a “persistent vegetative state.” For years, her husband, Micheal, had rallied against her parents, insisting that Terri would not want to live in such a state. Her Catholic parents said she was still a human, still their daughter, and they fought his attempts to end her life.

At just 22 when my brain went rogue, I was horrified by Terri’s situation. I watched news updates from my  parents’ couch, torn between siding with  Terri’s parents and her husband.

If it were me, what would I want?

Decisions

In those first days of recovery, before I could drive again, and thus before my independence was re-granted, I decided that I would have wanted to die.

“If I stroke out again,” I’d tell my dad, “you better let me die.”

He’d nod, knowingly. That’s what he wanted for himself, too.  I didn’t talk about it with my very Catholic mom, who I knew viewed every life as sacred, and would do anything in her power to keep me alive. As time went on and follow-up visits persisted, with each new care provider I saw, I would be given paperwork for an advance directive.

“It’s not a bad idea to state what you’d like done in the event of another emergency,” they’d say, handing me the folder. I’d carry it home to throw away, not wanting to think about such heavy decisions.

For the 14 years that Terri had been caught between her parents and her husband’s decisions,  the court in her state of Florida sided with her husband. But in 2005, President George W. Bush signed legislation that allowed Federal courts to have a say. Terri’s feeding tube, the thing keeping her alive, came out.

On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo’s decades’ long ordeal was over.

Today

Today marks the 15 year anniversary of  Terri’s death, and I have been thinking about her off and on all day, as I do every year. I didn’t know her and didn’t know of her until my own medical crisis brought hers into my world. But in the past 15 years, her legacy has continued to orbit in my mind.

When I finally returned to life on my own in May of 2005, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since before my stroke.

“Mars,” he shouted from across the packed bar I had entered with a friend. “Shit, I can’t believe you’re here. I heard you’d been Terri Schiavo’d or something.”

I assured him that I hadn’t and sent a heart call out to Terri, feeling connected to her despite our differences. I’m so sorry you died, and I lived.

When I moved to Chicago fifteen months later and began volunteering on the stroke and traumatic brain injury floor at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab), I felt Terri’s presence as I talked, or walked, or sat with patients recovering from their own traumas.

When I studied the therapeutic power of writing during grad school, I felt her presence when researching and writing about disability.

And in my current life and work, I think of Terri every time I write about advance directives, difficult conversations and life support paperwork. I do some writing for a company that has designed a web platform and coach system to help caregivers navigate responsibilities in their role of caring for an adult loved one, so these topics come up a lot.

And outside of my own  bubble, I see a raging debate about who should get care during this time of COVID-19, how those decisions are made and what it does to those who are actually making decisions.

On this anniversary of her death, I think of Terri not as someone who died stripped of dignity, but as someone who we should all think about on occasion. We should all have in place our desires for our own end of life so that no matter how it comes or when, we’re able to have a say in what we want.

Love and light to you, Terri.

 

The beautiful imperfect

close up photo of peeled orange

Photo by Robin Kumar Biswal on Pexels.com

Another one from Chicago. Circa 2009, I think. #ThrowbackThursday

The man comes into the co-op singing a song and talking to himself. He wears crisp orange pants and a fitted jacket that matches. There is a slice of lemon shirt peeking out between the folds of chest and stomach, and all he needs is a top hat to perform in a three-ring circus.  But he’s not a performer; he’s just part of the neighborhood.

As he saunters about the store, the man tells my co-workers that he’s a scientist, that he “deals in the rainbow,” and they laugh. The co-op is host to all sorts of zany life forms: pluots, seitan, people; and we too, deal in the rainbow, if you can look at fruits and vegetables and see the sun and the rain that such a spectrum needs.

This man makes me think of peaches, their strange, fuzzy warmness, or maybe nectarines, and the way sunlight is banded on their skin and glowing in their flesh.

He goes through the crate of apricots, and we could lose one to his sleeve — not because he’s that kind of shyster, but because the match of pigment is just too perfect to catch. He could hold the fruit up next to his body, and as if shrouded in a cloak of invisibility, it would be gone before we’d  ever see it leave.

But he doesn’t snag the apricots, small as silver dollars, and worth a little more, nor does he contemplate the midnight darkness of the bin blackened with ripe plums. These delicate, bruise-beautiful orbs held our attention all summer with their cleavage.  And why not? It the perfect hiding place for soft, green mold, for delicious juices to catch.

We have no air conditioning where I work, and when days and nights and then days again pass before these fruit are sold, we cup them gently in our hands, examine each unique crease for the liquid seepage that becomes home to spores. We do this with all the produce, hold its individuality in our hands, digest the difference in the colors from one delivery to another. This scrutiny is like getting to know someone intimately, seeing the wax-paper crinkles of passing seasons line a face you have come to love.

And then, before you know it, the moment is gone. The apricot is out the door with the orange sleeve; the summer sun is set and gone behind trees throwing flames of leaves. The passing of the days and the fruits and the seasons is so beautifully imperfect, and so fast we miss it if we’re not paying attention.

Finding a flow

Maple trees tapped with hoses to collect sap for makingmaple syrup.

Are you struggling with social distancing or staying put in one place? Is it hard for you to feel connected these days? This might seem crazy, but my life as a work-from-farm educator has taught me one thing, the same thing, about how to get through this.

You need to find your flow. Yep.

As I collected maple sap this morning, I thought about all that has happened in the year since I last did this. My son has started walking, talking and terrorizing the dogs. The farm has gone through its blossom and bust cycle of seeing new green shoots pop from the ground and then months later, explode with seeds. My partner and I added a new home preservation item to our pantry (the maple syrup). My creative writing workshop students have congratulated each other on “finding a better flow” in their papers in every class, in every term.

This all seems like a lot, and not much at all.  But when I think about it all, the metaphors strike me.

Cedar has learned to put one step in front of the other, and now he runs all over. The weeds and flowers and intentional crops came up, lived there lives and then generated new seeds to further their lineage for the following year. Sean and I harvested, consumed and ran out of sap/syrup. And sap is now running, once again. I am working to find my own “flow” as a busy human and a writer.  Even though there has been a lot of chaos and randomness in the last 366 days (heyo, leap year), there have been so many patterns.

It’s not easy to find peace and balance in the midst of a storm because we’re caught up in the swirl of energy. Yet what I sensed while gathering jugs of sap and reflecting on my past year is that any pattern we can create for ourselves right now will be one more tool for getting us through whatever the next 365 days look like.

I’ve seen lots of calendars about  snack patterns,  meal charts, homework or work-from-home setups, and most of them are jokes, memes. I think the humor is great, and it’s another thing that is keeping me smiling. I’m sure I’m late to the game and several articles exist on the importance of establishing a schedule during chaotic times, but I really think that putting together some sort of routine would be helpful for me. It would:

  • provide (at least the illusion of) control over the day
  • create something to look forward to
  • establish clear breaks in the day and clear days
  • lead to a sense of accomplishment

I’ve been working from home for the last three years, and although I miss my friends from the office more than anything else about the office, I’ve recognized in this time that not having a schedule is both freeing and damning. Even though  my schedule now is loose,with a toddler on hand it’s definitely got some structure I can’t avoid.

So no matter what your daily structure might like, shoot for something. If you fail, try again. That could be a way to get through the days.

We can’t control what’s going on with our neighbors or city officials or national government, and we definitely have no control over the virus instilling all this fear. But just like the dandelions or all the babies that will learn to walk over the next few months, we can prepare for the future and look forward to it by following whatever cycles we can in our present lives.