Word by word

If you’ve been following along for the past few days (OK, like, all my adult life) you know I really want to “make it” as a writer.

At times, I feel like I have. I’ve worked in communications, I work as a freelance writer and I’ve got some literary publications to my name. But I’ve got this book, you see, and I really want to get it off my mind and focus on new things. Until I do this, I feel like I won’t have really met my goals as a writer.

Sometimes I get down for not having worked harder on this book years ago, or not having working exclusively on it during grad school. I get bummed out that I’m still hemming and hawing over it and I don’t even know it it’ll get picked up by a publisher. Most of all though, having this thing hanging over my head reminds me of how hard it is to accomplish a goal and make time to write on things that don’t have deadlines or paychecks attached to them. And that makes me want to pull all-nighters and go nuts on it.

#NotPossible.

Writing isn’t about banging out a book in a day, and it shouldn’t be all about a paycheck, either. When I was younger, it wasn’t. But now, with a family to support and a “real job” to attend to, I don’t make the time I need for my creative work because it takes time and because the literary stuff barely pays for new erasers. And who uses erasers these days?

Lately, however, I’ve been trying to get that time. One of the things I’ve been doing is forcing myself to post to the blog. Another is reading. And today I read something really encouraging in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rebecca Shuman, author of the column “Are You Working?” offers blunt wisdom and practical advice to academics and writers who think they need to do it all right now. Instead of sprinting across the page and fizzling out when faced with other real world requirements, here she encourages her readers to slow down and figure out what might really work for them.

The advice that stood out to me the most was her suggestion to break down writing and research work into two-hour chunks twice a week. Rather than thinking we have to make up for all the words we didn’t write last year (or the years before, in my case), Shuman says just “divide work into single coherent tasks.”

I like this because it works well for my fractured way of thinking, and because it seems manageable with a toddler. I can find two hours a day a couple of times a week. Now, sitting my butt in a chair and writing…making myself do that will be another story (post?) entirely.

If you’re an artist with a “real job,” what advice for creative time has helped you accomplish your goals?

Feasting on the burned bits at the bottom

This afternoon while the toddler napped and my mother texted me about family in Colombia, I read Lynn Johnston‘s essay about burned rice, which appeared in The New York Times.

You might not know about crispy burned rice, the beautifully golden-brown color it takes on after just the right amount of time, the way it crunches in the teeth, the way it brings back one’s childhood. If you haven’t had that childhood, or positive experience with this foodstuff, then yeah, you don’t know about it in the way others do. I’m sorry.

Growing up with a Colombian mother meant that burned rice at the bottom of a pan is as much a staple and talisman in my life as is anything. And Johnston, a literary agent based in NY, is not Colombian, but as she shared her own experience eating crispy rice as a child in Saigon I felt all the same things about city and place and familiarity and comfort as she described in her essay.

I cried, people. I cried. I so wanted to be in Colombia multiple times in the last year, but especially over the holidays. Reading how Johnston has weathered the pandemic with rice, how she has connected (or not) with her mom over rice during this time, and how she has bonded with her own child(ren) through rice made me so nostalgic for my family, my origin story and my people on this first day of the new year. If a bit of burned food can do that for me, what can this metaphor do for the rest of the world?

Could the metaphor of burned rice allow us all (those reading, at the very least) to see how much we have, and how we’re all capable of “getting through” the fires that engulf us?

I had rice with the in-laws this evening, and as I watched my sister-in-law fret over the perfection of the rice, I marveled at the stress with which one might view this part of a meal. Yes, rice as a staple in so many peoples’ diets is worth perfecting, but what of the experience that comes with the hard bits at the bottom?

What if we could all appreciate the darkened bits as they coat the surfaces of our lives?

There’s no way of knowing what 2021 has in store, but I ask you to be on the lookout for the crunch and crackle of things and see them as new experiences, as new flavors that add to the dish that is your daily life.

After 2020, everyone could use writing to heal

A few days ago I wrote a post to commemorate the 16th anniversary of my stroke. One of the articles I linked to in that post, a piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Year We Lost,” explores the many things we didn’t get to do in 2020. It also takes something away from those who managed the year through writing.

It was “a year without parties,” a year that “paused many people’s progress on long-plotted family and career goals,” writes Joe author Pinsker. When I originally read the piece, it nicely summed up what I was getting at in that part of my post, which was the idea that at a time when so many people have lost so much, thinking about what I almost lost but didn’t felt shallow. In the days since I linked to this piece, I’ve kept thinking about this one line in Pinsker’s article:

The year 2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries.

It’s the first line, so it has to be catchy and hooky and give people something to think about. I’m a writer. I get it. But as someone who has studied the value of therapeutic writing or writing about trauma (that stroke, man, it keeps popping up), I think this line doesn’t quite give “writers of diaries” or the diaries themselves a place of value. I get this, too. The belief that the arts have healing power isn’t as widespread as this artist would like. However, if there is any way I see myself making a difference in the world, it is spreading the word that writing is a coping mechanism anyone can use — to great effect.

We may not have done all the things we wanted, or any of the things we wanted in 2020, but those who turned to diaries to track their despair and how they felt about it may have found a way to get through the letdown of a year with a better sense of well-being. People who journal may have had fewer “fun” things to write about this year, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have anything to write about.

Over the past forty years, research has found that writing about traumatic events and how one feels about them helps lower blood pressure. It helps boost the immune system. Expressive writing can help people sleep better and even perhaps “get over” the trauma and even physically heal sooner.

That’s right. Writing can help people heal.

If you’ve click into any of the links I’ve shared in the paragraph above, you’ll see that the fount of this wisdom and research comes from psychology professor James Pennebaker. In the mid-eighties he found that students who spent 20 minutes a day for four days writing about a significant trauma were healthier after this practice than their peers who did not write about their significant traumas. Pennebaker has worked with hundreds, if not thousands of students since then; other researchers have taken the idea and explored various intricacies of it in different studies. The research keeps stacking up: If people are able to write honestly about bad things they’ve experienced, and if these same people reflect on how they felt about the experience or how they feel about it now, they process the event and work through it in ways others don’t.

In his 1990 book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker spends time unpacking his inspiration, the studies he’s conducted and what he’s learned up to that point in his career. The information is compelling, his writing is engaging and he covers a lot of psychological, physical and mental health topics. I first learned about Pennebaker’s work in 2005, when my mom, a therapist, gave me a journal detailing his process of writing to heal. I’d always believed there was cathartic value in writing, but learning there was science behind it was validating. I didn’t need that science to nudge me into writing, or to benefit from my writing, but being able to tell others that it was proven to make a difference was amazing.

Years later, when I entered grad school, one of the biggest projects I spent time on (outside of my thesis) was immersing myself in Pennebaker’s work and getting caught up on what had taken place in the field of expressive writing between the 80s and the mid-2000s. I can’t say I’m an expert on his work–that would require working with him, I think– but I spend a lot of time talking him up to my students who seem like they could benefit from his work, either personally or because of their desired professions. And I’m excited to be presenting on it at virtual conference at the end of January. I’ll introduce people to his work, the theories behind it and what has been discovered about expressive writing. Then I’ll lead people through a little exercise of their own, hopefully equipping them with some strategies and tools to harness the power of writing. As a a writing instructor, I believe part of my job goes beyond just teaching people what they are in class to learn. If I see a chance to share something like this with them, I go for it. Doesn’t mean I’m an expert, but I do think I can be a resource and example for those wanting to know more about writing to heal.

If you’d like to check out Pennebaker’s book mentioned above, here’s a sample chapter from the third edition, published (and posted online) by Guilford Press.

Sixteen years later, still on the road to recovery

On this day 16 years ago, I woke up from a drug-induced coma after surviving a massive stroke and having brain surgery to stop the bleed. I was lucky–the type of arterovenusmalformation (AVM) that almost killed me often kills or leaves its victims seriously disabled. After a month in the hospital, I walked away with some vision changes, a spotty short-term memory, and some serious identity issues. I was only 22 at the time, and I’d just completed my BA in journalism. Adulthood and what I imagined as total independence were just around the corner, and then poof–I almost died.

Those early years of recovery were rough, and I’d be lying if I said every day is a day further from that event and my thoughts of it. Time has given me distance from it, and writing has given me more distance, but sometimes my deficits whack me on the head and I’m back in “why me” mode. Most of the time this happens with my vision. My depth perception tricks me, or I can’t figure out spatially what’s going on with something like assembling a toy or a piece of furniture. Not life-ending things, but if I allow myself to think about why I can’t see well enough to figure out what needs figuring, I can send myself into a real funk.

In 2020, a year of so many losses, medical challenges and personal pain, it feels tone-deaf and downright mean to write something about how things get better. Even if things do get better after traumatic events, I don’t think there’s a prescriptive path or pithy saying that holds true for everyone at every moment. Like anything, the good and bad comes and goes as the days do.

I don’t really celebrate anniversaries of this event anymore, but every milestone day brings up memories of that time. That’s been especially true in the last year, as I’ve worked to complete my memoir about the experience. Every milestone feels big as I’m immersed in visceral memories of waking in the hospital, completing therapies, returning to my parents’ home to recover and then striking out on my own again. I’m hoping soon I can start celebrating other milestones related to this: signing with an agent, getting a book deal, reading a galley copy or an ARC and then seeing the book in stores.

But for now, I’m celebrating in small ways: reflecting on the beauty of light dappling leaves on a quiet road, wincing at the pain in my hip and then reveling in the ability to walk, smiling as my fingers move across the keyboard and the cursor dances across this page. Today, I walked on the beach in Northern California with my son and husband, I drove us home from a family dinner in the dark, navigating portions of Highway 101 and the California Expressway system. They were small portions, but for someone who hates driving at night in unfamiliar places (because of my vision), traversing the slopes and loops was an accomplishment.

Recovery from a life-changing event comes with its own dips and drops and curves, and as much as I want to see this book out there to be done with it and move on, I want to see it out there to give others going through a medical trauma the sense that things can work out OK, even if it takes years or a decade to navigate what that OK looks like–and even then sometimes the vista gets fuzzy.

Viva la revolución

Evaluation. It’s a process I encourage my students to undertake every time they engage with a text in our class. What is it saying, I ask them. How does it make you feel? Do the ideas have merit? Why or why not?

This process is one I hope they will use when they’re out in the real world too, and of course I know they come to my class already knowing how to evaluate things in daily life. They can decide whether or not to get the enchiladas or the burrito, the pitcher of beer special or the twofer special. They know how to make decisions and value various things using various metrics. But sometimes I’m reminded in a big way that evaluation and perception must work in tandem, and if someone’s perception of things is filtered in such a way that their metrics aren’t right for the job at hand, then their assessments may have holes in them. And it’s not because the student didn’t take the time to think, but because they didn’t quite have the right tools for evaluation, or the full view of things being evaluated. Case in point is commentary from a mid-term evaluation I received this term.

This class has felt unnecessarily politically charged. The class is supposed to teach the students to write and analyze literature effectively (That is my understanding of it anyway), and I feel that can be done without some of the one-sided left-wing propaganda. Most of it comes in the form of implicit assertions hidden in other statements, but some of it seems rather blatant. For example: Promoting Marxism as 1 of 6 primary methods of criticizing literature seemed rather ridiculous to me. I have not mentioned this in class, as I didn’t want to be accused of disrupting the class and then be on a professors bad side, but I figured I’d leave my comment here.

Yeah. I teach a course about the literature of revolution and it was too political. Dang.

Seeing this comment was both hilarious and upsetting. I wasn’t upset because I felt attacked or anything; no, I was happy to see an articulate comment. From the clarity of the writing, it’s easy to see that the student did put some thought and effort into expressing their ideas. They maintained what I think of as a pretty neutral tone, even as they expressed displeasure. And they demonstrated engagement with the ideas presented, or else how would they have remembered the ideas themselves? All of this was good. All of this allowed me to see that the student did have solid evaluation capabilities and techniques. But what bit so hard was seeing all these good things AND the big black hole that said something like, “your work getting this student to understand that everything is political and thus has potential to be revolutionary has failed.”

I posted the comment to social media, and many friends and colleagues shared a laugh and a face palm with me. I KNOW that teaching the literature I’m teaching must by its very existence be linked to politics. I just thought I was doing a better job of showing students why it is so important to read literature and see how it helps us understand the political — and how understanding politics can help enrich what we read.

So that’s how I get to where I am now, mulling over the idea that someone can be a solid evaluator of things, ideas, people, etc., but they can still miss out on seeing the big picture. I know I risk sounding like I think the student’s critique was wrong, or improper. I don’t. But I do wonder what I could have done differently to give my student the tools needed to have a full scale by which they could assess the value of our theme.

Punch up, not down

Ahh, the semester is wrapping up and I’m reclaiming minutes of the day for myself. Instead of just doomscrolling, which is such a nice way to procrastinate, I’ve been using these minutes to squeeze in some writing and reading. Having minutes of time to myself doesn’t often feel like enough to get into a new piece of writing or engage in a substantial way with a book, but right now, I’m so elated to have these snippets of time I feel supercharged by them. And in just about two weeks, I’ll be off for Christmas break and basking in the glow of hours for myself. HOURS! I may just reach my goal of getting my memoir ready to send out to editors and agents by the end of the year.

To warm up for a few weeks of reading and writing (and revision) time, I recently participated in a writing workshop with Faith Adiele. (I found out about her workshop while doomscrolling, so I guess that act isn’t all bad.) We explored memoir and various strategies for writing it, and as an incredibly humorous person, Faith wove laughter and mirth and levity into everything we worked with, including our writing prompts. For one, she asked us to write an anti-hero piece about breaking New Year’s resolutions and not feeling bad about it. I don’t often like writing prompts, but in a workshop they are part of what one does. THERE, I can appreciate them. So for this particular exercise, I took Faith’s prompt and tweaked it. Channeling Colin Nissan’s, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers,”I wrote an anti-hero piece about this break I’ll soon be enjoying:

2021 is going to be the best year yet. I’m going to kick it off in California, saltwater splashing in my face on a crab boat while my husband barfs over the edges. I’m not going to feel sorry for him either—fuck that asshole and his smug, always-better-than-anyone-at-everything demeanor.  I’ll let him be better than me at barfing, just this once. I’m going to drop crab pots while he languishes, wet and miserable, in a corner of the boat. I would rather be in Colombia for the new year, somewhere tropical and warm, not the wet-curtain wrapped around me always that is northern California. So I’ll be miserable too, probably, surrounded by his family for three weeks, but in my resolution to have fun on that crab boat if it kills me, I will not think about Colombia, at least not much. I won’t think about how warm I could be, how dry and sunbaked and sleepy. Instead, I’ll get the most crabs in my crab  baskets, the big fat meaty ones everyone wants, and I’ll shuck those bastards faster than his sisters can say “screaming match.”  I’ll eat until I’m the one ready to barf over the edge of the table, into my brother-in-law’s thousand dollar boots, and I’m going to enjoy that feeling of excess and oblivion.  I might be crabby and out of sorts for the  first week of the new year, the last week we’ll be in California, but I’m going to feel real emotions, man, none of the fluffed up hallmark Christmas shit that I’ll have been watching for three weeks while stewing in the sog of silent treatment.

Faith broke us into small groups to discuss our short writings, and my group mates got a good chuckle out the anti-hero piece. It was fun to write, and as is all good writing, hinged on small truths. I laughed about it as I read it, but I also knew there was too much snark in it, that the hits were a little to hard to come off as humor and not hatred. So I asked Faith for advice on writing humor, and she said, “Always punch up, not down.”

Don’t pick on people lesser than you, don’t throw down on someone who can’t dish it back, is the way I understood her advice. I liked this advice, and although I don’t write much humor, it seemed like good advice to use at any time when writing about difficult events in memoir. It also seemed like good advice for staying sane while finishing the semester and making time for myself.

I may not have a lot of time to write or read right now, put punching at myself while I’m bogged down isn’t going to accomplish anything. Punch up, indeed.

Contesting the norm

It’s one of my favorite times of the year: The submission period for the Southern New Hampshire Fall Fiction Contest has closed and I get to read several of the outstanding semi-final entries.

This year we had 560 submissions. The forty that I’ve read this week are among the best I’ve read in my three years of judging, and I just finished reading a story about a clever high schooler who comes up with a unique way to ask out a girl he likes. This may sound like an age-old story, and of course, it is. But the boy’s tactic, the girl’s motivations for being the way she is and catching his attention: all crisp and unique.

Another writer submitted a piece of metafiction in which the narrator/protagonist is vying for an appointment to speak with the omniscient narrator. Fun idea, and the setting was so sharp that I felt like a fly on the wall in the waiting room.

There have been other good submissions–anthropomorphism cast in a new and fun way, coming-of-age pieces that speak to what today’s youth are experiencing, and a few explorations of addiction, depression and despair. And wow, perhaps the best part is that there have been a BUNCH of stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters, as well as more POC–that’s Protagonist of Color in this context–than I’ve read in the past three years.

I don’t know how many of my submissions come from students and how many come from the general public, but seeing these demographics represented in a noticeable and strong way is amazing. I don’t know if literature as a whole is changing (this is just one small drop in the pond, right?), but this is exciting.

What’s also been totally delightful and yet downright harrowing is the way Covid and politics have shown up across these texts. I know many people are writing about these things right now, and I see many calls for submission on both topics. They are important, but I have not been all that interested in writing about them–or reading about them.

When I read fiction for pleasure, I want to forget about what I’m living, not see how well it’s mirrored or torn down in a story. But I know that writing about what we experience is part of processing it, and through the stories I’ve read this week, I get a sense of joy in seeing how students are tackling these topics, all of them. I love seeing the black character who’s going to Harvard or the queer character whose gender we never learn because it doesn’t matter. I love the trans character whose grandma stands up for her. These characters and plots and conclusions give me a sense of hope about the future. They help me see how these writers are taking what we’re dealing with it and processing it from their own perspectives.

They are crafting more than just a fictionalized future for our country in a post-Covid and post-Trump world, but a literary future that breaks genres and tropes while exploring what it means to be part of something. No matter what it’s about, who writes it and who is featured in it, that’s what the best fiction does.

What new writers are you finding? How are they helping you through these times?

Death and creation

“Why do we tell stories?”

It’s a question I ask in every course I teach, and it always has a different answer. This is something I expect, as all students come to the idea of story with different experiences and perceptions. But the answers differ based on the class in which I ask the question.

Take my lit class, for example. After students offer their suggestions (suggestions such as “to entertain,” “to share ideas,” “to express emotion,” etc.), I tell them we tell stories simply to convey something that happened. Their answers aren’t wrong, but that’s the “why” I’m looking for in that class, at least at the outset of the class, when I first ask this question.

In a creative writing class, because my students are there to be writers, not just readers of others’ stories, their answers are a little more personal and nuanced.

“I tell stories because I would die if I didn’t,” someone says. “Because I have all these worlds and characters in my head and I have to do something with them,” is another answer. For them, storytelling is an emotional, personal, life-giving event. These students are like Joan Didion, who wrote in 1979 that we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Sometimes even my Composition students see the writing they are doing (basic academic structure writing) as a chance to find meaning in something they already know about. A student once wrote an essay about why America should allow the consumption of horse meat, and although he went into that topic knowing something about it and having opinions about it, in an end-of-semester reflection piece, he wrote that he had learned something new about himself as he researched his topic. He said he’d never be able to eat a dog, although some people do, and as he pondered this line of thought, he was able to see why most people couldn’t get behind eating horse meat. He got there, of course, by including a personal anecdote, a story.

The art and craft of storytelling is on my mind at least in some way every day. Lately, it’s been on my mind because in September two stray cats showed up at our farm, and last week they died. Well, what I know for sure is that last week one of them died, because I found him in the midst of dying, after both cats had been missing for a few days. I haven’t seen the other one in a week, and given what happened, I’m sure she’s dead too. These cats bring story to mind because of how they worked themselves into my farm life existence, because of how they gave me something to talk about with others and because of they way they brought up memories of the cats of my childhood. I told them stories when I talked to them, and my son told me stories about them. Pumpkin patch visitors told us how much they enjoyed seeing the kitties, and petting the calico, the friendly one. And when I took the poor gray striped kitty to the vet, the one I found on his last day, I told her his story, of how he’d come to my farm, how he’d been so skittish and had just finally started letting me pick him up. It was a short story; he’d only been around for a month and a half, but it was his story, or what I knew of it. As she euthanized him and he fell asleep one last time, snuggled in my arms, I sobbed and sobbed, remembering that farm life is so hard on cats. In the days since, I’ve sniffled and sobbed a few more times, thinking about how hard farm life is on me, too. Those dang kitties had become my friends, other living beings to interact with in a time of isolation and loneliness.

When I sat down to write about this, I thought I’d write more about the kitties, tell more of their story here and let them live on in the pixels and electricity of the screen. But storytelling is a funny thing. On the one hand, writers who do this work for a living know they can’t wait for inspiration to write; they can’t wait for that shadow of a cat that is story to come forward from the bushes and rub briefly on a leg before darting away again. They must write, doing what they can to bring forward the slightest wisp of a story. On the other hand, some stories need time to grow and be known. If we tell stories to live, we must do some living in order to understand how events shape us and others. With that living comes the passing of time, the sorting of feelings and the ability to know something new and different.

I can’t write about these kitties yet, although I want to. I don’t know what to say about them, or if there’s anything there that really matters. But what I have learned through having and then losing them is just how lonely life out here really is. And through that realization, I’ve remembered that in loneliness, and in the craft of story, we can still find ways to live.

Yellow, orange and green squash and pumpkins of all sizes.

A quiet revolution

As an adolescent, I couldn’t wait to get off the farm. When I finally did, for college, I found that living in the city was as good as I had imagined it would be. I had access to people, unique ideas and things to do. In fact, city living was maybe even better than what I’d seen on TV or while traveling because my college campus was its own little residential community. There was some shelter in the secure life of a student living on a quiet campus, and the city that I moved to was easy to get around and relatively small, maybe 100,000 people at that time. It was a good first step toward city life and a definite first step toward being the writer I wanted to be, as I was studying journalism. It also gave me things to write about, first for the school newspaper and then the city daily.

Three years later, when I moved to Washington, D.C., the jump in size meant a jump in congestion and disorientation. But there too, I got some of the things I’d grown up longing for while watching MTV: access to bookstores, live music any night of the week (not something I had in Sioux Falls), late night dinners and more access to people and things to do. That time period didn’t exactly shape my writing, but it did give me a few things to write about later on, and it showed me that I preferred print to broadcast journalism. I also saw that the political game was really just a game, not a lifestyle I wanted to actually be part of.

I’ve been thinking of that time in D. C. lately, as the election nears, as I move further and further away from journalism, and as I settle into what it means to be a writer on a farm, rather than in a city (it means I don’t get out and see other writers much, for one). I’m teaching college students now, and in one of my classes we explore the literature of revolution. This means we look at war and politics, yes. But also we look at what makes writing revolutionary. We discuss whether or not one has to be an activist to be a revolutionary figure, or if one can do something as simple as write a poem, or a song, or paint a picture. Does a writer have to write about conflict to write revolutionary things, or can love be revolutionary? Work?

Can the change of colors in the sky or horizon lead to revolution?

In my other classes, creative writing classes, not lit classes, I help novice writers think about craft and their writing process. I ask them if they really understand their characters’ motivations and if they can tie the to the plot or the setting more closely. I ask them to consider the figurative language they use and why they use it. I ask them, “If you never make it as a writer, what will you do?”

As this semester moves toward its own falling action, I think back to the week before the election when I lived in D.C. The city was awash with potential, and my friends, Republicans and Democrats, or some variation of each, were on edge for their respective candidates. My room mates and I threw a watch party that night to see the votes come in, and my guy lost. But my biggest conflict was whether or not I wanted to stay in the city when my internship was over. There was so much to like about it, but nothing that would keep me writing, or put me into a position where writing became my work.

We’re approaching another election now, sixteen years later (what?!), and as I look out my farmhouse window onto a scene of blinding snow speckled red and gold with fallen maple leaves, I feel a sense of the cyclical nature of time. It’s something my students and I talk about as we read Marquez, but it’s not just my work life that prompts it. I’m back on a farm, after all, back in the same sort of existence where my dreams of being a big shot writer began. I don’t really dream those dreams any more, at least not in the same way. And I’ve found that contrary to the idea of space and quiet = lots of writing, I don’t write much anymore, either.

My most prolific time as a writer was in another city, in Chicago, a decade ago. But as I sit in my dining room, surrounded by squash and the final harvests of our fall, I see that if I am to be a writer now, it means writing about what surrounds me. Nothing revolutionary there– I’ve always drawn on my surroundings for fodder. Writers do that. But I’ve resisted writing about this life, the farm life, here in my blog. My blog has always been a place where I could write about the exciting cities I lived in and the exciting things I did. But that’s no longer where I’m at, or what I do. I don’t want to write about the Midwest, or farm culture, or what I’m doing back where I began. But I guess if I am to be a writer, then maybe it’s time to just settle in and find inspiration in the quiet and color around me.

 

 

 

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.