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.

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?

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?

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.

Hungry, hungry hoboes

photo of railway track

Photo by Zhanzat Mamytova on Pexels.com

The floor and my laptop meet in a crushing embrace a few weeks ago, so I’ve been pulling old stuff off of it. It’s Thursday, and I thought, “what the hell, I’ll do a #ThrowbackThursday post. This piece is from 2008.

***

The kids talk to me before I talk to them.

“Her name is Jazz,” says the one in a faded purple shirt, right after the white puppy trots after me. She’s got a bandana around her neck and a brown spot over her left eye, and when she hears her name, her forehead wrinkles into a story of puppy love and recognition.

The boy who speaks her name is slouched against an old building in Uptown, the one right around the corner from the Lawrence ‘L’ stop. Without shoes, his feet are cut and dirty, blackened like tar on the bottom. I saw them as I came around the corner onto Broadway, noticing the sign before the sprawl of legs and cardboard cushions.

“Hungry, Hungry Hobos,” crawls across the back of a notebook, black sharpie on creased yellow paper.

I pause, look at it, but without cash or snacks, I walk on. What can I do?

“She just loves people,” the boy adds as I walk away, and that’s all it takes for me to turn around.

***

 Matt tells me his story as I sit, folding my legs underneath me. He’s a carpenter, he and his woman split a while back, and he misses his tools, god how he misses coming home from work and working the rough grain of knotty wood into the curved lines of chairs  and other art.

At 25, Matt is the oldest of the group, but he has the boyish good looks of Huck Finn, a real-life story in front of me. Hair curled and messy from a week on the road, he is cute, but looks so young, especially when pairing the curls with the rolled up jean bottoms and bare feet.

I talk with Matt about his travels, warming the sidewalk opposite the Green Mill, and for a couple of hours, I watch the world pass by with these dirty children of the road.

They are going to California, going to work in “the fields” and take part in the grand pot harvest that approaches.

“We’re going to make 20 bucks an hour, make some money, man,” says the other boy around a mouthful of bottle.

At 22, Chris has already been out to California for the harvest once before, and this adventure isn’t the first one taking him cross-country on the free ticket found in the back of a freight train.

“I don’t have any work lined up, not yet,” he tells me, pulling thoughtfully on the cigarette his girlfriend   rolled moments before. “But I’ve been out there in the past, and I hope to get some carpentry work too, get in with the locals, you know.”

Jillian nods her head at this idea, nubby brown pigtails bouncing in agreement. She has been silent, plucking absently at a ukulele, but once she joins the conversation, her quick chirp clips along with youthful enthusiasm.

“Have you been out there before?” she asks me, eager to hear my take on it. “I hear it’s supposed to be really great.”

I tell her that I haven’t, but yes, I, too, have heard good things. At 20, Jill is the youngest member on this adventure, and I can see why she’s drawn to Chris.

He wears his scruff in a way that becomes him: a shadow of the road spreading across his face whether he intends it to or not.  He’s tall and lanky, and as she leans into him, his arms wrap around her, white and bare against the gray fabric of her sweater.  I know exactly how she feels, a short little girl taken care of by her tall hippie boy, but I can’t say that I really miss that feeling. Not tonight, not anymore.

But it’s more than this outward physical thing that draws her to him. This too, I know. It’s his life.

Chris has lived. He’s hopped trains before, he’s harvested illegal crops and stories with others in Cali, and because he is all the things that a career in dental hygiene is not, she is enamored and brought to life by this.

I can see it in her face as she calls a friend on her phone and squeals out the story of the day in Chicago. She is young and in love, and I remember what that feels like, at 20.  I remember how my own tall lanky boy made me feel back then, and I remember my most recent “Chris.” I like Jill because her sense of adventure runs deep, and I imagine that’s what Chris likes about her too. He’s teaching her about the world, his world, and she’s eager to hear it all.

When I tell her about my recent trip to Thailand, her eyes open as wide as her mouth, perfect circles of awe and excitement, and I hope that she is as eager to embrace calamity as she sounds, should it befall her on this trip. She has considered at least one possibility—that any of them could be arrested— but she is most afraid of what will happen if the cops take Chris away from her. They almost did that at Union Station today, but when I ask her if they’ve discussed a strategy for that, I see disbelief and fear color her face more than the streetlight illumination from above.

“God, what would I do? We haven’t even talked about it, no.”

She stares down at Jazz for a minute, and then snuggles into Chris’ side, feeling the emptiness of a life on the road without her man.

What would she do?

I would like to think she’d figure it out, maybe late, but better then than never. That’s what I did.

***

Up until Monday, I had planned on going to California, too. Not so much to take part in the harvest, exactly, but to be part of that culture of people who pass the seasons waiting for it like my family waits for the first spring-time sprout of life to color the fields.

A mess since my return to the states from Thailand, three months ago, I had been unhappy in Chicago, ill-at-ease among the skyscrapers and dull sheen of life in the US. Thailand had been too much, too much fun, too much happiness, too much… everything, and life in Chicago had been boring and flat, a watercolor wash of grey day after grey day.

So when I hooked up with a friend in California and he suggested I move out there, first I thought “no, what a terrible idea.” And then as the weeks passed each other with the slow monotony of spring in the Midwest, it sounded better and better, almost perfect. Not because I anticipated any sort of real life out there, but because it wasn’t Chicago, which wasn’t Thailand.

I looked at apartments here, evaded the real world and sought refuge from it in my books and my writing. The night before I found the perfect artists’ loft building, my friend assured me yes, if I went to California, everything would work out. For a few days I even believed it, and then, after posting my few possessions on Craigslist, the reality of the situation came to pass, taking with it the charm and illusion of sandy shores and a life of stoned simplicity in the sun. I put a deposit on a new studio apartment and vowed to work on my craft among the other poor, dirty and disillusioned writers, painters and musicianssharing the building. But my body ached for something else. Something different.

***

What is it about going West that reaches for the American spirit like stalks to the sky? How was this story started, and who perpetuates it to this day, that the American Dream lives in the West? These kids grew up together, friends in Baltimore, East Coast elites gone organic, escaping the hum of existence by hopping trains and sleeping on sidewalks. I wanted to do that once, around the same time I thought living like a broke writer would move me to be the next Nin or Hemingway.

How very ‘beat’ I’d be, I cleverly thought to myself, imagining all of the scenes from a Ginsberg or Kerouac epic in my own bedroom. How very perfect for the storyteller in me, all of those bodies and lives and sorrows crashing against the stable shoreline of my being. It would be the life to end all lives, the adventure and chaos of a life lived to its fullest that I’ve always sought.

And then as quickly and randomly as the idea of attempting a life in California was proposed, the allure of it rubbed off like some dollar-store trinket gone brassy in the setting sun. The dream, or the illusion of the dream imagined by someone else, someone I’m not, fell from the sky.

***

By 1 am Jill, was fighting sleep, and I could see a fight in her shoulders, if the crew didn’t get to going where ever it was that they could sleep safely until morning.

“If my doorman isn’t around, you can stay at my place,” I offered, sparking a flame in Jill’s eyes and a glance upward from Matt, who was buried in his journal, Sharpie in hand. Chris smiled, busy chatting with the homeless and probably schizophrenic man laughing crazily at our feet.

“But with Jazz, the lobby has to be completely empty or else it won’t work,” I continued, hoping the man would go away before we headed to my place. The idea of showers and food had garnered their attention, and I felt bad for bringing it up, knowing that the doorman was probably around.

“I’ll go home and check, then call you if it’ll work.”

My block came up quickly, lit up and alive, even at 1 am. The neighborhood has gentrified, and instead of my own neighborhood schizophrenic, it is my maintenance man, his wife and their baby, I run into at this late hour. We wave, cross paths, and I enter the lobby.

How different our lives are, all of them. That small family of three, neat and tidy at 1 am; me, sweaty and dirty in running gear and puppy tracks offering my home to another family of sorts. Am I crazier than the man laughing outside?

I think of the kids I’ve just met as I pack crackers and fruit and granola bars into a plastic bag. I can’t get them in, not tonight, but if I make it back there before they seek shelter, maybe I can feed them. Maybe I can take care of them in the only way I can at this hour.

***

My train rattles along the track, past Argyle, past Berwyn, back into Bryn Mawr. I get off slowly, letting the drunks stagger warm, boozy circles around me. The night has cooled down, and I wonder where the hobos will sleep tonight, how far their train will take them tomorrow. I wonder if Chris will get caught and separated from his “mamma,” and what Jill will do if he does.

“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Jill says as we part ways. “So I’ve got to get some tonight. Sleeping on the train is hard, and with Jazz, if I have to hold her… my arms…oh, it’s just so hard.”

I nod my head in agreement, imagining that it is indeed, a challenge. But what do I know of hopping trains and holding sleeping puppies and chasing someone across the country because “that’s what you do for love”?

What do I know of trains and harvests and feet as black as the midnight tar on the street outside?

What I know is Chicago, and my own sense of adventure, my own heart and the things that I love: words and stories, not people, or at least, not just one person. I know the way the right ones seem to find me—words and humans — and that stories make whole my life in a way that  the living of it never does.

What I know is that in another lifetime, I might have hopped a train and rattled off to California to chase some dream and some adventure. But not now. Not tonight. Not anymore.

Instead, I will return to my apartment, sit on my couch, legs once again folded and firm beneath me, and capture the essence of this night, to live on forever in my words.

It keeps the fire going

In 2018, I attended a local writing conference and heard one of the speakers say she had set a goal of submitting 100 pieces of writing a year. With that many submissions out there, she said, she was bound to score some publications.

I was floored. Here was this amazing poet, someone with books published, telling me that she aims for this large number and is happy if a small part of it is fulfilled. But it was a good nudge, and later that year, after a few years of not submitting much creative work, I dusted off the Submittable account and got busy submitting poetry and hybrid pieces. I did not hit the 100 subs mark (nor had I set mine that high), and I got more rejection notices than acceptance letters. But I landed three pubs, and the momentum pushed me into 2019.

Last year was such a blur that when, over Christmas, I got an acceptance letter from Lethe, an international journal in Istanbul, I didn’t remember submitting work! But a hybrid piece flash piece about my mixed heritage is out in print and will be online soon.

And just last week, another acceptance letter came in, this one from Graphite Interdisciplinary Journal of the Arts, a journal sponsored by UCLA/ TheHammer Museum. 

I don’t typically submit to themed calls for submission, but this one put forth by Graphite, on the topic of “fruit,” inspired me. I was teaching 100 Year of Solitude when I read the call for subs, and we had just entered the banana massacre timeline. Bananas are fruit, I thought, and my research for class led me to some interesting telegrams between the U.S. and Colombian government. So I spun them into a poem. It was one that got accepted, and I’m excited to share it with the world.

Writing is hard work. Finding time to write is hard. And then writing something that’s good enough one wants to submit it? Also difficult. These small pubs are not Poetry Magazine or The New Yorker.  But they still reach people. And because my poetry is almost exclusively about social justice, the publication of my work makes me feel like perhaps some distant reader might be spurred to find a cause of their own, make time for it, and run with it.

Yikes!

Oh, dear, reader! Today I updated my list of publications, and I realized it’s been months since I last updated my blog. Surely you don’t care (clearly I don’t either), but oh, my! What a crazy few months it has been since May, when I last made an effort to write. The submission I wrote about then, to Yoko Ono’s project, got accepted, and as far as I know, it is traveling around with the rest of the installation. I had hoped to make it to Chicago to see it at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but that just didn’t happen.

My son turned one in May, which means he’s 20 months now, and all atoms and molecules whizzing around at uncontrollable rates! He’s a jabberbox as well, and I expect nothing short of a complete collection of written insights and fragments by age 5.

My partner and I grew hemp, joined the Minnesota Department of Ag. for a task force on hemp in the state, learned a lot and have been planning for next year’s crop already. Will it be hemp, or won’t it? I make no promises regarding the crop, nor that I’ll be back soon with an update.

I digress, but it’s been so long since I took a moment to update this dusty old space that it seems only proper to catch one up fully with this note!

Back to writerly news, I attended the 33rd annual Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa in July. I submitted my stroke manuscript to be considered for a two-week revisions workshop, and I got in! Along with 9 other writers, I spent two weeks workshopping and revising with Sandra Scofield. It was fantastic, but I’ve only just now started working in earnest on my revisions.

When I came back from Iowa, I put in order a class on “The Literature of Revolution” for my alma mater, Augustana University. We touched on literature from/about Russia, Iran, South Africa, Greece, Mexico, the US and Colombia. I enjoyed being back among my former professors, but teaching face-to-face was a lot of work! Perhaps it’s because at the same time that the fall semester started, a freelance gig I had interest in came through. More on that when I can share!

In the nine months I’ve been away from this blog, I certainly feel like I birthed a child, and perhaps I’ll do no better at writing regularly now than in the year (years) past. What is different now, however, is that I don’t really feel all that bad about neglecting my blog. I’d love to have the free time to write, daily, but if I am too busy to do so, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it’s simply because I’ve got other writing calling my name.

The push to publish

Taking a look at old poems.

I don’t work for an institution that requires me to publish work as part of my role there, but as a student of such places, I believe it is important to actively work toward publication. Publication offers a sense of accomplishment and pride in one’s work, and it also shows others that one knows a thing or two about writing. As a writer in general, I feel like I do enough publishing with my freelance work to feel “validated” as a professional writer. However, getting my creative work out to a wider audience has value in other ways. For one, it gives my students a chance to see the kind of work I do. It also might inspire random readers.

But finding time to write and then shop my creative work around is difficult. And it can be frustrating to receive three rejections in a row. But last year I was at a writing conference, and one of the presenters told participants that she aims to get 100 rejections a year. Out of that number, she said, surely there will be a few acceptance letters!

I appreciated her insight, but I didn’t do anything with that push until the end of the year. I just didn’t have time. Really, what I mean is I didn’t have the energy. But over Christmas break, I sent work out to five places. I’ve heard back from two with rejections. I’ve reached out to one with a friendly, “hey, have you looked at my work, it’s been four months), and I’ve had two pieces placed in an anthology (more on that later!).

These small successes have pushed me to keep up with publishing efforts this year, and I’ve been working on new pieces, tweaking old pieces and writing cover letters. It’s only Monday as I write this, and I’ve already submitted work to a journal and have cover letters ready to go for two others.

Sometimes inspiration strikes, and the writer jams out 1000 words. Most of the time though, writing is a deliberate, slow act. I find that as long as I think of the publishing process in the same way, as a slow, deliberate act, it somehow feels less daunting.

Here’s to 100 rejections in 2019!