Saturday, January 31, 2015


Northwestern Ohio, where I used to live, is expecting several inches of snow today.
Coastal Maine has a couple of feet, with more on the way.
Chicago is about to get slammed, and the National Weather Service advises travelers to keep food in the car, a flashlight.
Here in Missouri, it’s been mild—sweater weather, sun, some wind.
I’m tired of mild. It exhausts me, day in and day out. Nothing fills me with wanderlust like glimpses of weather elsewhere. Right now in the world, frigid seawater slams into a rocky coast, and snow drives into it, gets folded in, even as it accumulates on the beach.
I was in Hawaii once, and it rained for a few minutes every day, and every day, after, there were rainbows.
Missouri is a little gray today. You’ll want sleeves, and socks with your shoes.
For some people, wanderlust is a desire to see attractions. I just want to see the weather, and the way people react to it. The other night I talked to my mom in Florida, and she was marveling at the local reaction to a dip in temperature—lows in the forties. I like it that temperatures that make a Floridian reach for a parka would make a Minnesotan don shorts.
It is possible to die of weather, of course—that is clear here, in tornado alley, where the sky turns green and drops random hell down on city or field. But today I feel like it may be possible to die of gray—of bare trees and empty stalks of last summer’s flowers.
Once in Ohio, my husband and I walked out into a winter field. It retained the furrows from the plow, and we each chose a groove and stayed in it, a corner of the sky still blue but clouds massing in the west. We walked long enough that the house we lived in was small behind us, and we were almost to the railroad track that limned the back of the field. Then the snow came—a sudden blanketing of it. We couldn’t see in front of us, couldn’t even see each other. We clasped our ungloved hands together and hurried back along our furrows, thankful for the straight and true plow and the memory of that vector pointing home. We put our heads down and just moved, and ultimately we made it back to our blue house. We were safe.
And now I am far from that place, on my couch, the TV humming beside me. I am unlikely to remember anything about this day. Safety is a given. Gray is the tone.
Shortly after I graduated from college, I moved to Montana on a lark. It was the best decision of my life. Everything I owned fit into my car, and my mom supplemented what I had—books, pillows, the goofy personal ornaments I thought a young woman required—with wool socks, dickies, a good coat. It was summer at the time, and nothing could have seemed so superfluous.
I think it’s possible that I get my very specific sort of wanderlust from her. She wasn’t thinking of cowboy bars and grizzly bears and poetry. She was thinking of weather—of the big sky and what comes from it, and of the way snow piles up between mountains, like those furrows I walked through and the way they started to fill and disappear before I’d made it safely home.
I understand the danger weather brings. I know that you can pick a bare spot on the lawn and move arms and legs in unison to make a snow angel, but I know, too, that some snow angels happen by terrible accident—you lose sight of home, and the muscles of your legs forget how to put forth one more step.
Cherrapunji, India, has the world’s heaviest average rainfall, with 430 inches per year. Right near me, though, Holt, Missouri, once had a foot of rainfall in an hour—a rumbling firestorm of an hour, thunder and lightning offering no sign of quitting. That’s the astonishing thing about weather. It happens everywhere. Sit still and you’ll get your turn.

But at this very moment, ice coats the houses of coastal Cape Cod, and the cars in those narrow Colonial roadways are buried beneath snow, and I can’t help myself—I want to see it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Standing at the Intersection of Art and Grace

            Someone was mean to me once, and it threw me ten years off course.
            It is sobering to look around in my mid-forties and realize that I’ve squandered some important creative years, all because I took to heart some freakishly harsh criticism from a person I loved, a person who should have done better by me.
            The “who” doesn’t matter. What happened is this: I was in the middle of a creative project that thrilled me, and I talked about it to one of the people I cared most about. This person sat me down and told me all of the things that were wrong with me. I felt I was better than everybody else. I lorded my accomplishments over others. I flaunted my education. I refused to speak normally, and instead used big words and complicated constructions to say basic things.
            This were personal criticisms, not poetic ones, but they rose from my attempt to express that moment of artistic glee—I had a project that was changing my creative life and making me feel like I had real potential as a poet.
            By the end of that conversation, I had put my pen in a drawer, figuratively speaking, and it stayed there for a decade.
            The other day, a friend mentioned that she was worried about sharing her work with her loved ones. Other friends piped in with advice. The work is important, they said; the loved ones need to hear it and support it, or they are not worth loving at all.
            Sharing work with special people is tricky. I’m always hearing artists talk about the fear that accompanies a family member reading their poetry or seeing their visual art in a gallery. And it may not be worth the trouble. When loved ones are also artists, it’s easier; they know how to honor the humanity within the work yet separate the product from the creator. Loved ones who aren’t artists may look for themselves in work; they may psychoanalyze the creator or see something unhealthy about the way we work through things on page or canvas.
            It seems like the best move may be to go ahead and keep work and loved ones separate, unless family, friends, or lovers seek it out on their own, or otherwise show readiness for confronting the artist through the work. I certainly experienced no profit from excitedly talking about my life-changing project with someone who didn’t know or care what it meant to me.
Art, including literary art, can be regarded sort of like, say, gardening is. It’s lovely to hear that someone has planted dahlias in the side yard; we can hear about the bold blossoms, maybe glance at them and appreciate their beauty and the fact that someone has cultivated it. We don’t need to investigate the roots and stalk. We don’t need to count the petals. Seeing the happiness of the gardener is sufficient. That person—and maybe any person who increases, rather than decreases, the beauty in the world—should be congratulated, cheered on.
            It is tempting to be angry with the person behind this moment that never stops being horrible. (I go back to the conversation from time to time, and it hurts just as much after all this time as it did at the moment it was happening.) The fact that this person made the wrong call doesn’t even factor in. An MFA in creative writing is not the kind of education one flaunts. A non-tenure-track job, lowest rank in the institution, is not an accomplishment to be lorded. Being awkward and stilted in conversation is not a source of pride. The poetry, though? That’s a very reasonable source of delight. A professor I had once told me that there are two kinds of poetry: good poetry and great poetry. The act of making art is, in itself, ennobling, whatever the product.
            I think the rightful focus of anger is obvious. It’s me. Most people are nice and supportive—even strangers hold doors and spare a smile. We run into stinkers from time to time, though, and from time to time, we are the stinkers. The only unforgivable act in this scenario is not reporting for duty—not answering the call of those poems that tried to find their way into being during that empty decade. Who knows what words might have visited me, had I been in position and ready to accept them?

            The unkindness of others shouldn’t change me, and I won’t let it change me again. Whatever the actions of people around me, I choose, forever after, to be a loving person and a gracious host.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Learning By Connecting

            I have always been fascinated by learning, and for most of my life, I have devoted time and energy to it, both inside and outside of formal classes. I am a student right now, actually, in a TESOL certificate program at Missouri State University, and that has me hitting the books and writing papers and taking tests for the first time in years. However, I am also trying to learn more about a number of subjects on my own. Geography is one. I enjoy reading about countries of the world; in my spare time I like to see how quickly I can fill the names of countries into a blank map. I’m getting pretty good—fast, and clear on the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia, Guyana and French Guiana, Malawi and Mozambique.
            I teach writing and speaking to international students, and right now (in fact, at this moment, as I write along with them on the overhead projector) they are writing an essay about their unique learning styles. It is a good question to ask—What kind of learner are you? For my students, the answers run the gamut, from the styles American students are well versed in—visual, auditory, kinesthetic—to their more personal preferences, like studying with others or listening to music while they work. (If my students end up being the ones who come up to you at the start of the first session of your lit class to announce that they are kinesthetic learners and may require appropriate accommodations, I apologize, and wish you well with the challenge of applying tactile elements to your lesson plans on Jane Austen’s Emma or William Wordsworth’s The Prelude.)
            My students’ assignment has me thinking about my own learning style, which is as idiosyncratic as anyone’s. For me, learning starts with seeing, whether that is with words on a page or pictures on a website. As I read, I get snagged on interesting words, and then sound takes over. Encountering a musical name like “Tannu Tuva” sends me Googling—what does Tuva look like? What do the people there do?
            Turns out that this formerly independent state is now part of the Russian Federation, and Tannu Tuva is no more. The area is properly called the Tyva Republic. It is a lush, green place, not unlike Montana in appearance. One thing that some people there do, as it turns out, is throat-singing—a method of song-making that allows them to produce multiple notes in the back of the throat. Tuva, as it turns out, was an interesting place, well worth learning more about.
            My brief exploration into Tannu Tuva is indicative of my own learning style—independent, natural, sporadic, curious, disorganized. I love factoids and I love people, and there is nothing more fascinating than learning how people in other places get through their days.
            It’s something that fascinates me about my students, too. What is life like in Gujarat, in western India? What is it like in a smaller, history-rich city in China? In Riyadh? I wonder—and I ask. My learning style means that they tell me a detail about their country and I Google away, trying to imagine where they’re from, what they’re about, what they do and love and play and sing and eat.
            I know that they’re a lot of fun to spend time with. They’re good-natured, and they go along with my sometimes-bizarre lesson plans. They are happy to write and speak and share their truths, and they have gotten over their fear of making a mistake, abandoning it in favor of their desire to communicate something essential.
            I guess my own learning style, if I’m to conclude our assignment, is to position myself in the vicinity of fascinating people and bug them until I begin to know some things they know. It is to reveal aspects of my own life so that they will, out of a sense of decorum or pity, reciprocate with details from theirs. It is, in short, to forge connections where I can.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Chi and the Writer

            Keeping a clean house doesn’t come very naturally to me. Maintaining a constant state of clutter, though? I’ve made an art form out of that. I’m not even sure where the stacks and piles come from. One day the place is tidy; the next day, chaos.
            The denizens of my house spent this past weekend cleaning. I find that the eight-year-old is just the right age to run things here and there—toy to his room, dish to the kitchen, stray sock to the hamper. (This may be why I had one of those, come to think of it. It takes a long time for a kid to become useful!)
            A clean house makes me feel relaxed. It also prepares me to take on the next project. There is no pile of mail to go through, no trash or recycling to take to the bin. May as well write a poem, I figure, rather than, oh, watching TV and feeling guilty about neither cleaning nor writing a poem. Clutter puts everything on hold; we all move through the house in slow motion.
            I went through a period a few years back when I read everything I could about feng shui, the traditional Chinese system that directs placement of items within a space in a way that facilitates the flow of energy, or chi. A real commitment to feng shui requires a much tidier setup than I have on my very best day, so I gave it up as a bad deal—but the logic of the system sticks. Our own sluggishness inside a messy house makes sense within the terms of feng shui. Clutter stops flow, stops energy, and the negative energy builds in the places where it becomes stymied. A tidy house with a careful arrangement the items within helps all of us to ride a silver stream of chi.
            In terms of writing, the neatness feels like a boon—but the effect is so temporary for someone like me, someone who leaves literal paper trails, someone whose first move upon arriving home is to step out of her shoes in mid-stride, drop her pants on the floor, then work her bra through her sleeve and slingshot it to any corner.
            There is a question inherent in all of this. Is it a good writing strategy to tidy up before setting in to work? As much as I like the (now deteriorating) cleanliness, I did blow a weekend pulling it off—and that was a weekend I could have spent writing. What’s more, a clean and tidy house has a short half-life if I’m the one living in it. A weekend of effort is effectively neutralized by Wednesday.
            Like so many problems, money could solve this one. A regular hired housekeeper could take care of the cleaning, and that would allow my family just to tidy up—an easier job, but not a small one, by any stretch.
            And along those lines, full-time childcare would also free up some writing time. And so could an errand person. A personal shopper. A chef. An accountant. It would be lovely, too, not to have to go to work. Imagine! A person could wake up when she wanted, work when (and on what) she wanted, have fun when she wanted, and end each day relaxed. May as well add a massage specialist to the mix, while we’re at it.
            But in the world I inhabit, there are courses to plan and to teach, papers to grade, kids to nurture and to play with, meals to prepare, love to make, stuff to buy and repair and maintain.

            And there’s a mess, gathering even now, in my brain and in my house. From a writerly perspective, I actually believe it can be good for energy to stall and to tangle in the brain, despite the benefits of flow. I suppose letting a thought come and letting it go is a healthier way to live—but whatever would we write about? The poet’s mind needs clutter. I just wish I could work the tangles out on my own time, within the order of a perfect home.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Rose's Writing Group

As occupations go, writing is either the loneliest or the most crowded. I can’t decide.
For me, when it comes time to put words on a page, it’s just an arm, a pen, and a notebook. What’s lonelier than that? Even if I compose on the computer, a Facebook tab visible, number of notifications indicated, it’s still just me, represented in pixels instead of blue-on-yellow smudges. There is no buffer between self and memory, nor between self and the utterly stupid things I can’t scribble out or delete quickly enough.
But the brain is a crowded place where old boyfriends and childhood playmates and the members of eighties hair bands and Jesus and my mother elbow each other and vie for attention. Real human contact makes things less crowded, I’ve found; when it’s me alone, the brain is a mosh pit teeming with grandmothers and bosses and babysitters and the person I once saw eat a Fudgsicle off the floor of a Chicago train.
The soul selects her own society, Emily Dickinson says, and then shuts the door. At some point, the writer has to select her own society and pull it off to a side room temporarily for conversation. The poem happens in that side room. Nonfiction happens in the kitchen, for me—a few souls engaged in conversation while the writer combines ingredients at the stove. The best fiction can’t be confined to a home, however; its souls take to the streets laden with flowers or hauling a Howitzer, at which point all bets are off.
Like I said, I can’t decide. It seems like I’m dealing with a lot of people when I’m writing, but when I look up from the page, there’s no one, or maybe there’s a cat.
But my soul has made an easy decision about one society, my writing group, which tries to meet weekly and features a handful of badass women who crack the whip of truth to break a sometimes-oppressive silence.
We women—creative thinkers and scholars, all—support each other in our writing projects, whatever those might be (and they run the gamut). We also help each other make sense of workplace happenings, often filtering them through a less masculinized lens than we might find elsewhere in an institution. My writing group makes me feel empowered and emboldened, both on the page and in the hallways of my workplace.

It is worth noting that we meet in a house on our campus where Rose O’Neill lived out her final days, and we call ourselves “Rose’s Writing Group.” O’Neill was known for the Kewpie characters that she famously created in 1909, but she was also a brilliant, forward-thinking artist, writer, and suffrage pioneer. O’Neill made a habit during her lifetime of welcoming artists into her Greenwich Village apartment and supporting them fully as they worked (to the extent that she spent her entire sizable fortune during her lifetime), and when I go to the Rose O’Neill House for meetings of my writing group, I feel this vibe—I know what it means to be lifted up and championed and supported. I am not alone in my creative endeavors.
I guess that’s the difference I’m considering here. The writer’s brain teems with people—this is true—but the world doesn’t much care about whether or not we do what we do. No one is waiting for the next poem to hit the page. No one needs my essays. We could probably go to the smallest village in America and find somewhere within it a novel lying in a drawer. I remember before my father died that he said his biggest regret in life is that he would never get to read everything he wanted to. I share his regret—yet here I am, jotting down letter after letter after letter, making more.
My writing group makes me feel like these letters and words and lines and sentences add up to something, and better yet, cheer them along. When a particular notion makes it from the crowded brain to the empty page—when it takes shape—we are in a territory O’Neill understood well. As she said, “I am in love with magic and monsters, and the drama of form emerging from the formless.”

As much as I am inspired by the intelligence and hard work of my fellow writing group members, I am equally moved by O’Neill’s real-life example—how she sought out the company of creative minds and gave all that she had to nurture them. That’s a model to emulate.