Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lynda Barry & (Bonus!) Gift Guide

My friend sent me Lynda Barry's new book, Syllabus.  I suppose it's disingenuous to call her my friend.  I studied with her in graduate school and have been the recipient of so many books from her throughout the years, my definition of what a book can be has been whacked over the head - in a great way - many times.  It is a testament to her skill as an instructor, her aplomb as a mentor, that she is instilled so cozily in my brain I sometimes forget to credit her the years (and books) she has ahead of me. 

Appropriately enough, Syllabus is a collection of notes from and stories about Barry's years teaching the link between images, imagination, and the physical practice of writing and drawing.  I'm only a little ways in right now but already love it.  By happy accident, my husband recently brought home a different Barry book, One Hundred Demons, and I have (greedily) profited from its beauty as well. 

One Hundred Demons started as a project for, so parts of it can be still be viewed online.  This one is pretty great and gets at both the magical wonder that is the world of newspapers (in its mention of "Hints From Heloise") and at something Barry does particularly well, which is honor her outsider experience in the art world while roasting both her own weirdness and the uptight strictures from which she was excluded.  She's the kind of artist who makes me feel all right in the world, like maybe it's okay if I'm not perfect (of course that's true) and maybe it's just important to treat dogs nicely and eat food every once in awhile and maybe, whenever possible, put pen to paper because that's where love can be found.

Christmas is usually my favorite time of the year but something about travel and Tim's work and chasing a little baby around this year make me feel old.  While Samantha practices crawling, backing little white-socked feet into every corner of the house, I, truthfully, feel a little lost. 

I have always loved Brene Brown's observation that vulnerability is the first thing we look for in another person and the last thing we want to reveal about ourselves but I don't often write about emotions I'm struggling with here (other than those about Jonathan Franzen - but who isn't struggling with him every day of the year?) because I have to figure out my own problems.  Among friends and family members, I'm somewhat notorious for this.  Too Much Input = Unhappy Kara, so it doesn't do any good to air thoughts until I am ready to talk about them.  Generally, when I offer stories here, they are meant as gifts, pre-digested snippets for your happy consumption.  But I can't really hide from the fact that I am not even close to tackling Christmas this year. 

My friend called me Saturday morning and said, "Don't even try to pretend that winter in Michigan is fine because I know it's not.  I just know."  I died laughing because she grew up in Indiana, so she knows all about the Midwest winter, and besides that, she's right.  The grayness is getting to me.  I realized it on a walk last week, arrested by the sight of a glowing nativity scene.  There is a different one in my neighborhood, an old tacky one I still love, where the lamb's nose has rubbed off and Mary's turquoise robe clashes with the red trim of the camel's blanket.  The nativity that caught my eye is in the fancier neighborhood near mine, and I slowed when I saw it, entranced by its white glow in the cold afternoon.  The figures seemed to be floating on their bed of pine needles.  Something about this softness invited me in and I realized then I was starving for beauty.

I am constantly drafting an essay in my head about the importance of symbols in daily life, how an image works on the heart and mind at once, knitting them together in a glossy twine that frees both.  In Syllabus and other books, Lynda Barry tells the story of her teacher in art school who once asked, "What is an image?"  Barry seems to suggest that her whole life as an artist has been spent pursuing - pondering - this question.  I know it's not a new idea, this question of imagery, but I wonder if others have such a strong impulse to defend image.  Also, what is the difference between an image and a symbol?  I am truly interested in letting symbols speak continuously, in layers that unfold over years.

I may be tipping my hand about my religious upbringing here, but I'm really concerned with letting objects speak throughout the day: in written work, in the house, in glowing nativity scenes around the 'hood.  Looking around our house in Colorado, a friend of mine once said something to the effect of: wow, if this stuff were in anyone else's house, it would look crazy!  She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one because I knew exactly what she meant.  I often worry how many crocheted deer samplers I will continue to purchase from thrift stores, how many wooden coasters tooled by shaky Alaskan hands I will fit into my life.  But like with friendship, I don't want to close the door on what calls to me, no matter how much it feels I have.  It's not about materials, it's about voice.  I don't ever want to be so complete that I won't listen to a new voice, some intrusion or interruption in my thoughts helping me loosen my grip, some friendly reminder that life is beautiful, that I am safe, that grace exists. 

So there.  I did not set out to write about nativity scenes and, in fact, spend a lot of energy in my life trying not to talk about stuff like that.  In my childhood, religion was a seriously love-filled affair.  My family went to a beautiful church packed with intelligent, funny people.  The pews were strong and shiny and the women had eyes that sparkled.  The men were strange in their sea of dark blazers but who cared?  There was craft glue in the Sunday school rooms.  The older I get, the more I understand how rare my experience was, how poisoned so many of my peers have felt in the hands of religion.  Or maybe enough people are not talking about how it affected them in the way it was perhaps always meant to: as an offer of sanctity, as a hand of peace.  Perhaps sordid tales will always make better stories.  In Jim Harrison's novella Legends of the Fall, there is a season of respite for the main character whose life is generally in turmoil and it is for this happy season that the writer has little to say.  Happiness sometimes makes a bad story, unless perhaps you are willing to detail how you came to that happiness?

Anyway, here we are.  Friday my baby was eight months old.  I think of this fact rather as Eight! Months! Old! (a la One Hundred Demon's exclamation-laden cover).  I'd like to write that I'm a mess, but I don't know if that is true or if I just want to think of my days as worth a story to tell.  I want to say I'm ready for winter hibernation, for a well of quiet to envelop and gather me in, but I think I also need to just crank the stereo.  Off I go to decide which, piling folk art upon folk art, leaning in to find my own.

To your season, whirring and dark and everything at once,

P.S. A Very Merry Sut Nam Gift Guide

I wanted to do an image-rich guide to my favorite things this year but December ran away with my brain.  If your life is anything like mine, you are 15% done with your holiday shopping and totally fine with that.  If your life isn't anything like mine, I commend you!  That must feel good. 

1) Remember my love for Justin Hocking?  His new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is about Moby Dick, relationship addiction and recovery, and surfing in NYC.  It is beautiful and Hocking sticks the landing of every one of his literary acrobatics.

2) Claire Dederer's memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, has some of the most riveting prose I've encountered in a while, especially around Dederer's Seattle childhood.

3) I came across Dederer by her essay in the birth story anthology Labor Day, which I wrote about here and which I cannot say enough good things about - both for the topics covered and its sampling of all kinds of wonderful writers. 

4) I will never stop recommending Laura Munson's outrageously sane memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season Of Unlikely Happiness.  Munson's husband says he wants a divorce.  She calmly side-steps the blow.  They work through a summer of weirdness and she writes about it in real time.  I felt like I was curled up in her study with her, holding a mug of tea alongside her. 

5) At $12, All Creativelike's "We Are Creators" poster is cheaper than therapy.  I don't know about your sessions but it's probably prettier as well.

6) We should all be subscribing to the prolific, funny Other People podcast, a show that interviews a different author/writer every episode.  This gift could easily become an obsession for people who like to hear about how people arrive at their art.  Speaking of arriving, Amelia's upcoming book, Bon Appetempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with Recipes!)  is available for pre-order, and so is Megan Mayhew Bergman's newest book, Almost Famous Women.

7) Finally why not give the gift of good food?  A CSA, egg, or milk share would be welcome in most homes I know.  Heck, getting biblical here, you could even give part of an animal, an ethically raised pig, chicken, etc.  There's no rule that says you have to wait for a wedding to give a goat!  Buy someone's artisinal cheese and wield that wheel like the bounty it is. 

Finally, be safe, be kind, and treat yourself well! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Before There Were Owls, There Were Whales and Trolls (On Justin Hocking, David Sedaris, and Ann Patchett)

If you think I left the house last week, you'd be mistaken.  It snowed for days.  Our gutters dripped rich crystalline icicles.  (It must have looked great because the local news filmed our yard one morning).  I made soup and cinnamon rolls and one little sweet potato that my daughter devoured.  Then I did what I've been doing for months now: I went to church in the spines of my books. 

With that, I give you the program you've all been waiting for: Kara's Book Talk!  For this program it's best to picture me holding a microphone and a coffee cup, hair in an effortlessly chic, messy tumbles.  Whatever you do, absolutely do not pan down to the slippers on my feet or the snoozing child in the swing behind me.  

All right, let's get started.  Up first:

1. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld

I cannot recommend enough Justin Hocking's glorious memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. From its whale-laden cover (that shimmers in the glow of a headlamp if you read it in the dark) to its stories of geography, surfing, recovery, Moby Dick addiction, New York City, friendship, and everything in between, I was in heaven on almost every single page.  The writing is electric, the focus is roving, the narration both grounded and mystical.  Plus, parts of it take place in the place in Colorado from which we just moved.  What are the chances?!  Reading scenes in our previous Mexican restaurant was pretty fun - although it wasn't our preferred restaurant.  I would like to shake the hand of any writer who sets stories in our favorite Mexican place, as it was pretty authentic.  The Virgen de Guadalupe was draped in Christmas lights all year long, if you know what I mean. 

To which I say, yes please.  

2. Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

I haven't actually read this David Sedaris book but we went to hear him read this fall, and by "we" I mean Samantha included, despite the aggressive disapproval of one troll-like usher who did everything she could to discourage us.  When, at the program's close, I unearthed a rosy-cheeked, milk-sated infant, everyone seated around us said, "A baby!  I had no idea..." 

Thank you, thank you very much!  For my next trick, I give you...actually, I haven't come up with my next baby trick yet.

All I could think as I listened to Mr. Sedaris and laughed until my face hurt was, What a freaking pro.  It was a treat, a treat!, to watch this man perform.  There was a petite awkward moment when he extolled the virtues of Ann Patchett's collection of essays This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and dissected his favorite piece in the book.  On the other hand, it was fun to hear his thoughts as a writer, to hear his thoughts as a fan.  In fact, so much of his performance was an education in the choices a writer makes. 

3. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett's book has been out for a year now and I liked it for all the reasons I like Ann Patchett: her discipline, her belief in art, her dogged commitment to writing.  In an interview I read online (it might be this one with Elizabeth McCracken? I read the interview long ago, when Samantha was weeks old.  I was probably on Percocet.  How could I possibly be asked to remember the source?), Ms. Patchett talked about how she is a plot-driven, not language-driven, writer and this is my main complaint with the book.  However, her ideas are large and she wrestles them with humor and self-deprecation.  She makes me envious - always a good sign - and I am still thinking about her essay about trying out for the LAPD, a year after reading it, which is no easy feat.  

In a case of I don't know what - it's not exactly life imitating art or maybe it is - Tim and I both checked out copies of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage at the same time when it came out (library geeks!) and brought them on a weekend getaway when I was pregnant.  Gag me with a friggin spoon, we spent a night curled up reading our twin copies on a condo sofa, in between excursions into Rocky Mountain National Park for failed moose hunts.  (We hunt with binoculars, fyi, in case you were alarmed or suddenly felt you never knew me.)

Well, that's a wrap for Kara's Book Talk this month!  (Camera drifts to empty milk glass, tangle of modem cords next to sofa, a glaring yellow cover of The Real Mother Goose.)  Oh and, talk to me in Spring 2015 but I love all this snow.  If anyone has job connections in Alaska, please send them my way, as well as favorite recipes for brie.  I bought a little wheel on a whim this week and want to consume it festively.  In that case, maybe I'll just drape it in white lights and mount an effigy of it by our front door? 

Our Marge Simpson post
Finally, my friend Amelia Morris' book, Bon Appetempt: A Coming of Age Story (with Recipes), is available for pre-order.  I absolutely cannot wait for this book to come out!  I tested a couple of the recipes in it and gobbled up the results as well as some sample prose I had the utter privilege of previewing.
And my very talented friend Corinne Manning has launched a literary magazine called The James Franco Review.  Check it out!  I particularly recommend the FAQ page. While the logo does include a deliciously arch black mustache, the project is as real as can be.  If its mission calls to you, go for it and submit your very open-hearted best.   

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grandmother, Spider

October is in full regalia here in Michigan.  Golden leaves blanket the yard.  Spiders web everything; I found one spinning on the shower wall today.  Reading seems to be the only thing I can "accomplish" lately, which feels sad on two levels.  1) It's sad I feel the need to accomplish anything when I've just moved across the country with a baby and can finally locate all my socks, all my baby's socks, my posters, pictures, jewelry, and last but not least, the kosher salt.  Hello, accomplishment!  2) It's sad that I put so many things in front of writing some days, then wake and think &%$!!! Where have time and all my good intentions gone? 

I do have answers to that question.  Or excuses - whatever you want to call them.  We went away for the weekend, to the lovely city of Madison, WI.  I've been walking, practicing yoga, and finding my stomach muscles again, then layering those muscles with healthy bits of homemade treats whenever possible.  Earlier this month, I took Samantha on a southbound train (Delta) to visit her grandparents, her great-grandmother, family friends, and one delighted neighbor for whom she did not stop snorting with laughter the whole twenty-minute visit.  This was also how she greeted my mother, like a long lost roommate.  Does she remember the first two weeks of her life when my mom heated my coffee first thing every morning while I nursed a ravenous baby?  How she cooked chickens and pasta, sang lullabyes on the porch swing with only one little baby nose poking out of a blanket, accompanied her to the pediatrician, and did approximately 1,873 loads of laundry in our humble abode in Colorado?  I read something today that said grandmothers are the link between the past and the future.  Yes, that's right, I thought, thinking of the circle between my mother, Samantha, and I. 

Alas, I put off writing this blog post because I read Jonathan Franzen's memoir, The Discomfort Zone, and loved it.  I don't want this to turn into a Franzen fan site, but I kind of do want to turn it into a book club some days.  If I do that, though, I'm going to have to talk about something other than J. Fran, or no one will come to my parties anymore.  

I also read a great book called Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and he has this advice that on your way to getting your work out in the world: you should talk about your process.  Well.  The thought of doing this makes me very nervous, which is a weird response from someone absolutely obsessed with process. 

Maybe it's a case of not fully claiming who I am yet?  I.e. that person who one hundred percent likes to sit in circles, hold hands, and chant with strangers?  Transparency, openness, and all that?

One of my good friends regularly re-reads her journal and old letters.  If I did that, I would be paralyzed by the banality of all my former entries which read like co-worker chit-chat:  Should I make kale for dinner?  I feel bad I skipped yoga to watch old Arrested Development episodes, etc. etc.  In any case, you can read my old journals or you can take my word for it: I'm obsessed with process. 

With Austin Kleon in mind, therefore, I feel the need to come clean.  I'm working, okay?  By which I mean, I'm writing.  I just don't like to talk about it because 1) I'm superstitious.  Trotting out ideas before they are in the physical form of words feels almost the same as chucking them straight into the trash can.  2) I'm afraid I won't follow through.  If I don't follow through, I will feel like a jerk and a slob.  Since it's a fear of mine that I really am a jerk and a slob, I try to minimize the ways I discover this about myself.  I'd rather pretend I spent the whole day hanging with my baby and staring into trees than admit to my six crises around being productive enough.  And when I say productive enough, I mean as a writer.  Always.  I am never not working, even when I'm watching spiders in the shower.  In a way, I love this part about being an artist, because the job of an artist is simply to stay open, to take in the world around herself, make sense of it, see it for what it is, and someday give it back to itself in the form of a poem, a painting, pen to paper, or maybe just an honest conversation between two friends.

A couple years ago, when I took stock of the accomplishments in my life, I was delighted to find that my marriage topped the list.  I wasn't proud because I snagged a husband or anything weird like that (although being a married woman is a trip worth a collection of essays for sure).  I was proud because building a marriage is not unlike building a house, and keeping it straight and clean and safe against the elements is, to me, an honorable undertaking, and it is one I thoroughly enjoy.  

Without going down the righteous road of pride over a relationship (I recently joked that the first person to get a divorce is the person who writes a how-to book on marriage), what I'm trying to say is what I'm always trying to say: I am interested in the light on trees, the shape of my husband's front teeth, the pattern stamped on our living room rug, the pitch of my daughter's babbling voice, the way her face smells like cereal and pancakes even though she isn't eating "people food" yet.  I am interested in the moments that make up a day and how I feel about those moments as a human being.  My head is up my ass, for sure, but I like to believe that I'm also simply witnessing life sometimes and that some days, being witness to the day is enough.    

It's a fine balance, though, this yin and yang of being alive. I find myself exploring that balance all over again this season.  In September, I told my friend that plenty of my career's woes could have been solved if I had only kept on the paths I started down in my twenties.  Instead, in self-consciousness and fear, I dropped off a few dreams at the curb.  I'm circling back now to pick them up.  Maybe that is how it should be: is there any way to get to today's understandings, clear and true, without the long embarrassing road that leads us to them? 

Still, when I think ahead to the grandmother I want to be someday, the words I say to my still youngish self are: Keep Going.  You don't have to know what you are doing or how it is going to end.  You just have to keep going.  You can do it.  One foot in front of the other.  One word after the next.

And with that, like a baptism or an omen, I just spilled coffee all down my front.  Motherhood has made a klutz out of me.  Samantha sleeps across the room in her swing, a contraption I will keep until she turns eighteen, and still my hands cannot be trusted, as though they prepare me for our toddler days ahead, when the house will get wrecked and the one smashing dishes on the stone floor of the kitchen will be a blameless, toothless one. 

With ink on my hands and a heart on my sleeve,

Thursday, September 11, 2014


One morning last week I rose before everyone else.  Not wanting to stir Samantha in the bedroom, I sat in the comfy chair in the office, waiting for coffee to brew.   

In our (Tim's) new (variation of his old) office, this chair nestles close to a tall, packed bookcase.  We are discovering that this arrangement makes long-ignored books now impossible to ignore. 
Looking for something light to read, something easy to slip in and out of, I perused the books nearby.  I wanted a subject or style of book that wouldn't take me too far, psychologically, from the book I was already reading.  As soon as I could get back into the bedroom where it lay next to sleeping Samantha's head, I wanted to continue reading this book (the autobiography of a horse whisperer, obviously). 

You know what I grab, when I'm looking for an easy read?  Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. 

When Tim rose and saw what I was up to, his eyes lit up.  "I've been waiting for someone to discuss that book with!"  What can I say, I know how to turn on a man.  I was hooked the minute I read the blurbs on the back which, ironically or not, turned out to be about The Corrections.  I started reading Freedom even though I swore I'd never read another Franzen novel after I finished The Corrections.  What's more, in the first three pages of Freedom, I only had one urge to throw the book across the room.  Ditto the thought, "He's not very nice, is he?" 

The truth is, I like Jonathan Franzen.  I like to hate him sometimes, but that's just me being petty, envious, and on alert to sexism, of which I saw plenty that morning.  Or was it just that no one is safe in the world of JF?  I told myself I had five-hundred-some pages to test out my theory, but at the end of that book, I was no closer to my decision than when I began.  I'm pretty sure no one is safe from the shredding wit of this somewhat impeccable novelist, and yet women's bodies seemed to get a lot more descriptive gaze than the male characters in the book.

The following passage sums up what I've come to think of as this book's sneaky sexism, invisible possibly even to the author himself:

"Myriad were the things that Walter hated about modernity in general and car culture in particular, but the confidence of young women drivers, the autonomy they'd achieved in the last hundred years, was not among them.  Gender equality, as expressed in the pressure of Lalitha's neat foot on the gas pedal, made him glad to be alive in the twenty-first century."

Even when the male protagonist, Walter, admires a woman, it comes off as condescending.  The mention of that "neat foot on the gas pedal" pretty much undoes whatever gender equality for which the narration might be reaching. 

Could I Google a hundred cranky analyses of this point?  Probs.  Instead I'm writing you about it.  Over on Grizzly and Golden, I write about recently reading Roxane Gay's book of essays.  I feel on high alert after reading it and my clunky analysis of Freedom reminds me, a little bit, of the responsibility and burden of critical lenses: how it can strip the light from soft-focus living, and sometimes the fun from consuming art.  It is better to be awake, for sure. 

I mean, I think it's better to be awake?  I keep thinking to myself, It's good to be aware: of racism, sexism, and the lack of basic civil rights for everyone, rights I'm not sure how to go about ensuring for everyone, at least in my daily life. 

It's good to be aware, just as, when I listen to a country song that sentimentally croons a line akin to "wasn't it great how Daddy sat around drinking all day?," I'm not buying into a myth that casual, harmless alcoholism exists.  All the same, I know what songs with lines like that are trying to say and the fact remains, I'm sometimes game for what they are trying to say.  (Country music stations are essentially selling feelings, as many of their schlockier songs make all too apparent.  This said, I am in no way game for racism, sexism, or a denial of basic civil rights under any circumstances.)  I guess I'm talking about symbolism, then, allusions and words that radiate once they've been uttered, like a rangy, modern Sanskrit with seed syllables, where whiskey means home, and certain guitars, to me, mean freedom.

Over Labor Day, we visited a tourist town that was absolutely off the hook.  We deserve a medal for not succumbing to a single trance-music-blaring shop.  A car parked by the ice cream shop played "The Humpty Dance," you know? 

In some comical reductionist version of ourselves, I bought a bundle of sage while Tim took our daughter on walkabout, searching for postcards. 

We are addicted to this lake, y'all.  It is wondrous.  I once disparaged it, long ago, on my first road trip with Tim to the Midwest.  (I mean, I was living at the ocean!  At least, that's my excuse.)  That trip was filled with first-time family visits, the newness of our life together, humble, open appetite.  I was also reading The Corrections
on that trip.  Returning to Franzen now when I'm returning to Lake Michigan, with Tim and a new round of hopes for our life together - could this be coincidence?  A sign?  Some subconscious homage to America?  I really don't know.  I liked Franzen's latest book, though, I really did.  His attention, his care, his dedication and ambition are undeniable.

I hope you had a lovely Labor Day, one perhaps full of unnecessary Americana (and maybe one in which your whole family accidentally wore white T-shirts, like ours did?). 

May friendly fall cozy your way soon! 

With love,

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Eat Cake

Hello!  We moved.  To Michigan, of course. 

Earlier this spring, around the time we were tapping our feet for Ms. Samantha to arrive, my husband received news of a professional opportunity, so when Samantha was five days old, we loaded her into the car to drive downtown and do what we always do with good news: eat cake.

It was an unusually busy night at our favorite coffee shop and the barista had to ask an attractive, talented young woman to move her charcoal sketching from a four-top to a two-top to make room for my husband, my baby, my mother and I.  My lasting memories of this coffee shop will therefore be of this woman's gorgeous artwork alongside Samantha's tiny head which was topped by a hand-made, crocheted beanie given to us by a nurse in the hospital, a nurse who was from Michigan herself. 

That was the first and last time Samantha slept in her car seat in public for months, by the way.

In case you didn't know this - as I seemed to forget it every two years in my twenties - moving is hard.  Thankfully, we had lots of help from Tim's industrious co-workers and people handy with a broom.  Tim's father helped him load our entire life into a trailer last week and drove one of our cars across the Great Plains where we camped and took breaks and ate ungodly amounts of peanut butter before arriving at our destination. 

Having accomplished this feat, I have two lasting questions:

1. Why do we own so many basketballs?
2. How did I forget how beautiful Nebraska is?

Last weekend, Tim's family descended accidentally en masse and turned our home into a hive of activity.  His mother washed all our dishes.  His father swept and trimmed and dandied our backyard.  His brother drilled holes into bookshelves and assembled them and blessed our home with his presence.  It was a little like living inside a Nikki McClure calendar and, also, like being Steve Martin in the remake of Father of the Bride.  Or it was like being a bride on her own day-before-the-wedding.  There were not enough minutes in the day to give proper direction: whatever happened was going to happen and it would have to be okay.*

Then everyone left, returning us to what is becoming a theme in our life lately and thus on this blog: I miss them. 

Being pregnant and having a baby and then moving halfway across the country makes me realize more than ever the value of help and in particular the unsanctioned kind, the kind that happens whether I like it or not, whether I am involved (in control) or not.  These days, I like this kind of help.  In fact, I like it a lot.   

I suppose it's all a little cliche, like having a baby suddenly sets your priorities straight, but in my case, life is full of such wonderful chaos right now and if someone wants to unload all my furniture and set things in the "wrong" place, I say, please do.  Because it might be years until I have time to set it in the "right" place, and I can't leave things on my lawn that long. 

Speaking of leaving things on your lawn, I've been unpacking to the soundtrack of a country radio station.  It's like the dog I don't have underfoot anymore - static, company, entertainment.  Molly Wizenberg writes about it in this post, and I write about it in this post, and Tim and I keep talking about it lately, which is this: there is something so satisfying about country music!  Even when the lyrics are terrible.  It's true, I love country music's culture and cliches and even moved out West to be close to some of them: horses I will never ride, sagebrush, a scorching sun, the Wyoming I like to admire from a safe distance. 

But now there is new land to explore: cherries, apples, a big ole lake, and apparently a whole culture that supports inexplicably shirtless people.  The dress code in Michigan is endless fascination already and like a proper housewife I watch it from every window I can.   

Wishing you a blissed out August, full of blessings for which you'd never ask.

With love,

*This is a metaphor I know in metaphor only.  My own wedding was a deftly choreographed thing of beauty designed mostly by my mother, involving everyone lovely in my life.  I simply showed up in a white dress and it was beyond glorious.  The only credit I take is in choosing one helluva handsome man to stand beside me that day.**

**I'm reading Chuck Klosterman right now (IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas) which makes me want to footnote everything.  I am dreaming in footnotes right now.   Klosterman is like a David Foster Wallace sandwich with George Saunders and Rob Sheffield smashed in between.  And while I am (sadly) not one of those DFW zealots who run around this world, I find Klosterman pitch perfect. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014


Hi.  It is the middle of July and cold in Northern Colorado.  Lots of rain, lots of mosquitoes, and a downstairs neighbor who leaves the back door of our house open and invites in all the flies.  He has a sweet dog - hence the back door left open - with silky black hair, so I forgive him.  Also, this person is very nice, and, while we're on the topic, nice is an underrated quality, I think.

There is that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history," which a friend recently (and completely flatteringly) mentioned in conjunction with my name, but within that idea and now all this talk about how bossy is a bad word, there seems to me a danger of promoting one more patriarchal idea: it's okay to step on others.  Although there is nuance in all of these discussions, and behaving wildly does not necessarily mean behaving rudely, I'm afraid I esteem tact and kindness more than almost anything and I don't want these virtues to get lost in a race to be noticed.  I hope my daughter is kind and wild and powerful and considerate.  Is it possible?  I'm not sure.  But the men I surround myself with all share these qualities so: why not?  I guess it's a balance thing we're talking about here. 

Am I ranting about how to behave again?  Sorry.  I am shy about what I really want to talk about which is...birth!  That's right.  You had to know it was coming, right? 

1. A book called Labor Day came out recently with the tagline: "True birth stories by today's best women writers."  At first I was like, who says?  Who says these women are the best women writers?!  (Nevermind that old debate about why we have to tack "women" in front of the "writers" bit.  Oy.)

Anyway, the book.  It's freaking awesome.  I recommend it to anyone who has ever had a child and wants to be in conversation with other smart, wry, honest, open women about it - in book form. 

Ina May
2. My friend recommended Ina May Gaskin's Ted Talk recently and I watched it.  Another friend and I have discussed the dangers of obsessing about having a natural labor as pitfall for feeling badly about yourself if your birth goes otherwise, but I really really like Ina May and her talk!  At one point, she speaks about having "good manners" and not telling birth horror stories, so that as a culture we start taking the fear out of birth. 

As a woman who has now given birth, I agree 100% with Ina May - or maybe, like, 93%.  I agree one should (always!) consider audience when telling a tale, and also intention and content.  But, I dunno, it's sometimes helpful to talk about everything and process it.  Ina May suggests this is what a therapist is for but, in my experience, one great girlfriend can offset decades of therapy. 

Birth Story, Internet Style
3. I've gone back and forth about sharing much beyond pictures of Samantha on the internet because I like to follow social etiquette and keep the private private.  Buuuuuut, I'm a writer, and writing is how I know: it is how I listen, how I feel, how I process, how I love.  So I wanted to talk a tiny bit about the birth of my first child because, like most things in my adult life, I once again found that inside challenge are the sweetest kernels of light.  Also, I am newly obsessed with birth stories - see item 1 - and have found other posts on the internet helpful, generous, and comforting.  Like chicken soup for the internets.  So here we go.

I gave birth to my daughter by caesarean section, after many many hours of natural labor.  When I showered finally after giving birth, because of the medication I was on my husband was instructed to stand guard.  I guess narcotics plus wet tiles are not good in combination?  Anyway. 

Among the many things I never understand until I go through them myself (aka everything), one thing I hadn't counted on was how much my stomach would shrink immediately when my daughter was no longer inside me.  The first time I showered, I undressed from the clothing I had specially bought for the hospital which was already now too big.  My hair was in tangles from days of labor and sleep and being transferred from bed to surgical table to bed again by other hands.  My now-soft abdomen wore its pregnancy line, a deep tan stripe from my sternum to my incision, which itself was reminiscent of Frankenstein: strips of tape like zipper teeth holding my skin in place.  In short, I was a mess, and yet my husband and I both thought the same thing.  Actually, I thought, Holy F**k, I am gorgeous while he went so far as to say it.  "You are beautiful," he said, and I knew what he meant.  My body wore its wounds like a badge of honor, the injuries of a passage between two worlds: pregnancy and motherhood, utero and birth.

In the beginning of my pregnancy, I surrendered my body to its animal nature.  As my skin stretched and muscles cramped, I began to think of my body is as a thing to behold - not just in pregnancy but for the rest of my life.  If an excavation team stumbled on my remains in two hundred years, I felt with pride my body would offer them information.  Like a mare or ewe or cow, my body would tell the story of offspring.  I had been a mother: here was proof. 

I'm sure this kind of reducing myself to biological factoids is horrifying on some feminist level, but it's obviously not the first time I've thought of my life in terms of nature.  Last night, in fact, my husband burst out laughing when he overheard me say that spending my days with an infant is not unlike encounters with a wild animal: even though she doesn't speak the English language, in her eyes, the intelligence is all there.  She is one hundred percent present, and intoxicating.  I guess he wasn't used to his daughter being compared, in essence, to stumbling upon a wild buffalo or a wolf, but I say parenting a young child is not terribly different.  For me, respect and intuition are key. 

So there's my story, a piece of it anyway.  And here is my wish, for all of us: that what we have been through matters, to each of us and all of us, and we learn ways of sharing through the grief and the darkness.  Because therein lies the whole of life's experience, and by such practices I believe we may learn, and love, and evolve together. 

To your story, to those with whom you feel safe enough to share it, and to all the gems that come from living through it, like this little banana boat, my own personal buffalo calf:

With love,


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Poetry On The Doorstep

In Charge
Once upon a time, I helped run a writing camp for high school students.  The graduate department where I studied was in charge of the camp and the whole thing was fun fun fun.  We also, for some reason, launched fundraising efforts each year.  I think I'm remembering this correctly.  If not, it's because I want to block out all memories of fundraising because it makes me squeamish and I'm terrible at it, two things that likely go hand in hand.

One year it was decided we would see which among the writing genres was the most generous.  Multiple containers were purchased and each genre was charged with depositing spare change or larger bills into those containers.  The man behind this believed that writers, being a competitive lot, would be shamed into donating more and more money to meet the donations of their peers.  I don't know what world this man came from, besides a hard-working optimistic one, but in my experience writers have never been shamed into parting with their money, mostly because they have so little with which to part.

Joe Bueter: Man of Mystery. And Miracles.

(Young) Joe Bueter
Needless to say, that fundraiser flopped, but some good did come of it, namely, a dark green jug stenciled Poetry across its belly.  This jug I promptly commandeered at the end of the competition and installed on my doorstep.  I meant it as a real invitation: just as I had a mailbox to receive postcards and bills, I had a jug where anyone who wanted to could drop off a poem.  Few friends took me up on the offer, the exception being our saintly friend Joe who supplied us with poems for a good two years. 

As if to prove his saintliness once and for all, the day Tim and I finally moved from town, Joe gathered all the items that did not fit on our moving truck and hauled them away to Goodwill for us.  My lasting memory of leaving Wilmington is of Joe driving away with my rickety old writing chair sticking out his back window.  I lost a good chair that day and also a good deal of cynicism about human beings.

I write all this because Sut Nam Bonsai used to feature a poem in each post.  The poems, combined with my natural wordiness, added up to quite a lot of text and I feared it was just too much.  I came to believe that the people wanted pictures (and I believe I'm correct on this point).  But when I saw this tribute marking Allen Grossman's passing and read the words, "Poetry is a register of the moral order of experience and of the metaphysical order of nature," I felt a twinge of shame that I had let SNB's poetry habit die so quickly, and so quietly to boot. 

Truth be told, I'm no match for the scads of proper poetry websites out there.  I also felt guilty sharing poems without express permission by the writers or their publishers.  It's one thing to copy a poem for a friend and mail it in a letter, but a whole other thing to make it accessible for copying and pasting on the internets.  I dunno.  What do you think?  What I do know is, due to an appreciation for groceries and electricity, SNB's litigation funds run low.

However, that summation of Mr. Grossman's life sobered me and woke me to the pleasures I gave up when I worked full time, when poetry started to feel like a luxury I could not afford.  So, in honor of a man who said, "the principle of poetry is a collective and perpetually renewed act of love," and in honor of the rhythm my life at home once again affords me, here is a poem or part of a poem, from Wendell Berry's The Country of Marriage

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

To the moral order of experience, to you, and your renewing acts of love,

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

White Lightning

It's late in Colorado and the Miller Moth migration is in full swing, in our living room.  Samantha and Tim both take advantage of the late hour by cat-napping before bed.  One of them mewls like a real kitten - can you guess which one?  Tim asked that we close the front door as no self-respecting Midwesterner would be caught dead resting on purpose (although he made the crucial misstep of marrying someone so delighted by this fact she records it every chance she gets).

My mom left this morning, returning home after her second tour of Sam Duty.  What can I say - the house is empty and the hours are less fun.  This child-rearing is lonely business some days, but we have more visitors arriving tomorrow.  Hallelujah.  We also spent a week at the beach and I brought Sam to my parents' house for a little fellowship, sleep, and my debut binge on Lonesome Dove. 

Needless to say, among summer fruits and the porch swing, I've got the South on my mind.

I used to store a jar full of water on my desk at work to water plants.  A few times a month someone - usually a man - would joke that I kep a jar of white lightning with me at all times.  I loved these moments, not just because someone really thought a spaghetti sauce jar looked like a Mason jar but also for the peek into these people's psychology and the culture from which they obviously hailed.  While many co-workers were curious about the jar, only people raised in rural environments made the leap to white lightning.  I loved knowing that we came from similar places, that behind our stratified business personae lay childhoods where people farmed or hunted, where tables were set with biscuits or sweet tea, and where everyone knew someone with a mean stash of hooch.

Lest I give the wrong impression, my family attended Presbyterian services and redneck ways were hard to come by in Connecticut, where I grew up.  But my family is unmistakably Southern and the Carolinas are, for me, some Garden from which I left as a child.  My fondness for them is obnoxious, I realize, though I have not lived there for years. 

Maybe I will have occasion to live and work there again sometime.  In the meantime, people who bring me quail feathers from weekend hunts and co-workers who believe my plant water is moonshine light my way home.

I resigned from my completely excellent job to take care of Samantha and I miss my friends at work.  My grandmother worked in an office for most of her career and still gathers with people she worked with - she just turned 90.  I totally get it.  I want to be in touch with these people forever. 

The older I get, the more I realize the best parts of life are the people in it.  Tonight I feel lucky just to be here, broken in the best way, wonder the only available prayer.