Echo Tree

Home.

From age five to age eighteen I lived there exclusively, after that, only during college breaks, and then for several months after getting my first audiology job.*  Let’s call it thirteen solid, formative years. Back then, before cable companies saw fit to extend service to the small population “up on the hill” and long before the town put in water lines that made development boom, we thought of it as “the boondocks.”  We lived on ten acres, mostly wooded, with a creek (pronounced crick, if you please) running at the bottom of the ravine.  I don’t remember not knowing how to capture squiggly salamanders in my cupped palm or how to identify the flat roof of the crayfish’s house and how to safely extract the creature for inspection. At night, I’d lie in bed and imagine my escape from would-be kidnappers. I’d evade them through the crick: I knew every solid rock to hit, every slippery spot to avoid, I knew every tree and every side gully.  Sometimes, during the day, like an Olympic athlete, I would run the drills I practiced in my head at night. I knew those ten-acres like I knew where all the treats were kept in the kitchen cupboards. I had my Thinking Rock, high on top of a slope looking over the ravine, where I’d sit when I felt hurt or mad. We had The Stage, a piece of shale that stuck out over the water, where I’d sing and perform with my best friend, Chris. You’d think I’d remember if that’s where we dared each other to our fist kiss – with no one else around to witness. But that might have been under a snow-laden hemlock. Maybe it was both.**

climbing tree

I was home for my mom’s hip surgery – canceled and rescheduled because of a blizzard – and so my stay stretched from an original 4 days to the longest I’d slept in my childhood bedroom since 1998. Nine days. On my mom’s dusty snowshoes, pulled up from the basement,  I traipsed trails through my old forest friend. I stopped to favorite hemolocks and cherries, thick with age, that had fallen across the ravine into impromptu bridges. I peered into their hollow, rotten trunks. How small ten acres seem at adult speeds, adult attention. Walking along the southern property line, an old friend surprised me. I almost didn’t recognize my Echo Tree; it had been so long and we’d changed so much. Isn’t that how it always is?  The branches had grown out of my reach; many were dead. Had my clambering shortened their lives? Had branch one been there back when I used to climb; was it dead even then? Perhaps. But I remembered how good it felt to amble from 2 to 3 and 4, then up to 5 and 6. The way the long, oak branches would tremble all the way out to their tips as our dog watched me from below. I itched to scamper up there again, but it was impossible, out of reach. I hooted from ground level, too embarrassed at the sound of my own loud voice – there are more houses now; more people around – to notice if my voice returned to me. I used to sit in those oak arms for ages, hollering to hear my voice. I’ve always been my own best listener.

*my brother, just 10 months older than me, finished his Navy service at the same time and was living back home for a brief period. So, after five-and-a-half years empty-nesting, my parents had both kids back in their childhood bedrooms. At least jobs were involved, and college-degree acquisition for my brother. Regardless, it didn’t last long.

**Before you go believing in the idyllic image of my childhood wilderness, let me state for the record that there were more than a few elderly septic systems whose faulty leach fields filtered into this lotic shangri-la. 

 

 

 

 

Snowpoc-eclipse

The working, but still-not-being-paid, NOAA meteorologists dialed back their predictions for snowfall yesterday afternoon. I’d been hoping for the 20+ inches that had swathed our town in a deep red on the snowfall totals map. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to describe the serenity that happens as a result of that much snow. It’s soul-calming, heart-balming stuff that leaves me eager like a hopeful kid – until I have to rake the roof to keep the glaciers from building up and shovel the ones that avalanche into compacted piles in our walkway (the poor design preceded me, I swear). But, for a few minutes, it’s magical.

The snow fell for 18 hours. Hard, small, biting. Prickly snow. At one point while out shoveling, it was 20 degrees (F) and yet sleeting. I looked up into the flat, gray sky and a tiny ice-pellet slipped behind my glasses and grazed my eye. Fist-shake to the snow-gods!! A little more than thirteen inches accumulated. Rain/snow/rain is predicted this week. It’ll be a mess. Snow like this used to stick around. I miss that.

I’m deep into my who-knows-how-long-it’ll-take moon project. Last night, after dinner and a shared bottle of wine, my husband and I talked about lunar precession and orbital obliquity for several hours… and then moved on to wrapping our brains around tides. I’m on my third month of creating a daily, hand-drawn moon calendar and my second month of calculating changes in daily moon data. This year, January gets a total lunar eclipse. Tonight. The moon is “super,” meaning about as close as it gets to the earth during its orbit. But the sky has been gray and cloud-socked for several days. I’ve had no hope of witnessing the eclipse. The universe does what it does; it doesn’t care about my desires.

8:20pm. It was too bright in my writing room. I walked in. The silver blue light of the moon shivered the deep blanket of snow outside on the deck. The white pines cast shadows, the power line, too. I could see everything! I pressed my face to the sliding glass to gaze way, way up into the sky (~66º above the horizon based on today’s data), and there it was – the moon, imperceptible shy of full and, I swear, the brightest I’ve ever seen.

Hope.

I scrambled outside and up into the dark attic of the garage. I waited for my eyes to adjust and found summer’s chaise-lounge. I dragged it down and set it up in the driveway aimed toward where the moon will be by 11pm tonight. I got my down sleeping bag from the gear closet. I’ll put on extra socks, my boots, my down coat over my wool long underwear and sweatshirt. My snowpants have been waiting for this. It is currently 4º F with a windchill of -10.

There is no bad weather, only wrong clothes. I have the right clothes. It’s not an expedition, just out in my driveway. But please, please, sky. Please stay clear for a little longer. I’ve prepared. I’ve been waiting. I’m so excited to watch your show.

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2018 in Books

I looked back at the list of what I’d read this year and felt flutters in my chest thinking about all the different places I’d gone, time periods I’d visited, perspectives other than mine I’d journeyed with. Thousands of pages that spanned thousands of years of human history, from Homer to nearly fresh-off-the-contemporary-presses. I’ve been next to Michael Collins in Apollo 11 as he orbited the far side of the moon, more alone than any other human; and I’ve been with Tommy Orange’s Native-American characters in contemporary Los Angeles. I’ve followed the history of the science of the Big Bang (not the TV show!) with Simon Singh, read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey (first published by a woman), and stumbled, badly, through Bloom’s Dublin and loved it even if I didn’t get most of it. Valeria Luiselli broke my heart with the tough realities, well told, of immigration for minors into the United States. This was after I’d read her curious novel, The Story of My Teeth, written cooperatively with workers at a juice factory in Mexico. By Danez Smith, a queer, black, POZ poet, I’ve been kicked beautifully in the gut with unapologetic language and diction reminiscent of the first time I read Morrison’s Beloved. Currently, I’m deep in a phase of Eastern European translations by both dead and contemporary Croats, Czechs, and Russians.

A handful of years ago, after Anthony Doerr got famous enough (All the Light We Cannot See) for the Times book section, I remember reading his BY THE BOOK interview. At least I think that’s where I saw this. Anyway, what I remember him saying, or doing, was the math: how many books, best case scenario, does one have left to read. He offers 40 more reading-years as a starting point, grants one book a week, (no way I’m gonna finish The Brothers Karamazov in a week, Tony), to arrive at just over 2,000 more books in a lifetime. To someone who never reads, I bet that sounds like an unbearable and impossible number. To an obsessive reader who continues to add books – old, new, classic and obscure – to her reading list every day, this number guts me. Think of all the books I’ll never get around to. Think of everything I’ll miss. Someday I won’t be able to read anymore; someday my reading life will end.

Yes, I write. But I’m starting to wonder if having a finished anything is actually one of my goals. I do finish pieces; they do sometimes even get published. But that’s never the magic for me. Yes, there’s a certain euphoria that happens during the process of creation (and certain despair as well, probably more than the former, sadly) but for me it can never match what I feel when I read truly great literature. And how could it? What’s more magical than being let into the consciousness of another. And that’s what stories are, what literature is.

My writing life’s biggest gift is the way it’s deepened my connection to literature and language. My house of books has been built title by title, sometimes circling back two, three times, until it was finally the right book at the right time (Pale Fire, I’m looking at you). Just because a book is beyond me now doesn’t mean it always will be. We grow as readers, if we challenge ourselves. As they say: if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. I feel similarly about books: if you’re not looking up frequent,  intriguing references, histories, or at the very least, words, then you’re reading the wrong books. You can lift your way from Stephen King in seventh grade to Proust in your forties.

I think it was Vonnegut who said something like: readers don’t really care about your characters or stories (fiction or non). They read because they want you to tell them about themselves. I used to have the quote written down on a sticky note. It had been on top of my piano for the past decade; I just looked for it; it’s not there. But anyway, I know for a fact I didn’t bother to attribute the quote so I could be wrong that it’s Vonnegut. Hell, maybe I said it. But I agree with him, or me: literature tells us about ourselves, but in an in-through-the-backdoor way. It gives us other people, other places and times, other philosophies and governments, other joys and terrors; it gives us language and syntax to rub safely up against. You can’t truly learn about yourself, and grow, if you’re the only thing you’re thinking of. Funny that.

Some of my favorite and most challenging reads have been works that make connections and references to things I don’t know or haven’t crossed cultural paths with yet. I’ve aspired to that breadth of knowledge and that ability to synthesize, not just for the knowing, not for the showing off, but because meaning is enriched when you understand, without looking it up, how one thing relates to another. This level of knowledge and synthesis has always seemed off limits to me, but it’s finally happening. Through years of attentive reading [read: obsessive] I’m finally starting to get the intellectual sparks of connections made, on my own, from a book I was reading a few months ago to something I’m pouring over in the library today. This, for me, is the alchemy – when all the books I’ve read spin themselves into a literary web of gold inside me.

I cannot wait for all the books to come.

“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of  each blood vessel.”  Hant’a in Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

 

 

 

This is the year that

Mark 2018 as the year that I upped my game. I used to have one journal. Years ago I added a second for fiction starts. But this year? Count ’em…one, two, three, four. It was a good year, and 2019 is gonna be even better, ‘cuz I haven’t even mentioned all the awesome new pens in my arsenal. Better save that to kick off 2019.

 

Homemade cover credits:

bottom – Dan Namingha Hopi Moon at Gap (promo postcard from gallery in Santa Fe, NM)

middle left – Edward Hopper Solitude  middle right: Room in Brooklyn

top – hands of Paddy Bedford, Australian Aboriginal artist

 

 

Teenage drafts

The winter season is upon me. Already snow hides the grass and has for days. I sang the Thanksgiving Song (the traditional one, not Adam Sandler’s ) and didn’t feel like a liar when I got to the line about the white and drifted snow. Less so w/r/t the dappled grays trotting fast, though. Maybe next year.

I’m working on a revision of a short story. Texting a friend this morning I made the analogy that the story was at its teenager  stage – it thinks it’s got everything figured out, thinks it knows everything, and sure as hell doesn’t want to be told it’s got some work to do, buster, before it can go out with its friends. I’m the parent. It’s my job to tough-love it and cajole it and do the hard work of helping it progress toward adulthood. “Being a parent is hard work,” my friend texted. This friend? She’s a for-real parent of three kids. I have none but my stories; it’s not the same thing.  Today, she’s my inspiration.

 

Moon Obsessed

If a five-year-old asked you to explain the moon, could you? Could you tell her where to look for it in the sky today or tomorrow? Would you know enough to tell her that we only ever see one side of it but not because it isn’t spinning? Of course, you’d tell her about the tides. But would you remember that there are two of each kind, high and low, every twenty-four hours even though the moon only circles us once in that time? Can you make sense of that? On an ice-clear night when tree limbs cast blue moonshadows across the snow and she points to the man up there, (or perhaps she’ll see a rabbit, as I do) will you tell her how much crap we’ve left behind on our quest to be first?

Who owns the moon? Who gets to stake claim? There are plans for it’s development – commercial interests being pursued to make the endeavor profitable. Why do anything if it’s not that, putting money in the deepest pockets?

This summer I read a glossy coffee table book about the Apollo missions by Andrew Chaikin. I wanted to hate it. I wanted to be irritated by the machismo and nationalistic propaganda that our space-race with Russia represents. But in Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon the play-by-play description of the first dramatic landing, the first steps, the words and thoughts of the astronauts who embarked into the unknown, made me feel just a fraction of the awe and wonder they must of felt. There were parts that moved me to goosebumps and tears. Michael Collins (did you even remember his name?) on the dark side of the moon for 45 minutes during every orbit while piloting the command module alone. No communication with earth or with Aldrin and Armstrong who were busy making history. Over three billion earthlings were on the bright side of the moon, even Aldrin and Armstrong. And Collins, one man, orbited alone, in radio silence, the only human in the vast, emptiness on the dark side of the moon, not knowing if he’d make it home. That’s who I want to talk to; that’s the story I want to hear.

I’ve got a new long-term project in the works. The first time I’ve ever done something like this. There are hints of ideas, suggestions of paths I want to pursue. There are realms of art and science, myth and history, waiting for collision with each other. But this project didn’t start with a why or even a how.  It started with a swerve in my brain or maybe it was my heart – same thing; I’m no dualist. A feeling that said: hey, lady, you’re conflicted about this situation so you might be on to something. But when I asked it: what, what is it I’m on to? it only shrugged and walked off.

Moon mission.

Beets

 

Desire like slipping skins

from small boiled beets.

Fingers stained, red running

down the drain.

Hard to hold —

root pulled from rough earth,

whiskered–

yes, so hard to hold

with the skin slipped off.

Is that what keeps desire out?

Then boil me; slip mine off.

Be hard to hold.

Stain.

Handedness

How beautiful are hands. How beautiful, our hands. How beautiful the hands of someone we’ve loved for years. How far away the hands of someone we’ve just met. How eloquent the hands of someone we desire. Is it all about the articulations? That I  can touch the inch between joint and fingertip and…and… What is the magic of our epidermises coming into electrical contact? How can it feel like touching when we never do? It’s just –

I can never get over that it’s all just electron shells pushing away. Is touch the physical illusion of free will? One breaks my heart more than the other.

Maybe the problem is: I want to be a poet.

The tiniest taste; I don’t mean to be so greedy. You’ve got that one tooth on my left – your right it must be then – that I can see when I get you to laugh like that. That’s what I live for. Turn it up. Make my ears bleed with what’s so goddamned funny.

Syllogism: I am made of atoms. Atoms are mostly empty space. I’ll let you finish.

I want to be here and I want to hate it too. I want to articulate the ineffable life-ness of being. But who doesn’t?

To each other we can only get 10-to-the-negative-8 meters close. I’m sure there’s easy code for that. Superscript, but I can’t figure it out.

Regardless, .00000001 meters was the closest I ever got.

The Near Beyond

I want the impossible (you, e.g.)

and if, as I imagine, by the farthest chance, 

you proved possible, I’d have to say

it wasn’t ever you I wanted at all. 

William Bronk

 

How to Keep Going

20180715_094520It’s summer and I don’t write. It’s the time of year for working, not thinking. There isn’t space for going into myself, into characters, into the what-it’s-really-about of stories. My body is not mine, my brain is not mine. I am a machine set and paid to respond to others: customers, co-workers, bosses. And then there are family and friends; even they get the jump seat this time of year.

It’s summer and I don’t believe I’m a writer. To be a writer you must write and I am not writing. I read four books at once, I listen to interviews with writers, I jot notes, I spark possible worlds when head hits pillow and forget them before I drift to sleep. I think about writing; that’s not writing.

I wait for winter. I wait for the confidence of an astonishing dawn. It will come; I keep going.

Dawnings

Summers, dawn says the dark is aberrant

but in winter, dawn’s confidence astonishes

coming with all it knows about the dark. 

William Bronk