Why I’m a Bad Blogger, Plus a Book Recommendation

I’ve decided that I’m a terrible blogger for several reasons. The main ones are:

a) I rarely do it. And the longer it’s been, the more reluctant I am to write a post. It’s sort of like the longer you wait to take out an odoriferous bag of trash, the more foully pungent it becomes. Only with less grossness and more of a sense of, “I haven’t written anything in SO long, so whatever I write next has to be REALLY good.”

b) I don’t usually feel the need to share my unsolicited thoughts and opinions with large, undefined groups of people, ie, potentially the entire population of the world that has access to a computer. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever ever felt this need.

c) I don’t like spending any more time on the computer than is absolutely necessary. I feel like my eyes are going to turn into little glowing rectangles while the world transforms itself in a million beautiful ways outside my window.

d) I sort of neglected to respond to the first several comments that lovely people made, and subsequently resolved not to respond to ANY comments, in the spirit of fairness to all.  Which, I imagine, defeats the whole purpose–or at least one of the main purposes–of a blog.

e) I over think every new blog post in a way that I never over think any other form of writing, which I don’t consider a fun use of time–it’s sort of like the mental version of a dog chasing its tail. I ask myself so many questions that I’m in danger of squashing the heart and soul of whatever it is I’ve written. For instance, does anyone want to read this? Is this too revelatory? Is this not revelatory enough and therefore, horror of horrors, BORING? Does this make me sound x, y, or z? (Never good letters with which to be associated.) Do I even care about this topic? Do I care so much about this topic that I don’t want to fling it out into the “void”? Yes, I do think of the internet as the “void,” despite you (as you are currently, kindly, reading this) having fingers and toes and nostrils, maybe a cold, a favorite chair, preferences in ice cream and secrets you’ve never told anybody–in other words, you are a very human presence filling that so-called void. And maybe that’s what is so frightening: that you may be reading this, having chosen it over starting a pot of soup or checking your e-mail or wrapping presents or working for an honest buck, and–sharp intake of breath–it MIGHT BE A TERRIBLE DISAPPOINTMENT. When I write at my desk, it’s just me and a stack of paper, a pen, and some flickering candles. No disappointment allowed.

Maybe that’s one of the things I love so much about writing. Non-blog writing, that is. It’s a safe space to discover uncharted territory, an entry into a world unknown and yet known so deeply I am surprised at how well it’s kept itself hidden. It’s a means of connecting to what’s inside myself and outside myself, beyond my control. And yet the act of writing gives me–the wielder of the pen–a certain power: over disappointment, artifice, and doubt. Power to create something that is larger than myself.

I guess I have some learning to do. About letting go and being okay, at times, with letting my words sail into the “void.” And about putting into practice the same fearlessness I’ve cultivated in writing fiction at my desk when writing a blog entry to be posted on-line. Of course, I will never force myself to post on my blog. I will only do so when I darn well feel like it. Which, I guess, is what I’ve been doing anyway.

In the meantime, I will be finishing off this bowl of cannelli-bacon-garlic soup of delight that you didn’t even know I’ve been eating as I type. Then I’ll eat a peanut butter ball (or “buckeye,” if you’re one of THOSE people).  As always, I’ll be doing lots of reading, which is a good way to get work done AND pretend that I won’t be going insane for the next five months (see previous post for details).

Speaking of reading, here’s the recommendation promised in the title of this entry:

The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. It would be a fun anthology to be in someday, although of course I wouldn’t be alive to see it. (Grandkids’ show-and-tell?) It’s a long book, around 600 pages, and I read only about half of the essays. (So many books, so little time!) A few of my favorites were:

“Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” –Adrienne Rich

“Total Eclipse” –Annie Dillard

“The Solace of Open Spaces” –Gretel Ehrlich

If you’ve read any of those essays, or decide to after reading this, let me know what you think. I promise I’ll respond.

 

 

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Eventful Times

Earlier this week I taught my first full-length workshop at the Literacy Center of West Michigan (LCWM).  About a dozen students made up of learner-tutor duos attended. Chris Belding, a literacy coordinator at the center, organized and hosted the event. In the weeks leading up to the workshop, I was worried that I would feel nervous about leading it, and that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations as a result. Luckily, I was well prepared, having taught my kitchen chairs the evening’s lesson a few times, and having the advice and example of teachers and mentors to fall back on. Plus, all the little details that I hadn’t thought of already, Chris had. I entered the conference room where the workshop was to be held with a feeling of calm excitement. The workshop went smoothly. I led two activities focused on how to start a story, based either on memory or made up events. The majority of the students were ESL learners, all of whom shared their work when given the opportunity. I was so proud of them.

Next week I will start working at the LCWM as the Program Assistant for the Community Literacy Initiative.  (The workshop, incidentally, was in the planning phase before I applied for the job.) I am already convinced that it will be a delight to embark on projects with Lindsay McHolme, the Community Literacy Liaison with whom I will be working closely. I’m looking forward to joining a great team of people passionate about improving literacy in West Michigan and helping connect people and organizations for the good of the community.

In January I will begin teaching a Freshman Composition course at Hope College. I am thrilled to be returning to my alma mater, where I have already been warmly welcomed by the professors in whose classrooms I learned so much. I have the highest regard not only for their intellect but also for their warmth, wit, and wisdom that helped shape my college years and beyond. It was an honor–not to mention a bit daunting–to see my name added alongside theirs on the schedule.

Lastly, I continue to work on my MFA in Creative Writing, and am gearing up for my residency in Louisville, KY next month. The residency will kick off my fourth and final semester. I’m excited for the Teaching Practicum workshop I will be taking with poet and associate director Kathleen Driskell. And of course, I can’t wait to see my Spalding “family.” I recently told someone that no where else and at no other time than during a residency could I walk down the sidewalk with my peers while having an elated discussion about the comma.

 

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Impressions

Some days I just want to paint. I want a huge canvas and brushes of all sizes, some with soft bristles I can swish against my cheek before I dip them into color. Color: that is what I crave. Pure color, mixed color, colors working with or against other colors. Why is it that painting an everyday object or scene seems to give it more importance? Is it because someone deemed it worthy of recording, or because viewing a painting invites deeper contemplation than simply observing our accustomed surroundings?

Right now my house is filled with plants belonging to others. I’m caring for them over the fall and winter months. I translate their appearance into Impressionist paintings in my mind, dashes of color becoming porcelain, chlorophyl, shadow and light. Knobby geraniums with their flat, fuzzy leaves burst from painted pots, a few flashes of vermilion petals leftover from the summer’s growth. The spindly fronds of spider plants cascade from their terra cotta containters; vinca vines, edged in white and tinged with pink, creep their way to the windows. I look around and think: greenhouse, jungle, summer in the wintertime. It will be good to be surrounded by green as we ease into another season.

I once created a series of mounted paintings emblazoned with the words, “The only thing constant is change.” As the leaves turn to rust and gold and fire out the window, and the outdoor plants move in, I am mindful of the constant change in my own life. There are seasons of plenty, and dry times, too. Times of feeling connected to others, to good work and a sense of purpose, and to the true, unhindered self; and times of disconnect and feeling alone.

Through all of this, I write. Sometimes it is with the hesitating Pointillist dots of uncertainty. At other times it is with great sweeping strokes of vivid color, Expressionist-style, the power of painting scenes with words bursting from my fingertips, making me wonder why writing is ever difficult, until I hit that next difficult time. Things change, perceptions shift, and always the human instinct is to record the world as we know it, to give it back in a way that reflects our own experience. We snap pictures, we dance, we put brush to canvas and pen to paper. We communicate and create.

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Unexpected Acquaintances

Most mornings I go for a walk, then spend a little time with a book or two to help me get my mind on track. Right now I’m reading from Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton, Otherwise by Jane Kenyon, and The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. I like the mix of  philosophy and theology, poetry, and daily reflection. Structurally, each book lends itself to short periods of reading: a cohesive thought, a poem, a day.  While I would describe each writer as intelligent and passionate in his or her own way, in terms of personal background, not to mention written subject matter, they make up a wildly varied trio.

Which gets me thinking.

What would happen if Thomas, Jane, and Sofia sat down one afternoon over coffee and started talking? Granted, the scenario requires a certain suspension of belief: let’s say boundaries such as time period, place of residence, language, ability to travel, life circumstances, and death no longer matter. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me briefly introduce you to my morning companions.

Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, KY; poet and essayist, social activist,  student of comparative literature, priest.

Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995) Poet and translator; former Poet Laureate of New Hampshire.

Sofia (Sonya) Tolstoy (1844 – 1919) Writer, editor, agent, mother of thirteen children.

I imagine the rich aroma of coffee filling a bright, comfortable room. The window is open, the breeze is soft, and dappled light moves on the white tablecloth. Thomas takes it upon himself to serve the coffee in blue and white cups, pouring in the smooth fashion he’s picked up during his travels to Asia.  He is genial; Sofia is polite and animated. Jane is distracted at first by the cat on the windowsill, a poem forming in her mind. When her attention returns to the group, Thomas senses she has a gentle, generous spirit. Sofia feels at ease and thinks, “Thank God! Here is someone who won’t rant about peasants!”

They talk of feeling displaced–not here in this room, where they all feel quite at home–but in their own lives: the death of one parent and then another, the fixture of family erased; the steady blankness of depression and the constancy of words on a page; a vast estate presided over by a largely indifferent husband. This conversation brings them to the second round of coffee and a tin of something sweet.

A new energy fills the room. Typically private in her religious devotion, Sofia is emboldened by Thomas’ open manner to question his views on transubstantiation. This discussion evolves into passionate discourse about hypocrisy in the modern church, which proves a difficult topic as they each have a different perception of which era constitutes the “modern.” Thomas gets up to pace the room, drawn back only by Jane’s quiet voice asserting that perhaps it is Art, in its truest form, which can serve as a conduit for reconciliation. A heartfelt recitation of favorite poems ensues, during which Sofia, growing restless and unable to deny her habitual mothering tendencies, rises to place a saucer of milk on the sill for the mewling cat.

“Let’s hear your poem about the cats and the geraniums,” Thomas says to Jane, whose smile is like a flower opening. Sofia returns, tucks herself neatly into her chair, and listens with rapt attention. Filled up with the memory of this meeting, she won’t need to consult her diary for days.

Writing fiction can be a lot like this: placing incongruous characters in the same room and seeing what happens. I never quite know what to expect.

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Coming Home

Not quite two weeks ago I drove home from a residency of the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.  When I turned onto my street I found it transformed: the foliage of the great oak trees on either side had grown from the small, waxy leaves of my beloved chartreuse to the deep green leaves of full-fledged summer.  I passed through the breezy tunnel, marveling at the change, and pulled into the driveway. My husband must have been listening for my car because he came down to greet me as soon as I got out to stretch. The first thing we said to each other (or maybe the second) was, “You’re cute.”

The next day, as I enjoyed the morning quiet at my kitchen table, a new sound joined the rustle of leaves outside the open windows.  Someone singing opera! In the street! I dashed from window to window to catch sight of the source, but the glorious tenor voice had faded and no one was to be seen. That evening I happened to look up from my place on the sofa as the long light of late May reached past the houses and trees,  through the flung-wide door of the porch overlooking the street and basking in the shimmer of the undersides of leaves, and into my house. A perfect triangle illuminated the south wall, from the top left corner of the front door to the bottom right corner of the Degas ballerinas and across the drawers of the purple desk to the wide painted trim that meets the floor. Edward Hopper was in my living room.

I recalled a favorite praise from a college writing professor scrawled in colored ink in the margins of one of my stories: Edward Hopper beautiful. I knew what she meant; I had managed to capture something stripped to its essence, its bones, something that gleamed with the truth of itself.  It’s the sort of thing a writer hopes to write always.  It reflects the kind of moment, fictive or real, that shies away from offering up words that give itself meaning.  Sometimes a thing is so spare in its infinite richness that to assign it an explanation renders it lifeless. And yet that struggle, that willingness to be with something that defies pinning down while remaining so wonderfully and complexly itself, is  always worthy of our attentive presence.

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Oh, Bother: A Bibliophile’s Trip to the Library

Hey there. It’s been a while since I’ve written.  Mostly, that’s because I’ve been working on other writing. And, reading–the two, of course, go hand in hand. I hope you (and by you I mean my vast and patient readership that has eagerly awaited this post, or so I’ll tell myself) had a lovely April. I’m enjoying this day in early May, my windows snugged up in their sashes, the birds conversing merrily, and the new leaves just a bit larger and greener than yesterday.

I just returned from a brisk walk to, a long loiter in, and a giddy-with-my-literary-treasures stroll back from, the library. I quite enjoy living so close. Now, I know that most people write a book review after reading a book. But I’ve never been much for following the ordinary track. Today I offer you a pre-reading review: the reason I was drawn to the book like a bee to nectar, and why, after perusing it, I found it so irresistible that I just had to take it home. Shall we commence?

#1. A non-book, Pimsleur Language Programs Complete Course II, Part B: I went looking for this one as my Italian language practice these days has been sadly lacking. I’ve used this CD before and it’s great. Actually, I’ve exhausted the entire Pimsleur Italian collection twice over, minus the Advanced CDs, which no library appears to carry. My endearing Italian professore in college (who spoke seven, eight, twelve languages?) taught in the same manner as these CDs are arranged. Each 30 minute lesson is a verbal exchange in which the learner repeats and responds to a native speaker until s/he actually remembers some of it. The subsequent lessons build on the phrases and vocabulary of the previous ones. This auditory/verbal style of learning is the way to go if you want to be confident in your language skills. Plus, the language is pure music.

#2. Imagination in Place, Wendell Berry. For some of you, the author’s name says it all. For others, you’re a fan of the imagination, and you like the idea and importance of place, and you wonder what those two concepts will look like together between the covers of a book. The cover art, if you were intrigued enough to pull the book off the shelf, might seal the deal: who could resist sun-kissed raspberries tumbling toward them? In all seriousness, I gave a little gasp at the fortuitousness of stumbling across this book in the “New” section. Berry has a way of making his readers think about language, the land, and so much more. I might have squealed a bit when I read this W.B. quote on the back cover: “Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, or the ability to ‘make things up’ or ‘think things up’ or ‘get ideas?’ Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way?” Like Berry, I answer that question in the affirmative. I can’t wait to read this book.

#3. Walking Papers, Thomas Lynch. His newest collection of poetry. I may or may not have stalked this writer/funeral home director in his hometown of Milford, MI. Other (possibly) guilty parties shall remain anonymous. Walking Papers is pleasingly slim, with a spare cover design and a minimalist palette. The collection is divided into three parts, the third of which begins with the title poem. It’s opening line is “I reckoned reading Frost would put you right/” after which I haven’t let myself read on. That line alone ushers me into the comfortable yet lively cadence I associate with Lynch’s poems. He’ll be reading next week at the library where I picked up this book. There’s something so complete feeling about hearing a writer read his work.

#4. In Search of Duende, Federico Garcia Lorca. Because I’ve always wanted to read it and never have, despite studying both Spanish and literature. And what writer wouldn’t want to read about a literary legend’s dark muse? (If I can reduce it to that, for the sake of this entry!) I was reminded of Lorca recently when reading Hemingway’s short story “The Butterfly and the Tank” for a small group session at my upcoming residency. The story takes place in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, during which Lorca was assassinated. At the risk of sounding cliche, I’m glad he lives on in his writing.

#5. Poems from the Book of Hours, Rainer Maria Rilke. I love Rilke. And I have a giddy attraction to small books. And this book is delightfully small. Since I already own the full text of The Book of Hours, I thought at first that I should be a good person and leave the little gem for another wandering reader. And then I thought maybe I could be an even better person by reading these selected poems by this wise, thoughtful, deeply feeling writer–whenever I wanted! Because I could slip the book into even my smallest purse and carry it with me! Actually, that last bit’s lie. I just wanted the book. It’s about 4×6 inches, its covers made of thick, textured card stock of a color between apple and mint green (you might have seen this shade on one of those Pantone color mugs–pure joy for a color freak!) Twelve white circles are spaced evenly across the cover in a 3×4 array. All but the second row of circles contain one word each of the author/title, and all of them are loosely covered by the gold outline of a clock, progressively moving through the hours. Yes, this book is alluring enough to select it solely for its cover. BUT–the contents, my friend, are nourishing to the soul. This book is so delicious inside and out that I would eat it were it edible.

#6. And speaking of eating…Italy, Dish by Dish: A Comprehensive Guide to Eating in Italy, Monica Sartoni Cesari, trans. Susan Simon. Compact and appealing on the outside, and bursting with region-by-region menu items, dish descriptions, ingredients and preparations within. I would list some of the dishes, but I’m already drooling. Italian wine and cuisine described in precise detail in one convenient little book? Yes, please. Next step? Dinner in Italy. Let’s go.

And that’s where the “Oh, bother” comes in. So many books opening so many doors to new places, food, ideas, stories…Where to begin? How glad I am to ponder such a question.

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Lucky to Create

How would you feel living on a street with that name? Lucky? Or unlucky anytime something less-than-wonderful happened in your life, like the name was mocking you? Maybe it wouldn’t effect you at all.

This picture was taken near the second of the six places I’ve lived in the past four years. My days of walking down Lucky Street seem like part of a different lifetime. I’m feeling pretty “lucky” to be where I am now. Unless someone hands me the key to a villa in Tuscany, I plan on sticking around.

Lately I’ve had the song “Easy Street” from the musical Annie in my head. A friend mentioned kazoos, and I immediately thought of Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, buzzing away on a kazoo as she performs the song with Rooster and Lily. And of course I thought of my own beloved yellow kazoo from early childhood. I remember playing it once (if you can use that verb with something so rudimentary) in the kitchen while my mom was working there. I’m sure the sound got quite annoying. Alas, I wish I knew where that kazoo was now. A dash of childhood, please?

I had the opportunity yesterday to be in a warm, welcoming place surrounded by lovely, kindhearted people. The simple purpose of being together was to create–cartoons, poems, scarves, you name it–and share, if desired, what we created. I brought along a little-used sketch pad and a well-used set of oil pastels. My name is written on the edge of the box in little girl handwriting. For about half an hour I lost myself in drawing, an activity I rarely went a day without in my childhood.

Yesterday, as in earlier years, that place of creation felt safe yet exciting, comfortable yet invigorating. Choosing which color oil pastel I wanted next was instinctual; thoughtful without falling into the realm of analytical thought. The process of creating with color feels natural to me. It’s self-reflective as well as a means of self-discovery, if only in a small way.

At its heart, making visual art is like making stories or poems. The process of each form is often nourished by a return to the creator’s roots: the deepest, truest self, the accumulated layers of–well, everything else–peeled away. The inhibition that remains is childlike, allowing the creative spirit to flourish. Adulthood provides the added benefits of life experiences, years of practice, and acquired skills. But those perks aren’t helpful without first being grounded in the essential self. Knowing this self provides a certain spaciousness for the creative process, a light-filled sanctuary brimming with potential. Then, it’s possible to create anywhere, no matter what street or state or country or phase of life you live in. I promise.

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