Sunday, February 11, 2018

On Currents and Writing and Focus

For the past few days, I’ve had an image in my head of a flowing creek, with a large but smooth rock sitting right smack dab in the middle. Currents flow around it, the water streamlined and purposed; this implacable boulder gives the appearance of being, by all rights, an integral part of the flow rather than an obstacle, as one would tend to think of a huge rock in the center of a moving path.

I didn’t come up with this image in a vacuum. Recently, the writer Lauren Groff tweeted about celebrating her 20th anniversary of “taking writing seriously.” She clarified: “By taking writing seriously, I mean that a thing happened that made me decide to make writing the immovable boulder at the center of my life. Everything else—family, friends, other work—has to find a way to flow around writing.”

Have I done that, I wondered, either consciously or subconsciously? In the creek of my life, what does writing look like and has that been working for me? This image stayed with me, her words lingering until I was forced to come up some vision of my own stream, my own boulder. And what I think is that for me, for now, writing is more like a collection of smaller rocks, haphazardly arranged. The water still flows, around and over these less-imposing obstacles, but it’s harder for a person to navigate, should she choose to swim or walk downstream. If she had a small boat—a canoe maybe—it would be very challenging to steer a clear path.

If your stream looks like mine, others can visit and they will experience it much like you do. They, too, will have a hard time navigating around those smaller, randomly-placed stones. But if there's just the one, large boulder, if you have made writing a central, essential part of your stream—well, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? They can see what to do, how to proceed.

One day, I’ll have to put on waders and some sort of sturdy backpack. I’ll have to gather those smaller rocks and stack them in the very center. Over time, with any luck, this mound of craggy stones will become smooth and unified by the currents. And if I’m very, very fortunate, the new, imposing structure will be big enough to climb and rest on, high enough to see around the next bend or further towards the horizon, but still low enough to dip my toes in, allowing for an easy transition back into the water.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My Grandmother's European Tour

During World War II, my grandmother, Mary Bailey (later, Bowen), was in Texas serving in the Army as a nurse. My mother was five years old at the time, and left back in West Virginia in the care of her grandmother, Addie Bailey. My grandma was away from sometime in 1943 until September 1945; my mother remembers this specific return date, and remembers the extended family members living at her grandmother’s during this time. Only one man was around, one of her uncles who had a deferment; the rest had been drafted. This story of my grandma’s service was something I heard as a child and in the way of family stories, didn’t appreciate more fully until I grew up and had kids of my own, and no longer had her around to ask about these many months away from home. I do know and remember that she was very proud of her career, which continued in private practices after she returned, and of her service in the Army. As well she should have been.

Recently I was going through photographs and mementos with my mother, things both from her boxes and those moved over from my grandparents’ home. I’ve always had an interest in family photos and thought I had seen all of them, but some of these items I hadn’t. My grandparents have been gone for over a decade, but my uncle had been living in their place until his passing, a couple of years ago. So.
We came across some papers regarding a trip my grandmother took in 1962. Apparently, the professional organization of nurses to which she belonged planned a European tour. She traveled with them for a month, making stops throughout Italy, France, Germany, etc. My mother was already married and out of the house but her brothers—my two uncles who were born after the war—were fifteen and sixteen. We found the many letters my grandma wrote home, detailing her impressions (loved Capri, underwhelmed by Florence, etc.). In some of them, she mentioned her disappointment about not having a letter waiting for her at one of the hotels on the itinerary she’d left my grandfather and the boys. Apparently, they’d been given the directive to send these letters, so they’d be waiting at her stops. This is so like my grandma, I can’t even tell you. Overseeing everyone, being very clear about what is expected of you, making you feel your importance in her life while also being good to herself. There were a few letters from the eldest of her sons: telling her about a new girlfriend, hinting to the fact that he’d been promised a car when she returns.

I loved reading my grandma’s impressions along her journey and seeing her familiar, steady handwriting. I love that she made a few notes about souvenirs she wanted to purchase along the way. And I love, most of all, that she had the gumption to make the trip in the first place. Like my grandma, I’ve always loved travel and also like her, I’ve been known to be good to myself from time to time. My kids are about the age my uncles were when she went on this trip and I can’t even imagine doing something like that at this stage. In some ways, it was easier to go away when they were a bit younger. I don’t know if that’s because it feels like there are so many more things to keep a handle on these days, or because their time as children is so dangerously nearing its end. At any rate, I know this opportunity must have been difficult for her in many ways, but also very rewarding. Like her time in the Army. Like anything worth doing in this life, which has a way of presenting opportunities and challenges arm in arm.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Marianne Moore


Before Marianne Moore became a poet, she was a teacher, then an assistant at the New York Public Library, where she began to meet other Imagist poets. Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. Moore drew much inspiration from the natural world, especially animals. A new collected edition of her poetry was released this year.
by Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
Under a splintered mast,
torn from ship and cast
              near her hull,

a stumbling shepherd found
embedded in the ground,
              a sea-gull

of lapis lazuli,
a scarab of the sea,
            with wings spread—

curling its coral feet,
parting its beak to greet
            men long dead.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorite Reads, 2017

Another year, another (smallish) dent made in the to-read pile. I read 44 books this year, up slightly from last year's 40 but continuing the cooling trend due to, probably, the time I spend watching singing and dancing reality television. But I managed to read 29 novels, 13 short story collections and 2 memoirs. And because I'm a giver, here's a list of my favorite 10. It's interesting to note that 6 of the 10 are story collections, which probably signifies some other sort of trend I could analyze if I were competent in math (I'm not). Also, I find myself feeling defensive now about the novels...I will say that I read many VERY good ones. But only a few earned my highest rating. So, without further qualifications, the ten best things I read this year (in categories!!):

The Overdue Favorites

First on my list are two books that I've seen, from time to time, listed as someone's favorite. After you see a book referred to enough times amongst a circle of writers, I figure it's time to take notice.

So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) by William Maxwell

Fifty years after a death in a small town, one man tries to reconstruct the past and reconcile his memories. An elegy of a book, full of life and sadness, written in a straightforward, lyrical style that cuts straight through to the heart. Worth every penny and all of the accolades it continues to get.

Jesus' Son (1992) by Denis Johnson

The first story of this collection, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," is a fitting introduction to the impact Johnson's style has on a reader. Straightforward, always surprising, with a dash of poeticism at moments you may least expect it. The narrator is a drug user of questionable judgment and motive, and yet, there's no qualification in it. I suspect some of the influence this book has had is due to its form--interconnected stories--and certainly, from the unique style, which has opened doorways of imagination for many writers. Either way, it deserves its status as a classic.

The Maverick

Transit (2017) by Rachel Cusk

This book gets its own category because there are none like it, this, my very favorite read of the year. When writing strikes so close, it's difficult to explain sometimes. The second in Cusk's Outline trilogy, this novel follows the same narrator, who has relocated to London with her two sons after a divorce. There, she purchases a dilapidated flat and tries to make renovations. So, that's the plot. But what this book is, and can do, is something else. Like all of the best fiction, it's about love and loss and memory and pain, about identity and relationships and what, if anything, we can count on to be real. The first two books in this series have left a mark on me, and I expect to lose sleep waiting for the third.


This year, I read several authors for the first time, not because they are new authors but because our paths finally crossed.

What the Thunder Said (2007) by Janet Peery

Peery is the writer of novels and short stories, and the recipient of numerous awards; most notably, she was a National Book Award finalist in 1996. So, not a new writer at all, but one I'm lucky to be able to explore now. Set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, this novel follows the progress of the Spoon family through a range of perspectives and voices. A uniquely American story, with themes of perseverance and the bonds of family. Oh, and it's beautifully written.

Eveningland: Stories (2017) by Michael Knight

Another author I probably should have read earlier but at least I can pillage his previous writings--both stories and novels--now. Knight is one of those writers who seem to have a spotlight on the human condition. All of the stories are set in and around Mobile, Alabama, and highlight the everyday concerns of people carrying on despite the best the outside world can throw at them: home intruders, oil spills, hurricanes. An immersive read, full of treasures.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (2014) by Tove Jansson

The date of 2014 refers to the translation published in the United States. Jansson was a renowned Swedish-speaking Finnish writer who passed away in 2001. She was also a painter, illustrator, and comic strip author, and her varied artistic leanings come through in these original stories. Many of Jansson's characters face isolation and the complicated pull of artistic creation. A dark undercurrent runs through and yet, I found the stories, ultimately, hopeful. Sidenote: any time you're looking to shake up your reading routine, New York Review of Books Classics is always a solid bet.

The Masters

Living in the Weather of the World (2017) by Richard Bausch

I've been playing catch-up with this prolific writer, having come to him too late a few years ago. And every year, something of his seems to make my favorites list. As implied in the title, these stories are about weathering storms, the varied ways we press on. Through a diverse host of characters, Bausch always seems to be able to hit the chords that resonate most deeply, reminding us of our shared humanity. Truly a heartfelt and masterful collection of stories.

Runaway (2004) by Alice Munro

Another writer I return to, again and again, to remind myself how good writing can be. Like Bausch, she's a master of character and feeling, and illuminating the "small" things that make up a life. Bonus: afterwards, you can watch the Pedro Almodóvar film Julieta, which was inspired by this collection. I found it to be a spirited and intriguing interpretation that I enjoyed very much.

The Indies

Disclaimer: I have the distinct pleasure of knowing both of the following authors, either online and/or in person, and I may have been lucky enough to read these books in earlier forms. So I'm doubly pleased to include their wonderful novels which were, truly, among my favorite reads of 2017.

Blood & Water (2017) by Katie O'Rourke

I'll share with you what I've already written about this novel because yes, I've been yammering about it for a while already:

"Delilah is leaving her cheating boyfriend and she has nowhere to go except the home of her brother, whom she hasn’t seen since their mother’s funeral five years before. David is a single father trying to manage his teenage daughter, and he’s not exactly pleased when his wayward sister shows up. From the opening of this absorbing novel, as Delilah nurses a black eye and ransacks her apartment, trying to decide what she can’t leave behind, I was fully along for the ride. Blood & Water is Katie O'Rourke’s most compelling and heartfelt novel to date, a story about family—past and present, predetermined and chosen—and the deep veins that keep them connected."

Now go and buy it, and support a talented indie author!

Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey (2017) by Ashen Venema

In the author's own words:

"Course of Mirrors is a gripping and enchanting story of a young woman’s odyssey. Its overriding theme of a quest for belonging has a universal recognisability and appeal, and will be continued in Ashen’s sequel, Shapers, in which Ana’s journey continues into future worlds.

Inspired by 1001 Nights, and writers like Ursula Le Guin, Ashen Venema’s debut novel will appeal to fans of fantasy novels and those who enjoy coming-of-age mysteries."

This was new and intriguing terrain for me, a story unlike anything I've read. The execution of this multi-levelled, wholly unique novel was amazing to watch unfold. A truly inspiring accomplishment, which you should buy now!

Thanks for reading my list, and for reading, in general! Here's to many more discoveries of new worlds in the new year. Please tell me your favorites from 2017, particularly that one book that won't let go...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Frank Bidart

The poet Frank Bidart's career has spanned almost fifty years. He's the recipient of many accolades and awards, most recently, this year's National Book Award. More about his writing here and here.
Visions at 74
by Frank Bidart 
The planet turns there without you, beautiful.
Exiled by death you cannot
touch it. Weird joy to watch postulates

lived out and discarded, something crowded
inside us always craving to become something
glistening outside us, the relentless planet

showing itself the logic of what is
buried inside it. To love existence
is to love what is indifferent to you

you think, as you watch it turn there, beautiful.
World that can know itself only by
world, soon it must colonize and infect the stars.

You are an hypothesis made of flesh.
What you will teach the stars is constant
rage at the constant prospect of not-being.                        

Sometimes when I wake it's because I hear
a knock. Knock,
Knock. Two
knocks, quite clear.

I wake and listen. It's nothing.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Chris Forhan

Chris Forhan is an award-winning poet and a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. His memoir, My Father Before Me, was published in 2016 and tells the story of the author's coming of age during the 60s and 70s, and of losing his father to suicide. Forhan writes of finding solace in poetry. Poems, he believes, relay "a sense of openness, of receptive attention to a life that enchants and baffles.” You can find more information about his writing here.

Gouge, Adze, Rasp, Hammer

by Chris Forhan

So this is what it's like when love
leaves, and one is disappointed
that the body and mind continue to exist,

exacting payment from each other,
engaging in stale rituals of desire,
and it would seem the best use of one's time

is not to stand for hours outside
her darkened house, drenched and chilled,
blinking into the slanting rain.

So this is what it's like to have to
practice amiability and learn
to say the orchard looks grand this evening

as the sun slips behind scumbled clouds
and the pears, mellowed to a golden-green,
glow like flames among the boughs.

It is now one claims there is comfort
in the constancy of nature, in the wind's way
of snatching dogwood blossoms from their branches,

scattering them in the dirt, in the slug's
sure, slow arrival to nowhere.
It is now one makes a show of praise

for the lilac that strains so hard to win
attention to its sweet inscrutability,
when one admires instead the lowly

gouge, adze, rasp, hammer--
fire-forged, blunt-syllabled things,
unthought-of until a need exists:

a groove chiseled to a fixed width,
a roof sloped just so. It is now
one knows what it is to envy

the rivet, wrench, vise -- whatever
works unburdened by memory and sight,
while high above the damp fields

flocks of swallows roil and dip,
and streams churn, thick with leaping salmon,
and the bee advances on the rose.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Point: A Conversation

               I was talking to someone today—about what I can’t recall—when they said something unexpected.

                “What’s the point? What’s the point? What’s the point?”

                “The point of what?” I asked.

                “The point of everything.” They looked away.

                “Well,” I said, chuckling nervously.

                A car sped down the street with purpose. We both watched it.

                “Do you ever feel like you’re on a wave?” they asked. “Not the crest, the peak, not on top of it all, riding along. Below that, under. The smooth, rising part. You’re coasting really, but the violence is just overhead, waiting to crash down and push you under. Annihilation.”

                “Oh,” I said, imagining it. I closed my eyes and saw the blue expanse, smelled the salty air. “At times," I said, "I think I have felt like the swell, before the wave builds.”

                “Yes,” they said, imagining it.

                “The idea,” I said. “The movement.”

                They glanced at the sidewalk, kicked a dried leaf out of the way. “But still, what’s the point?”

                “Every day you find a new one,” I said. “Every week you finish something. Every month you figure something out. Every year you grow.”

                “And then?”

                “You keep going,” I said.


                “Because we do.”

                They rolled their eyes. “I suppose you’ll say something about love now.”

                “Sure,” I agreed, relieved. “Love. Beauty. Goodness.”

                “The shimmering ocean,” they said. “Impressionistic mountains. Flowering bushes, fresh bread from the oven, a dusting of snow on the edge of a fence.”

                “Art!” I said.

                They shrugged.

                “People too,” I said.

                “Not people,” they said. “People you can’t predict.”

                I hold out my hands, palms up. “You can’t predict the weather either.”

                “In general,” they said, “you can. The seasons. What’s most likely to happen.” They shook their head. “People you never know.”

                I let my hands fall. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

                “It’s not a matter of feeling,” they said.

                Another leaf drifted down from a nearby tree. We watched as it floated to and fro, at times a gentle falling and then, a swift swoop. We listened to the papery sound when it settled onto the pavement.

                “Better you stay alone,” they said.

                “You can’t mean that,” I said, leaning to pick up the leaf. “Can you?”

                But when I straightened up, holding the dried husk in my hand, they had gone. A buzzing in my ears, a cavern in my gut.

                “You,” they whispered. One last rasp of warm, Autumn air.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka