Sunday, May 29, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Patricia Hampl's beautiful and lyric memoir The Florist's Daughter.

Drinking: h20

Thinking: Just lovely.

And about this: "He could accept the notion of my being "a poet" better than my mother's idea that I was "a writer." Poets are innocents, they belong to the ether and the earth. They don't narrow their eyes and tell tales as "writers" do, proving in their mean-spirited way that the earthlings are filled with greed and envy, that the world is a spiral of small-minded gestures. Poets, at least, don't tell tales on other people. They celebrate beauty. They make much of little. Flowers, birds, and the names of things are important to them. So being a poet was all right, though hopeless." (P112)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Yesterday AM

Yesterday I was a guest blogger for Hunger Mountain, and at the last minute was asked if I could contribute some photos to accompany my words. At first I panicked: my daughter was with me all day--how could I get away to take decent pictures? But then I threw some food into a bag, strapped her into her car seat, put my camera in my jean-jacket pocket, and started driving.

"Where we going, Mama?"

"Ummm...we're just going for a little drive."

"Why?" (Her favorite, two-and-a-half-year-old question.)

"Because I need to take some pictures."

"Of what?"

"Ummm...(driving, looking)...of things I like. Of things I find interesting. Of things that catch my eye. Here. Want this apple?"

In my grandmother's field recordings from the early '60s you can hear my two-year-old aunt in the background of many tracks. It's one of my favorite elements--this record of how my grandmother followed her passion and made a career happen for herself despite the fact that she was a mother of five without childcare. It also speaks to my ideals of parenting: that our children our incorporated into all aspects of our lives--not just our gardening and cooking and housecleaning but our art-making as well.

We stop at an abandoned farmhouse and snap pictures of broken windows behind which sixty-year-old curtains still hang. We drive to the lake, slip off our shoes and dip our feet into the cool water. We climb back into the car and drive past the dairy farm down the road where I try to surreptitiously snap photos of the broken machinery littering the yard without stopping long enough to let anyone catch me looking and acting like an ass. We snake through the skinny back roads of Guilford, going slow.

"What you looking for, Mama?" She asks, crunching on her apple.

"Umm...some kind of interesting house to take a picture of." The truth? A turquoise colored trailer I once saw down this way, somewhere.

"Our house would be good. How about our house?"

I laugh. There's no one like your two-year-old to call you out on your habit of aestheticizing poverty. Why not our house, or any of the well-manicured and recently-built ones we're passing?

After thirty minutes or so I think she's getting restless, that we should turn around, but soon she's joining in. "Oh Mama! I saw something!"

"What? What was it?"

"It was a really pretty tree." And so I stop the car, back it up a few yards and she points out a Maple with a towering crown. It is pretty. I climb out and snap a photo. I show her the shot. We both smile.

I heard Sally Mann speak once about how she was always throwing her kids into the back of her van and setting off through her Virginia landscape to take pictures. I'm sure there was a fair amount of eye rolling and complaining from her young cohorts, but this trip with A has me thinking. About how, through this enforced road trip, I'm giving her a window into my creative life, something that, with writing anyway, usually happens behind closed doors. How I'm teaching her the art of looking. How I'm modeling how to be both artist and mother and revealing the expression on my face when I'm passionately and creatively engaged.

And best of all? We're having fun. We're listening to music we both love, and feeling the warm breeze on our faces, and talking. On the way home she drifts into sleep and I drive the skinny back roads home, my eyes still scanning the front windows for that evasive turquoise trailer, but glancing into the rear view mirror a whole lot as well. To watch: my daughter's apple-and-dirt-stained sleeping face. And think: what a friend I have, and how she and I might just have to start doing this kind of photo-essay-road-tripping, by car or by foot, more often.

Hunger Mountain

A heartfelt thanks to the winsome literary journal Hunger Mountain for inviting me to be May's Guest Blogger. You can read a few of my current thoughts about writing and the writing life here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Today's Menu

Today's Menu: Ecotone, The Sex & Death Issue

Drinking: Red

Thinking: How spectacular to find a literary journal one loves so. Read: Thomas Kennedy's essay "Gas-Pump Girl, 1966." You can find a tease here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Porous (Or, Why my Tiny, Not-finished House is Just Fine)

I’ve been re-reading Gary Snyder’s collection of essays, A Place in Space, of late. It’s a book I bought at nineteen while living in my grandparents’ carport in the heart of Tucson. The floor of that carport was dirt and the walls made of ocotillo fence through which I could see, on one side, an alley lined with crumbling adobes and on the other, my grandparents’ scrub yard. I set up a tent, a rug, and a Coleman stove and woke at dawn each morning to the sound of the neighborhood dogs barking and mourning doves singing and the smell of the Chinese food wafting in from the house next door. I would step out of my tent, make a cup of black coffee, and climb up onto my grandparents’ roof to watch the sun blaze pink across the Santa Catalina Mountains north of town.

I had left my Ivy League college that spring, without plans of returning. My dorm there didn’t suit me: a square room with navy carpet and a couple of bunk beds on the second story of a large concrete building with blasting radiators and stiff windows. I wanted, desperately, to know where my heat came from and where the shit I flushed down the toilet escaped to and I wanted a landscape I could make contact with, intimately. Neither did the classes suit me; they were intently focused on what I considered to be arcane and inconsequential knowledge: narrow visioned close readings, intertextual referencing, historical name tagging. I can see the benefit (joy, meaning, significance) in all of that now, but at nineteen I was after a bigger question: How does one live a good life? And so I left Brown for a carport in a city in the desert.

And found: Gary Snyder. In his essay, “The Porous World” Snyder writes: “One can choose to live in a place as a sort of visitor, or try to become an inhabitant.” I spent that spring working for a potter in the mornings and, in the afternoons, driving my grandmother’s 1978 Toyota Corolla (a car I will perennially love) to the foothills, taking off my shoes, and walking barefoot up into the mountains. I never brought much with me: a water bottle and, if I remembered, sunscreen. One day I took a long hike: six hours or so, with just a few scraps of food, climbing up out of the desert (saguaros, ocotillos, and palo verdes) into the higher manzanita plateaus, then circling east until I found another trail leading back down again.

Snyder goes on to say that he and his family set out to live a “porous and permeable” life amidst the hills, without screens or fences or dogs to keep out deer, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, mud-daubers or mice, and that by doing so they found an intimate knowledge of place and self that took on both ecological and spiritual dimensions. My bare feet were an attempt, similarly, to perforate the boundaries between the landscape and myself, to become an inhabitant of a place, to build a true relationship with the non-human world around me. I thought often of scorpions and rattlesnakes and the mountain lions that populate those mountains and how, if I came across one, it would be a lesson in many things. Humility, for one. The need to learn a new language of forgiveness and reckoning, for another.

At the end of that spring I moved home, and that next fall went back to college, where I decided to study religion, the only place where that perennial question—how does one live a good life—seemed to come into play. I studied Buddhism, and Christian mysticism, and moved off campus into an apartment in a Portuguese neighborhood where the smell of the downstairs neighbors’ cooking chicken wafted through the cracks in the floor and the windows were drafty and pigeons cooed on the rooftops.

I stopped, at some point after that, reading Gary Snyder, and after college, stopped even thinking much about Buddhism or the mysticism I’d studied. But returning to his essays at thirty-three is like returning to a home I didn’t remember leaving. I haven’t stopped thinking about the subject matter, or asking the questions, I’d merely forgotten the language. The porous and permeable is something I think about obsessively regarding the literature that moves me, the music I aspire to make, and yes, the spaces I inhabit. It’s why I don’t particularly like screened porches or raised decks or garages; it is why I’ve needed a fire-escape in every city apartment I’ve lived in; it is why I love French doors and open-air patios and houses built close to the ground; it is why I like minimal square-footage (forcing you to make the yard an extension of your living room), and trailers, and RV parks and tents.

As Snyder writes, porousness is a reflection of the Buddhist philosophy of interconnection, which is the one thing I walked away from college believing in: that happiness comes from dissolving the boundaries between the self and the world outside the self. The Buddhists aren’t the only ones: Willa Cather wrote, “That is happiness, to dissolved into something complete and great.” Leonard Cohen sang, “The cracks are where the light gets in.” And the mystics of pretty much any world tradition would agree. How does one live a good life? There are a million answers, but living a porous, permeable lifestyle is a decent start. Open doors, bare feet, open minds, open windows, untrustworthy cars (that could deposit you, empty handed, in any given place), forgiveness, small houses. You and it and that are me and I am you. This reengagement with the language of inhabitance makes me proud of that circuitous, confused route I took in college—that need to answer some vague and un-discussed question—and makes me see how that young quest led me here: to this small, earth-nestled, French-door infested drafty house in the woods, a place where my aesthetics, politics, ethics and spirituality are so wholly (yet full of holes) fused.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: A Place in Space; Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds by Gary Snyder

Drinking: Tea

Thinking: What a treat it is to return to these books of my desert-dwelling post-adolescence. The political and spiritual implications of ecology...New Nature Poetics...tawny grammar...the permeable, porous life...reinhabitation...the "art of the wild"; I am delighted.

Friday, May 6, 2011

No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments. Fictions serve as well as facts.”

Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

Spring Beauties

Thursday, May 5, 2011


[Avifaunae:The birds present in a region, an area, an environment, or a period of time]

My grandfather asks Avah and I, from his hospital bed, if the wildflowers are in bloom. My answer? I don’t know. And so that afternoon we set off into the woods. And find: spring beauties, trout lilies, red trillium about to open, and colts foot littering the side of the road. Yes, we tell him later that afternoon, and name our finds.

My grandfather knows the name and song of every New England bird. Even with his hearing aid he hears them singing long before I do, his mind forever tuned for those other, quieter voices. His eyes will drift towards the woods, glance upward. Song sparrow? He’ll ask, hoping my young ears will help his old ones. It’s a source of continual shame that I’ve never been able to help him in that quest for recognition. Gary Snyder said that to be a poet you must learn the names of things. I read that when I was twenty, living in the desert, learning the names of desert plants, which at this point, I’ve mostly forgotten. I didn’t quite believe Snyder then, but I do now. Learning the names of one’s flora and fauna and birds teaches one the language of place, teaches one to look closely and listen carefully, teaches one to step outside of the self on a regular basis.

My grandfather’s side of the family were intellectual naturalists—friends with Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, emotionally reserved and naturally attuned. I was always drawn towards my grandmother’s side of the family: desert-dwelling redneck artists, lives rife with tragedy and hot with emotion. We made my grandparents a bumper-sticker a few years back: Warning, Combustible Material: Musician and Physicist on Board. And me? I spent my youth learning country songs, not bird.

On our way back from our wildflower walkabout we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker and Avah, (whose name comes from avis, latin for bird, sign, omen, and portent) looks up into the trees. “Sapsucker,” she says, and I smile. A few weeks ago a sapsucker hit my grandfather’s glass windows and she and my dad went out into the grass and held its stunned body in their hands, then watched if fly away. Sapsucker: medium sized woodpecker with a red forehead and yellow breast.

We walk home through the swamp behind my parents’ house, a jungle of moss-covered fallen trees, sponging water under foot, and upturned roots that still smell like bear. In my grandfather’s sickness the birds have been his greatest comfort, and we have kept his two birdfeeders well stocked. A constant flutter of cardinals, juncos, finches, chickadees, and sparrows have kept him company. There’s a bear coming around on a regular basis, too. One night my grandfather woke to the sound of it knocking his feeder off the window. He got up and opened the window and he and the bear stood staring at one another, both upright on unstable legs. “Shoo!” My grandfather called out into the dark, and the bear fled.

In the evening, on our way home from the hospital, we stop our car by the beaver pond and watch two beavers nibbling sticks. We breathe quietly. Hold hands. Avah asks why Grandpa is sleeping at the hospital when she is sleeping at home. I tell her that he doesn’t have a mother to take care of him when he is sick, like she does. She nods. We are grazing the surface of truth. I don’t yet know what I’ll tell her if he dies. She knows about death from watching the seedlings we started a month ago: the ones we left out in the cold died; the ones we overwatered died. I can tell by the concern on her face and the joy she brings to that hospital room that she understands much more than she has the words to convey. But I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now we just watch the beavers doing their work: hauling their sticks, piercing the slick surface of the water with their spiky heads, changing this habitat just as my grandfather and his offspring have done for the last sixty-five years. We hear the familiar honk-honk of geese flying overhead and look up to see a pair flying north. “Our friends the geese!” Avah cries out, pointing up towards where they disappear behind the crowns of birch, hemlock, maple and pine. In the morning we'll go back to the hospital and tell my grandfather about this: about the creatures we saw and their industrious labors, about how we sat so still and listened, about how we are learning, one at a time, and together, the names of things.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


My grandfather, a life-long lover of birds, is in the hospital. This article, "A Disturbance of Birds," by Terry Tempest Williams, brings me much joy.

The art of living as we are dying is a terrifying beauty. --T.T. Williams