Chronicle of Summer Reading

PicMonkey CollageIt was a busy summer of teaching, editing, weddings, overgrown zucchinis, crowded swimming holes, and sleepless nights without air-conditioning. Somehow I got quite a bit of reading time, whether on the MAX to work or on the river bank. Our uninsulated old house was often hotter than it was outdoors, so we found ourselves escaping to the somewhat cooler air near the river.

IMG_3853I also confess to reading Half the Sky, (Nicolas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn’s 2009 survey on the status of women in developing countries) in a canoe.

I really could not put it down. It’s a brilliant argument for the elevation of women worldwide as the human rights issue of our time. It highlights the many strides women and their allies have already made toward reducing maternal mortality, female genital cutting, trafficking, and HIV, and increasing women’s opportunities in education and employment. Well-crafted and personal, the book focuses on specific women in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Congo, and elsewhere, putting real human faces and stories of hope to otherwise cold and dismal statistics.

I closed the book feeling inspired to learn more and do more for women not only for women around the world, but right here in my own community. It’s interesting to note that in 2014, the maternal mortality rate actually rose in the United States, equaling that of developing countries like Afghanistan. Research suggests that this is due to the fact that a huge percentage of American women enter pregnancy without health insurance, and without access to health care. T.R. Reid, author of The Healing of America, writes: “Thousands of times every month in the U.S.A., women show up at an emergency room nine months pregnant, seven cm. dilated, and they’ve never had a pre-natal visit. Those are the women and babies we lose after childbirth.”

I was so impressed with Half the Sky that I picked up Kristof & WuDunn’s previous book, Thunder from The East: A Portrait of Rising Asia (Knopf 2000), and then Peter Hessler’s phenomenal Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, which also proved impossible to leave behind on camping trips. It is a wonderfully meandering and dynamic look at China at the first of the 21st century, when Hessler was a news correspondent in Beijing. Similar to Kristof & Wudunn, Hessler approaches a gigantic topic through the perspectives of the particular individuals that topic affects. Hessler weaves ancient Chinese history, linguistics, politics, and economics through his engaging narrative about his own experience and that of his friends. As an English teacher, I’m excited to pick up his previous book, River Town, about his 1996 Peace Corps term teaching English in rural China.

I attempted to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, because of an interview with artist Daniela Molnar, and because of my interest in developing my consciousness as a teacher in a global work environment. I got about halfway through before I admitted defeat. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for a book– maybe too soon or too late. In my case, I think it was too soon. I need more experience under my belt, or perhaps a primer for some of the dense theories Freire gets into. At the time, I was also looking for more immediate insight into classroom psychology, which I found in Frank Smith’s little treatise on industrial education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting. A fellow teacher recommended it and I whipped through it, stunned by the remnants, in language itself, of the legacy of militarism in the history of modern education. It’s a fascinating read.

Second Person Singular was one of those spontaneous choices made mid-aisle in the library. The grammar teacher in me was drawn to the title first. Translated from the original Hebrew, it’s something of a mystery novel set in modern-day Jerusalem and told from the perspective of an Arab Israeli. It tells the story of two men– one a wealthy lawyer, the other a directionless photographer– who are strangers to each other and yet share the same confusing search for identity in a land where that search is rife with politics and peril.

Earlier in the summer, there was Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America, a passionate look at what it means for one American family to embrace their Muslim identity post-9/11. I found it thought-provoking and engaging, though I also thought it lost steam toward the end, when it began to repeat many of the previous chapters’ points. Idliby’s previous book, The Faith Club, has been on my reading list for a long time, and I hope to pick it up later this fall.

 

piled up braids

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It has been one year since I graduated from the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. I’m remembering waking up early to write before class, at a table beneath a big window in my upstairs room. I’m remembering the snow that surprised us toward the end of the week, hushing everything under a thick white blanket.  I’m remembering the winter we spent hauling all 1,000+ pages of Sigrid Undset’s trilogy around with us. Set in medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is a darkly beautiful epic, built on the inner lives of a knot of characters whose flaws bind them painfully to each other. A few of us loved the book, including me.

The last week of the residency, Rachel and I both showed up for breakfast wearing “Kristin braids,” hair piled up and pinned so the wind wouldn’t knock it loose. I have short hair again, but at the residency it was long. This style used to be my remedy for melancholy– waking up to a gray day, after fitful sleep or a late-night deadline. Piling my hair on the top of my head in braids, I felt suddenly taller, fancier. Even in jeans, even under an umbrella.

When I married, my hair wasn’t quite to my shoulders, but with enough pins and flowers, who could tell?

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on truth and storytelling

I recently watched The Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s documentary of a family secret.  I found it fascinating. It’s a cinematic exploration of one of the most complicated, controversial issues in literary nonfiction. Whose truth is the truth? What truth can be harvested from the blurred terrain between fiction and nonfiction?

Polley turns the camera on her siblings, her father, and family friends, in search of the truth about her real birth father. But the truth is more complicated than the result of a paternity test. It is woven with deeper questions about identity and family, the individual and the community, authorship and storytelling.

Turning these ideas over in my mind, I was drawn to a short radio spot on a recent documentary that explores similar themes: Steve Lickteig’s Open Secret.

“What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie?” Lickteig asks. “And everyone knew the truth except you?”

As a teen in a small town, Lickteig learns that the woman he thought was his older sister Joni was in fact his birth mother, and the woman he called Mom was actually his grandmother. Though he’s the main character in the story concerned, he’s the last to know.

What is it I find so compelling about Lickteig’s story, and Polley’s story? As a kid, I was equally fascinated by The Truman Show, for the way it seemed to capture, in fiction, something emotionally true about real life. I think we all hope, at an unconscious level, that one day something will explain what it is we’ve been missing. Perhaps growing up is about losing faith in the fantasy that wholeness can be found in a set of circumstances.

Lickteig’s and Polley’s stories are about family, and finding resolution. Through art, they describe their journey through pain and loss to forgiveness, healing, and understanding.

What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie? This may seem like a stretch, but I think my personal fascination with this question has always been tied to faith. I see its persistence in my thoughts as a gift of restlessness, God leading me back to Him, like Herbert’s pulley.

Though the particulars are different, and the result worlds apart, there’s something in these stories that feels of a piece with the emotions I felt in conversion. There’s a paradigm shift that happens when we begin to conceive of ourselves in a new way. I began to look through new eyes at all I thought I knew about myself– the interests, preferences, accomplishments, and habits I thought made up my identity. Before, I used to hear language about “surrendering the self” and think only of loss. Instead, I’ve experienced an ever-deepening, widening freedom through serving God and knowing Jesus. It’s a path that has no end, that continues to show me more of myself in Christ and Christ in me. The more I let go of, the more I have to give.

I’m still fascinated by stories like these, and the relationship between story and identity. What about you?

antler on walking poets

I love this post on Antler about “Walking Poets.”

Adele Konyndyk writes about several poems that explore the experience of the solitary walk, including Raymond Carver’s poem “This Morning.” As a poet who walks– heck, as a human being who walks– I relate to the lines she quotes from Carver, who writes of that paradox of contemplative walking: how the body’s movement generates stillness for the restless mind. Being outside stills the walker’s mind, and he’s grateful for even just the briefest freedom from “All the things/ I hoped would go away this morning.”

For me, writing is as much escape from “all the things” as it is an entrance into them. When I walk, my thoughts have wider horizons to stretch out in. I’m not trapped in their spiral, in the hurry of the clock and the press toward efficiency. I am separate from my thoughts. I can walk them out.

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When I lived in St Malo for a winter, I used to take daily evening walks– they felt like flights– around the wild, walled perimeter of the city. I liked walking into the furious wind that blew in off the waves. I liked the way the sun squeezed through the closing doors of the clouds, bruise-colored and alive. And when I got back to my little apartment, I liked the way my cheeks stung red and my head still roared with the echo of the wind.

Lines for poems have come to me on walks. Sometimes, drafts that I wrestle with at my desk seem to untangle themselves when I take them on the road.

This fall, I’ve had the pleasure of leading 52 high school freshman in a 10-week creative writing course. Together, we looked at a variety of different ways in which poets have documented a particular place through writing. And walking was central to several of these pieces. Among many shorter works, we read Alice Oswald’s Dart, Erik Anderson’s The Poetics of Trespass, Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave, and Haryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed.

One of my favorite exercises, which I borrowed from writer and teacher Jay Ponteri, was taking a tanka walk through the high school building. It’s based on Urban Tumbleweed, 365 tanka poems recording Mullen’s daily walks through Los Angeles, where she lives. The students and I carried scraps of paper and scribbled notes about what we saw, heard, thought, and felt during our 15-minute journey. Then we practiced writing a group tanka on the board, loosening the form’s traditional rules (a la Mullen) and allowing the poems to be simply 31-syllable poems, broken into three lines as we saw fit. The students wrote some astonishing poems: compressed, detailed, imaginative.

Walk

I think it’s movement that does this. Movement gets the rhythm of feet and heart into our thoughts, smoothing their disorder into pattern. It helps us make great leaps between inner and outer experience. It puts us back together again, by connecting the world of the mind to the world outside.

Kodyndyk writes:

I also see reading poetry as (to borrow an Antler phrase) a devotional practice for spiritual formation. Like poet Peggy Rosenthal, I believe that the very act of reading poetry is very much like taking a walk—that “its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.” Both walking and poetry are, to me, a kind of prayer.

I often pray when I walk, when for whatever reason I just can’t calm my mind enough to stit still. Walking is sometimes the best way to listen deeply, to “be still and know that I am God.” In the same way, writing poetry outside can be centering, quieting the mind’s chatter by focusing on language’s rhythms.

Carolyn Kizer writes: “Poetry is not prayer, but it is not not prayer.” I’m often hesitant to equate the two, because for me, they are very different, separate things. And yet, not so different. Not so separate. Perhaps walking is the best metaphor for the mystery at the center of these practices, for the moving Spirit that breathes through and animates everything.

the geography of memory

My MFA mentor Jeanne Murray Walker recently came out with a new book: a memoir of her experience caring for her mother through ten years of Alzheimer’s. A poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist, Walker is a veritable renaissance woman, and I was blessed to work with her for a year.

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The Geography of Memory is more than a memoir of Alzheimer’s. As the title suggests, it’s a meditation on memory itself, and told in such lucid prose that it’s compelling for any reader, even those whose lives have not been touched by Alzheimer’s. In prose as in poetry, she writes clearly and honestly. Her writing is like an open hand, extended, and inviting the reader to see their own stories in the narrative.

SPU’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing meets on Whidbey Island in March. It’s a small cohort, and the March residency is particularly quiet and intimate. For three Marches, I remember gathering in the main room in the evening to listen to Jeanne read aloud from sections of the book-in-progress. I was always spellbound by her storytelling, and I could tell we all looked forward to the book’s release.

It came out this fall, and being several months post-graduation, I confess I was a little homesick for everyone, for sharing in the rhythms of writing and deadlines and residencies. I went to Powell’s and picked up a copy of the book. I’m now working several part-time teaching jobs, and I found myself looking forward to that little window of time at the end of each day when I could curl up with the book. I could hear Jeanne’s voice in the prose, and recognize sections she had read to us.

But beyond my personal connection to the author,  I was also moved because of a recent experience working with people in various stages of memory loss. This summer, I facilitated eight weeks of creative writing workshops with Write Around Portland, this time at a local assisted living residence.

Our first workshop was bewildering. I didn’t have a reference point for an encounter with dementia. As is so common in America, I tend to spend most of my time in the company of people from my own age group– and not much time with the very young or the very old.

A few of the residents talked to me about relatives I’d never met as if they had only just left the room. Some were sharp and present, and contributed clear suggestions to our brainstorm for group guidelines. Others wanted to take the floor and tell the whole group a long and elaborate story. One resident fell asleep halfway through our hour workshop. The staff reassured me it wasn’t me, she just did that sometimes, and had asked to be gently awoken.

It took another session or two before we hit our stride together. I learned patience, adjusted my expectations, and changed my definition of a succesful workshop. I began to see participants bonding with each other and with the volunteers who wrote for those with vision or coordination problems. Themes began to emerge in each participants’ writing. They shocked and delighted me with their vivid memories of being six years old in an old stone house in the midwest, or crew on an Atlantic fishing boat. I loved the way they lined up disparate imagery. I felt honored by their openness. On the page, they often expressed their anxiety over the confusion they felt, their fear of death, their amazement at the change they’d witnessed.

Our time together was often painful. Two of the members died before the eight weeks were up. But there was joy in our workshops, too. We celebrated each person’s writing and laughed at funny stories. I began to see their writing in a new way. I began to see a strange and particular beauty in the way stories surface out of the sea of memory loss.

Maybe it isn’t fair for me to say so, having spent just an hour each week with these writers, these people with families and histories. Caregivers and children might have a different perspective. They’re witness to repetitive behavior and storytelling. Their own histories may be implicated in the creative weaving a person with memory loss can make with strands of time. I don’t have the experience with which to test my statement, don’t have the perspective of someone who has really gone through the labyrinth.

The Geography of Memory gave me that perspective. It’s a firsthand look at the pain, frustration, and yes, beauty, of memory loss. Jeanne manages to tell her mother’s story and her own story in a way that honors both, and lets the deeper story through. The deeper story is the one she writes about toward the end of the book:

Although most of the accounts I’ve read about Alzheimer’s are characterized by horror, the truth is, even my mother’s final months were not relentlessly grim…

…I saw flashes of tenderness and humor even in my mother’s Alzheimer’s ward. I felt what I often feel when I am walking on the nature trail at Haverford College, where thirty species of trees shade the meadows, where a nimble resident heron stalks fish in the stream, and every May a snapping turtle creeps across the running path and stands, blinking for hours, patiently depositing her eggs.

There’s plenty of evidence that in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that is not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.

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call for ekphrastic poems on iraq

Poets! Consider contributing to Image Poem Iraq, a compelling collection of photographs and ekphrastic poems. The book is edited by photographer Joel Preston Smith and poet Mary Bast. You can find the full guidelines on the website. Submissions accepted through November 30, 2013.

Earlier this summer, I wrote and submitted a poem for the project. Want to hear it? Come to this month’s Verse in Person event at the NW public library, Monday, September 23rd, at 6:00 pm. There will be an open mic followed by featured poets reading their work on this month’s theme: food.

walking the wire for literacy

Click the image above to learn more about Wireman Comics, an incredible series of comics designed especially for struggling readers.

This series is engaging and effective: the first four issues load readers with 50% of the most commonly-used words in English, all through amazing graphics and a compelling storyline. Plus, there’s no “beginning reader” label emblazoned on the cover. Readers can feel confident reading the comicbooks in public, without fear of the stigma associated with illiteracy.

The truth is, illiteracy is far more widespread in the U.S. than we’d like to think.  Now more than ever, students who want to compete in a tough job market need the skills to become great writers.  And great writing begins with great reading.

You can help fund the next installment in this impressive series by visiting Wireman Comics‘ Indiegogo campaign. With just 18 days left, will you spread the word and help bring the next chapter of this story to life?

I first learned of Wireman creator Sue Stauffacher when I was working as managing editor for Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac. I reviewed Tillie the Terrible Swede, her illustrated story of the first woman to win the world cycling championships. Interviewing Stauffacher about the process of writing the book, I learned that there’s a lot more to her art than great storytelling. She’s an activist for at-risk youth and a literacy warrior.

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After publishing Tillie, Sue took the story’s message on the road, riding 254 miles from her home in Battle Creek, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois. Along the way, she stopped at underserved schools to give a presentation about Tillie Anderson, encouraging children to read and ride bicycles for fun and health.

Sue told me: “I wanted kids to learn that stories about people can inspire a new generation, and what happens when you’re inspired is how the characters ‘live outside the books.’”

This summer, help Wireman ‘live outside the books’ by funding the next installment in the saga. Loyal readers are waiting to find out what happens next! Give what you can, and encourage your friends to do the same.

Thank you!

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the power of writing

this video will give you goosebumps.

witness the transformative power of writing in this short segment from a free writing workshop, made possible by write around portland.

get a behind-the-scenes look at the continuing impact of this non-profit, which brings free 10-week writing workshops to underserved populations all over the portland area. from burn units and prisons to homeless shelters and low-income housing, these communities get the chance to connect to one another through simple, yet powerful writing exercises.

I’ve had the privilege to volunteer with write around portland for over two years now, including one year as a workshop facilitator. I just love what they do, and what I get to do alongside them, thanks to the generosity of many, many volunteers and donors.

poetry marathon

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Me crossing the finish line in Honolulu, 2001

On Monday, I start running.

30 days, 30 poems.

Support my writing, and the continued health of a small press, by visiting the 30/30 project at Tupelo Press and making a donation.

Small presses like Tupelo play a crucial role in the poetry world, bringing new voices into print and making beautiful books. I’m celebrating the completion of my MFA this month by putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

This April, I’ll write 30 poems. I’ll also donate $60 (that’s just $2 a day!) to help Tupelo continue to make great books.

Here’s how you can join the race:

1. Every day in April, read a new poem from several poets across the country, including me.

2. Sponsor my “mileage” by making a donation, with all proceeds going to benefit Tupelo Press. Tupelo is a non-profit organization, and your donation is tax-deductible. Please specify your sponsorship so I can meet my fundraising goal of $500!

3. Tell me what you want to see me write about. Send me an email or contact me here with your request.

a room (of one’s own) with a view

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I have dreamed of this table by the window since I was a little girl.

A small wooden table, a simple wooden chair, and a second-story window looking out over a body of water, green hills, trees. It’s tucked away, and no one can see me in the window, when I look up from the page.

The dream writing desk, the one I picture when asked about my ideal, looks just like this. And here I am, with a morning free to write and reflect at the dream desk.

This is my last residency week as an MFA student. On Saturday, I’ll graduate in a small ceremony, in the company of the community that has made it possible, kept me going, fed me and cheered me and inspired me for over two years. My parents will be there, and my husband, each of whom has played a central role in my development as a writer.

I’ve been taking it all in a little more deeply this last week. I’m stopping to listen to birdsong on walks along the Whidbey Island bluffs. Watching a doe lead her wobbly babies across the path, on my way to breakfast. Laughing along with my friends during morning lectures, or sitting around the living room in the evening.

But especially, I am soaking in this chance to get up early in the quiet of this old Officer’s house, a creaking Victorian from the turn of last century. I crawl out of bed and sit down at the table, cleared except for a notebook. I watch the sunrise and I write like I used to when I was little, with a notebook on my knees on a suburban front stoop. Alone, unwatched, not expected anywhere, not expecting anything.

I like being ignored, in a way. I like to slip away after dinner, to be left alone to stare off into space or down at the page, uninterrupted. I think it’s this quality of slipping away that the dream desk embodies. It’s a perch place, a place of perspective. Whether it’s a front stoop or a simple table, it’s a place where I can observe and reflect unobserved.