Author Archives: Julie Larios

A Few Thoughts about Competition

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Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a piece, personality-wise. Well, I’m sure it’s many pieces, given how many go into any given personality and how often I wonder. If you put the metaphorical pieces end to end, would they stretch from here to the metaphorical moon?

But one piece in particular (better said, the lack of it) puzzles me, and that’s the piece governing competitiveness. I look deep, but I can’t find it. What happened to it? It must have snuck off in the night some time back. And I’m not bragging about this — it’s not like I’m so zen-blessed or Buddha-like that competition is beneath me.  It’s more like I don’t really care anymore about being the fastest, the best, the most. I can’t think of anything I would be driven to win at.

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When I was a kid it was different. On the playground I wanted to be the best at everything. If my friends and I ran around pretending we were wild horses, I wanted to be the fastest and the wildest horse. Playing tetherball or dodge ball, I wanted to beat everyone who challenged me – not just beat them, but crush them, and I did crush them.  Many kids thought I was mean.  I practiced yo-yo tricks so much it hurt, because I wanted to be the Yo-Yo Champion of the World. If I couldn’t master something (like the strategy behind games of chess) and knew I couldn’t win,  I simply didn’t engage in it.

How things change as you age, no? If I do something well now (write a good poem, for example) I’m happy, but I’m just as happy to have a friend write a better one. Nothing eats away at me if I’m not The Best – I don’t curse and tell myself I’ll win next time.

So, I’m really curious: Do most of you reading this feel that competition is healthy? That it shows energy and self-confidence? Even in an adult? My lack of competitiveness –  rather than representing a state of blissful Nirvana, does it only represent inertia? Even worse, does it suggest a lack of confidence and/or depression? On the other hand (lots of hands waiting for their turn) could a lack of competitiveness, seen by some as a problem, mean I’m ready for sainthood?

 

Lady Curiosity

Well, I thought I would be posting today about the Boston Public Library. In my opinion, public libraries are the best thing about America – they are egalitarian, they encourage intellectual curiosity on a budget, they are the perfect institution for a democracy- it’s clear to me that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” need a public library.  I spend a lot of time in libraries; I take the library system into consideration whenever I look at a community and think about whether it would be a great place to live. Libraries are a big part of my life, and the Boston Public Library is gorgeous.

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Golden marble everywhere, big lion statues in the stairwell, painted murals twenty feet high, absolutely awe-inspiring. My husband and I visited it last week, during Boston’s mid-winter 60-degree weather (67 degrees in February? In Boston? Impossible!!) when we flew out from Seattle to visit our daughter and her family. I knew posting about the library would be perfect – our readers share my love of books and the buildings they are housed in. So, a post about the library….But then we went to Salem and visited the Peabody Essex Museum and its featured exhibition, The World of Wearable Art.

There was no way not to post about it.

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When I walked through it, I could just hear a voice in my head saying, “This is what happens when you think outside the box. This is what creativity is all about.” The wearable pieces on exhibit were all submitted as part of a world-wide competition, open to both professionals and amateurs.

My daughter asked us to choose one we would walk down the streets of Salem, Massachusetts, in.  My grandson liked the one you see (above) and took a photo of it (below):

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My husband liked the one made of wood (below) which was created for the competition by a carpenter. Not that my husband would walk down the streets of Salem in it!

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And my daughter chose the one you can see just behind it, made of wool flannel and silk. Up close, you can almost feel the heat of it because it seems to be on fire. Here’s a better shot of it:

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We all agreed that this lobster oufit was spectacular….

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…and that the one below, made entirely of leather, was unnerving – not sure why. Imagine the lobster or the horse walking toward you down the sidewalk.

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This one, also on the scary-beautiful spectrum, felt melancholy to me, as if it were moaning:

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The dress pictured below was my favorite, probably because in the back of it (as part of the bustle) it had a “curiosity cabinet” of strange items on display in glass jars.

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Designer Fifi Colston of New Zealand submitted it to the competition and titled it “Lady Curiosity.” You can read more about Colston’s work here.

One last favorite, part of the bras-only competition, was this one:

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The iguana is wrapped behind the wearer’s neck; under the animal’s clawed hands are the bra cups.

So I guess the tie-in with writing is this: It never hurts to think outside the box, push yourself, come up with something completely new. Put aside the traditional. Go for the innovative. Go for the jaw-dropping. Understand that being a carpenter can involve building a dress. Combine words, ideas and genres the way people in this competition combined textures and materials – a wooden dress, a horse’s head, a jar-filled bustle. Think flames, fables, lobsters, iguanas. Don’t be afraid to be different. When you write, be Lady (or Lord) Curiosity.

Links and Lists in La La Land

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Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone in La La Land

Just some links today, in case you haven’t seen these lists yet:

It’s awards season, and all the ALSC announcements have been made – Newbery, Caldecott, Batchelder (always so interesting to see what’s being translated from abroad),  Sibert, Pura Belpre, Seisel, Odyssey…and lovely Nikki Grimes has been awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award!! I’m also so pleased to see that Naomi Shihab Nye has been asked to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot lecture.

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Poet and Novelist Naomi Shihab Nye

Nye is a role model for me, gracefully bridging the distance between poetry for children and poetry for adults.   Click here for a link to all the award-winners and Honor books. And for your reading pleasure, a small poem by Nye which, given the stance of our current president, seems timely:

TWO COUNTRIES

Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.

Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers—silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.

It’s also awards-season out in Hollywood. Click here for a link to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ nominations for the best screen-style storytelling of the year. Recent history tends to support the theory that during difficult times, people go for stories that are dreamy and sweet; they long for La La Land, and a movie of the same name is winning all the big prizes lately. It’s up for a gazillion or so Oscars.  Romance and music and pretty people dancing under the stars – what’s not to enjoy? Personally, though, I’m a glutton for heartbreak, so I’m rooting for Manchester by the Sea to get it’s share of awards. Sorrow that soaks your bones, good people struggling to do their best, not always able to – I can’t seem to get enough of it. Or maybe it’s just the pacing of M-B-T-S – I like stories told slowly and quietly, stories that send me out of a theater thinking.

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Casey Afflect in Manchester by the Sea.

I’m also very pleased to see Fences up for some nominations – it was a great play. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but hey, Denzel Washington stars, and it’s always a pleasure to watch him give himself over to a character. Haven’t seen Moonlight yet, but I’m betting I’ll like it, too.

That’s it for me this time around. I’m not living in La La Land, but I’m not living in Manchester by the Sea, either. Just real Seattle, which will definitely do. And to illustrate why, here is a recent photo of a inspiring event in our neck of the woods.  The crowd, by the way, stretched for three miles.

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Bravo, Seattle!

 

 

Salaaming into Joy

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In the Christmas cards I’m sending out this year, I’ve been asking friends, “Who knows what 2017 will bring?” I don’t know the answer. Weather sites all say it’s going to be a hard winter. So do the opinion pages of the New York Times.

We’re all a bit unsure, aren’t we? A bit worried? More than a bit? Here are my two recommendations for facing the year ahead:

First, read a poem about winter.

My favorite is John Clare’s Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter. But here is another poem I found recently, and I think I’ll read it as my family (fourteen people around my table) sits down to dinner on Christmas Eve. You can read (and listen to) many more winter poems here.

Winter Evening by Georg Trakl

When snow falls against the window,
Long sounds the evening bell…
For so many has the table
Been prepared, the house set in order.

From their wandering, many
Come on dark paths to this gateway.
The tree of grace is flowering in gold
Out of the cool sap of the earth.

In stillness, wanderer, step in:
Grief has worn the threshold into stone.
But see: in pure light, glowing
There on the table: bread and wine.

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I know that the message in that poem might be about a higher kind of “gateway” than my own front door. Most likely, it’s religious (Heaven, anyone?) But I like its simpler message. Time to meet. Time to share. What about the grief which has “worn the threshold into stone”? Well, maybe we can step from it and enter the house, talk, feel generous again.  Feel worried, but also feel energetic.  There’s bread and wine on that table; on mine, there’s going to be smoked ham, brussels sprouts, tabbouleh, cheeses, hot cross buns, marion-berry pie and gingerbread.

Next, read a poem about summer.

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I’m going to let my heart tell my brain that, despite the puzzling and worrisome events of November 8th, 2016, in America, there is still room for hope. The sun will shine…

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…it’s just up to me and millions of other people to help determine which direction it shines. I’ve got my New Year’s resolution figured out: to become more optimistic, more active and committed to helping light shine in the right places in the year ahead.

Here is a summer poem I like a lot. Word of warning: the formatting of the lines is a little wonky – it’s long-lined and there’s not quite room on this blog page – so lines are slightly broken up. Still, I wanted to share it. I love what the poet, Dick Allen, says – time to “air out the linen,” notice the light, slow down, hear and see and touch the real world, gather together. The ski bum in this poem believes we can “salaam into joy.” So do I.

If You Get There Before I Do by Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible–what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all–the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses–
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.


Isn’t that lovely? Dick Allen is part of a poetry movement called Expansive Poetry – you can read more about it here. He’s a storyteller – and I’m going to work to figure out how to tell more stories through poetry this next year. I’m going to try to be more creative, and more active politically. How about you? Are you reading this and feeling like there might be a place for you that “love has kept protected”?  Tell all the skeptics, bigots, critics right now: What Dick Allen said — you’re allowed to go there. And as Georg Trakl said, “In stillness, wanderer, step in.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2017 to all the readers of Books Around the Table!

[P.S. It’s Poetry Friday today and Buffy Silverman is hosting the round-up at Buffy’s Blog. Head over there to see what other people have posted.)

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Snow on the ground….

2017

…flowers on the horizon.

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The Idea of “Surprise”

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What just happened????

Sometimes life surprises us, right? Unexpected things happen – both good and bad. We win a raffle. We get a call in the night – someone we love is sick, and the world goes upside down.  We hear from an old friend we thought we had lost.  We read a headline that doesn’t seem to make sense, not according to the way we believe the world works.

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We assume one thing, another thing happens. My sister and I have talked a lot about the idea of an “assumptive world,” and about how wrong we can sometimes be, how surprised we are (and, oddly, continue to be) when illogical things happen. Of course, it would make sense to adjust our assumptions. Why don’t we? Maybe the question is, can we? What sets our assumptions in cement from a very early age?

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I don’t believe it.

Here’s a definition: “The assumptive world is an organized schema reflecting all that a person assumes to be true about the world and the self on the basis of previous experiences; it refers to the assumptions, or beliefs, that ground, secure, and orient people, that give a sense of reality, meaning, or purpose to life.”

As writers we might consider how important it is for us to understand the assumptive world of our characters. What are their guiding beliefs about the way the world works? What beliefs “ground, secure and orient” them? Of course, not all their beliefs will be rosy – even writing for children, we might create characters who believe that life is basically unfair and chaotic. They might believe that people are intrinsically selfish.  They might believe that the world works not the way it should  – rewarding hard work and dispensing privileges accordingly – but in a way that always leaves them personally disenfranchised and broken.  Or they might believe, as Anne Frank wrote, that people are fundamentally good and decent.  I usually believe people try their hardest to be good. Sometimes they get exhausted and do crazy things.

If we can determine the overriding belief system of our characters (and our fellow citizens, actually) then we can more gracefully and successfully describe and understand how they respond to events that unfold. Which hopefully adds a degree of truth to our writing.

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trump-supporters-winSurprise can come at us pleasantly or unpleasantly. Michael Moore, in a recent opinion piece said that liberals would be surprised by the most recent election results because they “live in a bubble.” That bubble might be as simple as an economically privileged state which narrows a person’s experiences. But it could also be a bubble of assumptions about how people in different circumstances will behave in general. How do we sometimes read the world so incorrectly? I was ashamed to be wrong about how the election would turn out. It felt like I lacked the imagination to understand a huge number of Americans. Could I have been one of the clueless characters in Saturday Night Live’s skit about election night? Yes, I could have.

If someone were writing a story about me, he or she would need to know that I assume the world is a logical place. I usually look for logic, plain and simple, which means I spend a lot of time confused, because life is not plain and simple and mathematical, and I usually find the world’s lack of logic and its inscrutability staring right back at me. “Why does this happen?” and “How does this happen?” are questions that come up a lot in my life, about all kinds of things.

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Even the apple seems logical.

I’m comforted by scientific explanations  (“This tree was hit by lightning because of the following facts about lightning”) but made uneasy by luck (“The poor guy standing under the tree was hit by lightning  because the gods felt brutal and playful.”)

Yes, I’m drawn to the illogical, but that’s because I just don’t understand it. Faced with mysteries – whether beautiful or brutal or both – I ask a lot of questions, annoy some people, and write many poems.

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Nature’s beauty – how does an image of light and shadow evoke “home”?

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Nature’s brutality – Hurricane Katrina

I long to understand how people and nature behave, and I’m curious about my own failure to figure it all out. Why do I even have or want an “organized schema” of how the world works if there is nothing organized or schematic about it? Maybe, if an author created me, I would be a difficult character in a book – constantly befuddled. Befuddlement – yes, that’s what I’ve been feeling since Tuesday. That’s where my assumptions left me. I’m either tremendously wrong about logic being in charge of the universe or I’m stubborn – I don’t want to admit that luck or playful gods have anything to do with making Life’s rules. I want two plus two to equal four, for heaven’s sake. But I hear a little voice in my head whispering, “Surprise!”

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Unbelievable! Believable!

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So, it’s Wednesday night, I’m in Massachusetts visiting friends, and I go to sleep wondering who might be named this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Maybe the perennial front runner, Haruki Murakami. Maybe the playwright, Tom Stoppard – wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe a poet…Paul Muldoon? Maybe (and most likely) someone I’ve never heard of, barely translated into English yet. And then we’ll all have to wait while American publishers scramble to get the work translated. This is what I fall asleep thinking about.

When I go out sleepy-headed in the morning to tell my friends good morning, one of them tells me that Bob Dylan has been named the Nobel Prize winner, and I smile because I think that is a sweet and silly little joke, and she says, “No, really, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.”

This is so far off the grid of possibilities I think I might be dreaming. Or maybe it’s a Let’s-Pull-Julie’s-Leg kind of moment.

I laugh again. “No, really” I hear her say again. I laugh again. But it begins to register. This is real. This is a fact. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now…I have always and forever loved Bob Dylan. My whole senior year of high school I listened to his records late at night in my bedroom when I was supposed to be asleep. I loved everything he wrote. But my first reaction to my friend’s news was, “But he’s a songwriter.”

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A fine songwriter, a wonderful songwriter, working old traditions into new ones, singing to us as Americans about who we used to be, who we are, what we face, and providing us with lyrical reminders of those things. But…BUT…the Nobel Prize? I thought about Seamus Heaney, Alice Munro, J. M. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul.

Then a friend read me the beginning of David Remnick’s celebratory essay in the New Yorker:

God is a colossol joker, isn’t She? 

We went to bed last night having learned that the Man Who Will Not Go Away was, according to the Times, no mere purveyor of “locker-room talk”; no, he has been, in fact, true to his own boasts, a man of vile action. The Times report was the latest detail, the latest brushstroke, in the ever-darkening portrait of an American grotesque.

Then came the news, early this morning, that Bob Dylan, one of the best among us, a glory of the country and of the language, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ring them bells! What an astonishing and unambiguously wonderful thing! There are novelists who still should win (yes, Mr. Roth, that list begins with you), and there are many others who should have won (Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Auden, Levi, Achebe, Borges, Baldwin . . . where to stop?), but, for all the foibles of the prize and its selection committee, can we just bask for a little while in this one? The wheel turns and sometimes it stops right on the nose.

Okay, I thought. Permission simply to “bask.” And I’ve been doing just that. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unbelievable!  Read Remnick’s essay (link here) and think of the reasons why Dylan won. You can believe it’s believable, and you can bask.

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Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem. Head over there to see what people are sharing.

And to read an exuberant celebration of Dylan’s prize, take a look at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. 

 

 

Once Again, In Praise of Pencils

My sister just came home from her two-week vacation in London. She had what sounds like a glorious time while there –  went to the British Museum, the Tate, the Courtauld Gallery, the Old Bailey, the British Library, searched for Newby’s elderflower and lemon tea, saw a play at the Globe theater, went on a sunset field trip out to Stonehenge, heard a small choir sing in the crypt (all songs about birds!) at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, ate at a few lovely restaurants (as well as a few lovely food booths at the Tachbrook Market.)  I imagine she also did her share of buying souvenir do-dads for family and friends here at home. On her 10+hour flight home, she carried a present for me in her carry-on:

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A NEW PENCIL BOX AND FOUR BRAND NEW PENCILS!!!!!!!!!!

Sweet, sweet, sweet! I have a little collection of pencil boxes- some you might call elegant, others plain, others tattered, but all functional – some are wooden, some are old Bakelite boxes from the 30’s., some cardboard, and one (now!) metal.  The first pencil box I ever owned — I was a seven-year-old who loved school supplies, what can I say?– was one I bought with my own hard-earned money the first time I visited San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wish I still had it – it had a bird in flight on it, above an arched bridge. I treasured it; even so, it’s gone – how does that happen? Well,  here’s a poem of mine about it. The poem was first published in the Threepenny Review (go there and subscribe as soon as you’re done reading this post):

PENCIL BOX

I put four bits on the counter
and the box was mine.
Six yellow pencils fit there
side by side, I was perfectly addled,
I was a goner – even before I knew
the alphabet, I knew its cedar perfume –
I flew over the high-humped bridge
painted on the top, over the willow,
the m-stroke for a bird, everything
was suggestion then, before
the putting on of too fine a point.
People expected me to come
to my senses, save the change
in my burning pockets, after all
the box was wooden, cheap
Chinatown, but half a dollar
went a long way toward heaven
when heaven was closer.

So my new pencil box from London has no bridge, no willow tree – it lists stations on the London Underground. I remember riding the Tube line up to Hampstead – past Camden Town, Chalk Farm, Belsize Park – when I was there as a college student, caring for the daughters of a professor from Berkeley. I did a lot of walking around  when I was there – London is a great walking-around town (see Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s recent posts on this blog from her 2-year stay in London!) Charles Dickens would agree with me, as would Virginia Woolf, whose essay titled “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (you can read it here) I printed up and gave to my sister before she left. It starts like this:

“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London.”

Of course, Woolf was wrong about no one feeling passionate about a lead pencil.  I  could go on for quite awhile about the swoon-inducing quality of a Staedtler Norica # 2 pencils, my current favorite. Once upon a time I was passionate about (and wrote a prose poem about) my Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 #2 pencils….

Ode to My Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 No. 2

The first pleasure is the deep pleasure of delay: the plain form waiting straight and yellow, lying perpendicular to the edge of my cleared desk. I sit listening to its Quaker moment, its old soul not set to any purpose. Just how long should I wait to take it in my hand for the second pleasure which is the pleasure of its sharpening? That cedar shaft, dried at a white-hot heat, forced by my dome sharpener to make a fine point under pressure – yielding to the third pleasure, the strange joy of exposing its resin-fused core, that stick used to carbonize the brains of poets and the manifesto of the common man who mines the graphite near Los Pozos, Guanajuato. The fourth pleasure, the physical word, like Jehovah’s name, should not be written here. So right to the fifth and final pleasure, the one allowing for my hand’s unplanned errors: the most amazing pink eraser sitting firmly crowned, crimped into the green and gold ferule. This brand new pink eraser – oh, has God ever made anything more pure?

I also remember Julie Paschkis’s post a couple of years ago about how pencils, pens and brushes feel in the hands of an artist. And the poet Marianne Boruch wrote a poem titled “Pencil” which, like my poem tried to do, senses something quasi-religious about them (“…its secret life / is charcoal, the wood already burnt, / a sacrifice.”)

This week kids across the country headed for their first day of a new school year. My grandson down in Oregon filled his backpack with school supplies – I hope there were some pencils and a pencil box in there. It would be nice to think I passed on to him, via my daughter, an appreciation of pencils/pencil boxes, hidden somewhere in the double helix of our DNA.

My sister, who knows me well and who is often instrumental in providing me with pencils, gave me several packets of Dixon Ticonderoga’s as a gift when I went back to college to get my MFA. Now she’s brought me a set of Tube pencils from London. She carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way across the wide North American continent, she made sure they survived the nearly 5000 mile journey  tucked safely inside my new pencil box. And they’re on my desk in Seattle now, newly sharpened. I may have shaved off some Tube stations when I put their points on them. But here they are, calling to me. And what do you do when a pencil calls to you? You write.

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By the way, if you’re a follower of Poetry Friday, it’s being hosted this week by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater at her blog, The Poem Farm. You can head over there (after you first follow my suggestion to subscribe to the Threepenny Review) to see what other people have posted.

 

A Quick Heads-Up

 

My Family Tree and Me by

from My Family Tree by Dusan Petricic

Just want to make sure you all know about (and have a chance to subscribe to) the site called ART OF THE PICTURE BOOK, which comes out online with interviews of wonderful picture book illustrators from all over the world. Listed on their main page right now, among others, are interviews with Oyvind Torseter (of Norway),  Renata Liwska (born in Poland, now lives in Calgary, Canada),  Kris Di Giacomo (born in Brazil to American parents, now lives in Paris), Yasmeen Ismail (born in Ireland, now lives in Bristol, England)  and Dusan Petricic (of  both Toronto and Belgrade, Serbia.  I’ll let the drawings and photos speak for themselves – just know that the site often features glimpses of the artists at work and spreads from their sketchbooks. I encourage you to subscribe – it’s free and easy! You’ll find a subscription form here.

Oyvind Torseter - Whyt Dogs Have Wet Noses

Cover Art for Why Dogs Have Wet Noses by Kenneth Steven

Oylind's Studio

Oyvind Torseter’s Studio Desk

Renata Liwska - The Quiet Book

The Quiet Book by Renata Liwska

Sketchbooks

Renata Liwska’s Sketchbooks

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Kris Di Giacomo’s illustration from Take Away the A by Michael Escoffier

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from Kris Di Giacomo’s sketchbooks….

One Word from Sophia

detail from Yasmeen Ismail’s illustration for One Word from Sophia by Jim Averbeck

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Dusan Petricic’s cover art for The Color of Things by Vivienne Shalom

I love poetry. I think it is the most important field in literature for me. With poetry you have to be very precise, very focused and explain simple things. There’s always something a little bit conceptual in each poem. So I love to do that. It’s a lot to do with my opinion about cartoons in general, not only political cartoons. The cartoon is a way of thinking. So poetry and cartoons are similar to me. And that similarity is very simplistic, with the concept of how to find the right, the most precise way to explain yourself. With the least possible words.” [from the interview of Dusan Petricic]

Liking Root Beer, Disliking Liver

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For the last few days I’ve been reading a book titled You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt. Very interesting, though (for my taste)  a little heavy on statistics from sociological, psychological and marketing surveys (“In a group of 100 Americans of widely differing incomes, 100% will consider themselves middle-class” and “11 of the 12 rats went for the sugar,” etc.) Still, the whole idea of the whys behind liking and disliking fascinate me. They feel wildly complicated and (as  Vanderbilt admits) almost impossible to determine. So, of course, I want to try.

A majority of people, when asked their favorite color will answer “Blue.” Is that because it’s the color of the sky? Cool water?  Faded levis? Do infants prefer blue? Statistically no, they do not. Nor do the majority of people want blue cars. So a “favorite” – that is, the act of liking – can be changed by context, connotations, associations, experiences…or the lack of any of the above. Notice, by the way, that a blue cover was chosen for You May Also Like. Coincidence? Probably not.

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Blue sky, blue water, blue jeans….

“Taste” is one of those words that pushes several directions at once (poets love words like this) because it can be a verb (“When I taste ripe raspberries right off the vine on a sunny day, I’m in heaven”) or it can be a noun with several definitions (“It was clear she had good taste” – that is, discerning judgment – and “She loved the taste of a root beer float”  – a sensory experience, in the mouth, on the tongue, all fizz and creaminess going down the throat. Words like that can be used to twist a sentence, make it ring two bells at once, and  surprise someone (hopefully both author and reader.) The poet Heather McHugh taught me to look at words that work hard and do double duty like that. You can play with them, like kids play with playdough, reshaping them constantly.

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As for liking and disliking, I like the taste of root beer, though I have to admit it’s a little odd. Still, sweet is sweet, and humans apparently are programmed to like what’s sweet (so some liking can be a genetic predilection.) But I don’t like things too sweet. Don’t like membrillo, too sweet. Love sauerkraut, not the slightest bit sweet.  So liking can be quantified, as can disliking. Don’t like apricots very much, but compared to liver – ugh, gag, etc.- apricots are delicious. Like Auden’s poetry, while Ashbury’s poetry leaves me thinking meh. Usually prefer non-fiction to fiction, unless the non-fiction is badly written and the fiction is brilliant…those opinions being a matter of personal taste (discerning judgment, right?) I like Matisse, don’t much like Rothko, though my sister keeps telling me to look more carefully at Rothko. I try. Maybe Rothko for me is like an apricot. Not liver, but also not root beer.

Refreshing Root Beer Float with Vanilla Ice Cream

Classic Root Beer Float

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Classic Ugh…That Is, Liver

I trust my sister’s judgment – we often have similar likes and dislikes. But last night I watched Episode 1 of a TV series she recommended and I found it too long, badly paced, confusing. The guilt I felt about not liking it made me want to like it more, but on the root beer-to-liver scale, it was too close to liver.  Still, when there is this kind of pressure to like something, then unadulterated liking is at risk. We want to like what someone we admire likes. I remember wanting to like coffee when I started drinking it, and not really liking it, but all the adults I loved liked it, and I wanted so much to like it that eventually I did. So taste can be a matter of habituating ourselves to something. It’s not always logical or pre-programmed. It’s sometimes slow in coming. Shared likes can create a community of sorts, as Facebook tries to demonstrate.

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Hated it, then loved it….

Hope to finish Vanderbilt’s book soon. Then I have to focus on finishing a book one of my friends chose for our next book discussion. She chose it because she liked it, of course. I am only on Page 53…no real opinion yet as to its root beer/liver quotient. Some of us in the book group will love it, some not, that’s the way it usually works – it takes a pretty extraordinary book to be universally loved, and we are perfectly happy just to read books that will expand our reading horizons.

I used to tell my creative writing students to write for themselves and for the type of readers who will love their particular story. It’s not smart to write for the widest possible audience unless your motivation is all bottom-line. Instead, write for readers who will browse the shelves of the library aching to find just your story. Think of your audience as small. If that audience widens up to include more people – that is, if it turns into a blue sky people point to and say, “Blue is my favorite color” – then so much the better. But there are lots of colors in a paint box. My favorite color? Well, today it’s green. I wouldn’t want a green car, but I like green hills. And wouldn’t a green story be wonderful?

 

What We See and What We Don’t

. St. Helens - Before

Mt. St. Helens – Before

My husband and I drove recently from our home in Seattle down to Eugene, Oregon, to help celebrate our grandson’s ninth birthday. It’s a five-hour trip down I-5, which runs north-south roughly parallel to the Cascade Range of mountains to the east. North of us stands Mt. Baker – near the Canadian border – but to the south we would be passing Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and finally –  crossing into Oregon – Mt. Hood. The Three Sisters peaks are to the east of Eugene, and Mt. Shasta in California is well to the south.

To pass the time as we drove, I got the audiobook version of Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens. After all, we were going to be passing through the countryside most affected by the volcano, and the date of the drive down was May 20th, exactly thirty-six years and two days after May 18, 1980, the day of St. Helens’ disastrous eruption. I looked up the word “disaster” while thinking about this post. The dictionary says the word is “derived from Middle French désastre, and that from Old Italian disastro, which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek pejorative prefix δυσ-, (dus-) ‘bad’ and ἀστήρ (aster), ‘star’. In other words, slightly Shakespearean, “ill-starred.”

St. Helens - After

Mt. St. Helens – After

St. Helens is far enough to the east of the interstate that you can see it well only on a clear day. When you do see it, it’s still nerve-jangling thirty-six years after the eruption. Nerve-jangling, thrilling, awe-inspiring, horrifying. 57 people died that day. The force of the blast moved at up to 650 mph. and the vertical plume rose 80,000 feet into the sky – 15 miles high.

On I-5 headed south you cross a bridge over the Toutle River, the river which was devastated by the mudflow and log jam caused by the collapse of the mountainside. Twenty-seven bridges in the eruption zone were destroyed that day.

St. Helens bridge in mudflow, North Fork Toutle River, north ...

Bridge in mudflow, North Fork of the Toutle River, 1980.

Driving north on I-5 you don’t see much about the mountain that is disturbing: a diminished peak, 1300 feet shorter than it was, less elegant, fewer glaciers. But heading south from Seattle,  you see the north side of St. Helens, which is the side which collapsed. The landside – largest ever recorded, definitely “ill-starred” – presaged the lateral explosion and the vertical plume made familiar by photos of the eruption.

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8:32 a.m., May 18, 1980 – Lateral Surge and Explosion

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Vertical Plume – with Mt. Rainier visible to the north. Ash from Mt. St. Helens traveled around the world.

For our trip, we had an overcast day – the gray of a typical day in the Pacific Northwest, with low bunched clouds obscuring the view. We saw Mt. Rainier – the king of the Cascades – as we headed out, but we couldn’t see St. Helens. At least, not visually. Not with our eyes. But with Olson’s narrative playing on the CD player, there’s no doubt we could see it.

Is there anything better than that kind of story, a story which can transport us from a car traveling easily down the freeway in 2016 to a strange spring day in 1980 when Nature reminded us how fierce and uncontrollable it can be?

We listened to Olson’s story all the way down to Eugene and all the way back, pulling back up to our house just as the last CD was ending. Five hours down, five hours back, and they passed like a blink. I’m not sure how much we actually paid attention to what was on the highway during our drive. Did the traffic slow down when we hit Portland? In fact, did we even drive through Portland? I don’t remember. What happened to that usually boring stretch of the road between Kelso and Olympia? What about the irritating traffic jams by the Tacoma Dome? Those, I didn’t see.

Instead of being on the freeway for those ten hours, we were right there with David Johnston, the young USGS volcanologist who died within seconds of the explosion. “This is it,” he said before his radio went dead. We were right there with the couple who almost drowned trying to cling to logs banging madly down the Toutle River. There with the two people circling St. Helens’ summit in a Cessna airplane right as the north face of the mountain collapsed and the lightning-filled ash cloud began to rise. The mountain, the mud-choked river, the blue sky turning black, and those people struggling, I could see them all.

Non-fiction awakens our imaginations just as formidably as fiction, doesn’t it? Real mountain, real eruption, real people losing their lives or fighting to stay alive.  All of it real. Non-fiction: stranger than fiction, and at least as mesmerizing.

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North Face, Mt. St. Helens, 2016

 P.S. Over at my blog, The Drift Record, I’m this week’s host for the Poetry Friday round-up. I posted an original poem about a disappearing river, based on something I read in The Smithsonian magazine. Again, non-fiction! (Well, the article is non-fiction. The poem is appropriated non-fiction, perfectly fair, right?) Head over there to read it, and to see links to all the other Poetry Friday posts.