Author Archives: Julie Larios

National Book Award Shortlist

 

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Rita Williams-Garcia

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Ibi Zoboi

Just want to make sure you all know that the shortlists for the National Book Awards have been announced. On the list of five authors for Young People’s Literature are two wonderful writers associated with Vermont College of Fine Arts; first, the brilliant and adorable Rita Williams-Garcia, for her book Clayton Byrd Goes Underground; second, Ibi Zoboi, a graduate of VCFA, for her book American Street. Ibi had Rita as an advisor for her first semester at VCFA and those two must have really clicked. Congratulations to them both…to all five shortlisted authors in the category, actually… (and, as we used to claim gleefully for VCFA when I taught there, “World Domination!”)

 

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Tick-Tock, School Clock

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Is there any tick of the clock more predictably sobering each year than the one which moves us from August 31st to September 1st? From the August of hot days, U-Pick berries, lake docks, family picnics, sand castles, country fairs, campfires, s’mores, and sitting around doing absolutely nothing, to the September of school hallways, bells, classrooms, rows of desks, blackboards, textbooks, math problems, vocabulary lists, lunch lines, tests, rules…? Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved school when I was a kid. But I felt the solemnity of the calendar page turning from the last month of summer to the first month of autumn. It seemed like a moment of radical transformation: you go to bed wild and free and wake up…changed…that is, you go from this:

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to this:

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from this:

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to this:

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 from this:

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and this:

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to this:

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and this:

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from this:

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to this:

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and from this:

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to  –  aaaaacccckkkkkk! – it makes me shudder –  this:

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I was a happy kid, loved school. I was a good reader, interested, eager to please, well-behaved, teachers liked me, I liked learning things, and I loved school supplies: pencils, erasers, notebooks, Peechee folders, lined paper, glue, staplers, binders, loved it all. Loved getting new saddle shoes every year. Loved looking forward to school picture day. My school pictures looked almost exactly like the one below – lots of stripes, lots of plaids, boys in rolled dungarees, girls with sweet collars or their dresses and barrettes in their hair (and by the way, this teacher had thirty-six students in her class – they look to be first- or second-graders – that is WAY too many students for one primary teacher – I hope she survived the school year):

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I didn’t like chalk, math, or cafeteria food, and I would have preferred wearing dungarees, too, but that’s about it for the negative side of all things academic. Despite being quite happy in the classroom, I loved recess best, and my memories of the playground – jump rope, hopscotch, tether ball, jacks, tag  – are vivid.

My mom was a teacher. My dad was a teacher. My aunt was a teacher. My husband was a teacher. My sister became a teacher. I ended up teaching for several years. And, as I say, I loved school. So why can I still remember staring at a clock exactly like the one pictured above, seeing the minute hand move backward for one second, then jerk ahead to the next minute? I’ve got that double-tick of the clock imprinted on my muscles and bones and brain. The hands on that clock moved SO S-L-O-W-L-Y. When the bell rang for recess, I was out the door running like a banshee, screaming with delight all the way to the playground.

I salute all of the wonderful teachers now who are, without doubt, much like the teachers I knew and loved when I was in elementary school – Miss Nelson, Mrs. Frizzi, Mr. Threewit, Mr. Bloyd. Teachers still hang wonderful bulletin boards with bright pictures, just like this:

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They keep their classrooms cheerful and organized, and they manage to create quiet little nooks and crannies for some of their quieter little people:

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They read to their students, they encourage the kids who struggle, they correct endless papers, they wake their students up to the wonders of the world, they do work that is vitally important in terms of producing good citizens for a democracy, kids who learn to listen, kids who learn to ask the right questions.  Good teachers open metaphorical doors, the hardest kind to open.

And every September, teachers deal with a classroom full of kids whose families have just turned the page of the calendar from August to September. These teachers still have – and the kids in their classrooms still have  – sunburns that have not faded. The scent of hot dogs and s’mores cooked over a campfire linger somewhere just outside the doors next to the attendance office. Even the principal dreams about his August paddle board lessons while he tells students to slow down, no running in the hallways.

I wish all the teachers reading this a wonderful, satisfying, bump-free school year, full of unexpected pleasures. When you’re reading the list of class rules, just remember that many of your students are still thinking about what it felt like to somersault off the dock down at the lake into the icy cold water. They are still going from this:

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to this:

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and from this:

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to this:

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It takes awhile to get into the groove of school. Sitting at a desk can be hard after running through sprinklers for three months. It’s even hard for the kids who love school. And for their teachers.

But you all know that. So chin-up, have some fun, take your students outside once in awhile, let them run around and go crazy. You run around and go crazy once in awhile, too, whether in front of the students or once you’re home.

Tick-tock until next summer.

 


[Visit The Drift Record to see my post for Poetry Friday: “Sentimental Education” by Mary Ruefle.]

 

Signatures, Technicals, Showstoppers

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I’ve been binging on The Great British Baking Show lately and wondering why. I’m no baker, that’s for sure.

In my family, we fall into “categories” for cooking, and my grandmother was the baker. When she died, several years ago, my sister and my daughter took on the “baker” role. I suspect I’m in the meat-and-potatoes category, or maybe it’s soups. My extended family members all like my soup; it’s all about the lime juice and salsa I add just before serving. Not star-power cooking, but it will do. I don’t long to be a baker, that’s definite.

So if I’m not that interested in improving my baking skills, why watch the Great British Baking Show (aka TGBBS)? Two reasons stand out:

#1: The amateur bakers are all so nice to each other. This is not similar to American reality TV shows like Project Runway, where competition gets ugly (and apparently the uglier, the better, because if things are too nice, viewership plummets and producers go crazy.) Honestly, I think half the reason I watch TGBBS is because I am so disheartened by the nasty stuff going on in politics right now, I find TGBBS a huge relief – everyone polite, everyone sweet. The worst that happens in this show is that a tower made of cookies falls over, or sticky buns won’t come out the pan they were cooked in.

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Yes, people get judged and one person has to go home at the end of each episode. But there are lots and lots of hugs when someone is headed home, and no one’s career as a baker is ruined, because no one on the show is a professional baker. So there’s some tension, yes, but not much. It’s all about nice, sweet people trying to make the most delicious baked goods they can. No one gutting health care, no one tweeting inanities.

#2: I see a parallel between the effort to produce good baked goods and the effort to create interesting stories. After all, creative people, no matter what they’re creating, interact with their material in certain ways. On TGBBS, the contestants work to respond to three different challenges each week: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. I think writers do basically the same.

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A “Signature” bake involves presenting something that is uniquely YOU. On TGBBS, if the “genre” is Breads, then a Signature bread must be produced which reflects the baker’s personality and or personal traditions in some way. You see a contestant with science-based inclinations using a ruler to measure the absolute uniformity of dough for bread sticks. Think of it as a modus operandi.  If flair, rather than science, drives someone’s Signature bread stick production, then we might see plaited dough woven together in dark and light stripes. Or if the challenge is a meat pie, we see a contestant whose background is East Indian use unusual spices to enliven hers, while someone more traditional produces a straight-up Cornish pasty.

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This sounds to me like what writers talk about when the conversation turns to “voice.” We recognize certain writers – we know if an essay was written by David Sedaris or Oliver Sacks, not because the subject is different but because their voices are uniquely theirs. As a writer, you don’t want to sound like everyone else. You want to sound like YOU. Your voice, your signature – uniquely yours.

“Technical” challenges require the bakers to follow recipes and rules. Everyone gets the same ingredients and the same recipes. Sometimes the recipes are a bit vague, allowing for different results based on the bakers’ interpretations of the rules. But essentially it’s about seeing how each baker does with restrictions, that is, with less innovative and more formal tasks.

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Anyone who’s ever written a villanelle or a sestina, anyone who has had to produce a line of iambic pentameter and/or follow a rhyme scheme knows what a technical challenge is.

And I think we all understand the phrase “showstopper.” For this, the bakers must take a category (writers work in genres) and  produce something out of this world, never tried before, something attention-grabbing. It’s like a “signature,” but with an added dollop of wow. Very hard to do well, and many baking disasters occur in this phase of the episode of TGBBS. Bakers are going all out, taking risks. So for anyone trying to write the Great American Novel. Also true for any creative effort. Stopping the show with a showstopper is no easy task. Some of us never attempt it, some of us wouldn’t miss it for the world – instinct guides us at this point, I think.

So…The Great British Baking Show. It’s so much fun to see the smiles on the faces of the bakers who have handled a challenge well. So sad to see things go wrong. So nice to see the camaraderie and support and genuine affection among the bakers, no matter whether one baker is doing well or whether the cookie tower (or short story, or picture book, or illustration, or novel, or….) has crumbled.

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As writers, we know those challenges; we know those feelings of joy and frustration. I’ve had my share of sticky-buns (in my case, poems) that wouldn’t come out of the “pan” they were cooked in.  I’ve also had my moments of being declared the equivalent of Baker of the Week. I do my best to produce a well-baked poem – sometimes it works, sometimes not.

And even if I didn’t see writing parallels behind every croissant, I’d still be watching The Great British Baking Show. From time to time I need to avoid (one hour at a time – I’m not greedy!) whatever foolishness is  currently dominating the news. Who knew British bakers would come to my rescue???

Oops – Yet Another Missed Deadline….

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Lately I’ve been missing all kinds of deadlines. Won’t go through them all, but it was my turn to post here at Books Around the Table on June 16th and it’s now June 23. Ah, well. And ah, darn it. How does this happen – time passing at warp speed? And why does it happen more and more often?

My last post had to do with a Big Move (sold our house of 30 years, moved to a new town) and all the packing and unpacking involved (still only about 33% unpacked.) In the middle of that move, I flew off to an Alumni Mini-Residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, had a ball, recharged my writing batteries, saw colleagues and former students, delivered a lecture about the importance of reading like a writer, led a workshop, won a couple of items at the Alumni Auction (proud to contribute to the fund-raising), marveled at the glass-enclosed lounge in the new faculty residency I’d been hearing about (lovely design but….impossible to sit around in your p.j.’s talking to friends at night with the lights on….), had an important conversation with a friend and colleague that I’ve only known slightly but now I know quite well, then took the bus down to Boston, saw my daughter and her family (grandson is now ten years old, how on earth did that happen??? Ah, yes, that phrase again: “warp speed” ) for a few days, flew home day before yesterday, unpacked suitcase, began to unpack boxes again….

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Whew! Life got busy and days just evaporated. I only noticed tonight that it was my turn to offer up a well-considered thought or two about writing and or/the writing life for Books Around the Table. Well, what I’ve just described — that is my crazy writing life. Filled with curiosity and activity, but basically amorphous. Or, better said, shaped into periods of creativity book-ended by 1) chaos or 2) fallow times. I have friends who offer up the advice “BIC” (meaning “butt in chair”) and they follow their own advice – they sit themselves down and work every day. And they produce good books. I can’t seem to do the BIC thing.

Maybe because writing isn’t really a career for me? I’ve begun to wonder about that.  Writing is more a curiosity-satisfying activity for me. I love it, but it doesn’t really put food on the table for me. I’m unambitious – that’s sometimes good, sometimes not. And friends who know me know I don’t punch the clock well. But I’ve been writing in-between all the moving and traveling, so it’s not all fallow. I’ve written a series of poems called “What She’s Been Thinking Lately” about what a woman who lives a little too much inside her mind. Each poem is about what this woman has been thinking about lately – mainly about stars, tiny houses, medical research, space travel, bog bodies, the roots of Western Civilization, sink holes, mind control, biometric authentication, tissue engineering – things like that. She isn’t me, but….I’ve been thinking about those things lately.

Like I said: life has been haphazard and chaotic. Curiosity survives. I do like to share, so I remain part of Books Around the Table – and my BATT friends put up with me when I miss deadlines. I’m in awe of each one of them – they’re artistic, organized, energetic, productive, thoughtful friends. Then there’s me – often scattered, lost in thought, overbooked, late to the table, under-productive, absent-minded.  One of the nice things about “the writing life” is that you have writer-friends. So I want to say this to them officially: You know that woman I mentioned in that series of poems? She’s been thinking lately about friendship. And she’s very grateful her friends put up with her.

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A Big Move

This is the photo we’ll call BEFORE:

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And this the photo which can only be called AFTER:

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My husband and I  just sold our house in Seattle (bought it in 1987, raised our three kids in it, still love it) to start a new phase of our lives 90 miles north in Bellingham, not far from the Canadian border.  We found a new house to fill up with old stuff (I mean, treasures….) and I know I should be thinking of this as an adventure. Still, it’s hard to empty out a house you’ve lived in and been happy in for thirty years. The bedroom that was once my youngest son’s room now looks like this:

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When I say something in it, my words reverberate and echo across the space, which hurts.

I hosted my last Books Around the Table meeting here on Wednesday, having kept one tablecloth in reserve for the occasion. Haven’t packed up the kitchen yet, so dishes were available for our lunch together. It felt almost normal. And not all the shelves are empty; some are actng as Grand Central for the fragile stuff, waiting for bubble wrap:

 

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There used to be books on all these shelves, of course; my books are all packed up in boxes. And boxes. And boxes.

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I own a lot of books, as do my BATT friends, as do most readers of this blog, I’m sure. And I like them to be everywhere:

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I feel like telling my books as I pack them, “Hold your breath, stay calm, see you soon.” Crazy, right? But we’ll be moving into the new house slowly. Here is the BEFORE photo. So empty.

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We need to get the carpet up, re-do the mantle, lay down maple flooring, paint the walls. It might be awhile before we get to the bookcases, and to putting books on the shelves.  Once books fill the house, I’ll believe it’s home. Then I’ll be able to go out on the deck with a cup of coffee, sit down, look out at the view, and think about the future. I know, the sky looks threatening. But I’m hopeful.

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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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