28 October 2010

stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a beautiful thing.

Take this, for example.

I started with one line—stolen, quite obviously, from Mrs. Dalloway—and typed quickly, no thinking, just fingers flying. This is the story that came out.

Seriously. If you're a writer and you're unsure of how to begin: start with a familiar line and stop judging what comes next. It'll be fun for you.


Marin said that she would buy the flowers herself.

For who else would buy the flowers? She was sitting at lunch alone; at a Subway in a strip mall, looking outside and wishing she could be sitting there. But no. No, that wasn't possible today, this first day when the air felt like fall instead of Indian summer. When the leaves no longer blazed but instead were grayed-out versions of themselves.

And yet there was still something of inspiration in the air. Something of change, even if she knew that the change that was coming was winter. But then. Then there would be spring. Flowers; tulips; crocuses (croci?); dogwood trees in bloom.

And she was back to flowers, back to thinking of flowers. She would buy them herself (for herself) when she went to Trader Joe's after work. Now it was still lunchtime, a late lunchtime (2:00), but lunch nonetheless. There was still the afternoon to get through, the final few hours that stretched longer than the morning when the bustle of getting coffee and talking about what you did last night with the co-workers made minutes trip by. What would they talk about this afternoon? What did they ever talk about?

Marin took a bite of her meatball marinara sandwich (half of it was wrapped up to eat for dinner; the desire to cook was not there this week), and she thought of another fall, that one years ago when she wasn't even 18 yet.

Someone had bought her flowers then, a corsage for her wrist, and he had been so particular about the color of the ribbon. Had to match her dress for the Homecoming dance and she liked that he paid attention to that detail.

She liked that he paid attention and carried her books (it made her feel like a girl in the 1950s, a girl in a flouncy skirt and isn't flouncy an odd word? Did she make it up?). And he knew that her favorite candy, the one she could eat any time, even when she said she wasn't hungry, was Reese's peanut butter cups and he knew that she always took small, very small, bites all the way around the edges and then ate the middle in one bite. She often bit off more than she wanted, but that never applied to eating Reese's and he knew that.

He had slipped the corsage on her wrist that night before turning to face their parents. Snap. Flash. Smiles in 35mm memory.

But Marin couldn't remember much more of that night. The grayed-out leaves. The damp air. The snap of the elastic band of the corsage when he put it on her wrist. How he'd offered her his jacket on the walk into the dance. The smiles. The music she didn't like.

The sandwich was gone, and Marin had 5 minutes to get back to work. To her desk. To her email.

And later she would buy flowers.

26 October 2010

jane austen couldn't spell this

Jane Austen didn't prepare me for this.

I have another thing to add to my list, my list of things in my life that Jane Austen {with her witty prose and her strong-willed women and her challenging men} did not prepare me for.

Or more precisely, could not have prepared me for. Jane Austen could not have prepared me for a spelling bee.

There's a professor at Oxford who analyzed Jane Austen's manuscripts and then created a tsunami in the English major world: she said that Jane Austen was heavily edited. By a man, most likely.

This author we've put on a podium—the one who excelled in a man's world by so clearly taking us into the mind of a woman—this woman's words were seriously changed by a man.

But Jane had to be heavily edited because she couldn't spell and grammar was low on her priority list. Who needs to think about subject-verb agreement when you're trying to create Elizabeth Bennet?

Aha, someone will say, aha! What if Jane Austen didn't really create Elizabeth Bennet as we know her today?

What if, at the end of the original draft of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth did not say:

"We will not quarrel for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening. The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable; but since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility."

Nor did she say:

"But think no more of the letter. The feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it, ought to be forgotten. You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."

Instead, she said {and as you read these, feel free to pretend there are spelling errors and grammar errors; I can't bring myself to write quite that lax}:

"Um, let's not fight about what happened that one time. I was wrong; you were wrong. Everyone was wrong. But I think we're nice now."

Or she said:

"Ok, get over your letter, your crazy letter that you wrote a long time ago. You've changed; I've changed. Move on, buddy. Move on. I mean, just be like me: I think about stuff only if it makes me happy."

Is Elizabeth Bennet still Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet?

I bet she is. I read in the Telegraph that the Oxford professor would describe Jane Austen's style as close to Virginia Woolf's. Stream of consciousness, jumbling together of dialog so that the reader is kept on their toes {wait, who's talking?}, a lot of internal thoughts going on as external action is described.

One main idea from this Virginia Woolf comparison tells me that Elizabeth Bennet, regardless of Jane's ability to keep track of the "i before e, except after c" rule, would still essentially be the same from first draft to the well-read copy on my bookshelf: stream of consciousness.

Stream of consciousness gets your ideas out on paper—quickly. It's messy, but I often find it to be the most revealing kind of writing, this trying to write without lifting your pen and certainly without stopping to judge what you've said. I've found in my own writing that allowing myself the freedom to write without constantly self-editing {self-judging, self-condemning, self-revising} has made me write more to the heart of what I want to say.

Stream of consciousness in literature—as in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway—is when you're given access to a character's inner thoughts, streaming along as they go about their day. You know, kind of like how you go about your day, driving to work but not really thinking about driving—instead, you're thinking about last night's conversation or what you'll have for lunch or the book you're reading.

Most likely, you're thinking about all of those things {and more} at once, so stream of consciousness aims to get you into a character's head so that you better understand them and their motivations.

{End English major discussion.}

I'm not saying that Jane wrote her books in one sitting, or that Pride and Prejudice is nothing more than an extended journal where she was simply getting down her thoughts without self-judgment. {Stream of consciousness, as a side note, works wonders for journalling when you're perturbed by something and need to get to the root of it}.

What I'm saying is:

Even if Jane Austen's original drafts were dashed together messes and even if her editor had to do some major work to get the books ready for print {and ready to be read by a public not quite ready for Virginia Woolf}...even if all that, I bet Elizabeth Bennet is still Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet.

I don't think the essence of Jane's characters were created by her editor as he put in commas and paragraph breaks. I'm an editor and a writer, and I know that you can only work with what you've been given: I bet Elizabeth came to the editor as the sharp-tongued girl we all love, contained there in the heart of messy scribblings and an inability to spell tomato correctly.

I'm going to keep Jane Austen on her podium in my mind. I might even raise the podium a bit, knowing that she was, perhaps, ahead of her time in terms of literary style.

Actually, yes, I'll definitely raise the podium, simply because I like Virginia Woolf and I like the idea of Jane Austen being compared to her.

Also, I think tomorrow I'll do some stream of consciousness writing in honor of Jane and Virginia.

{You should try it, too, and let me know how it goes.}

25 October 2010

to say okay

I spent the weekend with my 2-year-old niece, and I left knowing a few things for sure:
  • I'm jealous of her wardrobe. Now that it's fall in Minnesota, she gets to wear tights. Polka dotted tights, to be precise, and I bet she has striped ones, too, and I just didn't see them. I know that I could wear tights, but I honestly don't think I could pull it off as well as she does. I think it may have something to do with the fact that she's basically the size of a doll {we Walkers are petite little things}, and polka dotted legs tend to look better when doll-sized.
  • I should play more.  Not that I don't relax or do fun things.  And I'm also not about to turn into a surburban-stuck version of The Shining and start repeating, "All work and no play makes Kamiah a dull girl."  But over the weekend, I got to eat pretend food that my niece made in her toy kitchen, and those silly acting muscles are ones I think everyone should exercise more.  Then we can stop taking ourselves so seriously.
  • I want to say okay to change as easily as Adeline does.
Addie is a very content little girl, but like any 2-year-old, she cries and fusses and gets persnickety.

{I would like to self-disclose at this point that as a 2-year-old, I did more than "get persnickety." I threw temper tantrums until I passed out. I kicked, screamed, and was that kid that made all the other parents say silent prayers of thankfulness for their own, less volatile children. I had a shirt that said "Little Crabs Are Cute."

My crying is a thing of legend in my family, and so to be around Addie, a girl who cries a bit here and there, makes me pray that I get a little girl like her, instead of a little crab like me. I realize, though, that I fully deserve the little crab. Or a lobster.}

I noticed over the weekend that Addie cries a bit, but if you offer her something else to do—something other than what she's crying over—she often stops the tear build-up and says, "Okay."

End tears. End fuss. End persnickety.

She takes whatever you're offering her and seems to hear the logic of: "You can't have that other thing right now and here's why. Instead, you can have this thing."


Say she wants to bring a baby doll into church, but her parents want it to stay in the car. {Not that God doesn't like dolls or that dolls keep you from learning about Jesus, but I do have to point out that Addie's baby doll is more often than not naked, and that is not how we go to church. At least not in the Midwest.}

She'll fuss, quiver her lip, whine a bit. And then my brother or his wife will say, "Addie, the baby has to stay in the car. Do you want to go learn about Jesus?"


And she trusts that it really is okay that she doesn't have that other thing right now, that thing she was crying over .02 seconds ago. She trusts her parents, and she moves on.

I wish I could be like that.

Granted, I am never distraught by the fact that I can't bring a baby doll into church.

However, I am often distraught because I don't have what I think is so perfect for that particular moment.

That may be a boyfriend, a faster half-marathon time, more money, a book deal, more people reading what I write. It may be a lot of things because I am, like all of us, a big mess of desires and longings.

I fuss, quiver my lip, whine a bit because I think I know what I need, and yet I don't have it. I don't have my baby doll in church.

But at 2, Adeline knows to say, "Okay."

And in her okay is this concept she certainly doesn't have the word power for yet: that you may not always get what you want, but that doesn't mean you aren't in a good place.

When I get persnickety {I no longer throw obvious temper tantrums},
when I start feeling that my life is a little bit less than that girl's,
when I start focusing so hard on what I don't have that I forget that I like my life...

When I get to that point, that's where I need to say okay.

Okay, I see there are other good things around me.

Okay, I know that I don't have what I want right now, and okay, that hurts.

Okay, I trust you, God.

20 October 2010

it's like a small fire in a clearing

This week's theme is apparently secrets.

Not that I try to write around themes, but let's face it, a little structure never hurt anyone. A lack of structure, however, always hurts me.

But this theme I didn't really plan, and it doesn't mean that I'm building up to some big secret reveal. Such as that I'm secretly married. To a prince. Of Denmark*. Who isn't depressed like Hamlet.

Today's variation on the theme: an excerpt from a poem by Stephen Dunn called "A Secret Life." This poem has severely underlined sections in my book, mostly on the lines around "When you write late at night / it's like a small fire in a clearing, it's what / radiates and what can hurt."

Aside from the fact that I don't write late at night—I sleep late at night, like normal people who get up at 5:30—I could wrap myself up in that idea. There is a part of each of us that contains our best and worst selves. Our dreams and our fears {fears, perhaps, that our dreams won't come true}. Our snarky comments and our affirming reassurances.

It can feel like a contradictory place, but it's the place you allow yourself to live in contradictions, in mismatched hopes, in not-fully-explained thoughts.

It's that part of you that can simultaneously self-lecture and self-encourage, which for me, usually goes something like, "Come on, Mia, pull yourself together! Why are you having trouble [fill in blank here—possibilities include running more/faster, writing more, being a good friend, staying focused at work]? And yet, you're doing the best you can. It's okay." All that in one millisecond thought from that part of me I often don't want to show other people because it feels a bit too...fiery.

a secret life {excerpt}

The secret life
begins early, is kept alive
by all that's unpopular
in you, all that you know
a Baptist, say, or some other
accountant would object to.
It becomes what you'd most protect
if the government said you can protect
one thing, all else is ours.
When you write late at night
it's like a small fire
in a clearing, it's what
radiates and what can hurt
if you get too close to it.
It's why your silence is a kind of truth.
Even when you speak to your best friend,
the one who'll never betray you,
you always leave out one thing;
a secret life is that important.

*Subject to me finding out if Denmark still has princes. I think they do. I once visited there, but I didn't meet any. I was, however, staying at a hostel, and I bet princes don't go the hostel route. Heck, even I don't go the hostel route anymore.

19 October 2010

on being a hostess

This is, believe it or not, a revision I did of "my secret life of eating." You'll see the same concepts in here: the idea of image control, of presenting things not quite as they are in reality (is that bad? is it compartmentalization? is it smart?).

Both of these, by the way, started from a prompt about secrets: what part of you do you protect?

Final note: so there are three girls in here, and I called them Katie, Rachel, and Jessie. If your name happens to be Katie, Rachel, or Jessie, and you're my friend, don't worry: I'm not talking about you. No, really, I'm not.


The girls are coming for dinner at 7:00, so at 6:46, I’m doing what every good hostess does with less than 15 minutes to go: I’m hiding evidence that my life is not as I present it to perfectly be.

Dinner itself is simmering. My apartment smells as it should. Almost everything I make begins like this—

Heat 1T of olive oil over medium heat.
Add 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped, and sauté.

The pork chops with warm plum sauce I’m serving Katie, Rachel, and Jessie are no exception. And because of that, my fingertips still smell like garlic (and will until tomorrow morning) and underneath the tangy sweet smell of the plums cooking in the skillet, there’s that familiar base of garlic.

I take a breath and know that the plums are just beginning to drip with their juices. Almost time to transfer them to the oven with the rosemary-rubbed pork chops.

Yes, my apartment smells as it should. Welcoming. Content.

Which is not how I feel as I do image control on my life, as evidenced by how I’m currently shoving a stack of papers under a pillow on my bed. These are mostly papers about how to use my HSA insurance, bank statements, and already-paid-but-not-filed-away utility bills. I know these very important papers do not belong under my pillow, but it is the best hiding place I can think of on short notice. I can guarantee that none of the girls will come sit on my bed, and so no one will know my secret.

I fluff the pillows as I kick a stack of books under the bed. I’m hiding the clutter, not the fact that I read: if anything, I want people to think I spend all my free evenings reading instead of watching TV. Hence the TV armoire that hides the TV and the giant bookcase that reveals everything.

When people come to my apartment for the first time, they often get stuck in front of the bookcase, head angled to read the titles. My books are categorized by genre and then alphabetized by author. Alcott, Alvarez, Atwood, Austen, Austen, Austen.

“Wow,” people often say. “You must really like to read.”

“Oh, I do,” I reply, ending with a breathy emphasis that implies that my English degree is being put to good use. “I’d read every night if I could,” I say—of course not mentioning the nights I get sucked into Law & Order or Frasier or The Simpsons or even Wife Swap.

It’s 6:56.

The pork chops are in the oven, doing their final cooking. The table is set, complete with wine glasses and cloth napkins. I believe that cloth napkins immediately elevate the elegance of any meal.

I just need to throw the asparagus under the broiler for a few minutes when the pork and plums are done.

I made the dessert, peaches Melba, the night before. Its various parts—poached peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a raspberry coulis that took over an hour to make—are just waiting to be put together at the perfect time.

6:58. I open the bottle of wine and get a head start on the evening. It’s best to be relaxed and look like a party is already going on, even when the first guest arrives.

7:00. The doorbell buzzer rings. I’m betting it’s Rachel, who is so punctual, it makes me think she waits in her car until one minute before the appointed hour—and then rushes to ring the doorbell just on time.

I smile at this image, this panicked rush to be punctual to a dinner that’s supposed to be low-key, and then re-tie my apron strings.

Sometimes, we all need a little dress-up boost to help us act the way we know we should. With the apron on, I feel more like the role I decided to play tonight, more like the hostess, cook, friend.

More like someone who wasn’t rushing around 15 minutes ago with sweat on my upper lip, in a panicked flurry to look Real Simple presentable for a dinner that’s supposed to be low-stress.

18 October 2010

childlike wonder in a lego town

My library had an exhibit on Legos yesterday.

I'm not sure why, beyond that it would bring people into the library, and once you're in the doors, you can't resist that smell of books and the possibility of learning.

Especially when it's a made-for-learning fall day.

Or maybe that's just me. I am, after all, the girl who bought a condo a block from the library; I'm clearly drawn to their siren song. You could probably get me to agree to just about anything if you ask me while I'm in a library. Remember to whisper, which makes whatever you're asking sound like a secret {that also increases my likelihood of agreeing to whatever}.

The conversation would go like this:
You: [using very affected stage whisper. Perhaps also cup your hands around your mouth]Hey, Kamiah! Can you loan me $50,000 so I can buy a house I'll never invite you to and that's located nowhere near the library?

Me: [distracted by biography of Lady Bird Johnson, someone I've never really thought much about, but there's the book, there on the Featured Reads shelf and I realize that I should know more about this woman who wanted to make America beautiful by getting rid of billboards] Oh, yeah. Sure. Sounds great. Also, don't you love whispering?

You: [break into song—"Marian the Librarian" from The Music Man]

If you did that last part—the singing and dancing part—and were a guy I liked, even remotely, or had just met once, I would probably agree to marry you at that point.

Ah, the magic of libraries.

But back to the Legos.

This was more than little Lego trees and Lego houses. Imagine whole cities, complete with car dealerships. You know your Lego town has made it when your little Lego-itizens need to buy fancy cars.

One guy had re-created entire scenes from The Matrix.

One had done the Bat Cave, and another had built the entire cast of Deep Space Nine.

I was impressed, fascinated, delighted, immersed. I was that person who crouches down really close to see the detailing on Neo's face and then compares it to Batman's detail. {Ooh, very small Bat Tools on the Bat Belt! I simply assume every bat thing related to Batman is capitalized.}

I stood in front of the city, head moving as I followed the train—built to look like the Amtrak!—zip around town. I thought about being on that train, me as a Lego person, reading a newspaper built from blocks. I bet it would be heavy.

And then I looked around me and realized I was the only person in there without a child attached to me. All the other adults looked slightly bored or fake interested. They watched their children crouch down to marvel at the faces, and they had to gently pull them away from the train tracks.

I briefly considered stealing a child so that I looked like I had more reason to stay in there.

I've done this before. Well, I don't actually steal a child so much as I borrow one I already know to do things that are a bit more childlike, such as going to see that American Girls movie that came out a few years ago. You know, the one with that girl from Little Miss Sunshine.

Without a kid with you, you may look a little too lonely and socially isolated. People may look at you and wonder if you still play with your American Girls dolls when you're in your apartment alone. {No, by the way. My American Girls are still at my parents' house.}

With a kid, though, you're a mentor, a buddy, a loving adult spending special time doing something the kid will love. {And you will love, too. Perhaps more than the kid does because you're re-living your childhood, and they're just going through it for the first time. You can't be nostalgic when you don't know how good you've got it.}

I did not steal a child. I can't believe I just had to clearly state that for the record.

Instead, I embraced my inner child. This did not involve me hugging myself in a public place, don't worry.

You've got to maintain that childlike wonder, the part of you that gets to say, "Oh my gosh! Did you see that?!? Wasn't that soooooo cool?!?"

Part of your childlike wonder involves using lots of exclamation points and question marks together to accurately express your wonder.

Yesterday, I stood and stared at the Amtrak for awhile longer and had a conversation with a little boy that involved lots of exclamation points.

A child-like wonder conversation while in a library: this is the kind of stuff that gets me ready to go back to my work-a-day world on a Monday morning.

Isn't that soooooo cool?!?!

16 October 2010

my secret life of eating

When you live alone, you can gorge yourself on a secret life.

You have so many possibilities. You can spend a whole Saturday reading trashy romance novels, one right after another, but then you can tell people that you spent the day absorbed in Jane Austen, all high brow and la-ti-dah.

Or you can get caught up in a Wife Swap or Jersey Shore marathon. You can watch it hour after hour and keep track of how many times you say (out loud, even though you’re alone; people who live alone always talk to themselves), “These people can’t be for real.” Then when someone asks you what you did the night before, you can say, “Just relaxed. Took a walk at sunset and admired the changing leaves. Did the crossword in the Trib. You know.”

My secret life is this: sitting on the couch and spooning up mouthfuls of peanut butter for dinner. No bread, no celery. Just me, the jar, and a soup spoon.

I find ordinary spoons too small.

Sometimes, I pour honey right on top of that spoonful. And that’s dinner.

When you live alone, you’re allowed to call eating peanut butter while watching The Cosby Show dinner.

But if you lived with someone, that someone would probably point out that peanut butter is basically a glob of fat that coats your insides and later congregates in your thighs.

Or that someone might whine about how they’re starving and then very unsubtly nudge you away from the Huxtables and towards the stove, the chef's knife, and a mountain of vegetables.

If you have an exquisitely wonderful someone, they may cook you a proper meal with courses balanced on the food pyramid. They’ll sit down with you at a proper table with a centerpiece of tulips they brought home for you, and they’ll ask you how your day was while pouring you a glass of red wine from St-Emilion.

None of those scenarios involve you—and only you—eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. A guilty pleasure, I know, and it’s part of my secret life. It’s my secret life of eating.

I am, in fact, a very fine cook.

I’m staring at that sentence now, that bold assertion of worth, and I’m recoiling. My Midwestern sensibilities are recoiling. I should say, “Oh you know, I do what I can, but I’m not nearly as good as…”

Then I should distract myself from any desire for attention by talking about other people who are better than me. But that’s a social requirement, learned from years of eavesdropping at church potlucks, where Jell-O salads took up half the table. The other half was split between tater tot casseroles and creamed corn.

I’m trying to move past this particular Midwestern hang-up, this inability to say with confidence and without guilt that I’m good at something.

So yes, I am, in fact, a very fine cook.

Ok, I still feel a bit guilty for saying that.

I don’t want to brag, but people do ask for my recipes, which I think is a sign of approval. Or maybe they’re trying to one-up me and make my Moroccan couscous better.

But—ah, this is proof!—people have been to my apartment multiple times for dinner. They have not found multiple excuses to avoid coming back.

I can make supreme de volaille veronique.

The aforementioned Moroccan couscous.

Swedish meatballs.

Pork chops with a warm plum sauce.  Poulet de vallee d'Auge. Brioche.

Quiche Lorraine. Crepes. Profiteroles.

Marquise au chocolat and three kinds of flourless chocolate cake—three!

I can whip up my own crème Chantilly (so much better than Cool Whip), and I know that it’s easier to whip it by hand if you stick the bowl and whisk into the freezer for a few minutes first.

I am a fine cook, but those are the things I make when I have people over.

If it’s a Tuesday night and no one is coming over, it is an exhausting battle I fight to not open the peanut butter and call it dinner in front of the TV.

After an exhausting day at work—or even just a normal day, if I’m honest—the thought of cooking…well, let’s just say I sometimes keep peanut butter in the living room.

This is part of my secret life, which is a thing we all have and something we all get a thrill out of, these hidden corners of ourselves that are mostly innocuous. Little pieces of yourself you keep mostly quiet about, and when you do share, you get that heart race of being known by someone, even if it's just in a small way about something that seems very everyday ordinary.

Such as what you choose to eat for dinner sometimes.

And there goes my heart race of being known for the day.  That's what I get for sharing part of my secret life of eating.

14 October 2010

pied beauty {gerard manley hopkins}

I'm not sure how much more I can write about fall.

To be more precise: I'm not sure how much more I should write about fall. Without ticking people off with my repetitiveness and my maybe-you-should-be-worried-about-me love for the season.

But here's just a short list of things I haven't even touched on, not in the slightest:
  • corduroy coats
  • the first time you get to wear boots. Not the snow boot kind, which can make you feel like a dorky kid {a kid with dry feet, but still a bit dorky}, but the stylish leather kind.
  • sleeping with the windows open and using extra blankets
  • driving to work with the sunroof open {to smell the fall air} and the heat on {to keep your feet warm. Unless you have stylish boots on, then maybe you won't need the heat.}
  • discovering yellow, crinkly leaves in your car because you accidentally left your sunroof open and some flitted in while you were at work
  • rainy days that make you want to listen to Erik Satie as you bake pumpkin-flavored things. Breads. Cookies. Muffins. Doesn't matter, so long as your house can smell like spice and all things nice for just a little while.
Ok, so I'll stop there. Even I'm getting a little worried about myself, that I don't have anything to say, except joyful raptures and rhapsodies about the weather.

Instead, I'll just turn this over to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a British poet from the late 19th Century. What, that transition didn't make sense to you? It will in a minute; go with me for just a minute.

Hopkins wrote this poem called "Pied Beauty" where he praises God for his undeniable creativity: in color, in landscape, even in what we do to fill our days on earth.

Being the good English major I was, I studied this poem in college and even did a project on it.

Being a last-semester-of-college English major at that point, the project was...well, it was really more of a photo/artsy essay. To this day, the project still feels like something I got away with.

Instead of an 8-page paper explicating the poem, my professor let me visually represent the ideas in here. I had pictures of early spring flowers pushing through snow, a pressed leaf from the fall before, and I even threw in poems that I'd written in response to "Pied Beauty."

I put it all together in a book, and I know that maybe it sounds impressive, this multi-media interpretation of a poem, but I'm going to be honest: it was on construction paper.

I turned in one of my last projects in college on construction paper and got an A. It was kindergarten come full circle.

You see why I have a special place in my heart for "Pied Beauty." Well, that and Hopkins describes so exquisitely—in such strong, demanding language—the reasons why I feel compelled to so often write about nature, try to capture it, try to remember every detail of every morning that made me smile.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:
Práise hím.

12 October 2010

at a tire shop and in a state of gratitude

In a twist of life imitating art, I found myself sitting in a tire shop this morning.

If a tire shop doesn't sound particularly arty, you should read this short story I wrote a week ago. It's about sitting in a tire shop.

Granted, I was sitting in a tire shop when I wrote the story, so maybe this is more a twist of living the same day over and over, just like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Except that a week ago, I was in Hurricane, Utah, and this morning, I was on Main Street in Wheaton, Illinois. I was in the midst of suburbia instead of in a desert.

This morning, I sat outside while waiting for the nice tire man to check my front passenger-side tire, which I had diagnosed with a very slow leak. Well, it started as a slow leak, but the thing was picking up speed. As in—I filled it up to the appropriate 30psi on Sunday, and it had already dropped to 25. That can't be right. Even I, a girl who didn't know that my car came equipped with a tire wrench until last year, know that that can't be right.

And so, after a run where I literally stopped {not figuratively at all} to stare at the changing leaves {so many colors all at once}, I was sitting outside the tire shop on Main.

You know you're in suburbia when you choose to sit outside instead of in the waiting room—and people driving down Main Street give you strange glances from behind the rolled-up windows in their SUVs. As if you're painted green. Or carrying a hippie protest sign left over from the Vietnam era. Or driving a bigger SUV than they are.

But it was a particularly autumnal morning, as I'd already noticed, and I had 8 hours in a cubicle ahead of me.  I needed the outside.

I read The Practice of the Presence of God, this book by a monk from the 1600s, which I'm supposed to be reading for my small group, but I didn't make it much past this:

"One day [Brother Lawrence] saw a tree stripped of its leaves, and considered that sometime afterward these leaves would appear again, followed by flowers and fruit. He then received a lofty awareness of the providence and power of God that never left him."

My reaction: shut up, Brother Lawrence. {Is it okay to tell a monk to shut up, even if he's dead? I don't know. I don't have much experience with monks and nuns, unless you count The Sound of Music, and I don't think you should.}

I wanted Larry to shut up because that's precisely what I'd been thinking on my run this morning—after my stunned pause to stare at the colors.

I know it wasn't an original thought. I'm not the first one to realize that seeing nature's beauties can quickly lead to a state of gratitude. I mean, that's what a lot of hymns are about, and I don't get angry when I sing:

When I look down
From lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook
And feel the gentle breeze;
Then sings my soul,
My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art!

But this morning outside the tire shop, there was Larry, saying what I wanted to say, but saying it better, and saying it in 1666. I can't beat that.  My country didn't even exist then, and there he was, saying profound monk-ish things.

I got over it. The tire man came out of the shop to tell me that I had a little bit of corrosion on the rim and that he'd fixed it. I asked a lot of questions about oxidation and nodded at the answers, as if I understood everything he was saying.

I drove to work humming "How Great Thou Art" and considering that the golden, red, orange, and green leaves would soon all be the same color: brown and on the ground, soon to be covered by snow—and waiting for the spring.

10 October 2010

a swath of land

The word "swath" was created for the amount of land you can see driving across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

You look out to the end of the world, and there you are, miles and miles from the edge. In between are canyons, rattlesnakes, cowboy dreams, sagebrush, flash floods, and layers of geologic wonder.

You hear in the videos they show at national parks and national monuments that a lot of the West used to be sand dunes, and before that, an ocean.

Numbers like 100 million—as in 100 million years ago—are thrown around, but there you are, driving on an asphalt highway, flying through time and history at 65 mph.

The West puts you in your place, your little dot of a place, and it makes you thankful that you have a place.

07 October 2010

pennies from heaven

Part 2 of a two-part series on a hike my parents and I took in Zion National Park. To read the beginning of the story—to find out how we got on top of this mountain {although that seems kind of obvious}—you can read "where angels fear to tread."


On our hike down from Angel's Landing {well, as close as we got to it}, the rain started again, and we stopped in another alcove to read more {you can read about the other time we stopped to read on this hike here}.

While it's true that there comes a point you can't get any wetter—the practical side of me speaking—there also comes a time when you're on vacation and you aren't hurrying towards something. Why rush through the rain to get down a mountain?

Waiting in the alcove, I tried to focus on Annie Dillard and not on how quick-dry hiking shorts are a good idea in theory, but when you're in the middle of a rainstorm that will eventually dump 1.22 inches on an area that gets 8 inches a year, they feel clammy and are somewhat see-through if you have them in khaki.

“There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises,” I read in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is all about noticing nature. “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? […] But if you can cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see it what you get.”

I looked up from the book and saw a penny, an unwrapped gift, a free surprise. It was still raining and I was still chilly wet, but across the way, there on another cliff, was a row of waterfalls. They hadn't been there on the way up; the mountain had become saturated and water was escaping whatever way it could.

I'd learned earlier in the day that the sandstone in Zion works as a sponge, soaking in the water, a feature of its porous surface. Scientists have tested the water that seeps out of the sandstone in places like Weeping Rock, and they say some of it is over 1,000 years old.

Both ideas still toggled around in my brain, running into each other: that scientists can give a birthday to water and that a rock can hold water, shoved in there between very dense rock molecules.

I wondered if any of that ancient water was mixing with the new rain as it fell down the mountain. Ten waterfalls—some no more than a trickle, some thick rushes shooting over the cliff—were my ten pennies, my ten proofs that the grayest day can bring the brightest memories.

The rain slowed but the waterfalls roared. They hit rocks in their path—water takes the path of least resistance—and changed direction, gave off a spray, a splash, a visible flash that it was here, changing the mountain a little.

“Ready?” My dad had put away his Kindle and was looking down the trail, judging how wet it was. “You can lead the way.”

With another marvelling glance at my pennies, and I stepped out of the alcove, onto the trail, and took the lead.

06 October 2010

where angels fear to tread

We hiked to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park. Almost to Angel's Landing, in reality. That last half-mile along a razor's edge was too dangerous in the wind and rain.

Even in the sunlight, beams streaming down from heaven in a “this is the place” kind of way, even then, I might have been hesitant. Climbing up to the Landing I could imagine: holding on tightly to the chain anchored in the rock, stepping precisely and looking diligently before every step, never leaping.

It was the coming back down that made me practice my deep, calming breaths. Would it be better to back down, squeezing the chain so hard it becomes twisted, stepping just so and never looking to the right or to the left? To the right, an 800 foot drop. To the left, a 1,200 foot drop. I couldn't face forward on that descent from Angel's Landing; every step would look like a free fall.

It hadn't been raining when we started the hike from the Grotto. It started around lunchtime, and we'd stopped in a rocky overhang to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stuffed into the bread bag and then stuffed into a backpack.

Rain soon paired with thunder and lightning, and I diligently counted the seconds between flash and sound: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three...it's five seconds to the mile, my mama taught me, and so I measured how far away the storm was.

It was very close.

We stayed in the alcove, pressed up against the red rock, reading. I had Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my mama read a Barbara Kingsolver, and my dad had his Kindle with that day's edition of the New York Times. It seems a technological miracle, or perhaps just a sign of the times (or the Times), that he could read about the Supreme Court's first day back at work—during a thunderstorm on the side of a mountain in Zion.

The three of us reading got plenty of comments, mostly about the Kindle. One woman even asked for a summary of that day's headlines. No one commented on my Annie Dillard.

Eventually, the storm moved on, as they always do, and we moved on, as we often do.

It was still raining, but rain we can deal with. Lightning on a mountaintop, though, is something better reserved for the Bible.

You reach the almost-summit of Angel's Landing by going up 21 switchbacks, this part of the trail called Walter's Wiggles. I thank Walter and whoever helped him carve that wiggle into the mountain; I do not want to think about climbing straight up there, scrambling over rocks. I do not want to think about that, just as I do not want to think about coming down from Angel's Landing; I'm starting to sound anti-thinking and anti-fear.

My dad took to calling the switchbacks Wally's Wiggles, and when he'd stop to catch his breath every few switchbacks, he'd still have enough breath to say, “Wally, what are you doing to me?”

We made it to the top during a break in the rain. There wasn't a corresponding break in the clouds, but as inspiring as mountains are, seeing them draped in mist makes them more mysterious. Now you see it; now you don't.

Mighty mountains that they are, a little water has the ability to change them—and I'm sure, buried not too deep in that mountain/water image is a lesson about perseverance, or perhaps one about how a gentle spirit has a more lasting effect.

There's probably also something symbolic in this: the mountaintop experience isn't what I want to tell you about. All you need to know about that is that we were high up, but the real point of the hike was on the way down.


And you can read about the real point here, in Part 2 of the story {not that reading this was a waste of time}.

hiking with parents

Now that he's 63, my dad hikes a bit slower than he did at, say, 43. He used to lead the family, blazing ahead and calling himself Lord Baltimore, the fearless explorer. I don't know why he was Lord Baltimore, seeing as we aren't from there, but he did have a song that went along with his hiking name. It's hard to dispute someone when they have a song.

The Lord Baltimore told me on this trip that I've earned the right to lead the way on hikes. He told me I'd passed my apprenticeship, which I can only assume was the years of hiking behind him and putting up with the song he sang about himself.

I should come up with a name for myself now that I'm the leader. Perhaps the Lady Charlotte, another East Coast town we aren't from.

Even without an official hiking name, I laid down rules on this trip: no complaining and no drawing attention to yourself.

My dad needs both of these rules because otherwise, he'll spend the hike taking in exaggerated breaths and then announcing, bullhorn-style, “What a feat! To do this at 63!”

I'm going to start carrying a list of people who've done the Ironman past age 63. Really, a list of anyone who's done a 5k would be enough, and I'll pull out my list when he breaks the rules.

05 October 2010

glitter and buttons {a short story}

We stopped in Hurricane, Utah, to get the camper worked on. Just a little stop, not much time out of our day, and while I sat in the waiting room, I wrote a story. It's somewhat based on real life, in that I mention a waiting room in here, but don't go getting any ideas from this. It's just a story.

I know I said before that I wouldn't write all that many stories {and you can read the other short story I've written}; I'm better with real life.  But this one became a story before I knew what was happening, so there you go, the mystery of writing.


“I would say buttons and glitter make everything better.”

The morning show is giving ideas for decorating Halloween, vintage style, and two over-blonde women call everything “darling.” They are the kind of women who have entire rooms dedicated to decoration storage in their immaculate homes—homes so ordered you question if people live there or simply sit with perfect posture and breathe sparingly.

One of them is holding up a noisemaker made from supplies you can find at your local craft store. “And I got everything I needed, all of it, for less than a dollar per item! Can you believe it?”

I can believe it because I can see that the noisemaker is nothing but a painted box with beans inside and a stick shoved in the bottom.

On the box, Blonde #1 is demonstrating how to paint a gruesome face. Scars seem essential, as does a toothy grin, menacingly maniacal. Blonde #2 coos over the ease of creating scariness. That's when she gives her useful tip: “I would say buttons and glitter make everything better.”

I imagine myself as her co-host, wearing a cake of foundation and fall colors that work well with my skintones under the studio lights. I give myself a scarf, wrapped with a chic expert touch, as chic as a French woman. (I also imagine that I did a segment on this last spring, teaching other women the secrets of being French, which include actually speaking French and owning a full Le Creuset set.)

“Oh why, yes, Amber! Glitter is such a snap to add to any project, and I like to think of it as economical bling! Now, let's just sprinkle some on our toothy grin! Oooh, now that's scary! It looks like our vintage noisemaker friend here has some food stuck in his teeth, a frightening faux-pas for sure!”

Amber laughs, and I laugh before turning to camera 2 to say, “Coming up next, we show you how to make glitter and button cookies! Because as Amber pointed out so smartly, those two things really do make everything better!”

I wouldn't make it long as a morning show co-host. It'd take a case of glitter and buttons to decorate my sarcasm, and even then, I don't think it'd cover it up very well.

On the real morning show, Blonde #1 has a better response to Blonde #2's glitter and button tribute: “Oh yes, glitter and buttons do make the world go 'round.”

She and her co-host smile at each other, and I look in their eyes for some small twinkle of recognition that they're appalled at what's coming out of their mouths. I'm looking for a secret sign that screams, “I didn't get a master's in women's literature from the Romantic period for this!”

I don't see one, but then again, the TV screen at the tire shop where I'm waiting is small and across the room, stuck in a corner by a stack of Goodyears. The morning show music starts to play, and Blonde #1 promises they'll be right back to show me how to make the most amazing sugar cookies I will ever eat.

“Miss, your car's all done. Keys are in it.” The tire guy, looking more like he belongs on a mountain trail, smiles at me, and I, without warning, feel compelled to explain that I'm not the kind of girl who normally watches morning shows and that I don't decorate for Halloween, vintage style or otherwise.

I clench my teeth to keep the words in. He doesn't need to know all that. I smile as I reach out to shake his hand, trying to look like I belong on a mountain trail, and then I walk out the door, away from the morning show and its promise of cookies.

04 October 2010

it rained here last night

It rained here last night.

When I opened my eyes at precisely 7am, as if I'd set an alarm, that phrase opened up in my head. It's true and now it's echoing.

It's echoing like the beginning to different stories, to different poems, but I think I'll just start with the poem.


It rained here last night,
and there is nothing wrong in
talking about the weather.

It changes so often and
we all go through it.
We should talk about what we have in common,
and sometimes that may be that
the sun is hot,
ice is slick,
and rain comes
whether you're expecting it or not.

I have heard some people say--
that weather talk is avoidance talk,
a way to protect ourselves from
discussing deep stuff

And to them I say:
It rained here last night,
and I was sleeping in a tent.

In a tent, only a few millimeters of fabric separate you
from falling nature.

You're in this 4 x 6 bubble of dry isolation,
and the plip-plip of rain on the fly is the
only reminder you need that
no matter how important you think yourself,
you still live by the whims of weather.

when words aren't necessary

03 October 2010

the watchman watches

I'm sitting under the watchful eye of the Watchman Tower at Zion National Park. The setting sun, until about 5 minutes ago when it disappeared behind the other canyon wall, was making the Watchman burn red-orange, brighter and steadier than fire.

Now, though, the sun has set for those of us in the canyon, but the Watchman still watches.

In this place that immediately brings to mind time immemorial, God's finger pointing in creation, and our particular smallness of existence, in this place, I'm using the Internet.

I know why this astounds me. I want to feel disconnected from modern life, but even here in a canyon, surrounded by millions of years of erosion, even here I can be connected.

This is the beauty and the beast of the 21st Century. I'm in a place of breathtaking sights, but if I wanted to, after catching my breath, I could call my best friend and describe for her what I'm seeing.

I would say to her:

Everywhere I look out here, my little eye lands on something else to describe, and my little eye is on overload.

On the hike today to the Emerald Pools, up canyon from our campground, I went around a bend in the well-traveled path and there, rising in the distance ahead of me, surprising me, was a white cliff. It sat on top of the red rock, and there was a transition section of pink-streaked rock. On top of the white peak, there were trees growing, scattered about as if they were thrown by a careless child. How do the trees grow out of the rock like that? Where do the roots go? How deep can they reach into the mountain? Is the tree always a split second from falling?

I would tell her about the wildflowers, yellow and looking like black-eyed susans but I don't think they are, swaying in the canyon breeze.

There are fruits on the prickly pear cactus right now, these bulbous purple fruits, and bulbous, a word usually applied to noses, really is the right word to describe them. They look like the nose of a cartoon character known for his sense of smell, a superhero trait that doesn't seem all that exciting.

I'd mention the sky. The blue of the sky out West always makes me blink more than normal. Blink: how can that blue be true? Am I seeing the same color blue as everyone else here? How can they all stand such a blatant reminder of goodness and beauty? Blink. The blue makes me think of that line from
Our Town: Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?

This place makes me yearn for connection. I just didn't know that there would also be an Internet connection.

02 October 2010

the morning sun in utah

We walked the puppies in the early morning light, when the sun had not yet made it over the mountains.

When we came to Cedar City and the Utah Shakespeare Festival before, so many times when I was growing up, we'd camp up in the mountains at a place called Cedar Breaks. It was a half-hour drive from the Festival, and after seeing Much Ado About Nothing or Merchant of Venice, up the mountain we'd go, late at night. I'd fall asleep imagining I was Beatrice with Benedick so in love with me that he writes embarrassing sonnets.

On top of the mountain at our campsite, my parents would wake me up, and I'd stumble out of the car and into the cold. Smell the cedar, the campfires; feel the quiet, the hush, the sleep. Curling into my sleeping bag, I'd say good night to the family and will myself back to the dream where I got to wear a pretty dress and dance around.

The next morning up on the mountain, we'd eat a breakfast of instant oatmeal, dressed in multiple layers and still shaking a bit from the cold and the shock of no longer being in the cocoon of a sleeping bag. Then we'd head down the mountain, into the desert of a valley, and gradually de-layer. By the time we were at the Festival—in time for the Literary Seminar where we got to discuss the play from the night before {me practicing up for my English degree, I guess}--we'd be in our t-shirts and shorts, having completely forgotten the freeze of the morning.

This time at the Festival, we aren't staying at Cedar Breaks. We're staying, actually, in a parking lot across the street from the theatre, a benefit of travelling in a camper. The transition from the theatre to bed is much shorter this time around, but that doesn't mean I don't go to sleep dreaming I'm someone else on the stage.

This morning, we walked the puppies in the early morning light, and I'd forgotten how quickly it becomes bright day here in Utah.

The morning sun is soft, twirling, gentle. A waltz of light, highlighting now this, now that. The side of the mountain is in the spotlight, but then there's a quick shift and the tree in front of me is where the show is.

As soon as that sun tips over the mountain, though, it's full, blaring day. Immediately. It immediately looks like mid-afternoon, even if it's only 8am.

At home, at home in the flatlands, there is a more sustained crescendo of light. The sun comes over the horizon, and you see it right away; there is no hiding behind the mountains, sneaking up on you. While the sun still plays momentary favorites with what part of my view it highlights, it is a slowly growing intensity, that light at home in the mornings.

By the time the sun shines directly here, it's hot, ready for the day. And it makes you feel that you should be ready, too.

01 October 2010

go to utah

If you want space, go to Utah.

This is a line from a song from my childhood.

Other children, children who had more normal childhoods and probably went to Disney World for vacations, remember songs like, "The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round..."

But I—part of a family that has never been to Disney World and instead headed to the desert for vacation almost every year—I know songs like:

"When I woke up this morning, things were looking bad / Seems like total silence was the only friend I had."


"I told my mama on the day I was born / Don't you cry when you see I'm gone."


"If you want space, go to Utah / If you want time, pal, you got the next 50 years."

These were the kinds of songs we listened to on our long car drives on vacations where we camped our way across the West. It was either folk music or NPR, and I think I was the only kid in my 3rd-grade class who could recite the number to call for Car Talk, a feat that didn't increase my popularity, for some reason.

I'm about to get on a plane to Utah, so of course the "If you want space" line is running through my head. It won't stop, in fact. No matter how much I think about other things, other states, other songs, my head keeps coming back to: "go to Utah."

I'm meeting my parents in Cedar City, Utah, tonight, and I'll be spending a week with them camping and generally re-living my childhood vacations. I hope they have those old family-sing-along tapes.

Otherwise, I'll have to resort to singing the songs a capella, humming through the words I don't remember. That won't be annoying at all.


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