26 May 2011

a scratch pad {for a poem}

Scratch pads usually come in handy for math problems. Carry the one, and do the long division, if you remember how to do that {remainders? Does anyone really remember how to do remainders?}.

But for me, the more enticing scratch pads are the ones like this, the ones where I'm scratching out my thoughts, circling around an idea, crossing out what isn't right.

In a world of computers and the delete button, there is something almost Luddite and anachronistic about writing down—with ink and all—your thoughts. About boldly declaring: this is what I think.

And then boldly scratching it out: This is not what I meant. Let me try that again.

On a computer, you can just hit that delete button and no one ever has to know. Ink bleeds with honesty, and you have to scratch hard and deep to cover up what you didn't mean to say.

This is my draft for my poem "carnival," and perhaps the scratchings and the sections written in different parts of the paper say something about my thought process or my writing process. I don't know, but I look at this and say: here is what I meant to say. All of it, the scratchings and the parts that ended up in the poem, all of it I meant to say to get what was in my head out onto something more permanent and real. To get it out in ink.

25 May 2011

the carnival {a poem}

Overnight, the town became more carefree.
The bank still stood, imposing and columned on the corner.
Suits and high heels still marched in precision step to the train.


Just off Main Street, a carnival had appeared overnight.
All of it: the Tilt-a-Whirl and the kiddie roller coaster
and the Ferris wheel and most importantly,
the funnel cake stand.

Rome wasn't built in a day,
but this carnival was built in eight hours,
which leaves you wondering how well the screws are tightened.

No matter.

This is no time to think about Rome or loose screws—
the carnival is in town,
crammed into the parking lot across from the grocery store,
a beacon, a Pied Piper,
an old boyfriend you can't forget.

Late into the night, music plays,
carried down quiet streets by the year's
first hint of humidity.

People sitting in their living rooms,
windows open,
hear children
shouting and screaming on the Tilt-a-Whirl
and they think:

Tomorrow, we won't worry about dinner.
We'll go to the carnival and have a hot dog,
maybe even a chili dog if the mood strikes,
and some French fries, too.

And if we can get up the courage,
we'll go on that thing,
that ride that drops you 100 feet in a nanosecond,
a freefall, you're weightless, you've beat gravity.

Just before we drop,
we'll look at our town
see it as the birds see it
and realize
that even the familiar
looks like something to celebrate
when you're in the carnival's glow.

23 May 2011

speaking of the rapture

So you weren't raptured.

And I wasn't raptured.

Since we're still here, I thought I'd share a story. It's about me freaking out about the rapture as a small child.

Now, you may be thinking: Kamiah, what did you know of the rapture as an 8-year-old?

Oh, I knew plenty.

I knew it would involve horses, most likely giant horses, and I was—and still am—scared of regular-sized horses.

I knew it would involve fire, and unless there were smores or hot dogs involved, I wasn't so keen on fire, and I was pretty sure that God's plan for the rapture did not involve time for smores. This wasn't summer camp, after all.

I knew it would involve horrible weather, and as a Midwesterner, the worst weather I could think of was a tornado. I had never actually experienced a tornado, although I had seen The Wizard of Oz a lot and was, therefore, scared of tornadoes. And of living in black and white, but that's another story.

{As a sidenote, I was also concerned about the Lollipop Guild. Their little outfits made them look like children and yet they were clearly grown up. Something was very, very wrong in Oz, and I wondered if I, as a person destined for shortness, would end up like the Lollipop Guild.}

Finally, I knew that the rapture would start with a rushing wind.

I don't know where I got this last bit of information, but you can see from all my snatches of information that I was just informed enough to be dangerous.

I was a half-informed child with an overactive imagination, and I was living a relatively sedate life in Iowa: I was ready for some action on a heavenly scale.

And for a kid raised in the Pentecostal church, "action on a heavenly scale" meant a few things:

  • a revival, preferably one involving a tent, although I never actually attended one of those
  • winning Bible quiz and most definitely beating my sister at said Bible quiz
  • seeing someone get slain in the Spirit, although let's face it, that happened pretty much every week

Or you know, if none of those things happened:
  • the Second Coming of Christ

As an 8-year-old, I realized I should be ready for the Second Coming, and my action plan was to ask Jesus into my heart every week. Just to be safe. Let him know that he's really, really welcome. No, really, please move in and make yourself at home in my heart Jesus. Do whatever you need to do, but please don't leave me behind.

I should admit that I was, in general, a kid of action plans. I also had plans for things such as my house catching on fire or a tornado coming up the Mississippi.

In the event of the fire, I would grab my porcelain dolls and my Bible—bt-dubs, Jesus, please come into my heart—then run into my sister's room and we'd exit together through her window.

I don't know why I was so caught up in this idea of a tornado coming up the Mississippi {Why not across the corn fields? Why just up the river?}, but in my little overactive imagination, it was one of the most terrifying images I could conjure. I saw it all so clearly: there I was, playing in the backyard on a sunny Iowa day—our house overlooked the Mississippi—and then boom, the sky turns a dark green and a tornado the size of Cincinnati starts sucking up the Mississippi.

My plan in that scenario was to, if there was time, grab my porcelain dolls and my Bible before going to the basement. {I debated leaving my dolls in the basement during tornado season.} As for my sister—I was so concerned for her in the fire scenario—a tornado did not involve enough time to make sure she was all right. I would need to holler for her and then trust she'd be okay.

But back to the rapture, which did not happen when I was a small child, nor did it happen on Saturday, as that preacher man predicted.

I was very much fixated on this rushing wind preceding the rapture idea, and here is the crux of me spending a stretch of time very scared of the rapture.

Burlington, my hometown, is a train town. {Trust me, this is related.} It's a train hub—hence how there's a train line named, partially, after my town. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, and even now when I see trains with the BNSF logo, I feel like they're a bit of home, like they know something of what it was like to grow up there, even though I know that's ridiculous.

You may not know this, but in a train hub town, there's a lot of switching of trains and re-coupling of cars and whatnot. And if you didn't know that fact about train hub towns, you certainly wouldn't know that when very long trains stop, it sends this boom-boom-boom echoing cascade as the cars slow down, and that that echoing cascade sounds exactly like rushing wind.

As a small child, I would wake up to this train noise, this noise that should've been a normal part of my everyday, and I would think: Oh dear Jesus, here you come.

And then I'd hold my breath—as I invited him into my heart one more time—and wait to be raptured. Or left behind.

Either way, I was scared.

But it was just the train. It was always just the train.

And that is how I prepared for and feared the rapture as a small child.

The End {of post-rapture prediction story time}

17 May 2011

oh, tulips

Every spring, I notice something new. This is slightly different from Anne of Green Gables' thought that every spring, everything is new.

What I mean is: every spring, I notice something new in all the newness of life around me.

Of course it isn't really new. Redbuds aren't new. But this spring, I've been looking at them as if I've never seen them before.

Have these trees always been here? What a silly thought. Yes, they have, but for years, my eyes must've glossed over them. Skipped straight from bare branches to small green buds to full leaves creating shade and dappling the sidewalk underneath with cool repose.

I've been stopping and staring so much at the redbuds this year that, for the first time in 3 years, I was late to work one Thursday morning.

I couldn't take the hurrying anymore, off to the office, off to the day, off to the projects. And so I'd walked a little more slowly, breathed a little more deeply on my morning walk with little pug.

The price of those 5 minutes was a look from my boss—you know the one—but that's a small price to pay. Insignificant when you realize that you bought more pleasure, more joy, more life with that one look.

But I never miss the tulips in the spring.

I have never not noticed tulips popping up red and yellow, black and white. Like daffodils, they are spring to me.

Daffodils are spring's first hint, first promise; tulips are its full celebration, a cacophony of unnecessary color.

For the tulips today—tulips dressing up this gray day—I have two homages:

A picture I took on a sunny morning walk.

And a poem from William Carlos Williams, that master of capturing small charms of the everyday life.

I hope you like them. I hope they make you feel springy today.

The Tulip Bed
William Carlos Williams

The May sun—whom
all things imitate—
that glues small leaves to
the wooden trees
shone from the sky
through bluegauze clouds
upon the ground.
Under the leafy trees
where the suburban streets
lay crossed,
with houses on each corner,
tangled shadows had begun
to join
the roadway and the lawns.
With excellent precision
the tulip bed
inside the iron fence
upreared its gaudy
yellow, white and red,
rimmed round with grass,

16 May 2011


In the Chicago Tribune last Sunday, there was an article on the social kiss and how it's gaining popularity here in America, perhaps because we want to be more European or fancy or because we've finally gotten over our American isolationism.

I would argue that the social kiss is gaining popularity on the coasts and that it's slowly making its way to the Midwest, just as many things, including fashion, eventually reach us here in the middle of the country—years after the trend started.

I have anecdotal evidence for my coast-to-the-Midwest kiss theory: my company has an office in New Jersey, and I come out here every few months or so to sit in a conference room and bond with my co-workers, people I usually talk to via conference calls and Outlook.

It never fails that I get kissed when I come to New Jersey, which could, perhaps, be a good slogan for the state. Who wouldn't want to come to New Jersey with a slogan like that? In my view, it'd make more sense than the Garden State, and it would go far in dispelling that view that New Jersey is simply the armpit of New York City.

But back to the kiss: my New Jersey co-workers kiss me when I come through the door, something my Illinois co-workers never do and I don't know how long we'd have to work together before they did that.

Granted, I don't know if these NJ people kiss each other every day—how very French that would be—but clearly these Coast people are more okay with the social kiss than this girl from Iowa.

Unless I'm pretending to be the girl from France—then the social kiss, the double cheek kiss thing, makes me feel at home.

I wrote this thing when I lived in France and taught English at a French high school. In it, I was trying to figure out social conventions but also thinking about how important touch is—how important it is to be touched on a daily basis.

What's that statistic? That to be healthy, you should be touched 12 times a day, or maybe it's 37, although that seems like a lot.

Statistics aside, it's important to be connected to others and when the social kiss makes it way to the Midwest, I will be ready, thanks to France.


Kiss kiss. So light, so quick, so not enough for me.

Here in France, as in so many other European countries, the double cheek kiss is de rigeur.

When you first meet someone, kiss kiss. When you run into a friend in the street, kiss kiss. When you go to someone’s house for a 3 hour dinner, kiss kiss.

Goodbye is a kiss. Hello is a kiss. Thank you is a kiss. With all this kissing practice, no wonder the French have a whole kind of kissing named after them.

Bisous, the double cheek kiss thing, are an expected routine here, but for me, they still feel, paradoxically, both too personal and not personal enough.

They burst my personal space, physically and mentally, because I don’t often kiss people back home, and here, I’m kissing co-workers, people I meet at church, little kids, everybody.

The French kiss like we shake hands, which is what makes bisous not personal enough: it’s just something that has to be done. Most people don’t even really kiss but do that high society princess air kiss. “Oh dahling, how perfectly perfect to see you! Mwah, mwah.”

Bisous are more mashing together cheeks than actually kissing, and for all the noise they make and for how close they make me get to people I barely know, I wish I could feel the care in them.

As I’ve found my life in France, I’ve come to accept and even appreciate bisous, in the same way that I appreciate for his very Frenchness the waiter who won’t bring the bill until I force him to notice my impatience by tripping him.

C’est la vie en France, and France and all its particular Frenchness are now part of me.

I’ve come to realize that there are different levels of bisous: the cheek mashing for slight acquaintances, for example.

The more you know each other, though, the more you’re actually kissing cheeks and not symbolically the air around the ear.

There are such barely noticeable shades of intimacy in if they touch your shoulder while leaning in or if they smile. It can be like trying to explain the difference between brick red and fire engine red – only noticeable if you really want to notice – and I do want to notice.

Noticing will give me reasons for why France won’t let go of me, even when I’ve seen how life here isn’t any easier just because of its otherness.

Bisous were so foreign to me when I first came to live in France, but I found that simply bisous-ing made me feel more French and less foreign here. I often feel just out of place and just misunderstood, and I quickly learned in loneliness what sticking out as Not One of Them does to your self-esteem and self-confidence. It took me longer to learn what defining yourself without a common culture and with pre-conceived notions to fight does for who you are and who you want to be.

Who I am right now is a displaced American aware of the distance of that displacement. That’s neither good nor bad but just a numbered reality: I am thousands of miles from home.

It was my choice to leave that predictable Midwestern home; I know that as well as I know that life and lives didn’t refuse to move on when I moved out of the country.

As I learned to accept France and its Frenchness, I learned to let go of selfish desires – that my absence would hurt and not heal, that I’d wrestle foreign challenges and win easily by living an enviable life, that I’d be so loved that everyone would want to keep me at arm’s length.

“At arm’s length” usually has a negative connotation, like you’re trying to keep someone out. Now I think of it as trying to hold someone in and keeping them within a hug’s reach, and I think like that because I’m so rarely held like that.

Oh, I miss other parts of American culture, like how stores are open on Sundays and how you can charge anything, but it’s missing the hugs of my friends and family that emotionally unravels me at times.

Overdramatic? Maybe. Over-analytical? Of course, but adapting to another me in another culture uproots me enough that I spin around grasping for any normalcy or comparison and end up confused about what’s normal.

It scares me, for example, that when I was back in Iowa over Christmas, I expected people to bisous. Waiting in a café, I watched friends meet and when they hugged or simply smiled, I felt a twinge of missing the bisous which have become routine for me.

But back here, I miss hugs because squeezed so tight is how I feel loved, not in the mostly fleeting formalities of kiss kiss. My arms at times ache to hold something other than that day’s little worries and joys.

When I tried to explain to a French friend what my arms felt – weakly alone – she smiled as if she wanted to understand. Then she bisous-ed me and sent me on my way, bucked up for a French day in the French way. Kiss kiss.

09 May 2011

the library reading list

Because I'm me, I bought a condo just down the street from the library.

Well, that's a simplification, isn't it? {But sometimes, broad strokes of generalities work better for getting a point across. From that one swath, you know that I love reading.}

I bought my condo for many reasons, but a major selling point was that it's so close to the library. We're talking pretty much closer than walking distance; it's like trip and roll a little bit distance.

And I trip my way over there quite a bit, but do you ever feel like you're in a reading rut?

I do sometimes.

I have shelves and shelves full of books. I even have a special section for books I bought {at book sales or used book stores or wherever they happened to cross my path} but have yet to read.

You would think this would give me ample rutless roads for reading, but no, it doesn't. Sometimes, I look at books upon books in the library and think, 'I don't even know where to begin. I'm going home.'

And when I get home, I watch TV.

I probably shouldn't admit this—me the English major—but there you go. Now you know one of my secrets, if watching TV can be considered a secret, which I don't think it can.

Because I'm me, I don't like to stay in a rut for long and so when I saw that my library offered a program called BookMatch, I jumped at it.

You get to take a quiz! It's like the Myers-Briggs of reading!

A librarian takes time to review your answers! It's like being graded!

You get suggestions of what books to check out! It's like eHarmony, but with books!

Clearly, this BookMatch idea resonated with my soul: my quiz-loving, grade-loving soul.

Please note that I left out "eHarmony-loving" soul. Not that I don't like it—it just seems a little odd to have your soul love a computer algorithm with really slick commercials.

I got my BookMatch results just a few days ago, and let me tell you, I opened that email as if I were a presenter opening the Oscar envelope, or some other over-used example of opening an envelope.

Suffice it to say: there was a lot of excitement, and when I read through my list, I felt that I had won Best Actress.

When a reading list can make you feel like Meryl Streep, a librarian has clearly done his or her job well.

Because I'm me, I've turned this BookMatch list into a personal challenge: I will read all these books this summer. And you know, if I'm inspired, I'll write about them, too.

Should you be interested, I'm starting with Let the Great World Spin.

Oh, hey, you could read along with me and then we could turn this blog into a book blog {with random forays into wherever else my mind goes}.

Actually, I don't know about that idea. But I do know this: reading is fun and getting out of a rut is even better.

The Library Reading List

Too Much Happiness
{Alice Munro}

Let the Great World Spin
{Colum McCann}

The Surrendered
{Chang-Rae Lee}

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

{Jung Chang}

The Hand that First Held Mine

{Maggie O’Farrell}

The Women
{T. Coraghessan Boyle}

Your Oasis on Flame Lake

{Lorna Landvik}

02 May 2011

with God on our side

Because I'm an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person, I didn't hear President Obama's speech about Osama bin Laden live.

Instead, I found out at 5:30 this morning when I took little pug out for a walk. The Chicago Tribune was waiting for me on my doorstep, just as it always is but of course the headline was 10 times the size it always is.

U.S Kills Bin Laden

I read the paper on my walk, pausing occasionally to say, "Oh my, Miss Daisy, the world isn't the same as it was yesterday."

It's a touch of crazy, I know, to talk out loud to your dog, especially about world affairs, but as I looked at the rising sun and the bed of daffodils by the library—things that feel new and promising every day—I wanted to...

I wanted to recognize that no, the world isn't the same as it was last night when I went to bed.

There is a man who was here yesterday and who is no longer here today. And he was a bad man, responsible for many deaths.

His death, though, doesn't heal all the pain from those deaths, nor does it justify them, nor does it extinguish evil.

The world isn't the same as it was yesterday, but Osama bin Laden's death isn't total victory in the wars we're in now, nor is it the total triumph of good over evil.

It is death, and as I looked at the pictures in the Tribune of people chanting "USA" and singing "The Star-spangled Banner" outside the White House, I did feel a wellspring of patriotism.

And when I saw the pictures of New York City firefighters in Times Square, the marquee above them announcing bin Laden's death, I almost cried.

But I couldn't bring myself to rejoice in his death, and the rest of today, I've been thinking of this Bob Dylan song—"With God on Our Side." {You can see Joan Baez singing it here, or down below, I put in the lyrics.}

It addresses that belief that we will beat whatever we're fighting because we have God on our side. We are the chosen nation, the Christian nation. God must approve of what we're doing, and he'll show it by making us powerful and victorious and right.

But that's a messy argument when you factor in people, actual people. When people get involved—and we're all a mix of good and evil, of sin and redemption—it's harder to be able to claim God's approval so confidently.

At least it is for me.

Yes, I believe that we should seek the will of God. And I believe that we should work every day to love him more by loving those around us more.

But I don't believe that we should rejoice in someone else's downfall—as natural as that is for us humans.

This rule applied in elementary school—when we all learned that it is not right to laud a good grade over someone who didn't do so well, even if they deserve it because they rubbed it in your face when they did better on a test.

You don't get to feel smarter just because someone else did worse.

And you don't get to feel more righteous just because an evil person, your enemy, even, died.

This isn't a chastisement of the celebrations, nor is it a callous take on what was a very successful, very hard-earned mission.

It's more me working through the maelstrom of emotions that swelled up this morning on the walk with little pug. Osama bin Laden is dead, and I'm thankful for that.

And now, Lord have mercy on the state we humans find ourselves in.

With God on Our Side
Bob Dylan

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And the land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

The Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns on their hands
And God on their side.

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.


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