New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

After two and a half weeks in the high-altitude New Mexico desert sun, I confess my summer freckles have returned. I like to think of them as my skin’s seasonal blossoming. They’re little circular perennials, roots dug deep and hibernating all winter long, waiting for a warm week to reappear.

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Juniper in front of Abiquiú Lake

I stayed in Abiquiú, New Mexico, a rural town outside Santa Fe, in June to work as an instructional counselor for a creative writing class for gifted and talented high school students. Ghost Ranch is now a retreat center, made famous by the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who stayed there for many summers and eventually lived there full-time.

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Instructor and friend Natalie atop the overlook at Chimney Rock

This was my first time to New Mexico even though its entire northern border is most of Colorado’s southern border. The high desert there was overrun with crooked trees and low brush—juniper, sage, chamisa.

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Trail to Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pederal in the distance

At the welcome center for Bandelier National Monument I flipped through samples of dried and pressed plants, matching them to what I’d seen on our hike around the cave dwellings, their ruins. These amazing light brown sandstone cliffs full of holes and pockmarks, made hollow by centuries of erosion.

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Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Circular structures ringed with stacked stones were built and called kivas by the Pueblo Native Americans who lived there. These buildings were used in rituals, especially coming-of-age ceremonies for young men wherein the structure functioned like a sweat lodge.

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More cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is a dormant volcano featuring an enormous caldera, basically the collapsed crater-like center of a volcano since overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and thirsty western high-altitude trees like cottonwoods and aspen.

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Bandelier plant life

As our class stopped beneath some of the less accessible cliff dwellings (reached via a series of ladders) for lunch, we wrote in response to a prompt about rituals, and it occurred to me that the caldera could be seen as a sort of first kiva—the stone circle first laid by some ancient, powerful hand. This is what it looks like when the land forms circles—a collapse, an eruption, layers of volcanic ash pressed into earth, then sandstone.

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Blooming Cholla cactus at Bandelier National Monument

The town of Taos contains the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. Here the Pueblo people built their multi-story homes out of adobe brick, which consists of clay, hay, and water.

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A typical adobe home at the Taos Pueblo site

Both the mortar and the plaster which covers the bricks are made of mud. Cedar logs were laid across each structure to help form and support their ceilings. These ceiling also functioned as the floor of the story atop it, accessed by wooden ladders.

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Red chiles as decoration at Taos Pueblo

Because of the materials of these structures, it is impossible to outfit them with modern plumbing and electricity. Our tour guide told me only five families remain as full-time residents here, though many more keep their ancestral homes while they live primarily in the town of Taos, or elsewhere on the reservation.

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A window at the Catholic church in Taos

While walking around Taos Pueblo, I saw a man setting up a table with a display of turquoise jewelry underneath a hay canopy in front of an adobe home. We chatted, and he invited me into the home he said had been the birthplace of his great-grandfather, and inhabited by his family many, many generations before that.

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The Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

It was a simple, surprisingly cool single room with a small fireplace in one corner. He explained to me the technique by which the Pueblo people made the chimney. They took a cedar trunk and covered it with adobe plaster. Once dried, they then set the wood on fire, which would leave them with a hollow, cylindrical adobe structure. A circle of sky, open to sky.

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One of many art galleries in Taos Pueblo

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A close-up of the bison leather dreamcatcher

One night on a silent walk to Matrimonial Mesa at Ghost Ranch, I pointed out to the students the hoofprints of a deer in the mud. In a place that receives fewer than eight inches of rain a year, it had rained that afternoon. One student had spotted a garden snake who’d been coaxed out of the shadows by the cool rain. And the small, halved circles of the imprints of hooves wandering from the dirt road to the arroyo’s cottonwoods, weaving between chamisa and juniper.

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Desert daisies and pink sunsets on Ghost Ranch

On the mesa that night we watched the scattered, sputtering circles of stars come into being. We lay there quietly, listening to the high-pitched echoes of chirping bats as they drew their own looped circles in the air above. Kivas, nightly natural rituals. Circles in space and time. Each time we return to repeat the ritual, each time we circle back, something is different. We hold constant what we can, but we treasure everything.

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Looking west from Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

[from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

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Sunset over Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) over forty times. The story goes that she took any paintings with which she wasn’t satisfied, drove down the mesa, and burned their canvases right there in the desert. About Cerro Pedernal O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She returned and returned. She ritualized the process.

Locals heard of her affinity for bones and brought them to her, bleached white by desert sun and preserved by desert air. She painted a series centered on a cow’s pelvis. There are circles here, too—the spaces for each leg, the ball of each femur joint, the socket space. She painted it so close up, sometimes, that you can’t tell what the curves are a part of at all, what the lighting reveals.

Circles form from gravity, from wear and falling and moving and the difficulty of moving. Everything softens over time, forgets its corners, collapses. The desert is a land of circles, the simplicity of curves, the complexity of a single eye.

A National Wound

HeartbreakAmerica

Art by Josh Williams, from https://heartbreakamerica.com.

Something I’ve been considering lately—and I know I’m not alone in this—is our current political moment in America. Not only is our president unpopular and repulsively incapable of coherence, but many recent events are arguably assembling into an assault on empathy and compassion. This nonstop rhetoric of division. Trump backed the US out of the Paris climate agreement, has gotten away with bragging about sexually assaulting women, throws together a budget proposal that would be devastating for the poor, consistently calls upon stereotypes to depict minorities, and bullies some foreign leaders while lauding praise on other foreign leaders who are, themselves, bullies. In this state, what good are words? What good is art, or beauty, or attempting to foster compassion?

I want to share with you, dear reader—especially those of you who are particularly threatened by this administration—the young, the poor, LGBTQIA individuals, women and girls, minorities, Muslims, Hispanics, Jews, artists, healthcare workers, activists, scientists, animal lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, parents and teachers with a stake in the future. I’d like to share some quotes that both bring me solace and challenge me to act. Since writing is one of the languages I speak, this is my offering to you.

It has been helpful to me to reconstruct my understanding of pain and suffering as a signal of the work that needs to be done, a calling. Mother Theresa once said, “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.” Agitation and suffering are the impetuses of great change.

I’ve also been thinking about suffering as physical—we say that our hearts break for the parents of trans children murdered, for the addicts unable to afford treatment, for the victims of police brutality, for the children growing up poor, for the coastal homeowners facing rising sea levels and more volatile hurricane seasons, the dying polar bears, the thirsty in Flint, the rape victims whose rape kits languish untested. When Trump won the election, students walked around Colorado State University’s campus crying, holding each other. Our understanding of pain begins as physical, as wound, as foreshadowing of death.

Rumi: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

In Krista Tippett’s 2014 interview with writer and philosopher Dr. Joanna Macy for her radio show and podcast On Being, Dr. Macy talks about heartbreak: “World is lover, world is self and that it’s OK for our hearts to be broken over the world. What else is the heart for?” In the unedited version of this interview, Dr. Macy also says that if our hearts could physically break open, that’s where we could fit the whole world. Wounding, breaking in the body is a making space for something new; vulnerability as a possibility for growth.

In Tippett’s 2016 interview with poet and memoirist Mary Karr, Karr says, “as deep as a wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be.”

We are a relatively new nation, but our American experiment with multiculturalism and diversity is even newer. We are in pursuit of deep, wide, expansive healing. Healing as deep as slavery and segregation. Healing as deep as institutionalized objectification of women. As deep and long as churches and teachers and parents who’ve hurt us. The potential for healing is great, and vast.

One final quote I’d like to leave for you comes from Terry Tempest Williams’s marvelous and most recent book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. In it she carries on a correspondence with activist Tim DeChristopher, who served prison time for protesting a 2008 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction of oil and gas extraction leases by outbidding on land he would not (and could not) pay for. In discussing climate change with Williams, DeChristopher said, “We must let ourselves be shattered by the hopelessness of the crisis . . . When we abandon the hope that things will work out, the hope that we will be able to live the easy and comfortable life which we are promised, the hope that someone else will solve this problem, then we are free to act . . . The opposite of hope is empowerment” (271).

Suffering is a call to action. What change will your hopelessness cause you to work toward? Work from our places of wounding, and vulnerability. This is where fierceness comes from, fierce compassion. And we can all agree, I think, that our nation could stand to see more compassion in every place, every school, every home, every broken heart.

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, so what better time of year for a blog post about poetry?

When I was an undergraduate, one of my English professors challenged all the students in my class to think of just five living poets (published, please- not your friend who has a Tumblr). I was surprised but not shocked to see that no one could. Rather, no one even tried. Here was a room full of voracious readers, English majors- self-professed literature lovers! And even they didn’t read contemporary poetry. Despite much ado regarding the “death of poetry,” there is a whole lively world of small literary journals out there, sifting through today’s writing and churning out new issues full of thoroughly vetted beauties.

Once people learn I write poetry, one of the first questions they ask is, “So what do you read?” I always list some poets and then we go our separate ways, them in all likelihood completely forgetting all six or so names I mentioned. So here you go, world: these are a few of today’s living poets I’ve been reading and admiring, along with my recommendations for specific poems, which you should start reading now. And seriously, none of these poems are long. If you read every single one right now, it would probably take you less than 30 minutes. So read! Be inspired! And share! Or, as Mary Oliver (more about her later) says, “Pay attention./ Be astonished./ Tell about it.”

Kim Addonizio: I can’t remember when I first encountered Addonizio’s poetry, but I remember being captivated by her voice- thoroughly contemporary but practiced, mindful, and intentional. She was born in Washington D.C. in 1954, but has lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay area. She’s published poetry and fiction, as well as several nonfiction works. Two poems you should check out are “What Do Women Want?” which was published in 2000 and is as awesome as you’d expect, and “Lucifer at the Starlight,” which is a sonnet.

Billy Collins: This guy’s Wikipedia page even has a picture of him on it, so you should probably know who he is. A former U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins was born in 1941 in New York. Having received many awards and worked on the editorial boards of various journals, in 1999 the New York Times said, “With his books selling briskly and his readings packing them in, Mr. Collins is the most popular poet in America.” Three of his most well-known poems are “Introduction to Poetry,” which was originally published in 1988, “Marginalia,” published in the February 1996 edition of the magazine Poetry, and “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” which has since been used in the reading comprehension portion of AP English exams.

Dorianne Laux: I know of Dorianne Laux because she directs the MFA Program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, which is pretty much where I grew up. She was born in 1952 in Maine, and didn’t complete her undergraduate degree until she was 36 years old, after which she went on to get a master’s as well. She lives in Raleigh today. Two of her poems you should check out: “Men,” from her 2011 collection The Book of Men, and “Life Is Beautiful,” which ends up being quite different from what you’d expect, just knowing the title.

Mary Oliver: As promised. Mary Oliver was born in 1953 in Ohio. She has won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her work, and the New York Times Book Review has referred to her as, “Far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” (It helps, I think, to have a book of poems about dogs.) She never completed a college degree, but spent much of her young adult life studying the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Mary Oliver is kind of a big deal – and yet, her poetry remains approachable, simple, and starkly beautiful. Start by reading “The Summer Day,” “Rice” (pictured below), and “The Journey.”

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From Mary Oliver’s New & Selected Poems, Vol. 1

Natasha Trethewey: Born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1966, Trethewey’s parents were illegally married at the time, as her father is white and her mother black. When Trethewey was 19, her mother was murdered by an ex-husband, whom she had recently divorced. Trethewey was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012, and in 2007 she won the Pulitzer Prize. Read her poems “Incident,” which is a Pantoum about seeing the KKK burn a cross in her front yard as a child, and “Theories of Time and Space.”

Ocean Vuong: Born in 1988 in Saigon, or what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Vuong immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Today he lives in New York. This year Vuong won a prestigious Whiting Award. I was told by attendees of this year’s AWP Conference that there was not a dry eye in the room after his reading. Check out “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” (yes, his name is in the title) published last year in The New Yorker, and “A Little Closer to the Edge,” which is from THIS MONTH’S edition of Poetry Magazine. Brand new stuff, people.

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Are there any poets or poems you would add to this list? Let me know what I should read next in the comments!

Love to all.

Announcement: Grad School!

Reading and writing are two of my earliest loves. My mom is fond of recalling how, on my first day in kindergarten, I read aloud Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat for the entire class. When I was perhaps 8 or 9, my dad gave me an old IBM Thinkpad that ran Windows 95. It sat like a immobile black cinder-block on my desk in my bedroom. I would either play Solitaire or Minesweeper, or compose an endless string of short stories in Microsoft Word- historical fiction, mysteries, etc. In the third grade, I hand-wrote a 40-page (wide rule, obviously) novella that supposedly took place in Europe during World War II, inspired by my collection of dolls. I remember swelling with pride at its length while I stapled the pages together; it felt like a true feat.

I don’t remember the first time I tried to write a poem. I know I played with composing lyrics for songs first. I would sing made-up melodies while pumping my legs on a backyard swing, then share the ones I liked most with my neighborhood friends. I was constantly imagining vibrant backstories for things I encountered- people, trees, animals, cars. One of my favorite recurring daydreams was, while my family drove anywhere out of town, to imagine what my life would be like if I’d had some connection to any of the little places we passed by. What would I be like if I lived behind that sandy shrimp shack? What if I’d gotten lost as a little baby and been raised by the foxes in that abandoned field? What if I’d grown up in that old farmhouse on this Christmas tree farm in the Appalachians?

In high school I was lucky enough to find a year-long elective course focused solely on creative writing. The first time I took it, I was a sophomore. The second, I was a senior, and my counselor informed me, concerned, that I couldn’t receive any credit for this course the second time. Fine by me! We were assigned powerful readings by the likes of Mary Karr and Annie Dillard. Anyone who’s taken public high school English knows how seemingly anything written after 1985 is excluded from the canon, making this all the more incredible. Literature was alive, and it was still beautiful.

During my undergraduate years, I knew I wanted to study English and creative writing, and pursued them fervently. I took a creative writing class every available semester, eventually culminating in a year-long poetry seminar with some pretty amazing folks for whom I’m still so grateful (you know who you are!). After graduation, my writing grew as aimless as a broke teenager set loose in a shopping mall. I published a couple poems in local journals, and tried writing without anyone to tell me what worked, and what sucked. I knew I needed to enroll in a MFA program to further hone my skills as a reader and writer.

All this to say that, come fall, I plan to enroll in the Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing program, focusing on poetry specifically, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. This is a 3-year program offering excellent faculty, intensive writing workshops, courses, and many opportunities for work and studies in teaching and publishing. I am excited to be taking this substantial step forward in pursuit of my passions.

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Though the details are obviously still in flux, and will be for some time, know that Fort Collins is just over a 1-hour drive from Laramie, which is in the realm of totally manageable for Matt and me (and Boone!) now that I own a car with all-wheel-drive. While it won’t be the easiest transition in the world, 3 years doesn’t seem like forever to me anymore and, moreover, the prospect of spending those 3 years working on something so dear to me is exciting.

Thank you to for your part in helping me get to where I am, whether it’s been years of work (thanks, Mom & Dad!) or a couple minutes reading this blog post. I appreciate you.

Love to all.

Poem: A Beat Behind

A Beat Behind

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Kant says we are removed from these moments
of our lives and we only know their effect
just as our vision of stars’ light, living on after
their technicolored deaths, is distant from the star
itself, heaving gas and heat, a flame – no, a frame
of light just visible and always a beat behind.
Millennia ago they sang their swan songs.

I’m learning to let myself be in time, in this
very second. Between chimes of the ting-sha
Tolle says that past and future are both illusions;
all we have is now. Kant has said we don’t
even have that so I choose to believe in beauty
over truth, to see echoes of stars and be struck
dumb by their pinpricks through this dark
matter fabric lightyears away, years ago.

PoudreCanyonCOSunset

My Summer Reads

I love that it’s summer. Seriously. Laramie is gorgeous right now – colorful, sunny, lush, and comfortable. The highs in the summer here reach the highs 70’s, low 80’s (Fahrenheit, duh), which is room temperature in the South. If that doesn’t make you want to come visit us, I don’t know what will!

I have a lot I want to read this summer, but I’m optimistic that all the time spent in airports and camp chairs will provide me with plenty of time to read. So, since there’s enough time left for a summer reading list, let’s do it. Here are the books I’ve read, the ones I’m muddling through, and the ones still out there, waiting.

Books I’ve Read:

SummerSisters

  • Summer Sisters by Judy Blume is a bestselling novel for a reason (maybe the #1 of which is that it’s by Judy Blume). It’s hard to put this thing down. The narration follows the development of the protagonist’s best friendship with an enigmatic girl over the course of many years, from middle school to adulthood. Chapters alternate narrators, though the longest and most in-depth passages are in the protagonist’s voice. The friendship culminates in a dramatic and tragic end. A fun but intense read that’s perfect for summer!
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a memoir by Rebecca Solnit, a prolific California-based activist and writer. I have my sister Libby to credit for giving this book to me for Christmas. Part memoir, part essay, Solnit explores her obsession with the natural world alongside history both personal and official. One of my favorite passages: “Gravity is about motion, weight, resistance, force, the most primal experience after all the touches on our skin, of being corporeal. And so it may be that gravity is a sweet taste of mortality and our strength to resist it, a luxuriating in the pull of the earth and the pull of muscles against it, in the momentum the two create, and in how close you can cut it, just as sex for women has the twin possibilities of procreation and annihilation.” Another bit of Solnit wisdom: “…teenagers imagine dying young because death is more imaginable than the person that all the decisions and burdens of adulthood may make of you.” Lots of good stuff in here, written in beautiful prose. I especially recommend this book to those who fancy themselves writers.
  • Modern Romance is a nonfiction title by Aziz Ansari, a comedian, which delves into the world of dating after the introduction of online dating and hookup apps like Tinder. With the help of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Ansari looks specifically at dating cultures in America, Brazil, Japan, and Iran, and features many conversations he’s had with both couples and single adults about the process of  finding a mate. I listened to this audiobook via Audible.com and, as it was narrated by Ansari himself, I recommend listening to it over buying a physical copy. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of research presented in this book, though I still enjoyed Ansari’s quips, jokes, and funny anecdotes as expected. Let me tell you- this book made me SO GRATEFUL that I am not single right now, yeesh.
  • IntotheWildI finally read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Well, to be precise, I listened to it. My favorite parts were actually not about the protagonist, Chris McCandless, but about the other ill-fated adventurers to whom Krakauer compared him. I’m on this Western lit kick, and this got me started.
  • I received a copy of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling from Birchbox for making a purchase over, I believe, $35. In case you don’t recognize the name, Kaling is a comedy writer and Dartmouth graduate who worked on the American version of the NBC show “The Office,” both as a writer and actress (in the role of obsessive, crazy, and beautiful Kelly Kapoor). She now writes and stars in her own show on network TV, “The Mindy Project.” She has recently come out with a new book, Why Not Me. This book is often laugh-out-loud funny and, as a young woman, it’s very encouraging to hear about Mindy’s early struggles as a hungry, poor New Yorker, and her rise to success.

I’m Working on It:

  • That Distant Land: The Collected Stories by Wendell Berry: I’m listening to this on audiobook via Audible.com and it is perfect and beautiful and moving and sometimes funny too. The stories follow average people in a small southern farming town over the course of several generations. Many of the same characters pop up in different stories, though each has a separate narrator. Beautifully woven together. I love listening to it on long drives and while walking Abe or doing chores. I might just have to buy a paper copy when I’m done listening, for future reference, of course.
  • angleofreposeAngle of Repose is a novel by Wallace Stegner, one of the great American writers, by whom I’m still ashamed to say I have not read anything. This is a continuation of my desire to read more Western American literature, since my education in North Carolina was so heavily steeped in Southern literature (rightly so, I think). This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, which should be enough description alone but, if you need more, know that this is another generation-spanning story featuring one family, as seen through the eyes of its aging historian narrator.
  • I am very slowly making my way through Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, not because I don’t thoroughly enjoy them, but because reading them all at once is like trying to make a meal out of caramels- sensationally overwhelming. And kind of stupid. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I should try to read some poems written by people who are actually still alive,” then look no further than Jack Gilbert (and Mary Oliver, below). Unflinchingly honest and beautiful language are characteristic of these marvelous poems, which will remind you why you knew somewhere, deep down, that you loved poetry.
  • Mary Oliver’s New & Selected Poems, Vol. 1 has been sitting by my bed for about a year because I’m slowly making my way through it and back through it again like a trail through a wood. Oliver’s poetry is just spectacular. Each word is in its proper and most beheartidiotautiful place. She writes of everything this world is made of – feathers, sky, water, fire, skin, mist, lily petals – and writes it into life.
  • My Heart Is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart: I know, I know- my Goodreads account says that I’ve already read this one. The truth is, I started it long ago, lost it, and for several months had no idea where it was, and I was tired of seeing it on my list of “Currently Reading,” reminding me of what a loser I was. My Heart has since been resurrected in my house (I think it was living on top of the piano), so I return to this abdominal-muscles-achingly hilarious collection of essays. Rothbart has been featured on NPR’s marvelous storytelling show “This American Life,” and with good reason. Give this book to the macho guy who thinks he’s read enough books to quote Hemingway every time he orders a drink. It won’t make him any less of an insufferable nuisance, but it will force him to acknowledge your (and Rothbart’s) awesomeness.

And, Still on the List:

  • FindtheGoodFind the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Heather Lende
  • Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit
  • A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor
  • Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder
  • Healing Yoga by Loren Fishman
  • The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

As you can see, I’m trying to make up for lost time with Wendell Berry. Last, but not least…

Can’t Forget the Cookbooks:

  • Plenty by Yotam Olenghetti is one of the most gorgeous cookbooks I’ve ever seen. This is enough of a reason to buy it, yes? Olenghetti is a world-renowned chef and restauranteur in London, but he is originally from Israel, and his recipes are often thus inspired. All the recipes in this book are vegetarian, but not in that boring let’s-use-tofu-to-make-this-dish-suitable-as-supper kind of way. Olenghetti himself isn’t even a vegetarian, but he values using seasonal produce and making it taste GOOD. If you abstain from meat, this book is a necessity.
  • SheetPanSuppersI was more excited about Sheet Pan Suppers by Molly Gilbert before I got it in the mail. Silly me, I thought the “Suppers” in the title was indicative of the types of recipes this book would contain. Alas, only about a fifth of the recipes are full meals. The rest are appetizers, breakfast/brunch, dessert, etc. That’s not to say they’re not good, though. I’ve made several of the dishes in this book, including the cover (using salmon instead), and they’ve impressed me with how hands-off and simple they are. Plus, pulling a colorful, well-roasted dish out of the oven is always an awe-inspiring experience.
  • Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy & Wholesome by Virginia Willis was an impulse purchase. I think I read about it first on Food52. Willis is a genius- these recipes are healthy takes on everything you know from your Southern childhood (or from watching the Walton’s – no, that’s just me?). So far I’ve made biscuits, peach cobbler, collard greens, and fisherman’s stew, and they’ve all been pretty much perfect. If you’re sensitive to the vinegar or the ham normally hiding in restaurant collards, the recipe in this book will make you happy. If you’re a human being, the recipe for peach cobbler in this book will make you happy.

I’d love to hear what you all are reading this summer, or what’s still on the list. Any recommendations? Obsessions?

Love to all.

Re: Why Writing about Bodies Is Vital

This post is in direct response to Leslie Jamison’s essay from The Atlantic, “‘We Sweat, Crave and Itch All Day’: Why Writing about Bodies Is Vital.” If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest you do. You can find it here.

Many credible artists suffered from debilitating illness or chronic pain or injury: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Milton, Vassar Miller, John Keats, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pierre-Auguste Renoir  – just to name a few. This is due in part to the nature of growing medical knowledge and accessibility of treatment (millions of people in centuries past suffered from untreated, poorly treated, or misdiagnosed illnesses), but there’s certainly a stereotype of the tortured artist. This torture can be psychological (depression or addiction), emotional (heartbreak), or physical. For Beethoven and Renoir, their afflictions were particularly cruel. Beethoven, a composer and musician, had already begun to lose his hearing by age 31, and went almost completely deaf by age 44. Renoir, a painter, suffered from extreme rheumatoid arthritis and, late in his life, required someone’s placing the brush in between his paralyzed fingers in order for him to continue painting.

What is interesting to me is that so few of these artists really lent credence to their afflictions. Those who did so publicly are known for it. Frida Kahlo addressed her broken and healing body strikingly in many of her self-portraits; and Vassar Miller, who suffered lifelong from cerebral palsy, wrote about the difficulty in reconciling her sexuality with her severely disabled body.

For centuries, writing about the physical experience of being in one’s body was considered beneath art. Art was to appeal to the mind and soul, which were valued above the sinful and unclean physical body. Physical pleasures like eating, resting, and sex were each associated with their own special (“cardinal”) sins – gluttony, sloth, and lust. As Virginia Woolf puts it in her essay “On Being Ill,” “…literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and… is null, and negligible and non-existent.”

Leslie Jamison mentions another downside to writing about your body – that it can be considered self-centered “navel gazing,” pun intended. Does writing about your own experiences, even zooming in to what’s happening inside your body, imply a fundamental lack of creativity? That you’re incapable of coming up with anything else? Of course not! But this is how it’s sometimes viewed. Jamison argues it should be enough to describe what’s happening to you. To say, “This is how I feel.” Acknowledging that, good or bad, is empowering. And writing about your physical afflictions can even help bring healing to others who suffer similarly. During her cancer and others’, my mom has found great help in counseling cancer-specific chatrooms and websites.

From The Atlantic

From The Atlantic

This is all particularly poignant to me because I know the power of acknowledging the body and its suffering. One of the first good poems I wrote, which was published in the UNC undergraduate literary magazine Cellar Door and won third place in their annual poetry contest, dealt squarely with physical pain and suffering. My boyfriend at the time had required emergency surgery resulting in the removal of feet of his intestines. He recovered in the hospital for two months, during which time I stayed nearby for a long weekend to visit him (he was living in another state to attend college).

That weekend was painful, awkward, and deeply sad. I tied his shoes because he couldn’t bend over to reach them. I watched a nurse wiggle a needle around under the skin of his hand for what seemed like five minutes, searching for a vein for the IV.

I struggled in writing several lines of the poem in particular, which are as follows:

“Sunday morning, while your mom was away,
you gently pressed my hand to your crotch
and closed your eyes for a languid moment.
With morphine-tinged speech, you said
it was good to feel pleasure, not pain.”

Keep in mind that I was 18 and the word “crotch” made me cringe. I mean, it still kind of does. But I remember the exact feeling I got after writing it down, a release. A flood of peace. I still felt nervous when reading the poem aloud to my class, and later when I submitted it for publication, but it is precisely the physicality of that moment that needs to present in the poem for it to be at all representative of how I felt that weekend, and what happened, and how young we were. The honesty of these lines scared me, but also invigorated me, which I needed in order to bring healing to myself.

Illness and healing are such huge parts of our lives! They’re right up there with love, heartbreak, loss, war, identity, and all other topics that make for great literature. As much as we’d sometimes like to, we can’t ignore the fact that we exist, thrive, and interact with others on this planet as a body.

I hold to the idea that we’d all be better off by simply acknowledging the existence of our bodies. Then maybe we can progress to acknowledging how our bodies make us feel, and maybe, finally, loving and embracing them. Until then, writing about the physical experience of living will do!

Love to all.