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.”

MaryOliver_Rice

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.

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.