Ode to Snow

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Brighton Ski Resort, Utah

Winter is a time for contemplation. Everything takes a little longer to do. Food must be warmed, layers must be compiled and worn, windshields and sidewalks must be scraped and shoveled of ice and snow.

Whether you are in the midst of knee-deep snow yourself or whether you only dream of it, I invite you to listen to my new snowy playlist on Spotify while indulging in some wintry reading (sources cited) and photography (all by me) below. Enjoy.

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Laramie, Wyoming

“Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.” -From Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter”

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Southern Wyoming

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'” -Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

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American Fork, Utah

“Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood… in Nature’s warm heart.” -John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra 

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Steamboat Springs, Colorado

“One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land…” -From Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”

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Centennial, Wyoming

“It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.” -Truman Capote
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Steamboat Ski Resort, Colorado

“A few feathery flakes are scattered widely through the air, and hover downward with uncertain flight, now almost alighting on the earth, now whirled again aloft into remote regions of the atmosphere.” -Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming

Love and warm wishes to all from the wintry American West.
Visiting the Poudre River

Visiting the Poudre River

As many of you know, I began my graduate studies this fall at Colorado State University in creative writing. An assignment in one of my classes required that I choose an outdoor “site,” which I am to visit on a regular basis, take notes, and then journal about it later. I’ve been visiting the Cache la Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins, via the city-owned Poudre Trail, for a little over a month now. On my last visit, Friday September 30th, I took my camera along with me. Here are some excerpts from journal so far, along with a few photos.

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A sign for the Poudre Trail via Lee Martinez Park in Fort Collins, CO

August 20

I arrived at my site at 3:20PM. It was 86° Fahrenheit and mostly sunny, with puffy white cumulonimbus clouds in the north. I was sitting on the south bank of the river, the water flowing east. The river appeared almost a copper color because of the stones in its bed. The current was rather swift –as I could tell by the passing inner tube floaters—like a slow jog. According to the markings on the underside of the Poudre Trail pedestrian bridge over the river, the water was just under three feet deep.

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Willows and cottonwoods on the Poudre’s north bank

All around me were dogs, children swimming, and more people walking, running, or biking on the paved trail. Through the trees and over the sound of rushing water I could hear people cheering, laughing, and chatting. There was a constant sound of crickets chirping, and an occasional whisper of breeze through foliage.

In the water, a fresh four-foot Russian Olive branch with all its leaves floated by. I noticed stray, straight spider-silk threads in the grass and in the elm branches above me. Slowly a dragonfly flew by me toward the east. Some individual sparrows crossed the river as well. Dogs barked in the distance, and thunder could be heard coming from the north; the clouds grew darker across the river.

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September 12

I always thought the Poudre River was named after snow powder, especially since it drops 7,000 feet in elevation from the Rockies through a narrow, chiseled canyon, to conjoin with the South Platte River east of Greeley, Colorado. It actually refers to French Canadian trappers, in the early 1800’s, hiding their cache of gunpowder there during a particularly bad blizzard. The Poudre River is Colorado’s only nationally recognized “Wild & Scenic River.”

Behind me, a woman running west clears her throat. Two bikes tick east. The sun clouds over.

September 17

Today the Cache la Poudre River is just over one foot tall, the pedestrian bridge informs me.

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This means about 775 gallons of river water, of Rocky Mountain snowmelt, are flowing beneath that bridge every second. What seems like a humble stream to the eye—especially with monumental rivers in my mind, the Colorado and Snake nearby, the New and Mississippi and Chattanooga out east—is really a powerhouse, always on the move. Small yellow leaves are floating downstream, to the east, away from the Rocky Mountains and toward the South Platte River, toward the heartland. I read that brown trout spawn here in the fall, but I see no fish in the clear water down to the copper-y bottom, littered with round granite stones. Sometimes I hear the fish—a sudden catch of water, white flash slap above the surface.

Along the bank two blue jays stutter squawks at one another. One flies into view and lands on a yellowing cottonwood branch. His body is a jewel blue and he wears a white collar just above his breast, beneath a blue cockscomb. Later I learn this is the edge of the blue jay’s livable range, as far as they come; the foothills of the Rocky Mountains halt them the way they halted railroads, the way they still halt clouds and precipitation.

I think about the river, about the trout. What would it feel like to live in water constantly flowing in one direction? Not like an ocean where the tide is a rhythm of give and take, but always east, the way our ancestors felt pulled westward continually. I ask a fisher friend about the trout—the brown, the rainbow, the cutthroat. He says you can often go back to the same spot on the Poudre or Snake or wherever, the same hole or stone, and catch the very same fish—they don’t stray too far. My concept of fish life has been shaped mostly by the story of spawning salmon and—let’s face it—Finding Nemo, so this was news to me, that fish don’t drift or migrate or explore in spite of the debris that floats right by, that the river doesn’t become their timeline on which to travel. I thought a good metaphor might be that little conveyor belt in sushi restaurants that slowly slides enticing sashimi and rolls right before your eyes, for the taking. I guess a river might feel more like that to a fish—food constantly coming and going all day, all night, abundance set spinning by the engine of gravity, by the churning of season, of freeze and thaw.

September 22

I count thirty-five bleats of train horn in the span of several minutes. A helicopter hovers somewhere to the south and car engines rumble to the east. Behind me, bikes pass and dog leashes jingle. Occasional bits of conversation slip through the weeds—two students stressed about the new semester, a mother making safety-related requests of her young child on a miniature bicycle, two middle-aged women building each other up. A propeller plane’s engine rattles from above, behind cover of low, gray clouds.

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Cottonwoods framing the Poudre River Trail

I have just heard how little land in this country remains untouched by human-generated noise. If not an interstate, then a highway. If not a highway, then a railroad. If not a railroad, then trails for ATVs or snowmobiles. If not a trail, then a reservoir with a marina. And if no marina, then planes etching their contrails above, or helicopters leading rescues of people lost in the wilderness. Silence deserts. The scarceness of silence. This must have devastating effects on animals, especially those who rely on their hearing to find prey, to hunt, to stay safe, to not become prey, to survive.

When I hear a sound—a splash of water, birdsong, crackle of twigs or dry grass—I hope for a sighting of an animal—a trout, a blue jay, a crow, a grasshopper. When animals hear our omnipresent noise—engines whirring, tires squealing, horns honking—what do they hope for?

September 30

All the vegetation and leaves are more yellowing today, rustier—oxidized colors. There was a light drizzle all morning. My field notes are speckled with the occasional raindrop ink-stain. The Poudre River was measured at two feet high, higher than my last visit because it’s been raining up in the mountains, to the west.

Little white wildflowers upstream catch my eye. I walk over unsteady pebbles and a large cottonwood root to get to them. The root is far enough away from any trees that it’s impossible for me to tell to which it belongs. Each flower is in various stages of unfurling—some are fully open, dripping their petals into their watery reflections.

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As best as I can tell, the flower is Carolina Bugbane, or Trautvetteria Caroliniensis, which is native to this area

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Carolina Bugbane is in the Rananculaceae family, or the buttercup family, and seems to prefer wetter habitats

I find myself thinking how it would feel to live in a river that can get as low as one foot deep—to have distance infinitely available to you (seemingly), but know your explorations, your knowledge, were all limited to one foot by the width of the river by its length. I suppose human life, until the inventions of the airplane and rocket-ship, is fairly limited in that way as well—we’re basically stuck to the earth’s surface, most of us. This, I think, is the origin of the desire to fly, our envy of birds. We can’t see the earth’s rotund nature from our limited depth, the slice of air in which we live. We’ve had to escape this space to see the world for what it really is—a sphere remarkably like and unlike any other.

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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.

Yoga Teacher Training Musings

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of dharma recently, since it’s been a major theme in some of the readings for my yoga teacher training, like the Bhagavad Gita. Dharma is similar to the western concept of “love what you do; do what you love,” or the Christian concept of God’s plan (Jeremiah 29:11) or will for each individual. In simple terms, dharma is your life’s work or purpose; it is the answer to the questions, “Why am I here?” and “What’s the meaning of this life?” According to tradition, your dharma can change over time, and it does not need to be your profession, although this is why we ask people upon first meeting them, “What do you do?” Really we’re asking, “What are you about? What do you value in your life?”

My main question regarding dharma has to do with its relationship to success, because my first instinct in thinking about dharma is that, in order for something to be your life’s purpose, you should be successful at it. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but how, exactly? I think about figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Paul Gauguin. King saw his ideas gain traction but didn’t see much concrete success in his own lifetime, and was actually murdered for his pursuit of equality. Gauguin’s paintings didn’t become widely known until after his death, and he didn’t start painting until after he’d begun working as a stockbroker. (He was later a salesman before painting full time, and this decision led, in part, to his divorce.)

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So are we supposed to achieve some level of success, maybe during our lives or after our deaths? Or maybe just a sense that the work we’re doing is important, somehow? At what point do we interpret obstacles as a sign that we’re not on the right path rather than a sign that we should persevere?

A teacher once told me that I’d know if I’m a writer if I need to write. He suggested an experiment: stop writing for a while, a couple weeks, and see if the urge to write occurs, and inspect this urge. Are its motivations guilt, wistful longing, or necessity? I have tried this sort of thing off and on. There are certainly times where the only way I can think through something properly is to write it. There are other times where a phrase or image comes to mind and I think, how great that would be in a poem, or story! A week ago a friend told me about a little girl she knew who, in times of stress or discomfort, would imitate a cat. She’d respond to questions with, “Meow,” crawl on all fours, and lick herself. The girl’s father was at his wits’ end. Wouldn’t they make excellent characters in a novel or short story?

There are times too when I sit down to write, or just think about writing, and my mind becomes a blank and boring and clear as I wish it would when I try meditating. I waver between complete doubt, feeling as though I’ve lost any artistic ability I’ve ever had, and complete confusion and a sort of awe at what emerges (this was here all along?!?!). It’s something like staring at a kitchen counter covered with bags of flour and sugar and cocoa, proceeding to go into a trance and, an hour and a half later, staring in amazement at a fully formed, perfectly pleasant-looking cake on the very same counter. Who knows how it tastes, but hey! It’s a cake!

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Did I need to write this? Maybe. But maybe someone needs to read it too. 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.

Notarized, a Poem

An original poem for you all. I’ve been writing very short poems recently; this was my attempt at a longer one.

Notarized

Yesterday I processed paperwork for a dead woman.
She’d lived in Wyoming all her 67 years
according to the affidavit of domicile.
67 years all in one place – in Wyoming, no less –
which, though beautiful, doesn’t vary much
between its snowy granite peaks and limestone canyons
and plains empty but for sagebrush and sky,
from corner bars with canned beers in a fridge out back
to cargo warehouses with dusty parking lots,
all devoid of people who aren’t white and straight.

Spending your whole life in one place
is an experience I’ll never have. I want to be in all places –
I have five tabs open in Google Chrome for a hopeful vacation
to Costa Rica: flights, guided rafting trip, a treehouse
built on a mango tree in Cahuita out past the sloth sanctuary.
Reviewers say you can hear the ocean through open windows.
This Wyoming woman, her life spelled out
in front of me, notarized, never heard waves.