Some thoughts on backpacking at the end of the world

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia - Days  12-17 // Sept 13-19

Torres del Paine means "towers of paine." Paine means "blue" in Telhueche, an indigenous languange from some of the earliest people of Patagonia... It is so named, because of all the different blues that manifest in the park: glacial ice, lakes, blue skies, cold gray shale, the landscape blued in the shadows of great massifs.

The towers peeking out from behind Monte Almirante Nieto.

The towers peeking out from behind Monte Almirante Nieto.

I was never as worried about my ability to hike with a pack as David. In the months leading up to the trip, he often admonished, fretted, and scolded reminders about the weight of the pack, the terrain, how backpacking wasn't "easy." 

I've been hiking up and down, off and on, since grade school. I've walked to most of the places I've ever gone. I'm almost always carrying more than I need, even if it's never been a fully loaded pack.  I've camped a fair bit. I just didn't get the mystique. I still don't. 

Don't get me wrong: I thought it was cool. I loved having all of the things in their own nook in the bag. I loved unpacking a house each day. I really loved getting to go somewhere I couldn't get to any other way. Backpacking was fun as hell.  

I carried about 40 pounds for around 30 miles over 5 and a half days. Sometimes, it was snowing. Punta Bariloche rising up in the back, there.

I carried about 40 pounds for around 30 miles over 5 and a half days. Sometimes, it was snowing. Punta Bariloche rising up in the back, there.

But it wasn't any harder than hard hikes I've been on. The pack was heavy, but David taught me how to properly balance the weight and it was a perfect fit for me (thanks, B-man, at REI Pittsburgh!). 

Some of my grit was no doubt powered by spite: the desire to say, "I told you I would be fine." I was fine, except for some squealing and some crying, which I consider de rigeur for me. Some of it is grit that is always rolling around in my mouth, the pre-raspings of pearls. 

Blue, blue, blue, yellow, white, black, blue. On the banks of Lago Pehoé.

Blue, blue, blue, yellow, white, black, blue. On the banks of Lago Pehoé.

I did get stopped in my tracks on day two. After a night in the refugio, we wanted to see Glacier Gray. The wind was hard and unrelenting. David said 35 or 40 mph, but later other travelers said they'd heard 60. There was an inch or two of snow on the trail and wide patches of ice, and we were hiking slowly up what I'd guess was relatively recent (geologically speaking) glaciated granite moraine. Which is to say sharp, somewhat slick rocks. In better weather, it wouldn't have presented any problem. Even in the weather we were experiencing, it should've been fine, if not entirely unpleasant.

But my ten year old Columbia hiking boots proved unable to grip in the ice and snow at all. I couldn't get any purchase, excepting on perfectly level footholds or patches of bare rock. The latter led me at one point to taking a sort of long, unbalanced step up at just the moment a gust of wind collided with my body. I felt lifted up and back and I screamed. David grabbed me and I crumpled to my knees fish-gasping. There was no real danger at that moment; I wasn't on a ledge or shelf. But that feeling of precariousness infused every step thereafter. Each skid made my heart lurch. Each gust had me bracing down like a rabbit in the wind. David went up the trail a bit to see if it got any better, and while I sat dejected on a wet black rock, I got a bit low.

The day before, I'd rocked the trail and the pack and everything. I wasn't cold, like he had been convinced I'd be. I wasn't slow. Before now, I'd complained about not one thing. I'd had fun.

Sometimes, the sleet blew sideways and stung like bees and during those times, I still kind of liked it (but not as much as other times).

Sometimes, the sleet blew sideways and stung like bees and during those times, I still kind of liked it (but not as much as other times).

He came back with bad news and we decided to head back to the refugio. It was just a scrapped day hike, but I was mad as hell for what felt like my failure. David didn't want to send me back alone, even though I told him to go see the glacier without me. He tried to console me. He wasn't disappointed; I was. I decided then, that no matter what we heard on the trail about the "passability" of the Torres Mirador trail (still three days away), that he'd have to do it alone.  

The huge glacial lake, Lago Nordernskjöld. 

The huge glacial lake, Lago Nordernskjöld. 

So, doable never really meant easy. But I liked the challenge when it was physically tough. I liked feeling my body strain up the hills. I liked feeling my back carry the weight of all the stuff I needed. I even liked the freeze-dried rations! And David was a good partner on the trail. We went long stretches just moving forward, and then stopping together to snack or water or look at some bird or rock (until my habits regarding those last two began to wear on his nerves - day 4 - but no one is made of patience, right?). 

Los Cuernos del Paine, or the horns of blue.

Los Cuernos del Paine, or the horns of blue.

I want to learn more about the geology in the park. The poorly translated park map says the Horns of Paine are a unique-in-all-the-world mix of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic layers. I want to be able to picture the shifting landscape, the rivers of ice retreating, carving. The land pressing down, tilting up, bending against the weight of water, ice, and more stone. The rocks, first splitting, then melting back down, weathering. Tumbling back and forth along the rims of glacial lakes until their edges have softened to smooth curves.

Many things scared me and a couple of things made me cry, but only one thing stopped me (and even that was really four things: ice + incline + 40mph wind + ten year old boots)

Many things scared me and a couple of things made me cry, but only one thing stopped me (and even that was really four things: ice + incline + 40mph wind + ten year old boots)

Things I was (am) afraid of:

1. Rope bridges with spaces between the boards and or that sway pretty much at all.
2. Exposed ledges with barren slopes (nothing to break a fall).
3. The really deep really squishy mud that I was afraid would get in my boots.
4. River rocks with both algae and ice on them, in rivers.
5. Steep slopes down on crumbling shale: too sharp to butt-scoot.

But I know that most of the things that scare me are the same things I love to overcome. Even the one piece of trail that had me in full-on anxiety attack sobbing (for a combination of reasons that I'll hopefully write about some time) never stopped my forward momentum. Slowed it, yes. But I kept moving. If left to my own process, I'd cry, move until the crying stopped, then keep moving. But, the whole thing stressed David out because we just don't know each other as well as we like to believe we do. We've only known one another for a few months, and even those had an expiration date from the start. I had tried to explain the shapes my anxiety takes a number of times before the trip, but he was still surprised and flustered. He wanted to fix it, because that is what he likes to do. Here's the catch: it's my process, not my problem. It might be inconvenient and messy. It might not look ideal. But it isn't broken. 

Those are Andean condors. Eight of them. Circling.

Those are Andean condors. Eight of them. Circling.

Condors. Swirling groups of two, five, eight. Huge glosssy black and white bodies. They were a common sight out there. Common! 

During one scary bit of downslope, while I was keening and balking for a moment, we were buzzed, at nearly eye level, just six or eight feet away, by a huge female. I sat down and felt a tiny bit more still inside. She never came back.

Planetary rotation, light refraction, air currrents, and sedimentary deposition conspire to create something beautiful.

Planetary rotation, light refraction, air currrents, and sedimentary deposition conspire to create something beautiful.

I love the steady forward progress of my own two feet. I love watching the light change across the landscape over the course of the day. I love noting how the wind's tone changes over grass from stone from water. I love the perspective from here and how it changes once I'm there. 

A new microclimate: Wyoming-like in its wind and stretching, out and away.

A new microclimate: Wyoming-like in its wind and stretching, out and away.

And constantly, every damn step on the trail, there are vignettes, small moments in time and space where the ground against the sky, or trees against the odd over-oxygenated blue of glacial water or ice, describe an arc or a line that seems to be the most important message from some palpable other world. I'm not trying to get all woo-woo here. But all of our constructs and machinations have forever severed us, for the most part, from a particular conversation that still and always happening out there. You know? The conversation that bends rocks over eons. The conversation that explains how dinosaurs first grew feathers. The story of how waterfalls and oxbows carved the canyon. The literature of grass in the wind being interrupted by horses in the grass. The grammar of tree branches. The syntax of anthills and quartz veins.

It all takes time to take in, and I'm not convinced it can be done at a pace much faster than a couple of miles an hour.

Crossing the last bridge before the fancy Hotel Torres and slightly less fancy campground.

Crossing the last bridge before the fancy Hotel Torres and slightly less fancy campground.

I'm glad I went in. I look forward to more backpacking (once I make a few gear adjustments and additions). I have the beginnings of a story to tell about Torres and my time there. But for a bit longer, I'll sit quietly with what I saw and heard and felt.

Something about rosy-fingered dawn

Something about rosy-fingered dawn

View from last camp

View from last camp

Bringing ponies back after someone's trail ride.

Bringing ponies back after someone's trail ride.

Shadow, ice, stone, sky: BLUE

Shadow, ice, stone, sky: BLUE

Nearly ten feet of wings.

Nearly ten feet of wings.

Day 11 & 12: Punta Arenas (to Torres del Paine)

We are packed, it feels, for the apocalypse. David has 65lbs of gear and I have 40lbs.  

The week ahead

The week ahead

We struggled to get food and supplies yesterday because it was both Sunday and still off-season (see above photo). Luckily David bought an updated whisperlite that can handle canister and liquid fuel because white gas was nowhere to be found. One shop was open to sell us wind pants (at an insane premium—good thing I love top ramen, cause I'm living on it when I get back), as the wind has been both constant and fierce. In the evening, the rain turned to big globby, wet snow. All the best restaurants were closed, but we did mostly okay with what we found. The mixed local grill included giant mussels (my phone was dead(, smoked pork, chicken, sausage, a greasy chapalele, and inexplicably one boiled American style Oscar Meyer hot dog. David tried and did not like a pisco sour, while I tried and did like a vaina (port, egg white, chocolate powder). 

Today, we head to the park. The catamaran isn't running (off season, and not posted online, grumble grumble), which might add a day to our hike. David wants to climb a tower, which may add another day. In any case, I'll be offline until we're back. Six days or so. 

Woohoo! Booze! 

Woohoo! Booze! 

The weather sounds brutal, but we've got tons of food, fuel, and layers. I'm really stoked. See you soon.

Day 10: Santiago > Punta Arenas > Puerto Natales

Two cabs, two planes, and a three hour bus ride, and we are only one more hour and a half bus ride away from the park entrance.  

We are staying at a very nice hostel (Sheuen) and the crowd of young guys who run the place will be feeding us breakfast in the morning. We got a room with a shared bathroom, but no one else is staying here, so it's kind of like we are staying at a mini chalet. They have a guitar for guest use, which I find charming as hell. I think we both aged out of their mean demographic a decade or two ago. 

It is colder, wetter, and windier than expected, so I'm going to have to buy some more gear. I'm hopng to limit the purchases to one pair of fleece lined shell pants. I'm already a pack, winter jacket, and fleece up. Plus, it's $60,000 pesos for the bus and another $10k for the park entrance (already paid for all that, but still). Patagonia, much like the brand named after it, ain't cheap. 

We gave ourselves a day for acclimating, outfitting, and plotting, so after a visit to Erratic Rock tomorrow (a kind of local REI famed for it's three-o'clock talk), and a final gear check, we'll sleep one more night in a proper bed, and catch the bus to Torres Monday morning.

A park map. We're hiking the W. 

A park map. We're hiking the W. 

Here's where the gore-tex and wicking polymers meet the road. Here's where my backbone meets my wishbone. Let's see what forms in their Fertile Crescent. 

Day 9: Condors in Talagente

Today I woke up early and bravely navigated the Santiago metro, met with my contact at the Chilean Ornithological society, and headed out of town.

About an hour outside the city, I got to watch as researchers caught and took blood and feather samples from six Andean condors who will soon be headed to Colombia.

It was a great couple of hours, during which I got in a lot of Spanish practice. In related news, I may need a translator for my tapes when I get home. These folks talk crazy-fast.

Tomorow, early, I leave for Patagonia. I'm leaving the tablet behind, but will try to post again before we head into the park for 5 days off-grid.

Days 6-7-8: Moai and back to Santiago

One long day of sights, plus a long day of travel and a long day of rest.

Tropicbirds at the Rano Raruku quarry, with the Tongariki line up along the beach in the far distance.

Tropicbirds at the Rano Raruku quarry, with the Tongariki line up along the beach in the far distance.

We spent the first part of the morning heading along the southeastern coastline via ATV. The simple map from the tourism company showed several moai shaped icons, but we only saw crumbling walls and embedded heads, face down. We got a little despondant, I'll be honest. I will admit that I had not read the book ahead of time, because I thought David had. He knew that there was a cool quarry somewhere, but we weren't finding it.

Then David saw a large hill, pecked with dark dots, in the distance.  

A volcanic crater, covered in Moai.

A volcanic crater, covered in Moai.

This is where all of the famous photographs have been taken. There were toppled Moai, tilted Moai and straight, there were busted busts and several still half stuck in stone. There are supposed to be 300 or so fully complete and partial. We lost count. 

The hillside was covered in hunting, kraak-ing caracaras, called tiuques by Chileanos and tokay-tokay by the Rapa Nui. Also, spinning over our heads were a half dozen tropicbirds. Turns out they had nests there. I spied one through a crack in a small rock wall that seemed built specifically to hide her.

We took all the Moai pictures that everyone takes. We walked tourist-worn paths. I worried, later, that we'd hurried too much.  

Taking pictures of Moai

Taking pictures of Moai

In art school, my art history professor, Jim Hicks, once told us this story about Charlemagne's castle. He visited there, and while most tourists spent a scant 30-40 minutes walking around the small, old ass space, he walked the main room for over two hours. Eventually, he approached the one, ancient guard and asked in his halting French if the throne had ever been identified or found, or if it had been plundered long before the building's historical importance was known. 

Jim said the guy pulled a huge key ring out of his pocket and motioned to a smallish wooden door. He picked out a giant, iron key that looked exactly like one would expect, and after a dramatic turn in the old lock, pushed the door open with a protracted screech. Inside, in a small shaft of light (this is how I remember him telling the story--if I am remembering incorrectly, I hope a former classmate can correct me), was a rough hewn, unassuming chair. The guard closed the door and left Jim in the room alone.  

Did he sit in it? Yes, he said, but only for a moment. I don't take that to be the point of the story. 

The point is not to be just a túrista. I am pretty sure I failed the Charlesmagne-Hicks test at Rano Raraku. And maybe on Easter Island altogether. But it was beautiful nonetheless. 

* * * * * * * * * * * 

I only ever had one "Choose your own adventure" book as a kid, that I remember. It was a sci-fi affair and there was one page with a pen drawing of Moai on it. I remember nothing about the book (except that it had frustrating "heaven" or "you have won" type spread in the center of the book and a back flap admonition that you couldn't get to it by making any choices or decisions... what then was the point?!) except that Moai picture and the eerie quality it was supposed to possess. I always understood the heads to be that: eerie. Maybe I'm too old? Maybe we rushed too fast? Whatever it was, though they were amazing and impressive and remarkable, the hair on the back of my neck stayed down.  

The fifteen Moai at Ahu Tongariki

The fifteen Moai at Ahu Tongariki

Yesterday was our last day on the island. Three days is the recommended stay (ugh, even just staying for the "recommended" amount of time, but it was expensive and so what are you going to do?). We spend the day looking for the dog (again), getting the tourist stamp for our passports, eating a rather sorry breakfast, and buying souvenirs. There were echoes of New Zealand in the swirls and shapes of the ubiquitous Rapa Nui-aesthetic: hibiscuses, curved fishhooks, flattened turtles. It was also tough not to think of The Kinks while I was being shown the "not-so common" (and therefore, preferred) methods of sarong-knotting by a local merchant and artisan.


Our flight was long, but on arrival back in Santiago, we were greeted by our now regular taxi-driver, Robinson, who chided me for looking surprised to see him. He did promise to be there, after all. We got to the new place okay, but the travel day was hard on me. Woke up still out of sorts. Today was a day of rest and planning. 

We still have to tear the packs apart one more time, but otherwise, we are pretty much ready for Saturday's flight to Patagonia. Tomorrow, I am off in the morning to a raptor center. No one thought I forgot vultures, right? 

Sunset over Hanga Roa

Sunset over Hanga Roa

Day 5: Easter Island volcanos

Today was long and my ass is sore. 

We started early, walking through town and then climbing to the Orongo crater at Rano Kau (I hiked straight up the slope while David ran a switch back road). Then, after a mercado lunch of fresh from the oven rolls, chorizo, and cheese, we were picked up and taken to a small stable where we met some horses and other tourists. We rode for just over three hours, up to the false summit of the highest peak on Easter Island, Volcán Terevaka. My horse was an asshole and kept crowding the other horses (getting bit as a result) and trying to run me into trees. My knees and calves are banged up in addition to the aforementioned sore ass.

After adventures, we decided to get a somewhat extravagant dinner, and after walking away, realized we'd been overcharged the equivalent of US$75. I stormed back in and got $40 thousand of the (closer to) $60 thousand pesos that were incorrectly added to the bill. Nothing like getting cheated for ruining a day.   

One of the highlights of the day was Consuela. This place is full of street dogs and each day many of them go out and try to find a tourist. She found us early in the morning by the sea rocks. She was a young, mostly  black with a bit of yellow, and very playful at first. She followed us around the western edge of the water and then she came with me up the Orongo trail while David ran along the road. On the trail she first protected me from cows in my right of way, by herding them off the path and into the underbrush, and then later, when three  dogs came out of the woods and were growling and nipping at my coat, she blocked them out. She was a very good guide. At the lip of the crater I asked around until some fellow Americans could spare a few doritos for her good works. Then we climbed back down and she was visibly tired, but stayed by our side. David went into the first market we  saw and got us rolls and chorizo, and a bag of doritos for Consuela. We gave her bites of bread and chorizo, too, of course.  

The last leg of our walk was through town and that's when I noticed visitors, whether singly or doubly, all accompanied by a street dog. Not all of the dogs are so gregarious, but almost all put up with handling in exchange for a  handout. Consuela came back to the hotel with us and laid under our patio table, but when the car came to take us to horse riding, she ran into the street and then watched us leave. David was very sad to lose her, as she wasn't waiting when we got back. She was a super dog and I hope she finds good turistas mañana.

Day 4: Santiago to Easter Island / Isla de Pascua / Rapa Nui

The internet is terrible and I'm having a helluva time uploading pictures or really doing anything network related. The flight from Santiago to Hanga Roa on Easter Island (Isla de Pascua to Chileans and Rapa Nui to the indigenous people) takes about five and a half hours. Right now we are, I believe, about halfway between Chile and New Zealand. Or: literally in the middle of fucking nowhere. All to wander through the mysterious fields of moai (giant stone heads). 

Tomorrow morning, David will run up one of the volcanic craters while I walk up it with notebook and binoculars. We will maybe walk to some caves afterwards. And in the afternoon we will ride horses to the top of the tallest volcanic cone. We'll have one more full day after that. 

Already the ceviche here has won us over. The rain is  falling hard on the tin roof of our room and all of the birds have quieted down. There are bougainvillea and cannas and banana trees everywhere. It's muddy and colorful and the stray dogs are all beggars. This is the farthest edge of  Polynesia. This is as far as Maui sailed his boat.  

Day 3 - Vulture unawareness day

Today was International Vulture Awareness Day, but no one at the Chilean National Zoo knew it. 

We walked about 2 km to the Parque Metropolitan which includes the zoo, a funicular, a giant statue of the Virgen Mary on the top of San Cristobal Hill, and a bunch of other stuff on the eastern slope we didn't see (including a swimming pool that are parking lot guard really wanted us to check out).  

At the zoo, I watched an Andean condor juvenile practice flapping off his tall nest in the (single!) raptor enclosure. I also watched two red pandas nom on some bamboo and a brown bear and vicunas and guanacos and a crazy giant rabbit  with a squirrel tail that is native to Chile. I meant to write its crazy name down so I could look it up later.  

Most non-salespeople don't speak English. My Spanish is rudimentary at best and I am having to learn more, fast. I tried information booths, cops, guards, concierges, waitstaff... nope. You know who speaks English? Nearby latinos on vacation from New York, Puerto Rico, etc.  They've been helpful. "She means 'marble'." Or, "apparently this drink is not to be missed." Or, "¿Quiere llamado por ustedes?" That last one from a very nice young woman in the elevator who wondered what my "problema enorme" was after I was a bit histrionic on the way back from the latest concierge.

But, I'm trying.  

Those condors were way more popular than any other vulture I've ever seen. Not penguin-popular (eye roll), but kids were squealing about seeing them, and there was a small crowd.  


Day 2 - Santiago

I always breakdown crying at some point on the first day. Some trips have many first days: I remember crying in the lobby of a budget hotel in Antwerp, and again in a Paris train station and AGAIN in the lobby of my Paris hotel. I cried in Whangomomona Republic. I cried great gulping tears in Mumbai and again in Pinjore. Every time, it is for reasons of everything and nothing. You think I'll care why I cried, once the longest day is over and I'm finally getting ready to lay down to sleep for good? You think the cruelties of cab drivers and banking systems and ticket agents and hoteliers and all of the rest of the noise will matter? No. I'll remember the sun shining through the window shade over the Andes. The smell of fish in the market. That in the world, good people still exist.

I've even written about crying on arrival before. There's nothing new under the sun. I arrived in Santiago; I cried. I'm sure tomorrow will be different.

So far, wildlife-wise, all I've seen are pigeons and a lot of acrylic yarn. But I purchased 60 airmail stamps. I plan on using them. 

Day 1: SYR > ATL

We woke up at 1:30 and it's now nearly 5. We are checked in, at the gate, and almost finished with our shared breakfast sandwich.

Already this trip is much different than my past trips. Our Atlanta layover is nearly 9 hours long, so David got a car and a room so we can nap and clean up in relative comfort and privacy. (This is one of the benefits of traveling with someone who is like platinum plus status at every travel company there is.) We are also traveling much heavier than I have before because he is more comfortable trusting porters than I usually am. 

One thing that is the same  is that we are both very well traveled. We packed well and with little stress and we are both "get to the airport early" people. It's a risk, going out of country for five weeks with someone, but (so far) I'm glad he's with me. I have already reserved the right to change my mind in two weeks, though, just in case.  

Tomorrow morning, I'll be in Santiago, Chile. 

Spirits are still high, but the trip is only 3 hours old. We still have approximately 840 hours to go.

Spirits are still high, but the trip is only 3 hours old. We still have approximately 840 hours to go.

Book Review: Sven Birkerts' The Other Walk

The Other Walk: Essays
By Sven Birkerts

Birkerts’ collection of essays, The Other Walk, is a compendium of acts of contemplation and the digressions of the mind. Just reading it has inspired the last couple of posts here on Roaming Cowgirl, where I have allowed a memory or an associative moment to have free reign of the page.

The essays in TOW are deliberate and thoughtful, as they roam across the subjects of family, friendship, romance, writing, and teaching. I have to confess that I bought the book on impulse three years ago at AWP, and never read past the first page. I’m sure I asked whoever was staffing the Graywolf booth about “essay collections,” as I was prone to do three AWPs ago, and this was the one recommended. When I cracked it open later in my room, I felt instantly weary.  I was in my own (frenzied) action phase and I did not have the patience for the contemplation of others. My eyes fidgeted over pages that lacked dialogue or natural history, and I shelved the book to read “later.”

But then at the most recent conference in Minneapolis, I sat in on a hilarious and engaging panel that featured Birkerts (plus three of my favorite writer-friends). Two days later, and at the gate early for a plane that would end up delayed, I saw him sitting alone. As I am still, and I hope not always, prone to do, I subsequently accosted him with vulture stories. (He later favorited a tweet of mine, so I don’t think all the carrion/disease talk did any lasting damage.)

When I first sat down next to him, I had to say (because deliberate lying is hard for me), “I haven’t read your book yet, but it is in the stack.” There’s no way to make that sound good. So when I came home, I moved it up several spots.

I’m so glad I did.

My current frenzy is one of inaction. I am stuck in place; there’s sometimes a squealing sound, smoke coming from under the hood, and the smell of burning rubber. There are days when I feel my heart start to pound for no reason. It would be misstating at best to claim that this book is a cure for anxiety, but it has helped me put my spinning mind into perspective, and as a result, to use.

Take the essay, “Schimmelpenninck.” In it, he starts out looking for a dented tin on top of a bookshelf in his den, and then this happens:

I never found it, but my charged-up idle investigating brought me right up against all sorts of things—I mean literal things, bundled letters, peculiar artifacts of completely mysterious provenance, like a tiny elephant figurine, and an ancient cigarette lighter that I was clumsy in disassembling—that I broke—and that had my father confronting me in a fury.

And just like that, it becomes an essay about his father, then a trip to Latvia and his grandmother’s stories.

Since I move so often, I don’t have a treasure trove of objects collected over the years on top of a bookcase. Instead, my troves must be self-contained and portable. One such stash lives in a tin lunch box with Kali-ma’s face on one side and the many faces of Shiva on the other. Another lives in a simple wooden box I made in fifth grade woodshop. I know very well the steps from cigarette tin to elephant to lighter that Birkerts describes.

In the lunchbox, for example, I can move from mysterious Honduran paper money (who do I know who has been there?) to limpet shells from a failed DIY mobile attempted during my first year of marriage, to four wisdom teeth from a college friend. In the wooden box, lives my name tag from mandatory 6th grade “outdoor school,” a plastic green cap from an orange juice bottle cracked open during an LSD trip in 1988, and a pencil that my father gave me when I was around 12 embossed with his name above the phrase “Wisely Aggressive” (including quotation marks).

What I mean is, there are whole books in those boxes.

I’m getting off topic. In The Other Walk Birkerts privileges the art of thinking about things, and in so doing, he says a lot about the lived life of a writer. The moments are rich in detail and the revelations, sharp—that he carves them out of otherwise quiet moments sitting in a chair, walking a well-known path, or organizing files, is a testament to his skill as a writer and reader, and the breadth of his writing career. Does it do the book a disservice to call it a writer and readers’ book?

I am a writer, too, and I often find myself thinking about things. This is an act that can easily appear to outside observers as “doing nothing,” and which is complicated by my lack of employment or permanent residence of late. I feel terrible for staring out the window while long minutes elapse. Sometimes, if I sit for too long, the squealing tire sound manifests itself, especially if productive writing doesn’t immediately follow the staring. Or, if I’ve been doing my thinking on foot, I might hear the almost-admiring “I wish I had time to run every day," which is another way of saying, "Is that all you did today?"

But much more than simply or grandly a justification for my own sometimes plodding sometimes distracted process, I found a kindred spirit in the narrative voice of The Other Walk, if a tremendously calmer one. Before I'd ever read any of his essays, I wrote this in a forthcoming piece: “I felt how the steps made my spine twist back and forth like a chain might, in a light wind. My arms swept heavy from my shoulders, propelling me forward. By concentrating on just that act of walking, I kept something else from happening.”

In the last essay in The Other Walk, titled, “Walk,” Birkerts writes: “I can feel my own rhythm start to lift me up and tune me to the swing of walking, that growing catch-pull connection between the body’s exertion and whatever is passing through my head.”

We are writing about very different moments, at different stages of our lives and careers, but this echoing connection between mind and body, between thinking about action and writing it, was like a hand reaching out across an otherwise empty space, and I was grateful for it.


Boys don't cry, 1986

I usually listen to some wonderful/horrible "pop cardio" mix on Pandora when I run, but the last few weeks have been tough, even with running, even with eating right, even with picking up the phone and talking to people now and again. So on my last run, I decided to listen to one of my favorite Buddhist teachers talk through ways we can get stuck in unpleasant patterns of thinking and ways we can unstick ourselves from them.

As always, she said some profound, kind, and helpful things. But she also told this anecdote about being away at a retreat and thinking another participant there hated her. She tried all of her meditation techniques and nothing helped her to shake the crummy feeling of being unliked. So one night she went to the meditation room and just sat there with her hurt feelings, all night. She wasn't meditating exactly, just being present with her bad attitude and the longing it was creating. She says that she realized, then, that everything she does, from the way she smiles to the way she talks and works to make others happy and comfortable, all her behaviors, were in service to avoiding that feeling of someone deeply disliking her.

And of course, because I have always had trouble focusing and paying attention (which is the whole reason I have a favorite Buddhist teacher in the first place), my mind instantly stopped listening to her and teleported me back to the 7th and 8th grade and two boys who broke my heart. I still behave in ways that are designed to avoid feeling the way those boys made me feel. Two dumb boys who have certainly forgotten all about me!

I can't remember which one of them I met first. But I think it was Chris, and we met on the phone. I was at my best friend's house—remember how that used to happen? She had called a boy I liked, ostensibly for my benefit, but she was always doing that and then would somehow end up making out with him whenever we all next met, because who knows why? Life is weird! (We don't speak much anymore, but I digress.) So, Claire had called Matt, and at some point Matt handed the phone off to his buddy Chris, so Claire handed the phone to me—ah, that year between 7th and 8th grade!—and Chris and I started to talk. We had a great conversation and it was either then, or the next time Claire pretended to help me out with a guy (that she hardly even liked like that before at all! Life is SO weird!), that he and I exchanged our own numbers. 

We talked a lot, after that. He was funny and smart and he told me he thought I was funny and smart. And he was cool! I had never heard of The Cure until Chris told me that he bet they were my favorite band. By the end of the 8th grade they would be. I have no idea if it's because he'd planted that seed in my brain box, but I remembered that he'd predicted it. Since I'd gone to school with Matt and since Claire still went to school with them both (I'd had to move away to the suburbs the year before), I figured one or the other of them would've told Chris at least a little about what I looked like. It's possible, though, that Matt didn't care and I promised Claire not to. I knew what I was, and maybe I didn't want to ruin my excellent conversations with Chris. 

I knew what I was, and awkward was the nicest name for it.

I knew what I was, and awkward was the nicest name for it.

I "met" Michael in a nearly identical fashion, over at my friend Andrea's house. We were in her family room, dancing around to the radio and drinking Jolt. She called some guy she liked and at some point, his friend Michael and I ended up on the phone while the lovebirds took a breather. But just before Andrea handed me the receiver, she described me for Michael: long blonde hair, blue eyes, and smoking in my hot pink string bikini. She was being "funny" (read: cruel). I was understood to be a complete and total dork, a fatty, and a brainiac. All the worst possible things a junior high girl could be. I told Michael that she was lying and that first and foremost, I was not wearing a hot pink string bikini, nor would I, ever. It was my way of trying to tell him that I was fat and uncool. He took it to be modest humility. But what he said was, "I totally didn't think you were anyway." Which I thought meant he understood.

SIDE NOTE: We missed a million nuances before texting, too, everyone. Remember?

We had a great talk. I was still suspicious that he didn't have the right mental image of me, but I forged on. We exchanged numbers and talked all the time. Sometimes, he'd get a call and put me on hold (remember call waiting?!) and sometimes I would get a call and he'd wait for me. Once, he came back from the other line and I didn't hear the click because I was trying to teach myself the keyboard part to People Are People (I had an 80s songbook), and when I stopped, he said, "Don't stop; I love your voice!"

Were Chris and I, and later, Michael and I, flirting? I don't know. We must've been, but there was no overt talk of making out or going out or anything like that. I was a total prude until the end of the 8th grade. It could be that I missed all the innuendo (I'm still a champ at that, sometimes right up until the point where the dude is starting to undress). I know I liked them. I know I liked that they liked me back. I felt giddy at first, talking to them, and then confident and happy.

Back to Chris. I wanted to meet him. Was he reluctant? I don't remember. Maybe he wanted to meet me, and I was. Regardless, meeting a boy who lived across two suburbs and "town" when you're just barely an 8th grader is tricky business. I decided to "visit" my old school for a day. I don't remember how that worked, but I did it a few times in junior high and later high school. I brought a camera and took pictures of all of my friends and a few of my old teachers. I really missed the place and really hated my new school. But, that was not the reason I was there. I was nervous and excited to finally see Chris. The bell between classes had just rung and we were walking down the hall, and Claire pointed to an open locker door that someone was standing behind. 

"It's him!"  

I walked up behind the door and when he closed it, I took his picture. That picture exists somewhere, because I remember looking at it later. But I don't know where. I didn't put it in any photo albums or scrapbooks. At first he was laughing. He didn't know who I was (how could he? No FB back then to pre-stalk someone on) until I said so. Then he stopped laughing. He looked me up and down and then after some stammering and mumbling of excuses, he bolted for his next class and we never talked again, except for the few times that I called and he said he couldn't talk. 

And then Michael. We arranged to meet at the mall (it later became famous for housing an ice rink that Tonya Harding practiced on). I was going to bring my friend Jenny and he was going to bring a friend, too. Jenny and I said we'd be waiting on the couches on the ground floor of Nordstrom's, by the store entrance, at 2:00. We were. At 2:01 we saw two dark-haired boys walk by the entrance. They were wearing ridiculous brightly colored board shorts and pastel t-shirts. They were wearing deck shoes. Just like Michael had said he'd be wearing. They looked at us and never broke their stride. They didn't even walk in. Later on the phone, Michael would say that it wasn't him. And then, that they were there, but they didn't see us there. But also, that he had to go. And he was never able to talk after that. 

My god! If I could go back and hug me and tell me that I'm beautiful and they were just dumb jocks and that one day I'll grow into those eyebrows and another day, I'll get my teeth straightened out a bit and get lasik. I would tell sad and angry and sad me, that I'll learn how to cut my hair so that not knowing how to do my hair won't be quite the same liability, and I'll find a sense of style that actually works, even if it's never exactly on time or target. And I'd tell me that even at my fattest, I'll learn to swagger in four inch heels and turn down better boys than that at the bar every Friday night if I wanted. But despite all that, despite assurances of the beautiful I will eventually feel, I would tell me that I needed to learn right now (not at 40, good lord, don't wait until 40 to learn this!) that my self-worth does not depend on any boy's admiration of my looks. How did I never learn that? What book did I fail to read? Which class did I miss? Goddammit, to go back and tell myself just how fucking great I am inside and out. To learn to shake those shitty boys off like dust!

So here's where I get stuck, still. Here's the feeling I work so hard to avoid. I want to be wanted, and I will bend myself into crazy personality pretzels to make it so. I do this with men, but also women, also jobs. I just do this in life. Sometimes I don't do it, too. Sometimes I can say fuck it, this is me, and I'm cool with it whether you are or not. I'm getting better at that. I'm working on it. But other days, it only takes one denigrating or dismissive remark and I'm sitting on that couch at Nordstrom's all over again. 

But I guess that's why they call it work, right?

I am not sure what the terrible memory of these boys is trying to tell me that I don't already know. Maybe they just came back to haunt me because I'm feeling vulnerable and because I have some shit to figure out that might mean big changes in the way I live my life. Maybe the reason will be evident later. In the meantime, I'll try to sit with it until the sting fades a bit more, as stings do. 

Garage sale signs, junior high elections, and the sin of pride, maybe

Last Saturday I organized a garage sale for myself, my boyfriend, and his brother's wife. I have only a few things to sell, but since I have to move across the country again soon (and covering my own expenses on this one), every pound and inch of space needs to be important. 

SIDEBAR: it is worth noting that I have a lot of stuff that no one but me would ever consider important. I even have some whose importance I question. I'm just trying to get rid of a few things that have gone unused for several moves. And even that is hard: I've sold things at garage sales and later lamented their loss. 

My boyfriend is moving to North Carolina at some point in the next year and wants "everything gone." His sister-in-law recently lost her daughter and for her the sale was an opportunity to dispatch non-sentimental possessions and make a little bit of money for the granddaughter she's now raising. She made the most last weekend, and I'm glad about that. 

I made $1.25 in eight hours of sitting in the humidity and mosquitoes.

All told, I spent a little over $7 on signs, $3 on price stickers and markers, and a couple of hours making signs and hanging them. My boyfriend made $20, $8.75 of which I confiscated so as to at least break even on supplies, if not labor. 

Several folks who stopped by mentioned that they found us  because of my signs.

SIDEBAR 2: Which is nuts because the last couple of garage sales I've had were Craigslisted and virtually sign-free (and I made actual money and got rid of actual things at them).

Nonetheless, my signs were pretty easy to read and follow.

Sign-making is a skill I have that has become almost completely useless now that you can order slick photoshopped posters from online copy shops with overnight shipping for practically nothing. Hand drawn signs, though. The whole thing reminded me about this junior high race for class historian that I lost in 1987. 

In the 8th grade, I wanted to be on student council because I thought it meant I could have an impact on things that mattered to me and get a jumpstart on amassing important "extra curricular activities" for my transcript. I was fat, unpopular, and a known nerd, so I knew I couldn't get any of the sexy seats like president or treasurer, but class historian seemed like less of a long-shot than the others.  

I quickly learned that I'd be up against Grace Aguilar for the post. Grace was nice and smart and (unfortunately) a C-list popular girl. Her shaker sweater game was top-notch and she played some non-basketball sport, maybe volleyball. Once her candidacy was announced, I was secretly sure I'd never win, but publicly optimistic that the most qualified candidate would win and that was me. I was a great writer after all, and the job was to write down all the stuff the council did.  I was especially secretly sure deep, deep down, that we weren't that unevenly matched, and if I ran a strong campaign and wrote a good speech, I had a chance. 

My mother helped me make campaign posters for several hours one evening after she'd worked a full day at the phone company. My mother was wildly artistic and creative all through my childhood. She wrote my name in different shapes and fonts on my grade school lunch bags every day for a school year, she sewed and crocheted my Barbies a variety of dresses, she helped me make a set of far superior fashion plates that I could use to design my own clothes (after I was frustrated that the plastic Barbie set of fashion plates only let you mix and match already-designed outfits), she created at least three of her own greeting card lines, and even made her new husband love-note pillow cases once (the six-year old in me is still grossed out by that). Whenever I get a crazy idea for a craft (like  wallpapered light switchplates that coordinate with a room), I am pretty sure that is my mom shining through.

We worked hard on those posters. I only remember two of them. One featured a Statue of Liberty (I looked up what she looked like in my encyclopedia set for the sake of accuracy), though I don't remember the slogan, and another said "The AYES have it" and was covered with eyelashed eyes of different shapes and colors... There was probably one with a dolphin and maybe some presidents (historian, get it?), but that's wild speculation all these years later. All told, I think we made 8 or 10 of them, in addition to "buttons" that were probably meant to be affixed to lapels/oversized Esprit tshirts with tape.

I thought they were really good. Most of the other campaign signage consisted of die-cut construction paper letters or gloppy poster-painted banners that just said "VOTE FOR TODD" or whatever. It was all stuff someone had bought or thrown together with little thought. Mine demonstrated my writing skills, my creativity, my diligence and industriousness. I secretly thought that maybe they were good enough to get even me elected.

Some friends helped me hang them during the long mid-morning break between 2nd and 3rd period a few days before the elections and I fished for compliments about them all through fourth period, lunch and probably 5th and 6th period, too. I asked people which was their favorite and I probably got more than a few honest compliments from kids I didn't really know. 

When the final bell rang, I walked out of whatever classroom I had been in and noticed right away that a poster of mine was no longer where I'd hung it. I ran down the hall to check and that one was gone, too. My best friend Jenny came to tell me that others from the other side of the building were missing, too. Every single one was gone. There were still corners of tape with torn pieces of paper stuck to them in a few places, but otherwise there was no trace. They hadn't even just torn them up in some trash can so that I could salvage the pieces. The rumor was that Darcy Bass, one of the B-listers and a friend of Grace's, had torn them all down. Darcy never spoke a single word to me throughout all the six years we went to school together, though she was quick to sneer at me when I was forced to pass her in the hall. It was likely she did it, but it didn't really matter either way. Everyone understood that I was not to win. And since life isn't a John Hughes movie, that's what happened. I still tried to write a good speech and I still gave it with all the heart I could muster, but Grace won.  I am sure I cried on the busride home, further humiliating myself.  I vaguely remember Grace apologizing to me afterward, saying she didn't ask anyone to tear down my posters.

I know I shouldn't have bragged about those campaign signs. I was a pretty intolerable kid (I'm still an almost completely intolerable office mate). And I am sure that Grace did a fine job at the whatever tasks are required of an eighth grade class historian. It's the meanness of it that I can't get past. I tried to rise above my station and was pitilessly and brusquely put back in my place at a far table in the cafeteria. I don't think I've ever run for any kind of formal or informal office since. 

It is worth noting that Darcy briefly friended me on Facebook a few years ago, when everyone from high school was dog-piling on everyone else's feeds. I added her at first, but I deleted her not long after, because I'm petty, maybe, or maybe because we were obviously never friends to begin with and there's no sense in pretending otherwise now. 


Book Review: Dinah Lenney's The Object Parade

When Dinah Lenney says, on page 20 of The Object Parade that “Every home should have a piano” I thought, this narrator and I will have little in common. She says this at the end of a short essay about the baby grand piano that she’s been lugging from coast to coast, that takes special movers to move, that is covered in framed photos that her housekeeper dusts for her.

I have never lived in a house with a piano, and as I’ve been sitting here drafting this book review, I’ve racked my memories—and I don’t think I’ve ever even been in a single family home with a baby grand piano. But wait, that’s not true—there was a grand piano in the home of that distinguished ex-pat translator and chorister who put me up for a couple of nights on short notice in Vienna. Which is to say that anyone can sound a little terrible out of context.

The Object Parade spoke deeply to me before I’d even cracked the cover, and my hopes were high. A memoir told through objects, one person told me. A catalog of the literal stuff of life, I could sum up the dazzling blurbs. Things, stuff, and lived lives—via flash essays. I’ve dreamed and day-dreamed this book!

And then there came the piano(s—there’s the one she grew up with, too) and a broken Tiffany watch, and some jade earrings, and the supporting role on a famous TV show that maybe or maybe not meant “little” to the narrator, and I thought, this narrator and I have never lived with any of the same stuff, and by stuff I am not just thinking objects.

Though Lenney and I did both have a broken acoustic guitar for awhile, the material intersections, otherwise, were few. For me it would be the Casio SK-1 I outgrew and handed down to my sister, an old Tom Peterson watch, mismatched onyx earrings, and that one time my voice was played on NPR News for 45 seconds.

And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. And as I did, I found ways in, over and over again. No, I don’t know what it’s like to bum around the upper east side in the late 70s, trying to make it as an actress while waiting tables and shopping for old linens and ancient sheet music, which are the circumstances that Lenney describes in the essay, “Flight Jacket”—but I know about leather jackets.

In the late 80s, I spent several weekends dragging my mother to every pawn shop in the “deep eastside” of Portland, Oregon looking for the perfect goth motorcycle jacket for under $135. Most were all wrong. Some had uncool patches or zippers that weren’t quite right—or horrors, were cut from brown leather instead of black. Finally, I found it: a classic cut, no fringe or silly logos, and ten dollars under budget. The only problem was that it was just a little bit too small. I was a “hefty” kid who had grown into an XL teenager. In the late 80s, there was no Torrid or Lane Bryant. Wearing XL in the 80s meant shopping in the  “women’s” department or wearing men’s clothes. I didn’t want to admit that I was too fat for the jacket and so I bought it anyway. Spent all my meager savings on a coat I couldn’t zip up.  It was not the first or last time that I told myself I could diet into some garment.

That jacket never did fit me, and when I think of it, I remember the deep shame of being fatter than I was supposed to be so much more than the pride of a cool ass leather.  Lenney’s own jacket gives her a chance to think about the kind of parents she had, and the kind of parent she is—the jacket is more than just dinner and a show on 14th street, more than the seamstress who almost refuses to repair it.

Again and again, Lenney pinpoints and then examines all the ways that things decorate, populate, and demarcate the places and moments and pieces of a life. From a craft perspective, the concept of memoir as litany is (I can’t think of a better word for it) meaty. If you teach writing, this book might just inspire a handful of new prompts. And she has nailed the title, because all this stuff does roll past the mind’s eye just like a parade, once you get to musing on it.

Try it. Imagine the things that matter to you. First, the big stuff, they trundle past like be-flowered floats with their own dance tracks: the quilt my grandmother made, my old snowboarding jacket, a yarn winder and wooden swift, horse skull, clay sculpture of a seated woman, two teal lamps with black and white shades, mismatched dinner service for four, two red vinyl chairs and a chrome and melamine breakfast table. Then come troops of small things, like Shriners on ATVs, jugglers, or a clown on a unicycle: an old enameled pin shaped like a cockeyed dog, a small pink ceramic horse in the style of a Roman charger, a gray rock the size of two finger knuckles that is shaped exactly like a peanut, a green beetle carcass, two blue and white espresso cups, a ball point pen on which you can play a very tiny but accurate game of Operation, a bunny-shaped piggy bank painted all over with turquoise stars, a set of three palm-sized crocheted bears of the Mama, Papa, and Baby bear variety, a newspaper clipping with a picture of me pouring coffee at Fuller’s in 1991, plus one of the brown coffee cups that I’m filling in the photo. Then, after the floats and motorcades and rodeo princesses, come the books. Like the sudden crowd of a marching band, there are so many more of them than shelves in which to store them; files and boxes full of old letters, cards, pages torn from magazines, notes once passed in class. I’m sorry to say that I lost my own broken watch years ago, but even that’s still there in my mind’s parade, along with other lost items: a stable of Breyer horses, the foot-long taxidermied alligator dressed like a bride, a chunk of raw turquoise, stacks of rockabilly CDs, a tufted green side chair, Fugazi t-shirt: every damn thing, a story.

While The Object Parade is ostensibly about stuff and things, it is really about Lenney’s life: her relationships, her progress.  It is that narrative thread that hooked me and then led me through the book, giving me space to connect with Lenney. She has difficult moments as both a mother (“Flight jacket”) and a daughter (“Green earrings”); she wants people to like her and appreciate her efforts (“Chicken stew”); she has complicated relationships with her siblings (“Nests”). She gets obsessed over little things, like an old coffee scoop or the age limit for certain outfits (“Scoop,” “Little Black Dress”). And the whole parade culminates in a beautifully honest and reflective moment that I will not spoil here. When I finished, though I had read several concise and sharp essays about objects, what I was struck with most was Lenney’s accessible humanity. As it turns out, though she and share few things, we have a ton of stuff in common.

Verdict: RECOMMENDED (and the garage sale will be next Saturday, too, from 9-4)

Book review: Jill Talbot's The Way We Weren't

The Way We Weren't
By Jill Talbot

I mentioned this to Jill on Twitter, but one of the most amazing aspects of reading her memoir, The Way We Weren't, was how much I related to her daughter, Indie. Indie and I have not had particularly similar childhoods; I moved between houses when I was young, but they were all basically in the same part of Oregon.

My parents didn't even split up in similar fashions, or have a similar arrangement afterward. My mother left my father and took me with her after his controlling jealousy and alcoholism began to threaten our safety. After which, he sobered up and sent his check every month until I graduated from college. He came through town sometimes, and I went to stay with him a few times. All this to say, I wasn't exactly abandoned by my father. But he did move away, and he visited very rarely. I grew up believing that he would be around more if he could, but work prevented it. Once I was an adult, I realized that adults get to decide what limits "work" places upon them and what limits they are willing to accept.

My father doesn't like any person or thing he cannot control. He prefers "performance" vehicles when he can afford them, doesn't keep pets or longterm wives, has no other children that I'm aware of, and keeps a sailboat as proof that even the sea can be made to do his bidding. As a child, I was uncontrollable. So, I only stayed with him a few times, and only after age 14.

All that to say that every time the narrator in The Way We Weren't wondered about what effect Kenny's leaving might have on her daughter, I felt this hand in me raising high. I wanted to answer her. 

I had expected to relate most to Jill's narrator--the woman in her that once loved a man who left. But now I realize that that was silly on my part. I do the leaving, nearly always. To which Jill responded, "I think when you're left, the impulse to leave is strong--to beat people to the punch, to avoid being left again." And yep, I think. Yep.

But Indie will have two different models of leaving from which to build her own propensities. While Kenny left to (seemingly) avoid responsibility, Jill leaves over and over in thrall to it. She is trying to build a life for herself and daughter with some small level of security, even if it only comes in 9 month segments. I get this. Boy, do I, even if I'm responsible for little more than hundreds of books and a lemon tree (and a horse skull and some dishes and a box of artwork and boxes of letters, and mounds of clothes for every possible climate, and snowshoes in hopes of snow and a small beach chair in hopes of beach, etc etc etc--I always feel compelled to admit to my great pile of possessions). Nonetheless, I get reaching for that bit of security that still fosters the creative life, even if it means moving and moving and moving. 

This is turning into a terrible review. I've hardly talked about the book. Besides acting as an oracle into some of my deepest fears and desires, it is just a wonder of nonfiction. She plays with form, including lists, a syllabus, and redacted correspondence. She uses time and place as organizational elements, but manages to build on the narrative instead of just spinning her wheels after each move (as it feels I've begun to do myself). The essays flip between first and third person, which allows her to relate both raw emotion and a kind of "detached" reflection along with the moments of her and Indie's travels.

Because I'd read earlier versions of several chapters, I loved the insight into the craft of book-building that came from seeing them carefully refigured into the larger narrative.

This is not a light-hearted romp across America with a spunky mother-daughter team. It isn't that kind of book at all. But it is a book (in part) about how family and home is what you make it. Jill and Indie are forging a a relationship and a life together that has strength and character not in spite of their circumstances, but as a result of them. Which I hate saying, because if I had a quarter for every time my mother told me that some deprivation or unpleasantness "built character" I wouldn't need any character because I'd be totally loaded. (But here it is true in a way that makes me root for the pair, rather than roll my eyes at my mom.)

The voice of the narrator leads you into and out of some bleak and despairing shit, which I of course appreciate. But she also questions the "truthfulness" of her account. This is one reason I read nonfiction: I want to hear about the way in and the way out, even if "out" is happening somewhere out at the vanishing point. I want to read the story that someone else's life has told. For me, it's about marveling at the paths we each chart, the roads we walk, and the life we live in the meantime. But she also tells beautiful stories about falling into and out of love with people, places, and things. It's a wonderful, searing, and honest book about living with heartbreak on your heels, what that asks of a person and what it gives a person. I know this story, and am comforted to hear someone else sing it.

Verdict: RECOMMENDED (and I need to go on a long walk now)

Recommended reading / revelation

As we all know, anesthetizing ourselves from our overwhelm and anxiety with Netflix or ice cream or reading or sex rarely satiates for long. What satisfies and fulfills in a deep and lasting way is that which is hard: creating something from nothing, giving expression to that which we didn’t realize we knew, the arduous work of digging up and straightening out thoughts, setting them down still squirming and supple on the page. - Gila Lyons

Is this a revelation for anyone else, or did the universe just send it arrow-sharp right to my heart hole just when I needed it most? You can read the rest of Lyons' post at the Brevity blog

In related news, I'm staying off Facebook for at least one more week, I think. 

Reporting from P-town

Since Sunday evening, I've been in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown MA, thanks to a generous scholarship. My class this week is being taught by Joanne Dugan and it's called "The Photograph and The Word: Showing what you can't always see."

I've been inspired by the the assignments and the examples that Joanne and my cohort have brought in to share, and have created a very small body of work that I'm both proud of and energized by. I have no idea what I can do with this work, but I'm thinking about it.

It's made me wonder what I could do if I was able to really straighten my shit out enough to have an actual daily practice where I write or make whatever comes to mind. But that's the thing, right? That's what separates the people who stand up at the podium each evening to talk to us about their bodies of work, and me, in the audience, thinking thinking thinking, but wasting most of the summer in paralyzed despair. I don't know how to get from here, this week of ideas and making, to a practice of making back there, wherever there might be in a few more weeks. I can't wait any longer for a home to materialize, because I don't know when that will come. And maybe it's a myth, this bosom of safety that a stable address might provide. So, how do I organize my caravan to foster production and a spirit of risk-taking in my work? 

These are rhetorical questions. I wish I'd brought paint and a folder of collage stuff, here. In the meantime, I'm hatching wild ideas and taking a lot of pictures of my feet, walking.

Today's run

On today's run, I was not bitten by a deerfly.

On today's run, I was briefly distracted early on by a variable oak leaf caterpillar.

On today's run, I saw a kingfisher and an American goldfinch and  possibly a scarlet tanager--but it was quite a bit ahead of me, so I can't be sure--and a gray catbird. I did not see any of the Canada geese that were raising their goslings in the small buggy lake I run past.

On today's run, dragonflies buzzed me while I ran past the lake, out and back. I like to think they are scaring off the deerflies and that they are curious about me. Usually one or more will fly alongside me for several steps. I also saw a turtle for just a moment before it slipped under the surface of the dark lake. Lake is probably an exaggeration.  

On today's run, three weimeraners barked at me from the end of their driveway on my way out, but they were inside when I came back by.

On today's run, I was again distracted, later, by a dead ruby-throated hummingbird in someone's driveway.

On today's run, I had to run past a house where a loose dog menaced me several months ago. My partner picked me up, two miles from the house because I was so shaken my knees were weak. He let the dog's owner know that the dog needed to be kept locked up. It didn't bite me, but was forcing me off the road, its hackles raised and head down. I didn't realize how much an incident with a dog I had while I still lived in Laramie had impacted me until these barking dogs made my heart race and my stomach knot up.

On today's run, Saturday's deerfly bit itched so bad I could feel it up my arm and into my shoulder. I finally gave in and dragged a fingernail across the welt to open it. 

On today's run, I ran as slow as I could, so that I wouldn't have to stop and walk after the hills during my run intervals, like the last run.

On today's run, I planned ahead for the turn in the road where the heat and humidity both crash into me for a quarter mile. I forgot about the large field that seems to always foster a breeze. 

On today's run, something else bit me on the wrist. It's much smaller than a deerfly bite.

On today's run, the humidity was under 50% and that seems to have made a world of difference. I was able to drink more water while I ran and I wasn't at all dizzy when I got home.

Today's run was the first run of my eleventh week of running. I'm supposed to be able to run 6 miles in 5 more runs. But today I only ran 4 and a half. I'm slow. I'm having a tough time focusing, these last couple of weeks, on any more than one, small thing at a time. Today it was today's run.


In which our heroine bangs her head against the wall again and expects it not to hurt, again.

“Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives.” ~ Cheryl Strayed as Dear Sugar

I've been trying to really think hard on this one. What is the consciousness I bring to bear on my life? What story do I write, and to what end?

Of course, all the thinking is just another way of putting off the writing. When I write, I sit curled up upon myself, hunched over a notebook or a computer. I protect the words like they are my belly. When I finish, I'm convinced they are over-wrought or unimportant. I start calling lifelines, in the hopes that someone can read what I've written and tell me the truth. Sometimes, it feels like a kind of ripping when I hit save and close the file. Sometimes it's like the moment between the firecracker being launched and the explosion of sparks. Not always, of course. Sometimes, I'm just writing about walking. Sometimes ceci est un véritable pipe.

But it's hard. And when everything else is hard, too, I often give in to the murky middle distance and don't write.  

Banksy's "This is a pipe."

Banksy's "This is a pipe."

Fear has always been my great motivator. Fear of embarrassment, fear of falling, fear of being last, fear of being wrong or wronged, fear of being ignored or abandoned. Not all of these are fears which serve me, but they have almost all inspired action. My fear of failure, on the other hand keeps me stuck. I'm not unique in this. I have no useful insight.

I have failed a lot in the last two years. I have also succeeded some, but my book isn't written, despite having had a year in which to do it. I don't have a home, or job, or anything with long-term potential, despite being nearly two years out of my degree, despite pursuing long-term options, long-term goals. Even my car needs work before she can carry me wherever I'm headed next. It is hard to get up in the morning under the weight of all that, it is hard to fall asleep in its shadow. It is hard to write. 

There are so many things I want to write. I carry the stories of people, places, and things with me. My dreams feature boxes and bags I am not supposed to lose sight of, creatures and people I need to look after, a clock, always running down. This is one of the many anxieties I live with: that all of these birds and people are counting on me and I am letting them down every day that I don't write. I am so terrified of suffering that ripping in this temporary space that will disappear behind me in just a couple of months like so many other places, whether I'm whole or not. I pace around my notebook like it's a snapping turtle. 

Last spring was more difficult than this summer, for a few reasons. But it wasn't entirely different. And the spring before that. Those last two years I was saved in the eleventh hour and this spring, too, I was granted at least a few months reprieve. I'm still applying for residencies and fellowships, though more than a year has passed since I got anything other than a no (I am trying to keep going in the face of that, too). I want to teach, but I can't afford a move just to adjunct. I've been trying to make online teaching a viable option, but so far, it's still just a maybe. If I get some other job, how do I make myself a more attractive candidate for a tenure track job down the line? There are other ways to teach, am I being too short-sighted? Is going back to school the best answer? Is academia even the best place? Around and around. 

All this when it feels like my writing is on the verge of finding its audience. I tell myself to write now and worry about the rest later. But, come on. The rest isn't just bells and whistles. It's the horse and the buggy and the farm. It's not just me and a backpack; it's me and a 14 foot moving truck packed tight. It's me and 18 boxes of books and two beds (one for guests). It's me and 4 boxes of photos, drawing, notebooks, papers, ticket stubs, love notes, newspaper clippings, magazines. It's me and 4 giant space bags full of yarn. It's me and a horse skull, a turtle shell, rocks from all over the world. It's me and a lemon tree. I would never, ever claim to be without baggage. 

I miss so many things about living somewhere for more than a "stay." I miss learning the ins and outs of a town. I miss the inspiration of commuting by bus and the way a block or a neighborhood slowly changes from a cluster of anonymous houses to the homes of people I know. I miss watching gardens, buildings, and projects start small and then flourish. I miss having ties to the community (too much Law and Order). I miss being someone that people stop by to see. I miss stopping by. I miss planting actual roots. I miss tending to. 

Maybe if I reformat the table of contents once more or remove the epigrams?

Maybe if I reformat the table of contents once more or remove the epigrams?

Still and yet and now, I cannot envision a next step that is anything other than temporary. My boxes have four moves worth of notes on them. They've torn and been taped and torn again. Ceci n'est pas une métaphore. I have too much shit to keep packing packing packing and carrying over so many thresholds—but it's the only home I have, so I can't part with a damn thing. I'm beginning to wonder how much longer I can take it. How many more years of looming homelessness and joblessness? What is this thing I bring to bear that is so much more important than my comfort, my well-being, my mental health? What do I need to do?

It is too simple to say, just write. Or maybe it isn't and I'm just making it all too hard. I make most things harder than they need to be. But more and more I find that I need security and routine to do my best work. Is that a failure of character? How do I manifest those things? Am I supposed to find a way to produce without them? How do I carve a path forward without these answers?

New book reviews and an upcoming course on flash nonfiction in July!

I am not reading as much as I wanted to. I am not writing as much as I wanted to. What am I doing as much as I wanted to? Well, loving, running, cooking good food. I'm doing the best I can while I can.

That said, I did finish two books this week. I recommend them both for totally different reasons. More on that below.

I'm also teaching a workshop on flash nonfiction at ApiaryLit in July. I will be focusing on readings, discussions, and prompts that center around lyric, hybrid, and experimental forms of the essay, from numbered lists to webcomics to playable essays to borrowed forms. We will be using an independent press book as an optional text (and the press has offered a discount for students), and I am collecting guest-author prompts from several of the writers whose work we will be reading. These are some of my favorite kinds of essays, and also my favorite kind of generative work, so the class should be a lot of fun. If it sounds like your jam, or if you know someone who might enjoy this course, please send them to the course page for more info and to sign up: Flash Essays on the Edge: lyric, hybrid and experimental forms, July 2015

In other great news, my chapbook, Ologies, has been featured all week on Sundress Publications' blog feature "Best Dressed." You can read selections from the chapbook in the following posts: 

There will be one more post & excerpt tomorrow. If you liked what you read, you can buy the book at Etchings Press or for a little bit longer, from me. Details on the second option can be found here on the "News and About" page.


Richard Siken's Crush was recommended to me by Javier Zamora. Javier is an amazing poet and smart as hell, and I tried to buy every book of poetry that he recommended to me. I haven't been sorry yet. Crush came out in 2005, and I am amazed it wasn't just last week. The frantic, desperate narrator of these poems is an intoxicating persona. Reading these poems, one is crushed by infatuation, crushed by disillusionment, crushed by love that is both unattainable and imperfect. These poems are breakneck and also stuck in stasis: like a bloodthirsty mosquito frozen in amber, but still impossibly able to bite. You will fall into a page or several pages and minutes, hours later, look up and the world you know will be slow (and steady)  by comparison. But something unhinged will linger; these lines linger like mosquito bites, itching away at repetitive days and reliable small talk with dreams of manic, frustrated, breathless passion and conviction.

From Crush: "Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out."

VERDICT: How do you not already have this book?

This collection of short stories and essay-like prose pieces served as part of my preparation for September's trip to Chile. I am going to Chile with a man I love and we will admire big heads, drink wine and eat ceviche and octopus, and travel to nearly the tip of the planet together. It is an adventure that shimmers in the middle distance like a star I'm moving toward. I've never traveled with a partner in crime. I'm trying not to have unrealistic expectations for how great it will be, but I have the sneaking suspicion that between the curiosity, wonder, and openness to new experiences that we both share and the curious wonder of Chile, it will be SO AMAZING. (Plus, I will get a chance to talk about Condors in Santiago.) 

But enough about me. I wanted to get to know Chile. We have two guidebooks that have been helpful, but I wanted to get to know more about Chile. Enter this collection. It probably isn't the best representative of the breadth of Chile's literary landscape, and the editors even lament that certain key writers couldn't be included because their works didn't fit the strict requirements they'd designed for the collection, but it's more than Neruda's love poems, which is where I was before. The collection seeks to "[evoke] the diversity of the country's landscape and the complexity of its recent history." The selected pieces speak to geography and politics, though both (often) with beautifully oblique references. I was especially drawn in because much of the writing in the book hadn't been published in English before. 

The ear of the curator is strong throughout the collection. This is good and bad, because it hints at a gigantic iceberg's worth of other works out there. But I am glad for (even) this rigid selection of works. I want to make the most of this trip in a number of ways. I don't want to miss a thing.

VERDICT: If you're going to Chile or if you are interested in Chile, this is a great place to start. But read Pablo Neruda's love letters, too. And (next up), Travels in a Thin Country. And a history book, and more collections. Start here, is what I'm saying, but don't stop here.