On Jessica Bozek's The Tales

I just devoured Jessica Bozek's The Tales. It's available from Les Figues Press

I am not that great at writing off-the-cuff book reviews, so I will be brief (and hopefully galvanizing). The Tales is a slim volume full of prose poems/fragments/stories that speak in a number of voices about violence, victimization, and myth-making. It traces the songs, poems, stories that surround the aftermath of a terrible crime, committed as an act of war, in some dystopian perhaps-future.

The reader gets to hear from the Lone Survivor of the atrocity, but also the tailors, architects, engineers and claims adjusters who must attend to the life of the survivor. The dogs, birds, and a chorus of dead also speak on the before, during, and after. Bozek includes notes at the end of the book to trace some of the scholarship and artistic inspiration that has informed all of the tales that make up The Tales. She borrows from and is moved to create by works as disparate as critical analyses of war memorials, Ojibwa and Odawa tales, and a wide range of 20th century art and poetry. 

As the central narrative of the Lone Survivor becomes revealed through the mouths of various perspectives, Bozek investigates the language that victims and perpetrators alike use to make sense of (and attempt to forget) the aftermath of violence. From ordinary objects–family photographs, sweaters that unravel, old batteries, and lightbulbs–to the remnants of destroyed art and architecture, an annihilated nation is brought into reality, and the Lone Survivor’s story is simultaneously documented and invalidated, becoming “a memorial that will disintegrate over time, gray and fray as most of the dead did not have a chance to.”
— Les Figues Press

I committed a long time ago to working my way through the growing pile of friends' and recommended indie press books that I add to each AWP. This is the first of what I hope will be regular installments. 

Two days, sickly-gutly

There are a lot of great things about being in a foreign country. There are the glimpses of other cultures, through food, music, clothes, etc.—and the chance to connect that such glimpses offer. There is the way that foreignness, and one's response to it, can provide insight into the ways and direction one needs to grow. Even just getting around in a new place is a time to learn—about more than just how to read a timetable that's half in Hindi, but about how easily we can accommodate and adapt, if adaptation is the goal.

One thing that is not great, however, is being sick.  

By Friday evening, I had a definite sore throat and headache. But I wasn't sure much of that wasn't from the dust and fumes from the motorcycle.

My view for much of the last two days

My view for much of the last two days

When I woke up Saturday still feeling off, I stayed in bed for most of the day. I left my room only to get a late lunch at the proper restaurant across the street: butter chicken. It was my first non-veg since touch down, but I felt crummy and thought that the luxury of one of my favorite dishes might help.

This morning, I was to hike to the highest point in Sanjay Gandhi Nat'l Park, with staff and members of BNHS. But when I woke up, my cough and headache and aches had reached a point of more than just annoyance. On top of which was some revenge for the chicken. Nothing terrible, but all signs pointed to not spending a hot afternoon in the woods. I called the tour guide, so he wouldn't worry about whether or not Indiana Bridget Jones had gotten lost on the train, and crawled back in bed. 

Once the shops were open, I staggered around the neighborhood looking for a chemist. All of the 'green cross'ed shop fronts were shuttered ... Sunday. One shopkeeper directed me to the nearby hospital, which seemed excessive. I wandered back to the hotel, sweating and a bit woozy, and asked the kid at the desk. 

His boss said, "I am sending you to the hospital, then." To which I objected, weakly but clearly. I don't need a hospital, I said. Just cough syrup and some aspirin. Turns out the hospital has an open-to-the-public chemist's.  Even on Sunday. 

I stumbled back down the block and got a bottle of Ayurvedic cough syrup (which seems to have taken the rattle out of my cough) and, after trying many words related to pain and aspirin, a pain reliever and fever reducer: diclofenac. Of all the NSAIDs in all the gin-joints in the world, amiright? (In case you don't know what I'm talking about: http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/03/scientists-call-spain-ban-vulture-killing-drug )

Anyway, I've spent the rest of the day sipping a weird minty, cough syrupy syrup, popping deadly-to-vultures pills, coughing, sneezing, etc.  

And it's no fun. 

I wandered out later for some food and heard the singing in a nearby temple. Saw many men in white robes and ornate tilaka (red marks on the forehead in a U shape or lines). The vegetable sellers were out on their mats. 

But I got tired and overheated so fast. My guts are still unsteady, and I keep busting into sneezing fits. I've been trying to work, but I'm just drowsy as hell. So instead, I've slept off and on all day. 

There were some bright spots. One was the banana lassi, another was a bunch of attentive texts from a friend and the virtual hugs on FB. Thanks, y'all, really.  

So that is all the news today. I'm hoping to see or do something more interesting tomorrow. 

Mumbai to Alibaug

Today I went in search of critically endangered birds. The Asian White-backed vulture was once the most populous raptor in the world. Now less than 1% are left... All because of what amounts to a small aspirin taken for aches and pains. Many of you who know me already know this story, and I hope to tell it live soon, so I won't spoil the punchline here.

Suffice it to say that the birds are now rare. For just the slim chance of seeing one of the closest 19-20 individuals, I took a catamaran for an hour at dawn to Manwa and then a bus for another hour to Alibaug. I was (thankfully!) accompanied by a BNHS staff member and killer guide, Nandishkor. Once in Alibaug, we were met by Nilesh, a forest officer. After a breakfast of dosas, which I ate with my hands (once I could see how it's done), Nilesh put Nandishkor on a bus and me on the back of his Honda motorcycle and we wove through a few towns, over hill and dale, for a little more than another hour, to the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary gates. 

Were we there yet? OH NO, FRIENDS. There was still another hour of leapfrogging Nandishkor and I on the bike to get to the vulture restaurant deep inside the sanctuary. Occasionally, I'd be left somewhere with the instructions, "Watch out for scorpios, they have many nests," or, "If you see a wild boar, climb up onto this rocks, quickly." Here's where I mention that yes, I am still sick. Specifically aches, pains, sore throat, and headache. So. Dusty roads perched on the back of a bouncing bike, through clouds of petrol or midge flies. 

The restaurant was empty. We left Namdishkor behind (because Nilesh had been trying to ditch him for the last hour, which made me equally uncomfortable and resentful and frankly just fucking WEARY, you know? But I digress in a country with very different gender dynamics than what I would consider, say, optimal) and rode another 20 minutes in, disembarked, and clambered 750 feet or so down a steep hillside (full of dramatic parabolic spiderwebs—says Nilesh, "Ah yes, these are poisonous spiders—no, sorry, venomous") to a basalt rock outcropping with a fantastic view of a super steep and majestically wide valley. Nilesh, after lamenting the unsatisfactory matrimonial situation in which he finds himself, pointed out a tree that juts out from the hill, a couple hundred yards away. As if on cue, a white-backed vulture stepped out of the tree's foliage and sat on a branch in plain (though too far for my camera to capture) sight. 

Okay, I am trying to see the good in everyone now, if you catch me, when across the valley, Nilesh points out two more circling above the tree line. 

Three. Of the 19-20 observed individuals within 100 miles of Mumbai. Can you believe it? Yesterday was good too, there were monkeys and barking deer and butterflies—so my luck, as they say, is good. But yesterday has nothing on watching that bird sitting on that branch. 

But, my friends, that is not all. After the bumpiest, dustiest ride back to the gate, we were served a lunch full of many small scoops of various dals and curries by the park's cadre of women, which we ate with chapatis and our hands. I'm getting better at it. Then, Nilesh took Nandishkor back to the bus station before returning for me. My ass objected to getting back on the bike, I don't mind saying. 

Nilesh, the pinkest face in the world, and Nandishkor 

Nilesh, the pinkest face in the world, and Nandishkor 

We took off down the road (faster, trying to catch the last catamaran to Mumbai, spoiler: we failed), when I saw something slink off the road in front of us. I might have shrieked. 

You guys. It slinked its low, pale body and dragged its long FURRED tail across the road and into the trees and was gone. 

The rest of the ride back was a terrible, migraine-inducing sensory overload of two more hours on the back of that bike (how brave am I? let's take a moment to ponder), which meant two more hours of fumes, speed bumps, potholes, flashing headlights, honking horns, and ended with not a one hour catamaran trip, but a three or four (I lost count) hour overland bus ride... I hurt all over and I feel even more sick than when I left.

But who the hell cares, I saw the vultures and a leopard.

Lovely, but for all the venom, poison, fangs, and claws

Lovely, but for all the venom, poison, fangs, and claws

Christmas Eve in Mumbai

The first thing you should know is that few people care that it is Christmas Eve, and that's okay. The drivers honk just as loudly and as often at one another, the lines move with the same frustrating slowness and corruption (SIR NO CUTTING OKAY PLEASE), and the odds are still just as good that you will tip one man too much and another too little—and that the shame they make you feel will ruin your appetite.  

But, if you are lucky, you will be taken far across the city, down a tree-lined road that requires permission to enter, past the bright and hollow façades of Film City, to a small centre in the forest. There, a young woman in a beautiful wine -red salwar kameez and turquoise scarf will take you on a nature walk. You will see a dozen butterflies, macaques, spotted and barking deer (the latter, you will even, what luck! hear bark), a paradise flycatcher, a gray hornbill, drongos, tailor birds, a forest chelotis, and a skink. You will imagine leopards watching as you both move through the trees, up and down the stone steps, in and out of clearings. 

You will wake up the next morning, and it will be Christmas Day and you will be sick—not from last night's dinner, as you'd worried, but from people, your throat sore, head aching. It will feel like it does every Christmas that you are far away from however or wherever you make your home these days, which is to say, a bit sad and a bit adventurous. 

The skies at dusk are full of house crows and kites (both paper and avian). You've seen street dogs, and more rarely, cats. You've seen alleys literally filled to the windows with moldering garbage. You've seen an eight story building framed in hand-tied wooden scaffolding, men crawling across the poles with trowels, scrapers. You've seen the Arabian Sea and the dozens of young lovers perched on the low retaining wall along the edge of Back Bay.

The rooflines are full of only pigeons and house sparrows, now. You've been here for three days and haven't seen a single vulture. At the conservation headquarters, when asked how long it will take to bring them back to the city (from their own brink—such a word can describe so many modes of desperation—of extinction), a specialist in bird habitats will tell you, "I think it is impossible. They are gone for my lifetime, and maybe forever."  

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MUMBAI

In other news: what the hell was I thinking?! And also: omgomgogomgogo 

That's as eloquent as I can maybe be right now. I just wrote this whole post and lost it (thanks, terrible new squarespace app!)  I'm so weak and wobbled with exhaustion, I can't recreate it. 

Some thoughts: this is a city full of car horns, ceiling fans, and makeshift roofing materials. Also, plastic feed sacks full of everything from garbage to laundry to who knows what. Also cows tied to bike racks. Some mangy dogs. Crappy wifi. Insane I mean INSANE driving like you wouldn't believe. What does "Please OK Honk!" mean? It's on the back of all the trucks. Loud crows, brightly dressed women & drab men, soot stained stucco towering impossibly over narrow alleys. Such a haze. Such impossible navigation. What was I thinking? People have been kind. More later, after sleep. 

This city is like delirium come to life. 

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Brooklyn to Dubai

Taking advantage of a few moments of free wifi to send a dispatch from the gate. My last flight lasted 11 hours, but took almost exactly 24. 

It brings to mind a terrible movie AND a poem by Dylan Thomas. Don't worry, no spoilers here. 

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I slept a lot on the plane, I think. Or else the hours passed in half sleep. I read a bit about the teaching of poems. I knit an inch of sock ribbing. I drank a small bottle of terrible Australian white wine (I'd asked for red, but the emirates flight attendants are so polished, I was loathe to correct even this small mistake.) The frittata was terrible. The terminal glittered and stank of leather and perfume—duty free.

onward. 

Friends and a crush of humans

I love coming to New York City. I love seeing my friends and gushing and chattering and sharing—and I know some of the best, kindest, most generous souls on the planet. I'm rich with these people. 

I also love walking past the bright windows full of everything—you need buttons? large rolls of foam? owl-shaped candles? flip-flops in December? $300 ripped up jeans? necklaces made to look like Petri dish cultures? tacos next to bulgogi next to artisanal donuts next to lobster bisque? want it all topped with a star? I love walking and looking and overhearing conversations.  

"Lady, no. Real cashmere would cost you hunnerts of dollars.  This is ten. C'mon, whaddaya think?"

"My boyfriend's career counselor said he should go into taxidermy. I'm totally getting him this." 

But also, sometimes you turn a corner and for a whole block you only smell sewage. (Don't say Just wait. I know it's coming like gangbusters.) Sometimes some guy is flipping out waiting for a train, screaming obscenities, and no one notices. Sometimes a person has a whole campsite under some scaffolding and a cardboard sign taped up next to it. Sometimes the sidewalk is so dotted and over-dotted with black gum spots, I wonder if it's adding a bounce to my step, or if I should walk faster, lest I stick as  a dinosaur in tar. 

Sometimes all the shoulder checks weary me.  

But then look! Cupcakes shaped like that weird yellow cartoon thing with one eye. Look: Benetton half off! Uniqlo! Look! The Rockefeller tree! Look at the new silhouettes for winter! Look at how those dumb boots are back! Look, real chestnuts roasting over a... Well, over a food cart's electric burner, anyway.  

What a wonder. The city rooster woo-wooo-woo-wooos, the earth quakes every 7 minutes, steam slips out of grates as if sucked by invisible straws. There's always a saxophone playing somewhere underground. There's always a better deal around the corner on a "cashmere" scarf. 

Today, I ate pulled pork eggs Benedict, Korean ramen, and some fancy mini donuts. Tomorrow, the world.  I drank til I was buzzed. I laughed and walked and bought a book (of course*). 

Tomorrow, I depart for parts unknown (to me). Yes, I'm excited. Yes, I'm freaking out. Yes, in a good way.  

Restaurants at Chelsea Market 

Restaurants at Chelsea Market 

* Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: fragments

Hamilton to Albany to NYC

I'm watching the rusty blush of Hudson valley leaf cover and brush fly past the train window. I learned decades ago that sitting backwards is supposed to minimize motion sickness—is this even true? 

The russet is punctuated by straw yellow reeds, at the water's edge, with even paler pampas-looking feathery clumps. The muddy lake water reflects the slate sky. Ocassional geese paddle against the wind.  

Im going to have to pay $200 in parking fees to get my car back next month. I'm an idiot and didn't verify the myth of free parking that I'd heard from a colleague. Maybe she knows a guy. Maybe she delights in imagining our horrified faces pinching up in disbelief after the two hour drive. Maybe she's thinking of some other train station, somewhere else altogether. Two hundred. This is when I like to say, "If that's the worst thing that happens..."  

What color can best describe all these bare trees? It's a brownish grayish light umber, perhaps, bleached trunks stippling into the sky like a kind of fur. 

How could you not love taking the train?  The rattle, the sway, the three reports from the engine car at each crossing. My car is not the "quiet car," but I'm blissed out over its incidental hush.

The drive to Albany started out all freezing rain and slick roads. I was stuck behind a snow plow for some excruciating number of miles. The thruway was a vision of black, ice-free asphalt, when it appeared. I was never so happy to pay a toll. 

Poughkeepsie station. Few board, and we rumble away.  

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Tonight, I'll be among friends. I sure hope there will be somewhere in NYC to see Christmas lights. 

Just taking notes.  

ONE

Over on Brainpickings (one of only a few sites I subscribe to that aren't run by friends), there is a great post on How to be Alone. Here's the piece that struck me the hardest.

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

[…]

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

[…]

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

[…]

We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

This weekend, a man said to me that he thought I was being disingenuous for wanting a relationship without being "willing to sacrifice anything for it." By anything, he meant specifically my career and vocation--why should a guy bother to like me, he suggested, if I'm just going to move away? There are a lot of things wrong with that statement, and so I got angry. He said my anger was cute. Other exasperating exchanges occurred. We parted ways not too much later. 

Concession is a tricky business. So far, I've been unwilling to make many. Not for long anyway. (I try not to expect them, either. But we are all imperfect animals.) It's just no way to live, in pieces like that. There are consequences for that behavior, to be sure, and some of them are positive and some negative.

Yet. I hold out hope that it doesn't have to always be a matter of who wears the leg irons. That somewhere in the world is a door #3, that's my optimism. I don't really know what I'm getting at... Just that it was nice to walk away, into the cold night, fueled by a bit righteous self-preservation.  

Goddamn did the frost feel great in my lungs.


Gettysburg

My trip was cut drastically short by the fear-mongering of everyone who has heard of the coming snowpacalypse.

Here are two pictures from my afternoon at the park. More on my visit another time. 

A jubilant crowd of teasels

A jubilant crowd of teasels

In almost the exact center of the sky over Round Top, there is... a tiny black dot. Or, a vulture.

In almost the exact center of the sky over Round Top, there is... a tiny black dot. Or, a vulture.

I'm driving to Philadelphia in the morning, against the advice of every weatherman in the world. Good thing this whole trip got started late on account of getting the snow tires put on before I left, eh? Think good traction-full thoughts. 

Road trip

I've had two minor epiphanies in the last couple of days. Now, I'm in a crummy Econo-Lodge in Scranton, Pennsylvania watching the news from Ferguson. Earlier this evening, I sat in a smoky, local bar while locals commented on the news teasers about the upcoming grand jury announcement. On the surface, and acknowledging that they recognized an outsider in their midst (my LOVE WYOMING shirt helped, as did my inability to pronounce "yinz"), I would propose that the bar patrons and I have divergent hopes re: indictment. 

My first epiphany: I don't always like hanging out with myself. I mean, that's not the epiphany, I've known that for ages. But I've been trying to go easier on me. I've been trying to like how I am, rather than fill my mind's ear with oughts and shoulds. I sing a constant song to myself of my faults. I re-think every terrible conversation I've ever had, and every bad decision I've made, daily. It's hard to admit. I know it isn't helpful. I know it doesn't serve me. That said, what I realized the other day, is that I like myself the most when I'm walking. Unless it's dark and there are leering and looming dudes around, walking is when I have the least amount of anxiety and it's when my critical voice quiets. I think I've been frustrated in the past, because I can't seem to change the things that voice says. Maybe the real first step is learning what interior silence feels like. 

My second epiphany: This is even smaller, but maybe also bigger, like a tiny yellow warbler in the hand. I was talking to a friend about my grandmother and I realized a couple more ways that she and I are alike. She was often unhappy; she traveled to escape; she seemed frustrated with her attempts to express herself creatively. I am often unhappy; I roam as a way to escape. What is any migration but an escape, enacted over and over, in the hope of finding sweet release on the farther shore? I wish I had started really writing sooner, because I wonder what she would've thought about it (though I imagine that no matter what she really thought, it would've sounded critical and probably even a little mean--I learned to judge harshly from her, too). I have made very different decisions in my life, so my writing is finding an audience in ways that her photographs and other works never did. 

These tiny, sharp stones, these sand grains, irritate. Irritation can inspire madness. But wait, because madness can look like a pearl.

I won't see the mountain of words tomorrow. I trust that people I admire will say very passionate and smart things and I look forward to reading those things upon my return to town at the end of the week. I look forward to finding, in the words and conversations, ways to actively help change this terrible, terrible system.

If all goes well, tomorrow, I will be looking for birds.

 

In today's sad-bastard-sing-along

It hasn't been a great week, guys. A few folks rejected my work, an essay isn't turning out at all, I had a very upsetting situation at work (that seems better now, but was scary), and someone I spent a long time liking... well, he just doesn't like me like that. These are things that happen. And sometimes they happen all at once when we are weak with longing or uncertainty, when we are far from home in every sense of the world, when even the birds in the morning sound like rusty gates. 

My mother used to give me warm water heaped with table salt to gargle when I had a raw, sore throat. She said the sting was just the tingle from the salt. My grandmother would pour the hottest water on a washcloth for me to press against my mosquito bites. She would say "Oh, itch-itch-itch!" as I screwed my face up in the agony of all that histamine coming to the surface of my skin. The pain was the first part of healing, and it was never too much to stand. 

Right now, something stings. Something itches. Like a sore spot on your tongue that you can't stop from worrying against your teeth, I lean into the discomfort to better know the shape of it. I am afraid of many things, but not, it would seem, the indignity of my sorrow laid bare.

And yet but so: it's snowing beautifully, and the visa office has sent word that they have my application in hand. Someone thanked me for my help, and someone else said they hope they can work with me someday. When I've asked for help, I've gotten it. I mean to say that it hasn't all been terrible. I have blessings, which I try to count often and generously. But, I'm sad. I doubt my resilience. I'm supposed to change here; I get that. I even know in which directions I need to grow. Still, this ache feels buried so deep in my bones, I don't know how I'd even get the salt or heat to it.

Walking

I often say I like hiking, but I almost always mean walking.

Walking is slowish. It's not a stroll, but it's rarely as much of a workout as I'd like, either. Walking accommodates stopping better than hiking. Looking. Appraising. So often hikers seem in a hurry to get to the halfway point or the lunch stop. A hike is better for seeing vistas and untrammeled etc, I'll grant, but a walk seems to offer me more peace.

I can walk in a neighborhood—but what I like best is walking in the slightly or mostly wilder edges. Green belts are good. Unincorporated roadsides. Wooded municipal or municipal-adjacent parks.

Tree tops at sunset. 

Tree tops at sunset. 

Last week, while doing the little 2 mile loop of the Chenango Canal trail that's near my place, a woman stepped out of the trees with a hawk on her arm. I was too shy to take a picture. It looked like a Swainson's but I was also too shy to confirm, so struck dumb was I by the sight of her and the bird. I can go a whole weekend without talking to anyone. I get awkward.  

A man at the bar on Friday said he was going hiking on Sunday. I considered asking to come along, and then he explained further: a 14-miler with two summits. I know these hikers: a race to the top, then a race down to beat the dark. Instead of "putting myself out there" like I guess I'm supposed to, I said, "Wow. Have a great time!" 

Another guy seemed more like the stay-in type, which I also like, but by the third time he had to say, "Allow me to explain how you're wrong..." to me, or one of my friends, I just sort I wandered away. It's nuts out there

I've deactivated my Twitter now, too. I tried to be disciplined about it, but I'd gotten to just staring at the feed like it was a party I hadn't been invited to but could watch from beyond the gate. Means I'll just have to actually write the rest of this book once I finish the job applications. The tally so far is eight tenure-track applications and one visiting professorship done. By tonight, I'll finish another visiting and a one-year post-doc.

Another time I will write about my worst month, last month, but for now I'd just like to mention how frustrating it is that "applying for jobs" gets so little systemic or organizational support. Everyone in academia realizes it is time-consuming and aggravating; the joke is that it is at least a part-time job of it own. But we're all supposed to fit it in on-top of, or next to, our actual  jobs. I'm lucky to have room in my schedule, but my virtual and actual cohort are going nuts with despair and slipped deadlines. Why doesn't everyone accept the same dossier service? Why isn't there a "universal application" that I can fill out once, and then allow schools to pull from, to fill in their VB forms? 

I wish my letter could just say, "I will work hard for you; you'll be glad you picked me."

Hug your on-the-market academics, is what I'm saying. It's even worse out there than the crowd at the bar.

When I despair, I'm also saying, I try and remember to get out and take a walk. 

How to be okay

It's okay to be depressed, as long as pills or meditation or your dog or hard work is making you better, a little every day. 

It's okay to be lonely as long as no one else has to hear about it. 

It's okay to be scared about the future, because everyone is, duh. It's okay because it's just life.

It's okay to be nervous, but not so nervous, all the damn time. Sheesh. 

It's okay to be mad, but only if you're going to let it go eventually. The most infuriating people will tell you about how you'll make yourself sick if you don't forgive everyone who's ever hurt you. Even if they aren't sorry? Even if they aren't sorry. 

It's okay to cry, if you've got a good reason. Otherwise, stop it, or I'll give you a reason. 

It's okay to be "crazy" if you're beautiful. 

It's okay to be mean, if you're "broken."

I stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk. I'd been crying about something. She grabbed my arm, above the elbow, to steady me. "Are you okay?" "It's fine. I'm okay."

"Is everything okay over here?" he asked, shining his flashlight over us. We shielded our eyes from the glare. "It's okay, sir. We're okay."

I grabbed her arm with both hands, harder than I meant to. "Please stop asking me if I'm okay. Please? I'm trying to keep it together and being reminded of how not okay I look every 5 minutes isn't helping me." 

"We could just go buy something. That always makes it okay. That always makes us feel better."

"Okay. I want you to count backwards from 100."

"I hope I was okay."

"You're going to feel a pinch, okay?"

She handed me a receipt, "Okay. You're all set." "Is this it?" "What do you mean, honey?" "Well, when I got married, it was a big fancy piece of paper, a certificate." "Yeah. This is different than that." She laughed, not unkindly. When I got back from my lunch break, the only coworker I'd told what I was doing asked if I was okay. "Yeah. I'm okay. It's fine. It was easy."

Has anyone ever written a song about being okay?

"Is this okay?" "Yes." "How about this?" "Fuck yes."

"It was okay. Just okay, but you know, at least okay."

from nothing is okay

As the weekend draws to a close

Checking in. 

It has been a tough weekend, to be honest. I feel lonely. I was lonely before, but I didn't have to think about it much. I didn't have to think about the staggering expectations that I have set myself to need to meet, else perish. And how it will have to be done on my own. Of course, one knows this. But one resists.

It looks like this: After all the conversation is gone, after all of the like buttons and share buttons and thumbs ups are gone, there's just me and the work. It's what I needed. But it ain't easy like Sunday morning. 

Bill Withers in 1971, playing "Ain't No Sunshine" (which is better than Lionel Ritchie any day of the week)

***

I was thinking about the gap, the chasm, between how I think I'm doing--whether I'm working hard enough, or trying hard enough--and what others tell me they think about how I'm doing. People I admire and trust tell me that I am working hard. If I try to lay out some sort of subjective measure of my own, it is hard to logically argue. Things are getting done. And yet, this gnawing, nagging insistence that I will never get to where I am supposed to be at this rate lingers. Actually, lingers is too lovely a word. It menaces, like a mad dog on a weak chain. 

No one's days are easy. And if I wrote half as much as I worried... yes. Why do the givers of advice always assume that the problem is a lack of information? We all have something growling at us from the end of a chain. 

So. This silly, angry, buck-toothed, growling mutt of the fear of failure won't cut me any slack. Which is to say that I won't cut me any slack. Not an inch, you know? I'd just ask for a yard. It was high time for a more sensible voice to prevail. I looked up that one Sugar column. You know the one. It's the one I carry around my living room emblazoned on a coffee cup most mornings. I say it. Write like a Motherfucker

Sugar/Cheryl says to Elissa, the aspiring writer

I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.
— Dear Sugar #48, by Cheryl Strayed

I have to work. I have to get my "ass on the floor." Like Elissa, I'm up too high and down too low to get anything done. All the while wringing my hands about how hard I'm trying. But it's like I've got a huge stick and I'm using every ounce of strength and every joule of energy to beat my car with it. It isn't going anywhere with a dead battery, no matter how strong I get lifting and lowering that stick. 

BOOK REPORT: All this to say, the first half of my proposal is in "very good shape," according to my counsel on such matters. But the second half, the chapter synopses, is still not working. She has suggested, and I've agreed, that what I need now is at least one finished chapter and a detailed outline of a second chapter--and from that we can see how best to describe the whole of it.  Because, really, it has all been conjecture until now. Little ragged bits of a book, a ton of big talk about a book, hard thinking about the need for and structure of a book. An emperor's new book. So, I need to get down to the earth, naked among the shed feathers and stripped bones. My nerves. My bile. My mind. Onward. 

Quitting

Curious how long nicotine social media stays in your body? What types of nicotine social media withdrawal symptoms you'll have? Want to find out how many tobacco-free real world days it will take for your body to recuperate and no longer be at risk of the dangers of smokingsocial media?

Click through the slideshow to see a "quit smoking social media" timeline of health benefits.

...

...

20 Minutes After You Quit

The effects of quitting start to set in immediately. Less than 20 minutes after your last cigarette post, your heart rate will already start to drop back towards normal levels.

Two Hours After You Quit

After two hours without a cigarette like, your heart rate and blood pressure will have decreased to near normal levels. Your peripheral circulation may also improve. The tips of your fingers and toes may start to feel warm. NicotineSocial media withdrawal symptoms usually start about two hours after your last cigarette post. Early withdrawal symptoms include:

  • intense cravings
  • anxiety, tension, or frustration
  • drowsiness or trouble sleeping
  • increased appetite

...

All this to say that I've been refreshing the hell outta ello and instagram and retweeting all sorts of nonsense. But, I got some things done. I'll get more things done.

Some recent publications

I am so fortunate to have found editors and readers who get what I'm trying to do. Hopefully readers, too, but I'm trying not to be greedy with my fortune.

You can read some recent work in the following places:

Passages North blog series, Writers on writing.

Thin Air magazine republished one of my favorite essays: Bird by Desert-light.

A lovely bit of roadkill over at Guernica's flash series, mirrored on PEN/America's flash series.

A book review on the ABA's blog (and also in the summer issue of Birding): Joy Kiser's America's Author Audubon.

And just before I split for New York, I wrote up a bit of news on Wyoming's Sage grouse problem for Science: Conservationists question sage grouse protection plans.

 

Conference diary: Bread Loaf / Orion Environmental Writers Workshop (day 1.5)

Oh man. 

Oh man.

So, today, I started the morning off with bird walk led by Chip Blake of Orion magazine, followed by a delightful breakfast among kindred writers, then a lecture about human population from Alan Weisman.  And THEN I had a vulture essay workshopped with Jane Brox and eleven engaged, articulate, and helpful readers. 

And then it was LUNCH TIME.

All of you people who have been to what they call "regular" Bread Loaf around here know what I'm talking about. But the beautiful green rolling hills and the towering clouds and the adirondack chairs that are sprinkled across campus in ones and twos and threes so you can just sit for a moment and practice the 5 minute reading you're going to give while looking out over a freaking amazing vista and etc etc. 

After lunch, I went to a craft class run by Rick Bass (only 22 books, no big deal--HA! HA!) and then took a brief respite to do some homework for tomorrow's workshop BECAUSE THIS WAS ALL JUST A TUESDAY.

And then I went to a small roundtable discussion with Joann Wyckoff who now knows more than she ever thought she needed to about vultures, and then I had roasted pork with mango chutney for dinner. 

And then, do you know what happened THEN? Camille Dungy pulled all of my tree-hugging heart meats out with an incredible poetry reading. She gets, like, +100 for saying "vulture" in her very first poem, and not sinking to the tired and incorrect "buzzard." She also read a poem featuring extinct birds and one where she spoke on behalf of the snail about the beauty of "underneathness."

DEAD.

Some memorable overheard moments: 

Last night, the Rick Bass gave a introductory reading and talk. Snippets included: "How about some beauty; how about some humor? No one has any answers: the world is burning." And: "The way we honor our elders is by writing great sentences."

(This one is actually from dinner last night): "Are you famous, or do I know you from Facebook?"

Rick Bass (via the craft talk on show-don't-tell) believes that adverbs are like a strange hand on your elbow, trying to tell you which direction to go. In other words they are bossy and a little creepy.

Also from Bass: "What's that word? Existential angst. Every one in this book has it. I mean, sparrows! 'Sparrows hopping aimlessly'? Tell us how you really feel about sparrows, Salter!"

Weisman got this line from someone else, but he told it to us: "There is no condom for consumption." He also spoke of the second most powerful thing that "we" could do to stem population growth: EDUCATE YOUNG WOMEN. (The first thing is to provide free birth control to whoever in the world wants it, but the second most important thing is to send girls to school.) #YesAllWomen (hashtag added)

Jane Brox told us that in research work, your obligation to your subject can get into a kind of  tension with your fascination with a subject.  For me, this means how much does the reader need to know about vultures vs how much do I know about vultures? 

She also said to read widely and tangentially on our topics because we are reading, not to populate the page with regurgitated facts, but to gain confidence on the page. 

Okay. The community of writers is also a thing, and I can't yet speak coherently about how great that is--I mean, people are walking around making jokes about speaking in latin names of species. They are writing books about feminist horse training, about mussels, about the socio-economic history of El Salvador, about farming and fly fishing, about mountains, community, and gardens. They are high school teachers and psychologists and social historians. They are brand freaking new to this and they have been working on this book for ten years now. They are journalists and technical writers and copy editors. They have never published anything and they were just a finalist for ______. 

You know one thing that sucks? It will be over in a week. Here's another drag: I am completely brain dead and exhausted on my feet and it is just now dark. And it is only the first day. Do you know who here knows I am writing about vultures? EVERYONE. Ha ha ha. I am so sorry, everyone. 

Moral of the story: As of day one, I hope they do this again, and I hope I can come back. And if they DO do this again, and you care at all about the tradition/leaders/direction/innovators of environmental writing, however you define "environmental," then I hope I see you there. 

WHOSE LIFE AM I LIVING RIGHT NOW?

On the Middlebury College campus, adirondack chairs sprout like dandelions. 

On the Middlebury College campus, adirondack chairs sprout like dandelions.