Seeking Smallness

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Elliot and Emily sometimes ask about my childhood.  Elliot enjoys my young fantasy of becoming a tiny person, and my secret wish to be a member of The Littles. Imagining myself to be the size of a fairy, minus the insect-like wings, was my great mental escape.  It was my dream to enter into my doll house, or take a vacation inside the stick shacks I made at the base of the cottonwood tree, where my knees and the soles of my bare feet would collect those sticky seed cases.

During our real world adventures visiting mountains or taking a rest at the edge of great bodies of water, it’s always that feeling of smallness that thrills my heart.  I think I would make a very good astronaut for that reason.  Vastness, endlessness, and then, a little something beautiful. The blue earth with swirling white clouds. The thought that there are people down there, tiny little people!  And I am one of them! I’m so small down there that I can’t even see me.

I am counter cultural in my thinking because of this.  When I discovered Etsy, I was thrilled because it meant that small was good, even preferable.  You didn’t have to try to be McDonald’s or Target.  You could just be tiny and that was cool.

When I write, it only works well when I talk to myself.  That’s how tiny I have to think.  It may seem selfish, but I really can’t write to entertain anyone except myself or the stories just don’t work.  And because of this, critique group experiences are absolute hell for me.  It’s like walking into a room where everyone else is clothed and I am naked.

It takes me a while to forget that I was naked in public.  I try to do a lot of covering afterwards. There’s a lot of obsessive behavior that happens.  A lot of building up of grand ideas, a lot of obsessive worrying about what comes next.

But for some reason, being here doesn’t feel that way.  I’m not so acutely aware that I’m even here in public. The internet is a mountain, and I am standing at the base.  Even if I were at the summit, it would afford the vision that I’m even smaller at the top than I was at the bottom.

I love the feeling of smallness.  The smallness afforded by travelling on an endless road that leads to a rock the size of a country.  You can do anything in all that space!  You can walk and walk and run, or climb all day, and bliss out with that pleasant feeling seeping through all of your muscles, the tired that carries you into the mist of untroubled sleep.

I am seeking that feeling of smallness when I write and when I travel.  Getting outside is the best feeling.  I recently learned that my grandmother was claustrophobic.  I never knew this about her.  But now we are connected in our shared dislike of small spaces.   Maybe she felt, as I do, that small spaces make one feel like Alice after eating the cake.  That feeling of being so tall you touch the ceiling?  Terrifying.  Sickening.  I wonder if people in power feel this way.  It must be traumatic to fill up the world with your voice.

Maybe this is why God whispers.

 

We once took a tour of the Arch of St. Louis and climbed into a little pod that carried us all the way to the top and down the other side through the inside.  Being in that tiny pod was not a good feeling.  Scratch that former statement about being a good astronaut.  While the idea of feeling small next to Earth would be fantasic, I could not take life inside a can.

 

 

 

A Poetic Encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye

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She loves mixtures of people.  She loves children and the way words weave themselves together, almost without effort.  She is a storyteller poet and a real-life, warm and wonderful human being.  She came to visit, and I was there in the room with my notebook and pencil, writing along with a master.  It was a cool spring day and I had been invited by a dear friend and mentor to sit in on a limited capacity workshop with Naomi Shihab Nye.

Most of what she shared for the writers in the room related to practice methods and approaches, and these ideas affirmed what I am already doing: living my life, writing in the spaces between the action of life.  In another suggestion, she offered, “Write three questions at the end of the day for a month, and then look at them.  You will discover that while you could have been concentrating and straining so hard for your “big idea” to arrive, the themes of your questions wove themselves together while you weren’t looking.”

She read a poem written by a class of preschoolers, and one by her mentor William Stafford.  Both had stunning imagery and emotional pivots.  Both were rich in meaning and lovely to consider.  Poetry is for everyone, she said.

For Everyone.  For little tiny children and for you and for me.

Here’s a link to another one of my favorites:

The Small Vases from Hebron

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178324

Poetry, according to Georgia Heard and Ralph Fletcher is three things:  Images, feeling and rhythm.  And it’s more.

It’s people and their relationship with life.  It’s magic and surprise.  It’s a voice speaking in a different way than we talk in our ordinary exchanges.  And in the case of Naomi Shihab Nye, it is love and it is the power to move different people closer to one another.

Consider Gate A4, her signature piece:

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/gate-4

 

At the Q & A session after her evening reading event, I requested one of my favorites and she generously read it at the closing finale.

Supple Cord

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179544

 

What inspires me about Nye is her positive encouragement  for writers. She calls us to keep writing, to keep sharing work.  Enter contests, form writer exchange groups.  Reach out across miles and difference.

One person asked if she felt like she ever had to sacrifice or give anything up for her art.  To which she said, “I knew by the time I was seven years old, I was going to be a poet.  So no, I never felt like I gave anything up.”

She said that literature “gives us space to understand our lives better.”  And that “life moves so fast, we must move through it very slow.”

Here’s the short poem I wrote in response to her prompts during the workshop.  I’m stunned at how it seems to solve my main writing problem.

(Untitled)

Why do I avoid returning to the longer project as if I am afraid of it and what it says about me?

I remember being afraid of the black bears in the Shenandoah but I don’t remember the weight of the backpack while I walked carefully by.

 

A final reminder and a gift for all of us who are struggling in the midst of the process:

“Nothing is wasted.”

Thank you Naomi Shihab Nye, for all you are giving.

 

This is The Story of You Book Review

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Books are often an oasis in the midst of trauma, loss and struggle. This week I needed an oasis, a rock of a story to stand on amid the blowing, uncontrolled winds of change. Appropriately, the rock turned out to be a story of community and personal disaster. Yet it carried me home to a place of gratitude.  The best stories do this.  They fill you with thanks for your own life, lifting our gaze to notice how resilient we can be when everything is torn apart, as characters rise above the most devastating circumstances.

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart collects the shards and fragments of a beach community nearly obliterated by a massive hurricane, and arranges the pieces in a beautiful mosaic. Filled with sentence fragments that are in one way the speech pattern of the teen- woman at its center, and another way a poem by a master storyteller.  Read this book, and walk the recovering ocean shore with Kephart as she collects the remains, carefully arranging memory fragments in a glittering, light-filled and emotionally rich world.

The structure of This is the Story of You is built upon the fragments of the aftermath of a massive hurricane, not unlike Hurricane Sandy.  Kephart must have noticed in her perceptive and thoughtful way, that the rest of the world misses something deeper when they watch the news coverage of reported natural disasters.  That we, far away, passively observing the wreckage on our screens, miss experiencing the personal stories of loss, and also the stories of healing, restoration and survival.

Here lies the power and importance of fiction as a bridge that connects our imaginations (and our hearts) to the lives of people who either lived through the devastation, or died without a voice. Through Kephart’s fiction, we are given ideas that get lost in the sea of news media.  Like the idea that our youth are a valuable asset in times of crisis, perfectly capable of organizing searches, capable of being dependable citizens who contribute to the safety and care of survivors. A young person’s voice is never heard among the clamor of dominant voices when people in fear look to appointed, adult figures to solve big, messy problems.  Through the main character Mira Banul, Kephart reveals how committed and reliable young people are in a time of great need.

This is the Story of You is layered with meaning and multiple storylines to add complexity and variation within the mosaic.  There are sibling relationships that give a new definition to the meaning of family.  I particularly loved the relationship between Mira and her younger brother, Jasper Lee, who has a rare genetic disease.  Mira’s love for Jasper Lee is one that motivates her to be strong and to live bravely.  Her kindness to him reminds me to call my younger brothers more often.  The quality of love and support that exists between them defies the old stereotype of rivalry.  Not all relationships between siblings involve conflict.  But Kephart doesn’t ignore that sometimes rivalries do impact families in profound ways, with surprising results.

If you are a lover of lyrical, imagery-packed language, you will be surprised and delighted by Kephart’s craft.  My favorite line of the book:

 

“We die backward.”

 

In a flashback to nine year old Mira, drowning in the ocean, Kephart connects her main character to another beloved character who is found on the sand, and also to anyone who has ever contemplated their own impending death.  In this context, “we die backward” becomes a metaphor for all of memoir writing.  The reason we write memoir (or fiction that feels like memoir) is to make art of that process we all experience, living forward but dying backward—and in so doing, give back a form of life to the dead. This is one of the results of art making, as we reach out to live beyond the boundaries of our limited, physical and temporal selves.  People died when Sandy hit.  Do we remember them still? Maybe not collectively as a society in our news.  Maybe only if we knew them personally.  But maybe it helps those of us from far away to remember who they might have been, and to remember what their loved ones survived.

As we live in a forward motion heading to somewhere that cannot yet be described or used as wisdom for decision making, we tend to look back, to hold in our beings the memories as evidence of life.  None of us go forward without pausing to look back, or at least subconsciously carrying lived experiences with us.  Contemplating the past lights up the dark, unknowable future and projects those vibrant memory clips of our fragile and beautiful lives, in images rich with light, or sharp with pain, or comforting in peace, onto the future screen that formerly looked like a blank and terrifying void. Think of death, think of your life obliterated, and all you can see is the life you lived.

My first night sleeping in a tiny backpacking tent in the wilderness of bear country brought me to seriously contemplate the possibility of being mauled to death in my sleep.  Fixated and certain of my demise, in order not to get up and scramble out into the midnight woods, alive with swishy sounds to cry out my fear, I lay in the cocoon-like tent with a memory of my most perfect experience in life— being a child playing house in my blanket fort on the green lawn.  In that memory, the grass was greener than all of Ireland, and my brothers were there, kicking a ball and laughing.  I wanted to go home to that memory so fiercely that all kinds of details came into view; the pink metal doll trunk inside the make-shift fort, with a yellow baby doll blanket that my grandmother had embroidered with flowers.  The blue of the sky in the opening where the sheets sagged between clothespins.  The knowledge that my mother was inside, baking cookies. It was bliss.  Thinking of death, I looked back to my life.

 

“We die backward.”  Indeed.

 

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if people knew the deeper, more intimate and tender story of you?  Not only you, personally, but this poetic and detailed work of art.

 

Earlier I mentioned that Kephart has written a story that feels like a poem. Like a great story, it is filled with edge of your seat mystery and anticipation, yet tenderly woven into a sensory-filled, speak it out loud, read it out loud, language song. And though a mere stringing together of beautiful words does not make a poem, a story artfully told that reveals a universal truth we all recognize may make this book leap across multiple genres.  Is it poetry?  Is it fiction?  Is it memoir?  Is it mystery?  While playing with language, Kephart accomplishes all.  Like a poet, she uses fewer words to describe a mass of complex feeling in response to an event in history with overwhelming impact.  Her prose/poetry expands our understanding of unmeasuable, deeply significant experiences to inspire the reader, carefully building one image on another.  This is what gives This is the Story of You a sense of tangible reality, placing us directly in the path of a massive storm, so that when the chaos happens, we are disoriented and later changed by the expanded understanding of what survivors faced.

There are so many beautiful passages, I could dive into each page and bring up a treasure.

Here’s one of those treasures:

 

“I heard that strange song on the sticky keys.  I lifted my head and squinted into the flickery dark.  I could see the armchair that had been dragged across the sand and left by the piano.  I could see the outline of a person sitting there, hands like light rags at the end of dark sleeves.  The song sounded like boots walking through rain, like no song I’d ever heard.”
This is the Story of You is available in April of 2016.  Please visit Beth Kephart on her blog for this title and many more of her great works. (I especially recommend Handling the Truth, but that is only one of many that I love.)

 http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/p/this-is-story-of-you.html

BethKephart

Put the Inner Critic Out

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Here’s a fun little experiment for those who struggle with the inner critic.  Try kicking her out and letting her sit on your desk.  Then you can talk back to her when the writing is happening.

My little hag is named Finnola, inspired by a character in Catherine Cooper’s The Golden Acorn.  I made her for a children’s book club gathering in the woods.  Once all the children found her hiding place, I took her home.  In between moon time, where she might sit on my nightstand…she works in my writing space.  I wonder how chatty she will be when I sit back down to work?

Peace Metaphors and Worry about Losing the Lonely

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Something inside is missing.  I recognized it this evening, when for a brief time I embraced some precious solitude to feel the warm air  under the stars. Looking out into the darkened yard, I felt around for it like an old man searching his pockets for a squashed pack of smokes, who realizes that there’s none to be found.  Instead of cigarettes, I searched for evidence of my lonely ache.

But it had vanished, leaving only a trace memory of existence.  Like remembering a time when you were really hurt, but no longer feel the pain as you recall the experience.

Maybe since adolescence that ache has been with me like the steady, ever present beating of my heart.  It keeps a rhythm that marks the passing of months and years, a chronic condition of living.  We all share this loneliness to a certain degree,

being individuals.

At times the presence of this loneliness has enlarged and risen to a chest squeezing, hollow stomach, homesick yearning for something nameless and formless, perpetually out of reach.  If only I knew what was missing, I would go in search of it to end the ache.  Who could I call?  What would I say? I am missing someone or something, some ideal?  Have I missed some calling that would fill in the hole, if only I would be brave enough to simply do what inspires me most?

So instead of running and dancing around in the dark, barefoot in the grass under stars– celebrating the absence of loss, infused with giddiness to be unexpectedly liberated from the lonely shadow,

I worried.

What would it do to my writing?

Isn’t lonely the reason I write? Isn’t it the absence of companion and that quiet solitary feeling that propels me into this alternate form of expression?  These days it seems I’m talking so much to people that there might not be any need to reach for the pen and give a thoughtful response to the day’s events.

But as I felt around the pockets for my packet of lonely, I hit upon the shape of another memory: an occasion to reflect, a moment I wanted to capture as if I were taking a photograph.  It was a mental still shot from the day’s earlier walk, an image that brought calm and peace and quiet to my head; significant enough to make me want to mark it down for later; a scrap of afternoon to use in a poem.

If anyone were to ever ask me to name one metaphor for peace, I can now say that peace is the wake line behind geese swimming in acute angles; the strands of traveling light on the surface that follow their random curiosity.

Migration is happening here now, and the lake is full of these back and forth streams of light behind the graceful swimmers.  If you can find your way to a shore near sunset when the lake gets luminous, your day has magic. Your day has awe. Your afternoon has brought you to the awareness that your life in this moment is completely effortless.  You can just stand there and breathe and observe. There you’ll find the space to release the effort and striving of the day’s need-meeting and want-satisfying.

Everyone should have a pond.

And a sunset and geese.

And friends like mine.

I Run to Trosper Pond

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I Run to Trosper Pond

Fallen yellow leaves damp and fragrant

make their way by scented droplets

to my inhale.

Down, down, then up the hill on Oak Tree road,

where patches of woods hold space

for squirrels and a canopy

for warblers, hawks and owls.

A blue ream of after the rain sky opens

as I turn the corner,

cumulus and stratus stretch out

in a diagonal, north and

south.

I run to Trosper Pond and there is

country.

Grass tall around a painted mailbox

with a black and white hunting hound,

suspended, mid-leap,

bounding for the pheasant.

I stretch my stride and seek the grass

as a silver compact car

accelerates without concern

that I’m inches from his door.

But why be angry; there is joy

in the near miss…

I live and run on to Trosper Pond,

where a gaggle of new white geese are raising a ruckus

on the gravel path

that leads to the weeping willow

and the rippling surface of the water

so gentle it will embrace the cloud

that has somehow found a way to float there

while also hanging in the sky.

A little A-frame boathouse sits by the empty dock,

inviting me back to those years I wore two braids, and

dad called me injun.

He a descendant of the Cree Nation, a fact hidden

from school and workplace,

passing for white because being a native

in the time of his parent’s short life

was as degrading as being black or worse,

you were dirt–

a drunken vulgar savage

with no rights to live free,

being so poor his mother hid her children

in pickle barrels

from social service tyrants,

who believed poverty was a reason to separate

a family.

I run to Trosper Pond

700 miles and six years after his death

to find him here enjoying this late afternoon light

and these obnoxious geese,

and the dogs who bark at us

all the way home.

Casting Leaves Forth Upon the Wind

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It’s been a couple of decades since I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  With so many newer, more modern and post-modern works to choose from (much less the loads of nonfiction writing on the internet) it’s not often that I go farther back in time in search of stories.  It just seems too cumbersome to plod through the complexity and the confusion created by words and phrases we no longer use or hear spoken.

But there’s a very good reason to keep going back to the old stories. There are truths that still remain, and discovery to encounter that feels fresh and new.  Although we are travelling around an orbit in our civilization building, rising and falling as a people, living out life cycles and birthing new generations who always think they are the most advanced, returning to something left behind feels like a renewal, the way spring feels new each time we pass that mark around the sun.

If for no other reason, pick up an old story to discover the closeness of our humanity through time and space.

Nathaniel Hawthorne gets me.   And I get him.

Opening the first pages of The Scarlet Letter, I am surprised by an introduction that follows his “apologia” for not changing a single word in the second printing.  In this introduction, Hawthorne attends to the problem I have in deciding to attempt the writing of memoir.  He shines a light on why writers like me are sometimes compelled to share personal stories and to ask questions or seek possibilities in the process of deep introspection.  He asserts that the need to write autobiographically is something that “possesses” him.  And he knows it’s not very polite or proper to be so indulgent.

And that is what I’m doing by writing my memoir story.  On reading my handwritten notebook pages, I realize I’ve become very self indulgent..  As if I’m eating up all the junk food in the cabinet I’ve stored in the back, hidden behind the healthier choices of vegetables and broth and rice.  Why am I so greedy in my telling of things that should probably stay hidden?  It’s just not right to be so bold.

I was comforted to read this line on the plastic covered flap of my library copy: “Hawthorne was plagued with self-doubt as he struggled to master his chosen craft.”

In The Custom House, (an introductory passage to the novel), he writes:

“The truth seems to be however, that when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside this volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates.  Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind, of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer’s own nature, and complete his circle of existence, by bringing him into communion with it.  It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally…”

And as I read his words, I feel as if I may be the “one heart and mind of perfect sympathy,” which makes me feel special and intimate and chosen.  This is another magical aspect of reading wonderful stories.  Someone has decided to share something with me, and with all of us.  Something deep and beautiful and sacred, or painful and ultimately empowering.  A writer gives.  A reader receives the blessing of that giving.

And so I write on, in the hopes that the “leaves cast upon the wind” will land in “the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy.” And I will take Hawthorne’s admonishment.  There will be an editing process out of respect as I remember Hawthorne’s warning about decorum.  I understand that “speaking all”  leaves nothing to imply in the reader’s mind, leaves nothing of mystery, leaves not a fertile ground for seeds of curiosity, or growing questions for the reader to ponder, which for me is part of the enjoyment of diving into a great story.  I want to be left not knowing it all.  And now, on to Hester Prynne.