Green wheat

Photo by Atis Gailis

Listen to the poem here.

Brand

She said she pictured everything,
her father’s body leaning into Gemini soft in the light,
that the daylight would be fleeting the open doors
at the far end of the barn, that the wheat’d be bent and tired.
And Gemini nuzzling his hands.
Hers’ll be rough as his one day.
That she’d say it right there and then.

She said, The thing about it is you can picture
loose sheaves of hay and wheat on the ground,
the heat releasing from your gloves
as you go to touch your neck,
the smell of the deck that you’d built with him just the last week,
the pine strong from the drizzle that took the morning.
And nothing is right.
The field isn’t the color of a long worked day.
Your mother isn’t doing dishes in the window.
Your dad isn’t in the barn, but where the half frozen yard
meets half frozen overturned earth. And you tell him
like there’s fork in your chest
And he doesn’t pull it out,
doesn’t turn around like you thought,
but folds down,
Picks up a rock, smooth and purple,
the moon makin’ what was leftover from the harvest
glow grey and hard. And he keeps turning it
over and over in his left hand,
the stone the size of his palm,
dirt drifting to the ground with each flip,
over and over again, until you leave.

And she was late to meet me that night.
I can picture my uncle’s flannelled shirt,
the loop at the top of his back, the shadowed lines
down to his belt.
I’m sure minutes passed before Brand turned around,
walked the farm-length down to climb onto the roof of the Honda
that died two years ago. And we held each other’s hands
We watched the clouds move quick where the stars would’ve been.

I didn’t expect December,
I didn’t expect Grandma standing in the IGA
a bag of caramels in her left hand, a bag of apples in her right,
debating about whether to make Brand’s favorite pie.
Or, my eyes to hold the lights of her dining room for so long,
brass yellow, as she and mom got louder and louder,
“They’re not coming this year,” Mom said.
And grandma had to sit down then, pulled the chair from the table,
pushed the place settings forward,
the clink, the tink of Christmas china,
and when I turned, the tears streaming down her lips.
Mom didn’t have to say it.

We didn’t expect January or February to mean nothing
in-between. It was a cold winter with no snow and no one
drove down the byway even by accident, I swear.
I’d watch my mother thumb the numbers
on the cordless phone during reruns of Jeopardy
and I’ll bet Aunt Janet did too,
only a field of winter dirt between them.
I watched cracks take the windshield of the Honda,
let the hood take the heat from my back most nights,
wondered if the glint from the north side of their house
was Brand come home for the weekend, scrolled
to that last text I’d received late fall,
the week Brandon said Brand,
that night she said “Be right there.”

I never expected the spring.
The green of the wheat is always different.
Each year, each day. Brand used to take a picture
from each side of our farms, would name each side.
One year her side Yellow Dog River, mine Emerald,
another year Green Water and Moss Lake.
She’d make this spring something brighter than a gem,
shiner than water.
She said there’s nothing like crouching down
when the crop is just starting to talk, to get eye level.
Brand’s eyes were copper and I’d watch her
fall onto her chest, grip the ground soft.
She’d squint her left eye. “When you get down to it,”
she said. “It looks like walls. But it isn’t.”

I didn’t expect this August, for the crop to turn so grey,
for the magpies to yell and scream in the morning.
I didn’t expect the moans of the combines,
the empty deck across, Gemini to stop fussing during storms.
I keep a stone in my back pocket now,
pull it out when the wind waltzes slow between our barns
in grey light, turn it over and over again when I see
that last strip of field dance, those empty stripes of earth,
the skeletons of trees. I turn it and turn it when I see the tires
have lost their air. The Honda’s sinking, really, into the ground,
and the paint’s losing it’s shine.
But if Brand was here, it’d be worth it,
it’d be worth it to climb back on top of that old Honda
just to hold hands.

Zarah Moeggenberg is a queer poet living in Eastern Washington with her 8 lb-Pomeranian named Teddy, a lot of furniture, an unnecessarily large winter coat, and a serious appetite for Indian food. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Northern Michigan University and is currently a composition and rhetoric doctoral student at Washington State University. She has been most recently published in The Fourth River, Oklahoma Review, ellipsis…literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ellipsis Lit Mag, and SunDog Lit among others. Zarah’s first book of poetry, To Waltz on a Pin, focused on love between women, is forthcoming with Little Presque Books in 2015. When she can she drives to small towns for dive bar karaoke, thrifting, and to collect stories from strangers.

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bowling

Photo by Ginny

Note: you can listen to a spoken-word version of Zarah Moeggenbergs’s Writers On Writing essay, as well as her spoken-word poem “Brand,” which she discusses below.

Dancing in the Palouse: Finding Rhythm in a New Field

Dancing to Florence and the Machine or Michael Jackson most mornings, before the hallways woke with tired grad students, Ashley and I didn’t know that in a few months we would be moving westward together. We danced hard, Ash all arm, me all hip. We danced our weekends out; shitty dates, crappy feedback on poems, students we couldn’t reach, solo hikes, wild Lake Superior, snow stuck to our socks, rent we barely afforded, odd jobs we kept on the side. Three minutes before my 8am class, I’d pack. We had it timed perfectly; how many songs we could shake our bodies to in our tiny grey office, how many cups of snobby coffee—usually a pot—before I’d trudge through snow to teach.

Early August, Ash and I packed a seventeen-foot U-Haul. We filled the cab with a cat and a kitten who hated each other, along with my yappy Pomeranian, “T,” and a litter box. Ash and I had never been west of Minnesota; she was a native Minnesotan, I was a transplant Michigander. We jammed to whatever radio station we could find, stopped only in North Dakota for a four hour nap, and otherwise drove 43 hours and 18 minutes to the border of Washington and Idaho.

We crashed in my naked apartment on the brown carpet, little more than a light sheet upon us, and woke to texts we didn’t know how to answer; a few from her boyfriend at the time, one from a pretty blonde-haired girl I’d sought on OkCupid. We ignored the texts and, like zombies, unloaded every piece of anything that belonged to us.

Ash started writing poems like crazy. And I stopped. And that’s the beginning.

I began a PhD in English in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University, leaving the poet in me behind. I became immersed in a field I knew little about, knowing only that the highest I had ever felt was while teaching composition. I wanted that high every day for the rest of my life. I read articles that made me feel small, watched bodies freeze when I discussed my research, and drank a lot of whiskey in-between.

The month before I made my decision to move to Washington, where I had the option to pursue a PhD in creative writing instead of comp and rhet, my MFA thesis director told me I should keep making poems, but I shook my head. Then she said, “Well, in all my years, I know you’re someone who’s never going to stop writing.”

For two months in hilly Pullman, Washington, I was frustrated by the lie I felt my director had told me, and especially by things I couldn’t absorb; the man who didn’t wave back on the bike path, broken beer bottles on the sidewalks, my winter jacket still hanging in the closet, the absence of lakes nearby, and having to drive to a tiny patch of trees in the Palouse to hike, to see any green at all. Ash was so busy in the poetry world I had left that we struggled to meet, even just to do homework together every three weeks. My notepads stayed on the desk. I wasn’t writing poems on the backs of receipts or into my palms anymore. I was actually paying attention in my pedagogy and rhetoric courses, but my heart didn’t leap into my sternum at anyone or anything.

My MFA thesis was focused on love between women. The poems were sexy, magical and real, raw and loud, dirty at times, mundane at others, and woven with care in rhythm. In both spoken word and for-the-page poems, I wanted to capture the love in a woman making an omelet, the moment you notice a new wrinkle beneath her eye, tracing a tattoo on the back of her thigh, how hands get memorized on trains in big cities or in cars watching freighters moan down rivers. But in Pullman, WA, in this tiny town of the Palouse, no matter how many dates I went on with women, none of them made me want to write. I made dinner for a woman who couldn’t eat more than four bites. She was sweet and talked with her hands and arms. Another made me eggs some mornings, usually overcooked, and played music I’d never heard before. Another, who cancelled frequently and whom I’d asked out on a date after two shots of tequila, didn’t know how to hold hands back and we talked less and less each week. Eventually, I hesitated to say what I wanted to say. I shut down. I stopped sharing old poems.

I started biking on strange roads and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in these yellow and brown hills that never seems to end. Most sunsets are pink where I live, and in the winter the light is gone by 4 p.m. It’s taken me five months to find a grocery store where I want to flirt with the cashier, a coffee shop where the chairs and walls are worn, a route to my office where the trees bend the right way. Mostly, it’s taken me a long time to get used to that yellow hue that takes the hills and farms from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. When I get up around 7:30, clip the collar around T’s neck, reheat yesterday’s coffee in the microwave for 65 seconds, and take Stadium Way up the hill, turn around at the top just before the road bends, the world has a filter unavailable on Instagram that lasts all day.

I wrote three 30-page seminar papers, read more queer theory and composition studies than I can convey, walked my dog four times a day, started buying myself flowers at the Safeway each week, took baths, wore too much Patchouli, and drank whiskey and cabernet. And one night, before what would be bowling and Jameson and a bad hangover in the morning, it happened.

I wrote.

The poem “Brand” came on a warm December afternoon in Washington, the kind where you only need a sweatshirt and warm socks. I was walking T up Stadium Way, the light dull and brown. I received a text describing a friend’s grandmother and mother arguing about Christmas plans. I had just reached Harvey and Duncan as I paused to read the message.  After squeezing my hands back into my mittens and shoving my iPhone into my pocket, I looked up. When I saw the hills, grey beyond the city, sleeping muddy wheat fields, I knew my friend had given me a gift. Those hills, the same hills I couldn’t let myself understand, made me question who I could make two women be; where they might live, what they would be upset about, and how they could love. I’ve always believed that we argue because we love each other, and despite only having reached the merger of Stadium Way with Harvey and Duncan, three blocks away from my apartment, I started to walk home. I considered, as Andrea Gibson wrote in her spoken word poem “I Do,” how “This kind of love has to be a verb.” Familial love is so many verbs, so messy, so braided, and so ruthlessly necessary. I wanted to capture that. I wanted to write.

Once home, I began to research the planting of wheat, the same wheat—though my friend argues it is something else—that gets caught in my dog’s fur in the summer. I learned combine harvesting and winter planting and stacking. I learned the hum and thrush of machinery. I learned every color of every month. I learned every hue of green, each flicker of yellow. I learned the dirt overturned. And I started to see a woman flicker underneath it all.  She might have been Brand. She might have been me. She might have been someone I may never know.

It happens—is my point. It’s true that it doesn’t leave you. It’s about waiting for the right spark, the right combination, the kick, the draw, the impulse not to leave for bowling on time and to write her all down. Again I felt my heart in my sternum. I started tapping my feet on the brown carpet. My back was hunched over the paper. The wind whistled around my apartment, which grew darker and darker. After only three hours, “Brand” was drafted. I sent the sound file to Ash, eleven miles away in Moscow, Idaho, and her word for it in the morning was “honest.” In that moment, I knew my director had been right. It doesn’t leave you. Sometimes you just have to wait. Sometimes you have to collect for a while: starless nights over and over again, a mechanic telling you your Subaru will die in two months, your IPhone that won’t light up, one girl’s soft flannel shirts, another’s copper eyes, rough hands that won’t hold yours back, the unsaid in things we say, what is said when no one speaks.

Ash is going to keep making poems each week. I’m going to keep figuring out how to fuse queer theory into composition studies. We’re busy here. But, what’s important is never to stop dancing to what you want to dance to, even if it means she’s not going to dance back, even if it means putting all the leftovers into Tupperware, even if it means making your own eggs and reheating yesterday’s coffee, walking your dog alone, and unheld hands on the few nights she’ll spend with you. Because when that happens enough, once you’ve danced hard and long, once you’ve got enough in your chest, you write yourself. You write her all down.

Zarah Moeggenberg is a queer poet living in Eastern Washington with her 8 lb-Pomeranian named Teddy, a lot of furniture, an unnecessarily large winter coat, and a serious appetite for Indian food. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Northern Michigan University and is currently a composition and rhetoric doctoral student at Washington State University. She has been most recently published in The Fourth River, Oklahoma Review, ellipsis…literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ellipsis Lit Mag, and SunDog Lit among others. Zarah’s first book of poetry, To Waltz on a Pin, focused on love between women, is forthcoming with Little Presque Books in 2015. When she can she drives to small towns for dive bar karaoke, thrifting, and to collect stories from strangers.

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afloat

Photo by Marco Monetti

To You, Who Never

Associate poetry editor Sarah Bates on today’s bonus poem: How do we get from broken to beauty? Find hope in the hurt? Hull’s “To You, Who Never” takes us through moments never shared, memories she carries around like bags of sand and shows us how, still, we go on: through the lyric, the letting go, and the love we find along the way.

Father, I have hammered your coffin together.
I’ve given it a wooden handle to slip my fingers into
yours—you, who never grasped my hand

to cross a street. I’ve been writing letters to slide into
the pockets of photographed shirts. When you die,
will there be a window with an ocean in it?

Each year, I sketch another line onto your photographed face,
so I will recognize—you, who never ages—what time can do.
I have carved a name I will not even whisper

into pieces of slate. When you die, will I weep boats
upon boats for you, who slid my fingers along the creases
of paper sterns, you who held my wrist so I would skip

the stone straight? I pray what your hands have done—
broke her over and over—other hands undo.
She, who never wept, slept for weeks fathoms deep

and woke as another mother. If there is a window,
the ocean I see won’t seem immeasurable.
Contained like a postcard of the sea, my memories

land along shorelines you showed me sandpipers
fleeing from. Once, you—who could never remember the day
I was born—woke me to watch a sunrise that still rises

even on mornings I refuse to wake for it. I reach
for hands, and one set of fingers falls across me like waves
that will not break. My lover who holds me,

even fathoms deep. When he goes, I will weep broken oars,
and my boat will spin its sorrows or I will drift
out to sea. When you die, he will walk me along the thought

of a beach, through all the static that waves leave behind,
leaving you, who never stopped walking away from me.
I have brought a coffin to be carried out with the tide.

M. Ann Hull has had work published in 32 Poems, Barrow Street Journal, Mid-American Review, and Quarterly West amongst others. She has won the Ed Ochester Award for Poetry and the Academy of American Poets Prize. She is a former poetry editor of Black Warrior Review and holds an MFA from the University of Alabama.

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Untitled

Photo by Brittney Bush Bollay

The Devil (and God) in the Details

We don’t often see how strange we are until we look back and are overburdened with the incriminating, undeniable evidence of our awkwardness. The devil is in the details, as they say. But even when I was young I knew I was a strange kid. I spent a lot of time alone building worlds in my head (my choice, I lie to myself – the truth is I lacked the social grace to make and keep many friends). I remember climbing a tree once during a lightning storm, wind shaking the bough, sky flashing white and me riding it out wondering when I might finally get struck. It wasn’t a death wish. I had seen a film where someone was electrified and transformed into a giant monster and I wanted to be a giant monster, too. Some days I would wander around town barefoot with a walking stick, pretending McKinney, Texas, was an alien planet and I, the first pilgrim observing alien life there. This may or may not have been my way of dealing with the fact I was the alien, or at least felt like one. One day I crawled up on the roof of my house, waiting for my dad to hear my footfalls, and when he came yelling I leapt to the ground, making a game of it. I had always wondered whether or not I could survive that fall. Again, not a death wish, just sheer curiosity. I could, obviously. I would always win this game, and many others I made for myself, always one-player because I didn’t have anyone else to play them with.

***
Last semester, in the Creative Writing for New Media course I taught at the University of Iowa, I saw in the work of my students an unfortunate pattern I had never seen before. Students were writing characters they felt could appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, purposely crafting superficial Everymen or Everywomen, often keeping even their physical characteristics intentionally vague, their lives and inner lives status quo so that “the reader might better empathize and step into the shoes of their protagonists.” Or so the class would collectively argue upon my bringing up the observation. Never mind that for the vast majority that meant writing a straight while male protagonist (which deserves its own blog post entirely), in most cases a college student named Joe or John or Bill or Sally. It was their depiction of the protagonist’s lives that I took issue with. They would wake up, go to school, hang with friends, drink, come home, do homework, play a video game, watch a movie, or at their craziest, read a book. Their lives were depressingly vapid, innocuous, mediocre. They never did anything incriminating. At no point in the stories did any of the characters attempt to build a tent for their dog out of Snuggies, cry over a tampon commercial, have a spontaneous Nerf gun fight with their girlfriend, or breakdance across the living room to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” while juggling popsicles, all things I’ve done this week.

***
The devil is in the details, and the pursuit of an Everyman in fiction is the pursuit of a Nothingman. It is the avoidance of intimacy, of writing something deep and true. I suspect it is borne out of fear — like most things with writing that matters — that we might divulge our deepest vulnerabilities, crack open our chests to expose the dust and rust, open the floodgates and reveal something of ourselves on the page that we wished to be kept locked up, out of embarrassment, or shame, or regret. But these things are exactly what make fiction worth writing and reading. To capture life, true life in all its glorious messiness. To invoke the bizarre from the benign and witness we aren’t nearly as strange or ugly as we think we are. To be reminded we all do weird shit sometimes in a desperate attempt to wage war on our inner demons, our addictions, our self-hate, our loneliness. To be granted, at last, confirmation that while we may be alone at least we’re alone together. To be forgiven our freakishness.

***
When my writing students tell me they’re shaving all the rough edges off a character in an attempt to appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, I tell them they’re assassinating everything human about that character. Humans, after all, are made of rough edges: wondrous patchworks of eccentricity—cuneiforms of scars and oddities. If you want to appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, I tell them, the way to do that is not by appealing to any of your hypothetical readers but the characters you’re trying to do justice. Imagine they are your readers. Would they be satisfied? Have you cheated them out of their weirdness? Their misery? Their humanity? Have you cheapened them in some way to hypothetically sell more hypothetical books to hypothetical readers? If you love your characters, I tell my students, you honor them by putting them on the page in all their aberrant and idiosyncratic splendor. If you can forget about trying to give the reader someone like them and just give them someone real, someone true, someone deficient, flawed, odd and beautifully broken, then counter-intuitively, I promise them, readers will see themselves in there somewhere, and they will rejoice.

***
The devil is indeed in the details. So is God.

And people, real people contain equal measures of both.

Matthew Burnside keeps a list of his sins here.

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Washing Keys

Photo by Ferrous Büller

Type Hard or Go Home: In Praise of the Clicky Keyboard

Late in the last millennium, I belonged to the Writers Room, an urban writers’ colony on Astor Place. After long days registering film students at New York University, I wrote poems in the Writers Room’s a dimly lit, womblike constellation of cubicles, and filled legal pads of paper, heavy-eyed, fighting off sleep.

What kept me awake, besides a pot of coffee in the kitchen, rested just past the administrative offices, in another room set aside for half-dozen or so members who worked on typewriters. Through a thick glass door, the industrious click-clacks of these Remingtons inspired me to keep going.

Fast-forward to today. I’ve joined the tribe of writers who cling to an older, noisier technology. Not the typewriter, which has been taken up by many other writers, either as an app or the real thing. I’m talking about the clicky keyboard.

I am typing these words on an IBM Model M, a behemoth beast of a keyboard that has a solid steel plate inside. For the past fifteen years, I have refused to type on anything other than a Model M. Made by IBM from 1985 until 1991 (successors made by Lexmark and now Unicomp, while good, are not regarded as classic), it weighs in at six pounds, about as much as six iPads, and connects to a computer with a curly cable that resembles something Jimi Hendrix might have used with his Fender Stratocaster. Its clicks rival any Remington’s.

I attach Model Ms to my work and home computer, as well as my laptop when I am not out in public (I’ve even made a case for it, which resembles a violin’s). My office mates know when I am at work by the clacks coming out of my office. Since my first two books, poem and essay collections on my obsession with the rock band Queen, on up to the memoir I am now finishing, the Model M has been at my fingertips.

“I have almost obsessive relation to writing instruments,” Roland Barthes said in an interview with Le Monde in 1973. My obsession with Model M keyboards rests with its touch. Unlike a membrane keyboard, which is basically a rubber mat with sensors underneath, a Model M uses buckling springs and switches. Each key bounces back and lets out a click. This auditory and tactile feedback, especially for an untrained typist like me, is especially gratifying. Far from causing carpal tunnel stress, I find this prevents my fingers from pounding on unresponsive nubs.

For years, I took pride staying up-to-date with every shiny new machine, every update to our digital lives. In graduate school, I heard about how the late poet Galway Kinnell used WordPerfect 5.0. He had no idea how to use a computer; the IT guy just had him shut the monitor off and on. Perhaps it’s middle age, but the fact that I need a clicky keyboard doesn’t seem so strange now. Joyce Carol Oates famously still writes in longhand, after all. Henry James dictated to a typist. I’ve just refined my process.

“Does a writer’s style depend on the tools he uses?” Arthur Krystal asks in an essay on the early days of the typewriter. Yes and no. Unlike painters or musicians whose tools and instruments are fully integrated into their art, writers just have words on a page. Sometimes, however, I think I have to be a little angry to write. I need to get worked up in some fashion, and take it out on my keyboard. One fan site dedicated to Model M’s has a tagline I love: “Type hard or go home.” William Wordsworth describes good poetry as coming from a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I take my overflows out on a keyboard that can also be used as a weapon.

As we approach its thirtieth anniversary, more and more homages to the Model M have turned up, from Wired, Lifehacker, and PC World. Adi Robertson’s “King of click: the story of the greatest keyboard ever made,” which ran last year in The Verge, elicited a dual response of joy and dread: joy over reading 2,000 words on “one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques,” along with racks of mint-condition M’s displayed like fine art, and dread over how such publicity would drove up prices on eBay. (Mint-condition Model M’s now fetch upwards of $300.)

Clicky keyboard loyalists make strange bedfellows. I am sure a good number of other writers love their keyboards clicky, but for the most part I find my brethren with gamers. Turns out there is this whole other tribe of people who spend hours pounding on keyboards, and demand a higher degree of responsiveness. They and can discern between a key’s 45- and 55-gram actuation weights. It’s an alternative universe where some keyboard connoisseurs prefer Cherry MX Blue switches (clicky and tactile), others MX Brown (tactile but silent) or Cherry MX Red (linear stroke, less sticky). Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, sings the praises of his Model M. Gamers, alas, can’t abide use a Model M while playing—its ancient technology can’t accommodate rollovers, or pressing on multiple key combinations, causing it to jam or ghosting, pressing another key as well.

Like a crate-digger DJ or the gearhound guitar player in search of an elusive sound, I collect Model M’s in the basement, just in case one breaks. My first hasn’t kicked the bucket yet. Under each Model M’s chassis is a sticker that lists the date when it was built. My keyboard’s birthday, August 26, 1991, coincides with the year I graduated from college. Bryan Adams, Paula Abdul, and Vanilla Ice were at the top of the charts, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was issued to the radio.

In an age where so many are content to smudge messages with oily thumbs on a screen, or type out novels with rubber chiclets, I feel like I am part of a tradition pounding on Model M. I might be phased out like a holdout typists, or given a special room keep things quiet. That’s fine with me. Plus the clicks keep me awake.

Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Grief, Making Out in Church, and Other Unlearnable Subjects, which is due from 99: The Press in 2015. Other books include How to Be InappropriateGod Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. Follow him on twitter, or visit him at his website at danielnester.com

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Untitled

Photo by Pat Dumas

Associate fiction editor Mike Berry on today’s story: Have you ever wondered what happens when a family finds a porch full of dirt after they baptize their first child? Me neither. But stretch your arms, shake your legs, and wash yourself in a dirt-baptism with this family’s briefly brilliant yet hopeful story.

Baptism

The new parents return from St. Alphonsus and discover their front porch blanketed under a foot of soil. From sidewalk to sill the dirt is groomed more carefully than a Zen garden.

When she considers the tiny furrows, so fine they could have been raked by fork, the mother sees rows of cornstalks, lines of lonely boys. She grew up on Foothill Road in a trailer park abutting the city’s last farm. As a child she wandered through the farm’s cornfields stomping the soft earth, searching for a patch of quicksand or a sinkhole, some portal to another world. When that proved fruitless, she’d snap off an ear of corn, hold it to her mouth, and rehearse answers for the talk shows she’d frequent after she escaped the trailer park and made great discoveries as an archeologist. “Just think of it, Barbara,” she’d marvel into an ear of corn, “all that treasure beneath our feet!”

When she was older she’d lead boys into those fields where they’d commit mortal sin. Always the same sin. Sin to which she would never confess. She sought no priest’s absolution but dug miniature graves in the furrows, no bigger than a shoebox, one for each lover. She marked their graves with corn cobs instead of names. One cob for the selfish, handsy boys who finished too soon. Two cobs for the gentle, sweet boys she mothered along so they could satisfy her. There had only been a pair worthy of three cobs, boys who knew what to do with her from the start. The first one had enlisted in the army and shipped off after their only rendezvous. She brought the second one out to the cornfield for nearly two years. They conceived there in winter. Married before she started to show.

The father rocks their son on his shoulder. The infant’s baptism gown glows white, gleams like a fresh snow against the soil. The father resists the urge to plunge into the dirt and demonstrate the art of snow angels for the infant. As a boy he loved nothing more than diving into new-fallen snow, to be the first to spread wings and leave his impression.

He squats down, smells the earth on their porch, smells the anointing oil on their son. Reaches a hand over the neatly raked soil but stops before disturbing the tableau, remembers the summer he was ten and a Gypsy family moved in next door. There’d been a Gypsy boy he’d played with, Mike Dave, who carried a pouch of dirt with him wherever he went. “Graveyard bone dirt,” Mike Dave insisted. “Present from my busha.” His grandmother told fortunes and devised hexes and gifted Mike Dave with dirt enchanted to protect him from enemies. The father convinces himself the dirt on their porch is protection for his family and not a prank or curse. He can’t remember crossing Mike Dave during that brief time they were neighbors, only remembers thinking it odd the boy had two first names.

His son only has one first name, but he has a middle name. It’s a family name passed down five generations. He’ll acquire a third name if he chooses to confirm his faith when he comes of age. While the father is a young man, of sound mind and body, he cannot immediately recall his own confirmation name. When it does come to him, the father regrets what little thought he’d put into choosing it. If his son ever asks his confirmation name, the father will choose more carefully.

The father notes the soil’s color. He will repaint the nursery porchsoil black, protection for the child when the father’s not around. He’d paint the entire house that color but knows his wife wants to move. They bought the house a year ago, an old home in an old neighborhood. It suited the father more than the mother; he planned projects, refinished floors, fenced in their meager yard for the day they’d bring home a dog. The trailer park where the mother grew up was old. Not antique or historic. Just old, charmless, without nostalgia. Last time she’d been out to Foothill Road, she saw the dump trucks and earthmovers lined up straight as cornrows. Soon those machines would break ground, bulldoze crops, dig foundations for new homes. She hopes they’ll be able to afford one of those new homes, dreams they’ll find contentment there.

She runs a hand through her husband’s hair, strokes her son’s cheek. Both parents now hold the infant just as they had over the baptismal font. She kisses her husband, and then he lets go, plunges backward into the dirt.

The infant’s eyes grow wide when his father sprouts wings.

Dan Mancilla lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds a PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University and teaches at Kendall College of Art and Design. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Barrelhouse, BULL: Men’s Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, The Malahat Review, Monkeybicycle, The Saturday Evening Post, and Slice, among others. “Baptism” is a story from his book-length manuscript, All the Proud Fathers. You can read more about Dan and his work at danmancilla.com.

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cats

Photo by Daniele Bi

Associate poetry editor Sarah Bates on today’s bonus poem: It’s been months since I first read “Hayloft,” and since then I’ve been walking around with a “nubbin of cat purr” and this hope-filled concept of forking the unforked past. I’ve found myself believing in a place where anything can come from boxes and dust. The poem’s address awakens a certain kind of intimacy that sticks and dares you to imagine your own spine, your own life and losses, and what you will do with them all. 

Hayloft

Nowhere is there
light sloshing up
and down your arms
like it did that time
you climbed the ladder
to the hayloft.
Nubbin of cat purr,
scurry of small unseen;
what will you do here,
small one, limber
and brittle as these
aging floorboards?
No one is watching—
not even the slatted
dust-freckled sunlight.
Slim column of empty
boxes for a spine,
I’d like to roll you
over the edge,
fork the unforked past.
How you tremble,
thinking this forbidden
climb is bravery.
I don’t want to hear
anything pretty boom
in your chest. I won’t
supply dragonfly wings,
shoe squeak, centipede feet.
Darling self,
no one cares
how we sculpt ourselves
from rags and dashing.

Amie Whittemore earned her MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in North American Review, Smartish Pace, Gettysburg Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg 2013 Poetry Prize, the 2012 Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival poetry prize, and a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center in July 2011. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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writhe

Photo by David Edwards

On Writhing: A Closer Look at an Underappreciated Art

Recently, in the graduate level workshop I teach, I paused class while discussing a student’s work to ask a simple, straightforward question: What is writhing? We had spent months studying the craft of writhing, its unheralded artistry, debating its most radical theories, yet never, in all of that time, had I stopped to ask them—nor had they, it seemed, stopped to ask themselves—what, exactly, we were doing. The student being workshopped lifted her head and untangled herself, somewhat, while keeping her legs twisted in that marvelously haunting fashion that only she can achieve, and answered, “This. This is writhing.” “Yes,” I responded. “But you’re not entirely right.” Class ended, and it dawned on me that perhaps I had let them down by failing to provide a proper definition of writhing. I drank heavily that evening. It was a long, brain-straining night, as I tried to articulate writhing’s particular immanence, and though my conclusions likely fall short of their mark, I do feel that what follows is a generous delineation of writhing, its history, and what it feels like to give in to the writhing life.

Perhaps the first thing any aspiring writher should know is that writhing—despite our daydreams and indefatigable praise for the masters—will not make you famous. Writhing is not, and has never been, for the fame hungry. It is for those who accept the termination of self. Self-destruction gives writhing its strength, and, if one writhes with all of one’s heart there will be nothing left over to serve as celebrity. This has always been difficult for me to accept. My earliest, semi-serious attempts to writhe were done to impress people, friends, lovers, instructors, and only recently has the desire for praise begun to wane. Writhing, although done by oneself is never done for oneself. Praise is selfish and fleeting. Received, it retreats to the depths of the soul, where it hardens, gunks, and dissolves, leaving a rift that can only be filled by itself. Writhing is for its viewers—audiences, friends. It is dually public and intimate, meant to convey emotions and feelings that words, both spoken and written, cannot, and might never, express. One writher I particularly admire, Sandra Molana, sees writhing as a potlatch for the soul, the sacrifice of material boundaries done to strengthen communities.

Writhing is not a modern phenomenon. It dates back nearly two thousand years. The ancient Komani people, of what is now southeastern Quebec, built an entire society around the interpretation of public writhings. They believed that the writher writhed to reveal the world unseen. Writhers were public prophets. Writhers were touched by gods. To the Komani writhing was the manifestation of community ethos. Of feeling felt but misunderstood. A joyous writhe filled with leaping and spinning might dispel, throughout the community, the feelings of shame and embarrassment that accompanied disappointing harvests. Whereas darker performances, in which writhers zigged roachily on their stomachs, or snapped their bones on the ground and continued performing, could sink the most buoyant Polly Annas. Bleak performances were frequently met with violent backlash from viewers unable to accept intense expressions of darkness and pain. Writhers themselves, though celebrated during performances, were routinely mistreated after performances. Community elders believed that in order for writhers to truly express the will of the people—their emotions, desires, fears, and their futures—that writhers must live in squalor, close to the earth. Hardly unique. Physical hardship is commonly linked to spiritual and emotional insight. But the symbiosis of pain and performance has dwindled over the centuries. And many conservative scholars have noted a steep decline in the quality of modern writhing. Critics, such as A.E. Tinsen, argue that writhers have debased the true nature of writhing. Increasing stylization and individuality, a cult of personality never before seen in the writhing community, signals, to Tinsen, the beginning of the end of quality writhing. And though her ideas are alarmist, she is right to critique the increasing insularity of contemporary writhing, as many young writhers—including my students, and even myself—seek glory in oddness, in bizarre gestures and intoxicant squirms that do less to express the glory and woes of the community, than incite ire and shock. The reasons for this shift are manifold and complex, and, if the history of artistic creation has shown us anything it is that diagnoses are best made in hindsight, but I will say, briefly, that the desire for self-expression can distract from requisite study. What writhers need is not the grand expression of interior motives but the patience to wait for the collective unconscious to take over their bodies. Young writhers might take inspiration from the Komani. They understood that valuable writhing requires the sacrifice of comfort and time, that the distillation and presentation of the universal necessitates compromising oneself, with oneself, but not as oneself.

All this talk of inspiration is not to dismiss the training crucial to becoming a writher. The study of great writhers, past and present, should precede any serious attempt to live one’s life as a writher. I have benefitted greatly from my friendships with older writhers, and when I was in school, certain professors put forth a great deal of time to act as writhing mentors. Is a mentor necessary? I think so. Though I wouldn’t go so far to say that writhing requires a master’s degree. Yes, that is the route I took, twenty years ago, because I knew that I would benefit in a community of like-minded people. And though I learned a lot from my peers, what I gained, more than anything, was the confidence to ignore them. The desire to please others—like the desire to showcase oneself—is a major hindrance to writhing, and the best thing I can teach my students is how to discard my advice. Grad school did help me develop and commit to a schedule. The best writhers are disciplined in their routines. Personally, I writhe every morning. My wife, also a writher, prefers to writhe in the late afternoon. But without our schedules we would not have improved as we have. So, while academic writhing is not for everyone, it’s clear to me that good writhing comes from disciplined practice and irreverent study, a form of learning not, as some prefer, like water being poured down one’s throat, but like wading in and out of a stream, scooping water and slurping it, and, eventually, damming the streams to split the water in unforeseen directions.

To conclude, writhing, by my definition, is an act of love and devotion, a transmutation of feeling through the physical twist, twitch, jolt, jump, hump, tremble and flutter of bodies splayed on the floor. Writhing is done for the other at large. For the infinite and achronological. It requires discipline and commitment, the concentration to roll in front of a mirror for hours on end, noting errors, or dishonest movements, as if you were not the one writhing but a stranger seeing you writhe for the very first time. It requires patience, pain, and focus. An ear attentive enough to auscultate the earth. And most importantly writhing will not make you famous, nor will it bring you comfort or happiness. But the writhing life can be filled with love and devotion. It teaches us both, by demanding we embrace and embody that which exists beyond and within us. It makes us anonymous and synonymous, and in a world obsessively personal and hatefully individualistic, anonymity might be the highest and bravest expression of human potential.

Alex McElroy is a writher based in Arizona. He also writes fiction and essays, which can be found in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Southwest Review, Diagram, Music & Literature, Tin House, Memorious, and here.

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The Bridge, the Rocket, and the Seagull

Photo by John K

Assistant fiction editor Eli Hemmila on today’s bonus story: I remember watching the bombing of Baghdad from the couch in my parents’ living room. I was thirteen and, man, it was Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was nighttime in that far-away city, and so the truth of what I was watching was veiled by the dark, only briefly illuminated by the flashes of our bombs and rockets. In “Rockets,” Carter challenges us to close this distance we keep. He rejects the buffers we create in skin color, culture, and language, bringing the narrative into the readers’ backyards, living rooms, and bedrooms. The story does the work of good fiction, turning the reader inward to more closely consider the external.

Rockets
My father built rockets.

Designed, he’d correct me when I’d ask him about work. I only designed them. Someone else puts them together.

In this way, there was never blood on his hands. Even after the war began, the rockets he designed used to crush Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver–even then, he’d say I was just doing my job, would say how this country uses those rockets is their own choice. And then he died, hung his body in the back closet of our home while my sister and I were at school, while my mother was buying a chicken breast and sweet peas for dinner. Behind, he left nothing–no notes, no will.

My mother says it was the guilt. My sister says he had no guilt.

This is true. At seven, when he took me to buy my first pair of cowboy boots, I was left alone in the shop for an hour while he snuck away to the bar next door. Don’t tell your mother. She doesn’t want me drinking.

No apologies.

Someone could have taken me.

And if they had, would it have been anything like Taken? Would he have hunted me down? Or would he have crawled back into the shop, drawn up more blueprints for more ways to destroy.

My wife touches my forehead before I fall asleep every night. As a child, she’d come down with a fever that lasted months, had become obsessed with preventative measures. We threw the milk away two days before its expiration. We took plates of vitamins each morning with our orange juice.

Though I know he touched my sister, we say nothing about it. When she calls, every Tuesday morning, to let me know how she is, how the kittens are growing into full cats, we don’t speak our father’s name. We let the silence speak. It’s better at it.

I was fifteen when he did it. America was breaking through the walls that the Canadians had built around their cities. On television, one channel praised the prowess of the rockets, how they’d taken more lives than we’d ever have imagined they could. Another channel showed still images of Canadian children, their faces buried in their mother’s laps, the small body of another child at their feet.

The blood looked so red. I reached for the remote to turn the contrast down.

My wife was one of them, Canadian. When the war ended, when the government let the survivors choose to either assimilate into our culture or face deportation to Greenland, she chose to stay, wanted to study biochemistry at an American university. Instead, after the No Canadian Students Act, she worked retail jobs in New York, Columbus, Memphis, steadily moving southward, one side of her brain hoping she’d find a way to sneak into Mexico. We met when she was working the counter at Macy’s in Houston. We had dinner, pizza and fries, and made more plans–coffee one morning, beers another night. And when the nation finally decided to give Canada back to the Canadians, to end the blockade, she stayed in Houston. We married. I never mentioned my father to her. When she asked about him, I said he’d worked in Research, that he’d died when I was a teenager, made vague references to cancer.

We’d been married nineteen months when she found him. Google. She printed his Wikipedia page off, brought it to me in the kitchen.

What the fuck is this.

I should have told you.

He fucking did this.

I held the counter, prepared myself for the leaving, but instead watched as tears started to form in my wife’s eyes, as her body slumped down to the floor.

I didn’t know how to tell you. I was ashamed.

My sister’s dating another new man. She calls on Tuesday mornings, tells me his name is Ronaldo. He’s Portuguese. He’s got a house on the lake. She might be in love with him even though it’s only been two weeks.

He treats me well. He doesn’t scream when I track mud onto his floor.

Our father wouldn’t let us into his office unless we wiped our feet with a wet washcloth first, then dried them with a fresh towel. He didn’t want anything to be out of place. He said the future of our nation depends on nothing being out of place in here. His desk was stacks of folders. There were no photographs in the room.

I’m happy for you.

Hold on, I have to text you a picture of the cats. They’ve gotten so big.

The next Tuesday, my sister doesn’t call. The next Tuesday, she calls just to say it’s over and I’m sad about it but he wasn’t perfect. I want perfect.

The television set shows a news program, the words Reparations for Canadians on the bottom of the screen.

We should give them all a house and some cash, a man says. We owe them that.

We owe nothing, a woman says. They provoked us when they refused to fight with us in Africa.

I don’t know how to repair my wife, but refusing to tell her that my father had been responsible for the destruction, for the loss of her home and her family, the cousin who died fighting, the uncle who was inside the embassy when the military used a car bomb to destroy it–refusing to tell her wasn’t the right step. I knew this, but let my fear of losing her take over.

After his death–my mother refused to let us use the word suicide in the house, said it reminded her too much of the war, how the Coast Guard members would sacrifice their bodies in the Canadian harbors–I went into his office, pulled open the drawer under the desk. I expected more files, maybe even a hidden bottle of gin. Instead, it was just newspaper clippings, comic strips–Dilbert, Garfield, Shoe.

I guess he had a sense of humor, my friends said when I told them of my discovery.

The world was such a bad place, I said. Maybe he just needed an escape.

I’m fifteen and don’t know how to escape yet, haven’t realized that there is no way to escape. I sneak out at night and go downtown with my friends, where we watch boys older than us but still young enough to be boys race their cars down the asphalt. We pay them to buy us cigarettes and pay someone else to buy us beer. We drink it under an overpass, because we think that’s where we’re supposed to go to drink illegal beer. It doesn’t matter, though–we could drink it in the streets if we wanted. All the good cops have enlisted and all the bad cops are too bad to care.

When I’m fifteen, my wife is fourteen. She’s sleeping underneath her bed, hoping that, if the rockets hit, the mattress can save her, can be her temporary roof. She’s lucky, though. She doesn’t live in one of the cities, where the rockets do the most damage. She hears the sounds of war, but never sees it.

She doesn’t leave me. She knows there’s no truth to the old saying: like father, like son. I’m not designing weapons. I’m teaching online algebra classes. I’m making dinners with basil and sprigs of mint, not microwaving pot pies at midnight. We don’t have a daughter yet but if we did, I wouldn’t touch her.

Still, she’s distant for weeks. In bed, she rolls away from me. When I wake up, she’s already in the dining room, finishing her cereal, leaving for work early. The milk cartons start to reach their expiration dates. We eat leftovers for the first time.

My sister calls on Tuesday morning. She’s got a new boyfriend. I want to warn her: he isn’t perfect.

She marries this one. They have children. They grow old. Eventually, my sister dies. Eventually, her husband dies. Eventually, I die. My father did not start this tradition.

Searching through my father’s office after his death, opening each drawer, I keep thinking I’ll find a stack of family photographs. Do I?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: I spread all the diagrams of rockets out on his desk. We’ve already called the government, made sure they had everything backed up somewhere, so I’m free to do this–I take each diagram and crumple it, then uncrumple it. These diagrams–these are his family pictures, and with my father gone, I want this family gone too. I use an X-Acto knife to slice an X into each page. When I’m finished, I deposit the stack of diagrams into the kitchen trash.

When I’m sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I’m an American boy. My blood is the blood of war. When I’m sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, my wife is a Canadian girl. She’s losing more and more each day. A friend’s brother. Her fourth grade boyfriend’s mother. Her blood is the blood of war, but not the same blood. Hers is the blood from the television set, the bright red that I can’t bear seeing.

Why do you think he did it, I ask my sister. He’s been dead a month.

He was responsible for so much death. I think he wanted to feel what it felt like on the other end.

This is the last time we’ll talk about this. The government continues sending us paychecks, more and more money as more and more dead pile up across the border. Eventually, our mother stops cashing them. She works in an office and we start working too and the checks keep coming, stacked in his office now, atop his old desk.

I’m sorry, my wife says, months later. I know it isn’t your fault.

I’m seven and alone in the cowboy boot store.

I’m fifteen and alone in his office.

I’m twenty-six and touching my wife’s face, touching her hands, touching all these things that the war could have robbed me of. I’m twenty-six and I could be alone now. I’m twenty-six and I’m still an American boy.

I’m twenty-six with the war in my blood.

Justin Carter is a PhD student at the University of North Texas. The winner of the 2014 Sonora Review Poetry Prize, his work can be found in Booth, The Collagist, The Journal, and Ninth Letter.

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C130 Landing

Photo by Gene

Associate nonfiction editor Ryan Kauffman on today’s bonus essay: My first experience with flight came on a family vacation to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. At dawn, my mother took me hiking on the sand dunes there, told me about the Wright brothers’ first flight. All I could imagine was two men my father’s age–one with stubble on his sunburnt cheeks, the other with a reseeding hairline and dry palms–pushing a rickety contraption with canvas wings down one of the great dunes, tripping over themselves as they transferred their energy from running to jumping to sitting to steering. To this day, that’s still what I see when I board a flight at the airport. And now, this…

CLEAR! Seven Theories of Space

“Man does not have a choice between war and peace; the only choice is about the level of the warrior’s struggle.” –Krishna to Arjuna, The Bhagavad Gita

1. Fixed Wings
My father, too, spent his youth upside-down, pushing for a way out, probing for the way in. He learned his lazy-eights and barrel rolls, his inside loops and spirals from the barnstormers whose flying circus he joined at fifteen, preferring ticket-taking to algebra, wing-walking to Latin—his brand of breaking free from Southern social restraint. His sights flitted from an early Taylorcraft—“That wing was held on by one bolt!”—to Pipers, then Cessnas. A quiet warrior, a charged curiosity shot out of him like a downed wire on a wet street.

As a child, I flew with him.

“Clear!” he shouts out his window. From the co-pilot’s seat, I stretch to see out to make sure we’re not rolling over the mechanic who pulled out the blocks. The engine screams, he checks the windsock, and we taxi toward the runway. Aviator glasses like mirrors sit high on his nose, his mouth’s a straight line, his checklist hangs from a magnetized clip. He checks the ailerons and rudder. “Flight controls—free,” he half-shouts, precise, disciplined. “Trim—set. Parking brake—off.” At the end of the runway, “Flaps—check.” Finally, “Instruments—check.” He opens the throttle, pulls back on the yoke (“It’s not called a steering wheel,” he tells me), and we bump along the Greenville, North Carolina runway—part asphalt, part wiregrass—picking up speed. Easing into three dimensions, our bodies push at the seatbacks. The instruments on the control panel—all I can see when I settle back—say where we are and how we’re doing.

Aloft, he places my hands on the yoke. My arms reach it long before my feet will find the pedals. I feel in my body those natural forces: thrust and drag, lift and weight.

I demand barrel rolls and another couple thousand feet of climb. “Always in a hurry,” he says, “Never satisfied.”

***

I am twenty-five, hungry for exploits, looking for what’s missing and filling every space with story. Other risk-takers show up like they smell the need for action on me. One co-worker, a lab-pale electronics engineer and avocational pilot who knows his physics, reads my face. From his workbench—a mess of Taco Bell wrappers, pinging oscilloscopes, ashtrays filled with Parliament butts, and a snake’s nest of cables—he slips me a note with scribbled diagrams: snap rolls, outside loops, spirals, lazy-eights, inside loops, stalls. He flicks his mechanical pencil.

“Aerobatics,” he says, “You interested?”

I tell him I know all about aerobatics.

He’s not a fact checker. “When would you like to go?”

“Now works for me.”

An hour later at McClellan Field north of San Diego, smells are as familiar and sweet as longing—hot tarmac, engine lubricant, cockpit leather, the dusty stir of unruly air—smells I take so deep my lungs ache. We snap on body straps—him in the front seat, me in the back—and take off into a yellow headwind in his modified Cessna 150. Cirrus clouds feather a hard blue dome. He shouts code into the high-pitched whine of the single engine and gives me my first barrel roll. The happy scream I hear is mine. Flying is not overrated. I wish I could ask birds if they are grateful.

Then, a roaring nose-up into a tight arc—those Gs!—and there we are: flying bottom-side up, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below, hair on end, the crinkled Sawtooth Range chasing the glossy blue Pacific over, over, over the mist-rim of the planet, organs sloshing inside human body bags, weighing zero for seconds.

Out of a full 360 spiral, the horizon levels, and I experience a still space in the hollow cup of an outbreath, a hint of calm, of light and warmth. What I have not expected, I will not forget. I could write about it. I save it for later, whole.

I demand more. He responds, and we hurtle into another maneuver invented by warriors. I’m not claiming I’ve made the best choice here: I hardly know the guy. Not my type, but what a sweet machine!

Wheels down, some vast, nameless disappointment gnaws. Not crippling, not at this heedless age, but perceptible somewhere in my belly. I admit this. Something seen—yes, by chance—is now missing again.

***

The pilot hears the voice of the instructor in her head until she hears her own. What’s come down to me from my dad, reformed from fragments, shaped by each decade of experience, and reshaped with retelling is what I report now. Pay attention, he told me. There’s space in front and behind, to your left and right—but it’s vertical space you need to see. Learn to love emptiness. Sort out distraction. When you master your instruments, you’ll find the slot where thrust equals drag, and lift equals weight. Only experience will make it yours. You’ll recognize it when you see it. Ask hard questions, but you don’t need to know all the answers. And don’t fly anywhere your mind didn’t get to five minutes before.

Until we hear the voice of our own Instructor, I suspect what we hear are the weavings of our own Storyteller—the conjurer who seeks novelty, the weaver who turns insight into believable tales, patches up the unacceptable, and talks all the time. The mystery’s how she gets so good at it.

2. Looking Out
In the years before Star Trek, before NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, before a moon lander named Eagle and a science fiction warship named Hawk, before a space telescope named Kepler, before Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, I read. My Heinleins, Clarkes, and Asimovs—dog-eared, milk-ringed, spine-torn, peanut butter-smeared—promised space travel within a decade or two. I figured to be the first human off the planet.

Dew on summer grass. A mix of intention and curiosity as I pack a mesh bag with a Philips Planisphere, binoculars, a pimento cheese sandwich on white bread, a Co’Cola, and a sweater for cold nights in space. Point of departure: my North Carolina backyard. Destination: Venus. The vehicle: a spaceship of rag-tag construction, wobble-stacked wooden boxes and 2x4s, bailing wire and duct tape, and a pointy tin nosecone for piercing through layers of atmosphere I’ve memorized the names of. Troposphere. Stratosphere. Ionosphere. Exosphere. Layers dense down here, light up there.

My invention climbs a good fifteen feet above the backyard. On top perches the cockpit, protected from neighbors and meteorites by a shower curtain with a cutout window. What I want is a clear view into space. The control panel I fix with levers and dials to measure heading, pitch, yaw, roll, velocity—those instruments I copy from the Cessna.

The young dreamer’s icons: Johannes Kepler, whose Second Law of Planetary Motion I’ve plotted on a yellowed bed sheet; Wonder Woman, whose glass airplane comes when she calls; and National Geographic artists, whose images of the solar system I tear out and stick to the control panel with more duct tape. My spaceship is a collage of disparate, shoved-together components that come together at the edges, but only just.

My dad eyeballs my getaway ship. “What you need is a lighter tool.”

“Can I take the flashlight?”

“Do you have an alternate flight plan?”

I tell him no.

“How will you communicate with the ground?”

I hadn’t given that a thought.

“Do you have a checklist?”

I make one. Mine mimics his.

He points at what I’m hiding behind my back. “What’re those for?”

I tell him matches from the kitchen. Near the base of the ship sit two red five-gallon cans of his lawnmower gasoline, marked FLAMMABLE.

“Put the cans back in the garage,” he says, “and the matches back in the kitchen.”

The fuel in my mind catches fire and lifts me, pulling hard against gravity, into black space. Magical thinking powers my ship across the space between my backyard and the friendly planet that rises above the piney woods and beyond my world of tobacco fields. Wonder Woman flies co-pilot. Kepler provides the trajectory. Escape velocity reached—a persuasive 25,000 miles per hour—and me strapped down to a wooden box by a red cincher belt, me breaking free. The horizon bends into a convex blue-white line, the stars hold steady and unblinking. I’m not sure what to look at so I look at everything. Upon landing on Venus, whatever has been missing in my young life will show up. What it is, exactly, I don’t know. I’ll recognize it when I see it.

3. Thrust and Drag, Life and Weight
Summer arrives in New England late and hot. On these humid afternoons, long-awaited reminders of the South, heat rises off Abbott Run Valley Road and sweeps up our hill, delivering the scent of turned field and pine grove. Good flying weather. The resident red-tailed hawks take their children out to the thermals to learn flight from the grown-ups. The eyases, with long feather and hollow bone, learn how to lift their small bodies off a limb in the canopy and execute the tight bank, the high stall. How to ride the updraft and soar on wings that look fixed but aren’t at all. How to search for maneuvering altitude. How to dive for chipmunks that aren’t paying attention to the space above them. How to be birds of prey.

From the instructor hawk, a dad-like checklist of the instinctive kind is delivered in hawk-talk kee-eeeee-arrr and can be heard for miles. The hawks take their time: show and tell for the instructor, experience for the instructed. Shrieking goes on for days. When they find their balance—thrust against drag, lift against weight—the eyases find the natural slot in the air.

The children are curious and brave, cool raptors in the making. Follow the wide circumferences of their orbits, their teacher their center of mass, and then, later in the long week of learning, them alone.

***

We live in a house high among the trees. On summer mornings, the sun pops my eyes open at 4:30 when the brown wood thrush begins his song. The woods on the south side are deep and lush in countless greens and morning fog. The bird’s tee-tee-tee-tee-twee-churr-ti-ti-ti, a call more graceful expression than demand, is the flute section of the Abbott Run Valley Bird Orchestra, liquid and ringing.

It is a little known fact that a bird announces the three dimensions of his space with his call: the arc at the top of his range, his lowest reach, and his circumference, centered at his perch. “Come listen to this,” I say to my husband, whom I met forty years ago in a La Jolla, California laundromat, and we stand in the kitchen window.

The thrush’s variable tee-tee-tee-tee we take to mean this: I inhabit the space fifty feet below. Then the high, piping variable ti-ti-ti: Add the vertical space fifty feet above me. But it is the roiling twee-churr, sweeping around, clearing a full 360 that identifies this individual male as himself, unique, reclusive and resolute.

“Wonder how they work around our noise,” my husband says. “Fire trucks. Chain saws. Airplane engines. Fox News.” He’s a musician. He’s learned to consider interference.

I long ago abandoned a desire to beat my way through the woods to find the thrush in the green camouflage of his sky-house. He’s not like the hawks, seizing space, making the country day all about themselves, plucking up chipmunks and changing life on the ground forever. The thrush’s instrument for announcing his space—direct, immediate, clear—seems an effortless effort. In the silence of morning, the solitary bird calls: I am, and I am here.

***

Our annual thrashing escape to calm comes round again. After two days on I-95 South, with an overnight in a motel in Virginia, we are met a mile from the bridge to the Outer Banks with the murmur of surf and the scent of salt. Now, we sit on the south-facing beach of our beloved Bogue Bank, watching clouds ride the currents, feeling a good sou’-by-sou’easter, softly salt-laden, blow our hair wild and take the damp heat off our slick bodies. Between quiet sessions with storybooks, hauled in book bags to the shoreline, we sprawl in our low chairs, our feet in the water, or walk the broad beach for miles. July at last, and I am in the place of my yearlong yearning, a polynya.

One of us has climbed back up the dune for a pen, a hat, a journal, or a cool drink—“Can I get y’all something while I’m up at the house?”—and we are unspeakably happy in this storied place. We relax on day four or five—not sooner, for we have lived for a year filling up time and space with both good work and attractive clutter.

Pelicans, someone says and points west where Bogue Bank becomes undefined water, island, sky, and mist. Our heads come up as if, all year, we’ve awaited these large birds.

The flock approaches slowly, hardly visible, black spots in an informal, undulating line. We put our books aside and stand.

When we were children on this south-facing beach, building medieval sandcastles or digging our way to China, the pelicans—gliding swiftly, silently overhead, their shadows racing down the beach—numbered in the thousands. We would ask, Where does their flight begin? Where does it end? Perhaps, we said, in the land of giants and fairies. We spun stories about hitching rides on their powerful wings. Or finding an egg and growing our own pelican who would eat minnows from our sticky fingers. We believed these stories, so similar were they to fairy tales our mothers read to us when ceilings disappeared up into night, the ocean whispered, and bugs batted at rusty screens. Ancient, primal, hardwired—stories from which we make meaning still.

These days, fewer pelicans fly the beaches—three to fifteen birds in a fly-by, maybe a half-dozen flights a day—and we stop what we’re doing, follow them all, like the call to a homecoming. As adults, we know their habits: They fly east in the early morning to feed on Shackleford Banks, and west in the late afternoon to roost on Bear Island. Still, their flight touches on alchemy.

From a distance, the brown pelican is an old C-130: wings high-mounted, fuselage low and full. Throwbacks to Pterodactyls, and noble, they carry their ancient heads with intention, five or ten degrees to starboard or port, depending on the angle of the prevailing wind. They approach in silence, their fingered wingtips embracing the wind in an earthbound hug. The lead bird works hard against new, moist air. Those following—wingbirds—fly at the four o’clock position, two bird-lengths behind. Fifty years ago, my dad, the old barnstormer, called it the slot.

Mirrored on the water inches beneath their big bodies, they ride the uplift of a wave face. In this place of calm support, they are grounded, as if they have let their weight down. A crest of white wavebreak beneath signals the lead bird the need to rediscover the vertical, and as a single snaking body, the wingbirds follow, soaring upward out of turbulence. The synchronized flapping of many wings is soundless. Weight equals lift, and thrust equals drag. Energy used only when needed—efficient, imperturbable, calm.

They ground us. We are the more silent because of them. Then they are gone, having settled into us like prayer.

4. The Warrior’s Struggle
The wind has moved around to the southwest, pushing the ocean into a froth.

“You know how waves form?”

“No,” says my husband, “tell me.” A calm and thoughtful man, he likes to say that marrying me has been worth the drama.

“Water molecules hold their stubborn places,” I say. “They themselves don’t move forward with the wave. They just push the molecule in front of them. Like a Slinky, except wet.”

When the wave approaches the shallows, the molecules at the bottom of the wave column laze, dragging along the rising shoal like they have all day. Those at the top are taken by the wind, exuberant, in a hurry like they want more. They push, push until the surface of the wave overreaches, can’t hold. Seawater thrusts, flies, plunges. Waves interfere with each other, stir stuff up, cross boundaries, break things on the surface, and fill in empty spaces every time they get half the chance.

“There’s confusion in it, even violence,” I say, “like noisy thought stirred up.” Like tension held too long in the muscle of the sea. “I don’t like it when they do that.”

“What’s happening beneath?” he offers.

For a moment, the surface of the sea calms. Perhaps I might look beneath the surface of things, follow the finger of sunlight where it penetrates the blue lens of water and traces pattern on the sandy bottom. The water is so clear I might relax this relentless concern with the surface and see a message written on the seafloor—a flash of insight—before the chaos of waves obscures.

Do we believe that moments of clarity are under our governance? No, I think not. Do we believe that what is missing can be seen if we commit to the work of seeing? Yes, I think so.

But night moves in and the Milky Way spirals us slowly forward and away from the moment. What insight might we receive if with divine curiosity we could tune the instrument of an inner eye to that space where we will be in the next moment? It’s a space as yet unknown to me, but knowable. I have come to believe that it is grace.

5. Hand-Held Space
A whelk, as gray and rough as raw clay, fired into its spiral by Nature herself, lies in a backwash pool. Its geometric shape, lyria, is a summons to poetry and to music. It rests among unbroken ice-cream-cone augers and scallops—pink-striped, calico-winged. I scoop it up. It turns easily in my palm. Near the aperture, a jagged wound has opened. Once I bought a nautilus at Emerald Isle Shells and Gifts—one shipped perhaps from New Caledonia in a box of straw, one whose perfection obscures its internal chambers, the laborious, unseen work of the creature on itself.

An older me—pitted, cracked open by experience—smiles at last at imperfection.

“Ah, a Mary Oliver whelk,” I say to my husband.

He squints into the sun: “Which is?”

“‘All my life I have been restless,’” I quote her poem, “‘I have felt there is something more wonderful than gloss … I have not been sure what it is.’”

He touches the hair at my neck. “My curious warrior with the big questions,” he says, and moves on down the beach, his eyes scanning the shell bed.

To sit on a beach is to ponder. I turn the whelk over in my hands and see how its shell has been pushed and pulled by the sea, gnawed by the hunger of those creatures that attached to its body. How it collided with a force that opened its frightful scar, leaving it changed. How the spiral accretes, then opens and turns outward. How the bruised human heart might, in time, open to succor others with compassion. The way out.

But it’s not just that. Its symmetry pulls me as if what is ordained is the way in. I have considered the design of exterior space—flight of Cessnas, movement of seas, scan of galaxies, flight of birds—but have I contemplated the vastness of interior space? The mother-of-pearl path plunges under the whelk’s lip, quickly winding down and out of sight, and gathers around a hidden center of mass where a small gastropod anchored its developing life.

***

Midnight is alive. White surf, white moon, crickets sawing in the water oaks. Powered by a humming energy deep in my belly, I lift off from the dune. Surfy air sweeps over and under my arms, outstretched, and I climb, bank, soar. How did I discover this? What convergence of propensities, abilities, wishes birthed this flight—like Cessnas, like hawks, like pelicans—but without wings. I visit the green, blue, white world, and when at last I return at dawn, I fear to land. How will I find this capability again? With regret, I awaken in the morning. It’s Freudian, some will say—sexual really—these dreams of flying. No, I say. It’s freedom, powered from some interior space that needs to be uncovered. I now suspect this may be birthright.

What chief illusion, what blindness halts us at the door of seeing? Is it the aimless wanderer, circling forever out of habit, abstracted and fugitive, who searches for an external home? Or is it the seeker who, with curiosity, senses that something authentic is missing in herself? I don’t know why I have not asked these questions before now.

6. Interior Space
Thin and without airs, the potter is a crone. Her name isn’t pronounced as it is written. She has the sinew of hands and fingers an artist might beg to draw. Her near-silence is unstudied, as is her smile. Something of herself is saved for herself.

In each of our palms, she slaps a lump of clay. I give mine a story: Of ground-up granite, it has traveled by downhill chute from the roof of the world, washed into meandering riverbeds by seasonal rains, spread out across an alluvial plain where ancient lakes tamped it down.

“Pay attention,” she says. She thrusts a thumb into her ball of clay. “Now, with yours,” she says, “but with your eyes closed.”

I shut my eyes to a circle of six faces, those I have come to know by sight since I hauled myself to this late summer week of spiritual retreat in upstate New York. Enlightenment shopping on a woodsy porch.

Feel the sun through your eyelids and, with your fingertips, the weathered grain of a worktable eroded by harsh winters. Smell the kicked-up dust from the warm road. Hear the murmur of woodlands. A wood thrush, that liquid tee-tee-tee-tee-twee-churr-ti-ti-ti. A pushy hawk on a thermal kee-eeeee-arrr. A rhythmic ax.

During childhood summers, we shaped our external world. Mud-pie afternoons, endless and steamy, stretched to suppertime. We cousins patted out mud-bowls and mud-plates, studded them with augers, winged coquinas, and the egg sacks of whelks, and set them out on planks to dry. At sunset, we offered them to aunts and grandmothers who nodded from slat-backed rockers, shelled butterbeans, and fanned themselves in the wet heat. They were gifts we expected them to use.

Where was I? Oh. My thumbs work the tiny interior landscape—the high cirque, the yawning crevasse, the tossed-up boulder—and the space inside my ball of clay expands. When you come in close like this, your fingers working alone, you begin to grasp the calculus: The base must be stable—gravity will have its way—but not so bulky as to hinder lift. “Observe the quality of your judgment here,” she says. When lift comes, released from below, the sides inform the way—a gift of the base. “The pushing out must balance the holding in,” she says. Vertical, I am thinking—the natural preference of growing things. A push from below. A pull from above.

“The inside is more important than the outside,” she says, “and the quality of your attention defines this space.”

The lip of my vessel begins to push out, to bend over and down. I think of Old World roses taking a country ditch, unruly and ready for the bee business. For a moment, the interior, opened toward the west, fills up with sunlight. “With the rim—how you open to the world—you can afford to be generous,” she says.

My Storyteller sees with my eyes, speaks in my head: Look at the useful and beautiful object you’ve created here—a new vase to hold your Cross pen. Your Bick highlighters. Your sterling Reposé letter opener. You need this.

Yes, yes, and I will take my vase with me on Sunday and it will sit on my writing table, near my Mary Oliver whelk, my Phillips Planisphere, my Wonder Woman poster (“Thrill to the astonishing story of Wonder Woman’s rescue of ‘The Girl from Yesterday!’”), books climbing three walls, the photo of my dad and his Taylorcraft, pelicans poised above a crest on Bogue Bank, and an orange-robed Buddhist monk who watches concentric circles on a jade sea. Yes, and no one will be allowed to use my vase but me. I search the porch for glaze, and the yard, out to the sunny rim of the woods, for a kiln. Will there be time to fire my blue pen vase before Sunday morning?

I believe my stories. Fiction or nonfiction, at least I know them.

“Who is not attached to their bowl?” the potter asks.

I ease my hands around my pen vase and push back on the bench. This small dun-colored object—the product of a little judgment, a tad of attention, a trickle of generosity—seems glued to my hand as if it’s what has been missing my whole life.

She slices others’ bowls in half with her potter’s wire—I’m taking this personally—until, gently goaded, the last to sacrifice, I hand mine over—unglazed, unfired, un-mine. When she slices me through my center, I gasp. During transitions, I forget to breathe.

She points out an imbalance in my base, inconsistencies in lift along my sides, an off-kilter center of mass, a surging mouth of a rim. I am seen.

I leave, taking with me only my relinquishing. Had I held on to this gift—glazed, fired, owned—I would have lost it.

7. Seeing In
Early fall, early morning. Venus climbs the indigo dome over Massachusetts, riding the elliptic beneath the silent movement of Cygnus and Lyre. In a sanctuary near a sunrise-facing window high in the house, I sit in half-lotus. Repeat, repeat, repeat: eyases on the thermals, whorls in the whelk, hands on a turning pot, curious in the laboratory of myself.

The Storyteller, with her tales of past and future, arrives on the cushion with me, proliferation in her very bones. She thinks she’s me: the practiced skill of the ventriloquist. Sometimes I think she’s me: the sleep of the grinning dummy. My mind, untethered, does lazy-eights and spiral rolls. What Pleistocene brains we inherit—poor things—with thoughts that do their untidy, evolved thing: scan-scan-scan, ready-fire-aim, find-the-source-judge-it-fix-it-change-it-evade-it-escape-it-bury-it. A house too small. Often, I can hardly keep my seat for my wish to flee to pen and paper.

I need a return to stillness: a place from which to see out, a place from which to see in. A more stately mansion. And where, exactly, is that? Perhaps in the small opening, potential and fragile, between the random thought and spring-loaded emotion that attracts and entangles, that creates tension in my body. Just there in that small and endless space. Can I resist the urge to build a fictional world there?

If embroidered story evolved with us, adapted for survival back when we huddled around a fire in the terrifying night—if story is hardwired, thus natural—is Arjuna’s battle a work against the natural? I think so. I suspect Krishna wasn’t suggesting that the plain of battle for self is without sacrifice. Other than my pen vase, what else am I to give up?

The Watcher is here by invitation. The she-warrior who does spirited battle. The pilot-instructor who senses the slot. The navigator who understands wind and tide, and holds fast to longitude, latitude, and magnetic center. The poet who lives in the intimate and continuous present. The one who knits together meaning, and in her own time.

Here on the cushion, the Storyteller meets the Watcher head on.

Who is there? the Watcher asks.

Wait! I say. There’s more to say about Arjuna.

Stop talking! she explains, and I hear the chuckle of the entertained but compassionate. She has a sense of humor: Thought isn’t the enemy. Rather, it’s what we add. The glue. And stillness is not silence. Rather, it’s thought without the flypaper. It’s not a better story you need, nor an enlightened storyteller. You are not the sum of your stories. Let’s have some perseverance here!

Weary of my own circular thinking, the Storyteller in me relents, and the hawkish bird of prey, the real friend of the distracted mind, swoops down and plucks the chatty narrator right off the cushion. A temporary relinquishing of airtime, the most one can expect from a lover of action when asked for uncommon patience. The Storyteller, hovering nearby with her glue pot, rustles and hints of dramas yet to come. She will not disappoint. Later, I’ll return to the comfort and safety of noisy stories and my lifelong fascination with them. I admit I’m looking forward to this.

But now, my weight settles and my head lifts. I begin to prefer an inhabited body without aerobatic thought. For now, the drag of resistance eases, and the inner thrust of attention balances me in space, like flight in the slot. For now, my own small dramas give way to the wish to see with an innocent eye sensitive to the light. My heartbeat slows and a call arises from this solitary place. Clear! Calm abides beneath waves of restlessness, calm rises above waves of noise, calm settles in the cup at the bottom of the outbreath. I am here in this place of terrible freedom with no name. For now, the body is home enough, the breath event enough, silence space enough. For now, nothing is missing.

Anne Hodges White, a nonfiction writer, has published most recently in Milk Sugar Journal and Prick of the Spindle. Her story “LuLu’s Beach House School for Wily Deceivers” was nominated for a Best of the Net Anthology 2013 award. She lives in New England with her husband and blogs at www.annehodgeswhite.com.

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