Monday, November 23, 2015

in the shadows of evening

My empty apartment stays quiet until I come home. When I arrive, it speaks in hushed tones of lit candles, running water, whirring ceiling fans, as if speaking quietly of something shameful. When I change out of my work clothes, the late afternoon light is already fading across my bedspread, leaving the rest of the room in shadows.

*            *            * 

There is a potted cactus that sits on the windowsill in my kitchen. In the quiet daytime hours, when I am at work or running weekend errands or trying to make my life exciting and full, the sun shines on the cactus, marking time by the shadows it creates. I water the plant occasionally, when I remember. Mostly, the cactus feeds on sun and time. Its growth is slow, nearly hidden. Some plants sprout over night. Flowers practically bud before your eyes. Bamboo shoots up so fast its reach upwards is audible, a pained and hope-filled creaking. Just the other day, after more than twelve months on my sill, I noticed that this cactus has a few new buds. It is stretching itself. I am proud of my silent cactus, the way it's stayed and grown despite so little attention from me.

*            *            *

When I arrive home, my heart rumbles and stirs in my chest. I carry around small stories that made up my day (the funny thing he did, that meeting that went well, that bold idea I shared, the way they took me seriously this time). Too little, it seems, to warrant a call to a friend, but too big to keep all to myself. Who will see in all these stories that small shoot in me that sprouted, that wasn't there just last week? Who will sit with me in the shadows of evening, candles lit against the dark, their whispers only of hope, of the thing that comes after night?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

running new orleans

One of my favorite ways to see new city is to run it. Running takes you further than walking does. The terrain gives you a feel for the city - how dirty or broken the sidewalks are, the hills or lack of them, the kinds of trees and flowers that grow there. I'm usually doing it when the sun's still rising, which means that streets aren't too crowded - and, just like with people, watching it wake up can tell you a lot about a place.

I got two morning runs in during a quick trip to New Orleans this week. New Orleans is a complex town, both rick in its celebration - food, partying, colors - and disturbing in its desperation - age, disrepair, neglect. I took some photos during my running tours, below. There's a lot that these photos don't capture - the French street names and how they were marked in tile letters on street corners; the strip clubs next to the coffee shops and breakfast joints; the faces of tired men walking to the bus stop for work; the blankets covering people who had slept on streets. But I think they show some of its beauty, some bestowed and other hard-won.

The first day, I found a bit of a path along the Mississippi, then ran through the French Quarter and a sketchy neighborhood, then back to Canal Street, a main thoroughfare (where I had plotted a coffee stop at the end of my run). The second day, I wanted to make it over to the Garden District. On my way, I found myself on Magazine Street (boutiques! cafes!) completely by accident, then saw a coffee shop I'd heard about. I might have had a donut and coffee in the middle of my run. It felt like the right thing to do in a place like New Orleans.

Day 1:

Morning, Mississppi!

Sky and water

French Quarter
Louis Armstrong Park
Day 2:
Sunrise over the Mississippi

Shops on Magazine Street
Lower Garden District (I think?)

Coffee stop!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

straighter legs and sustained postures of discomfort

My body doesn't do that. This is what I think when the instructor calls out my name after she says, "Legs straight!" One of mine is on the ground, the other I lift behind me, over and over. I am bent over, back parallel to the floor, arms holding the ballet bar.

My body feels like a bunch of leftover pieces slapped together. My knees ache, my hips are tight, my shoulders broad and arms gangly. My big eyes bulge out of my round face. I hide my long forehead with bangs. My legs, which are slightly different lengths, are always tight, so they never really straighten.

When I sit on the floor at the end of barre class and try to spread my legs to stretch, mine make a tight V while others stretch theirs into nearly a straight line. Others bend over and hug the floor. I hunch over to touch my toes. My hip sockets won't let my legs turn out any wider. I think someone used the wrong kind of glue when they put me together. My joints are stuck.

I wonder if this is something I can change. Can I make my hips more flexible? I google this with my niece and we practice poses named after animals: pigeon, frog, butterfly. All I can think is, I'm not an animal, and this doesn't feel good.

When the instructor comes around to help me with my legs, she pulls the lifted one so that my muscle contracts and my leg lengthens. Suddenly, it is even straighter. I think about how my body might slowly change if I can hold my leg this straight every time. I think about strength, I think about flexibility and bending and molding. I think about sustained postures of discomfort and how quickly I try to escape them. I think about being content with my body, fearfully and wonderfully made, yada yada yada. I think about the process of being made, how it is past present and future, it is how straight I hold my leg, the discomfort I can bear. How being made is still happening.

Monday, October 26, 2015

even after all the evidence is gone

Some days, I think about giving up on writing. It wouldn't be that hard to do, I think. Instead of my writing group every other Monday, I will clean my apartment or start watching a tv show on Netflix. Or I will spend the time going through that top shelf on my bookcase where I keep all my writing books. Bird by Bird and The Writing Life and On Writing. And the poetry books that inspired me, the Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver. I will box them up and take them to Goodwill and display framed photos of my family in their place. Or I will go through the stacks of magazines on my coffee table. The Poets and Writers and the Creative Nonfictions and the tablets of handwritten practice, they will go into recycling. I will rip pages from my journal where I took notes on writing or scribbled ideas for essays. I will take the nametags from conferences hanging on the mirror in my bedroom and put them in the trash. I will go through the word documents on my computer and drag all those essays I've written into the recycle bin, along with pdfs of essays I've loved and saved in case I ever teach a course. I will go through my blog reader and take off all those writing blogs. I will unsubscribe from emails that encourage writing or invite me to writing conferences. I will unfriend all my writing friends on Facebook. I will learn to look disinterested when my coworkers and creative friends begin to talk to me about writing, and I will delete their emails that recommend links to essays and articles before even opening them. I will untrain my mind to wonder about word choice and sentence structure and idea development when I read books.

But then that one tiny thing will remain, the thing I don't know how to rid my life of, and I will wonder how a husband leaves the wife of his youth or how a mother releases her baby into the hands of another because isn't there still that softly beating rhythm in her heart that marks time, that pumps blood, that sustains life only because that other being is now a part of it? How do you forget that internal pressure that made you desire and hope and live for the other? Even after all the evidence is gone, something inside still remembers.

Monday, October 5, 2015

when time is full

Jumping in and out of a person's life - as in, living a country away and seeing them face to face, skin to skin every six or nine or twelve months - has a way of creating snapshots without showing much of what happens in between. My niece and nephew grow up in a fragmented way before me, then they were toddlers and now all of a sudden (or so it seems) they are bigger little people - or is it little bigger people?  They are saying interesting things and cultivating interests I could not have guessed. How did they learn that, I wonder. Where did that idea come from? It's like planting a seed and coming back to found that it has sprouted when you still expected it to be hibernating in the ground.

My nephew Tayte is nearly seven and all boy. On this visit, he has punched, hi-fived, kicked, head-butted and farted on me. Wrapped in a blanket before school this morning (ie being a green lobster of course), he was unaware as I scooped him up into my lap and declared him my baby (not a lobster!) and rocked him in my lap. But the lobster spread his claws and tried to pinch me and found his way to the floor. Tayte expresses himself bodily, dropping to the ground when he is frustrated or hungry or tired. Although he uses words, too, which he forms into expressions that make me stop and wonder how he ever thought of that. For example, yesterday, in response to something unexpected and funny he did, I said to him, "you're so random!" He replied, with a taunting tone, "You're so random. You came out of nowhere." How he became so existential and whip smart, I have no idea. Maybe it's all the Star Wars he's watching.

Amelia is my niece. She just turned nine. We have talked about dying our hair funky colors, the art of wearing skirts over leggings (always with shorts, too, she explained, in case you want to do cartwheels), and she's impressed by my shoe collection. When she told me about some of her life goals, she explained it's between being an Olympic gymnast or America Ninja Warrior. Then, after thinking a minute, she realized she could do both, and I agreed. I tried to get information about her love life as she pointed to her friends in her school yearbook, but she just blushed and turned the page. (I was satisfied.) On my second night here, we moved my blow-up mattress from the play room to her room. She dragged her pillow and propped it against the wall next to mine, and together we read until we were sleepy. The next night, she told me it was time to read together again. Now I am wondering, can I be best friends with my niece?

These glimpses of who they are and are becoming always makes me a little sad about missing all the in between. I want to see how those ideas formed, how those desires got planted. Yet, there's something important about the distance and moving time that helps me to see the changes more distinctly. Time can feel like a thief that steals moments when we aren't looking, but maybe all those moments weren't mine to have in the first place. It was in those moments we had apart - when time was full and ours for the taking - that we got these crazy ideas that we can share when we're together. Farting and reading before bedtime and all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

how to live with hunger, or what could have happened if i hadn't quit basketball

Because I am tall, people often ask me if I play basketball. Usually, I simply say yes. But I feel like a bit of an imposter when I answer that way. I know they are probably imagining me powering through the baseline with the ball in my hand, shoving my shoulder into the chest of a defender who's planted herself to get the foul. Then I fake and pass to a teammate, or take the hook shot, or fall with the defender as the whistle blows to call my trespass. Or they see me jumping for rebound after rebound, hungry for the ball. They are reading athleticism and aggressiveness into my profile. 

Here is the truth: I tried out for the team in seventh grade without ever having played a game of basketball in my life. The closest I got was probably shooting a round of Horse in our front driveway with my best friend or older sister. During those early practices, I felt clumsy during the drills. It took me time to get the hang of dribbling the ball in a figure eight around my spread squatting legs and the coordination of a two-step lay up (lift off the inside leg, pull the outside leg up). 

I made the team, which I guess I wasn't too surprised about. My coach may have seen some promise in my game, but I'm sure he wanted me on the team for my height. I was already close to my full 5'11" in seventh grade.

But here's the thing - I never quite felt like I belonged on the court. I can't jump high, I'm not that aggressive, I usually choked and passed the ball instead of being eager to take the shot myself. At game time, I was uncomfortable holding the ball in my hands. 

I played for a few years, had some fun and convinced my mom to buy me some really hot black nike high top sneakers (they were so cool). But after tenth grade, I quit.

Since then, I've played intramural games in college with a stacked team of really tall friends and a few co-ed pick up games. I'm still not that great, but I love the pace of the game and the slap of the ball on the ground and the arc it makes headed for the net. I've wondered many times what might have happened if I'd kept playing. Would I have found my groove? Would I have gained confidence? Would I have learned how to live with hunger, how to allow it to move me forward and jump high and act like the ball really should belong in my hands?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

one of my favorite poets gets long-listed, and crying during poetry readings

The week-long announcements of the National Book Award long lists was created for book nerds like me. (And yes, I realize 90 percent of my readers just stopped paying attention with that opening sentence.) Each morning, I've eagerly scrolled my feedly feed for a blog entry to show me a new list of stand outs. Monday was young adult literature, which I don’t really follow. But Tuesday was poetry, which promised some new-to-me writers to check out. And at the very top of the list beamed one of my favorite (if one of the only ones I read) poetry books this year. I might have fist pumped while yelling the author’s name. I was at home when this happened, just so you know.

You see, I’ve actually been wanting to tell you, to tell everyone really, about this writer. Meet Ross Gay. I first encountered his writing through an essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy. It was waiting unassumedly in a magazine I’d subscribed to, and in an evening of disciplined reading I opened the magazine and didn’t expect much. Then, I started reading and was startled and also drawn in by his tone, which seemed to communicate an incredible amount of grace — for the police who profile him as a criminal for the color of his skin, for his country that has allowed this behavior to remain the norm, for himself and the wild range of emotions he felt in response. And then the ending. The ending is what got me because he starts talking about his early attempts at bee farming, which at first seems an odd way to reflect on the intense personal experiences he shares. But then you catch onto the emotions he’s describing in his encounter with these bees is so closely reflective of how he responds to the world around him. I can’t do it justice, you just have to read him.

The emotional power and fresh use of imagery in including that scene should have told me this guy was a poet at heart. And he is. But I didn’t really get into his poetry until just a few months ago. The writer’s name had tucked itself into the back of my mind because I kept that wonderful essay as an example of the kind of writing I’d like to emulate. Then, at a writer’s conference, his name jumped out to me when I skimmed the program for seminars to attend. He was doing a reading from his new book. I earmarked the page and put it on my schedule.

The reading included five poets. The first read her over-serious poetry in an over-serious tone that nearly lulled me to sleep. But Ross sat at the end of the table, his long legs splayed before him, his grown out hair tucked into two small buns like martian, his impossibly wide grin spreading the length of his deep jaw. His graciousness was written all over him. I listened as the other four poets read. And then Ross stood up and the energy of the room changed. He smiled and bounced slightly. He set his timer for his 15 minute time slot, and explained he would read one poem from his book, the title poem: Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. And off he went.

This wasn’t a reading, it was a performance, a full embodiment of the feeling he meant to convey, which was a joyful thanksgiving for things that most consider quite simple, but in which he recognizes a deeper gift. It was for the words he spoke, and also how intimately and fully he felt them, that I started to cry right there in the brightly lit convention center room. I was a bit embarrassed at first. I feel deeply, but usually not publicly. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and overconsumption of sugar, I reasoned. But then I realized that this is what poetry is: an invitation to live fully and be thankful for all you receive.

I wish you could have been there with me, but second best is watching a different reading of the same poem for yourself. Go here. Minute 23 is the good stuff. (Well, it's all good stuff, but you know what I mean.)