On the Food-gasm, or, Why We Feel So Passionately about “Regional” Dishes

December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments

Mad Feast mech.inddA guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:

After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled.  People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region.  I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.

Matthew Gavin Frank

Matthew Gavin Frank

Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people.  These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world.  That’s why home is where the heart is.  That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood.  If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us.  What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many.  As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts.  And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein.  Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality.  Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.

On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.”  Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state.  The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we.  No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.

Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms).  Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability.  There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door.  It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim.  To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix.  Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over.  The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other.  A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth.  It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair.  We kiss with the same mouths we eat with.  We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically.  The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.

Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism).  These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors.  This is our private territory.  Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts.  In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others.  Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential.  It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself.  In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
__
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books.  In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.

Movement and the Essay: Josey Foo

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Josey Foo

Josey Foo

Josey Foo discusses how she came to write her exquisitely minute essay “So Little” in the new issue of Brevity:

I suppose this piece sprang from questions of who I am. I certainly can’t grasp the who of me, I seem to lie and cheat in the moment before moving, then try to move in a forthright way, and the movement can seem like a runaway train even over the single step. The decision to move changes my life, then the movement changes it again. A kaleidoscope of changes happens to me as I proceed and I’m evolving as a person. The movement is the poem, the humanity that goes into moving is the significant story, then the movement again is the climax or ending. I am a bundle of contradictions in a single move.

Use of the third person was necessary because this piece happened to be too close. Use of the third person is for comfort. The person (me) feels like an intruder in the space between the chair and the window. Her motivations are all suspicious. She feels she has grown into something that must stay still and is distorted otherwise. At the same time she’s just trying out her body, hanging her body this way and that to feel strengths and weaknesses and wondering whether any of it is real.

I wrote a book a few years ago with the dancer/choreographer Leah Stein that were poems and notes on dance, and performed with her and her dancers in Philadelphia in 2012. I had to go up on stage and walk about, reading poems from memory as the dancers simply moved. They didn’t second guess their movements. They approached their bodies and movement with joy while I was filled with panic and just wanted to stop and think the whole thing through for one moment and then do it again for the next.

 

How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP

February 25, 2014 § 7 Comments

Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts

Guest Blogger Suzanne Roberts offers some excellent and amusing advice on how to behave at the VIP parties:

You may think it’s as easy as drinking too much gin and falling off a barstool at the lobby bar. But it isn’t. That’s standard fare at the annual AWP conference. No, to make a fool of yourself at the AWP takes some planning, some research. And a way to sneak into the VIP party.

Here’s what you do. Wait until the last night, when you are so exhausted you can barely remember your own name. Then find someone who has an actual invitation to the VIP Party. Did you know that such a party exists? Of course you don’t! You weren’t invited. And as it turns out, that’s for a good reason. But lucky for you, your friend was. But the guards—yes they have actual guards at this event and they are not poets, so you can’t offer them a cigarette and sneak by them—they take their job of protecting the famous writers from the likes of you very seriously, and your friend has more than one plus-one. In fact, he has five. Though your friend is good looking, is it possible that he has that many dates? Because the five-to-one-fantasy appeals to poets and non-poets alike, you and your plus-five package get into the party, and the guards start to wonder if they themselves should start writing verse.

First things first: sashay over to the buffet and free bar and gorge yourself on shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon, carrot sticks and chardonnay. You will have been too busy grazing to notice, but your friends have left the party.  But by all means, don’t leave the party yet! Stay until long after the Pulitzer-winners and Poet Laureates are long gone. Stay until the guards indicate that it is time for you to stop with the shrimp and go get your coat. But first stuff your purse with bread sticks, carrots, and celery. You are your mother’s daughter after all, and in her words, they are just going to throw it away.

In the dim light (note the dim light) of the coat check area, you will spot a man who looks vaguely familiar. You try to place him and then decide, Why, that’s Nick Flynn! You have never actually met Nick Flynn, but you saw him give a reading at a literary magazine party in a dark bar the night before (note both words: dark and bar). Turn to Nick Flynn and tell him, “I just loved your reading last night.”

“Thank you,” he will say, pulling on his coat.

Because you don’t want to leave this exchange so quickly, and you are full of shrimp cocktail courage, you say, “My husband loved your book,” which is not just flattery, it’s actually true. Your husband read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in one night.

“I’m so glad,” he says, looking at you from the threshold of the door.

“Oh yes,” you continue, stuffing your arms into your own coat. “He wouldn’t come to bed. He loved your book so much. He couldn’t put it down. He sat on the couch reading it all night.”

At this point a woman at the coat check says, “Hot damn. Poetry over pussy.”

You correct her, “No, Suck City,” meaning, of course, the memoir. This is an honest mistake. Nick Flynn writes poetry, too, though you can’t imagine your husband staying up all night reading poetry. You are pretty sure he hasn’t even read your last poetry book.

“Yeah, I guess it might have been suck city, if he hadn’t chose poetry over pussy,” she says.

“No, not the poetry” you will say, still trying to clarify, “Another Bullshit Night.”  The woman laughs, but you swear you see her mouth the word “Turrets” to Nick Flynn.

This little repartee is not enough! You must follow Nick Flynn and dominate his attention for the entire walk through the indoor mall and back to the hotel lobby. And when the small talk about the party begins, make sure to tell him how you snuck in to the VIP party. He will look at you with a strange look, but not nearly as strange a look as when you say, “I just loved Suck City. I mean I love the poetry, too. But Suck City was so great. I’m looking forward to Suck City on the big screen.”

When he speeds up, desperate to catch up to his friends, make sure to match his pace step for step because you aren’t done.

Then tell him, out of breath because of your swift clip, “We…have…a mutual friend.”

“Who’s that?” He will look doubtful. Maybe not so much that you have a mutual friend but that you have any friends at all.

You tell him the name of your mutual friend. She is your colleague, and you know her to be one of Nick Flynn’s very best friends.

“I don’t think I know her.”

At this point you will hit—maybe punch is the better term—Nick Flynn’s arm and say, “Of course you do!”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You blurbed her book!” Make sure a carrot or breadstick falls from your purse when you say this.

“No, I didn’t.”

You will be adamant because you are sure that Nick Flynn blurbed her book. You have seen it right there on the back cover. How could he forget? “You did so,” you will say, “plus, I’ve seen you two together on facebook.”

You are met with a puzzled look.

But don’t give in. Rather than to take in the facts before you, be sure to stick to the facts in your head. Refuse all the signs. So Nick Flynn will have no other choice but to assent. “Maybe I do know her,” he will finally say. “Maybe I met her at the Atlantic Center of the Arts?”

“You see!” You are triumphant. Later you will tell your colleague about this little exchange, and she will say “Please tell me you didn’t say my name.”

You will have to admit that you did.

Nick Flynn shakes his head and says “Maybe I’ve had too much to drink.”

You have read Nick Flynn’s books, and you know he is a recovering addict, so you think, What? Nick Flynn has been drinking? O-no! But you say, “Me too” to cover your bases. Something in you knows that even if it isn’t true, you should say you have had too much to drink. Way too much to drink.

You continue to walk together, and every so often, you ask questions that Nick Flynn seems unable to answer, or you exclaim “Suck City” in reference to his memoir, and each time he looks at you like you are deranged, like you are a woman capable of sadistic ritual, bizarre and vicious crimes. Like he wants to escape but doesn’t want you to know he’s fleeing, just in case you will follow him. Which you are already doing.

And then Nick Flynn tells you he has to find his husband.

“Husband?”

“Yes.”

“You’re married to a man?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

The last you heard, Nick Flynn had married the actress Lili Taylor. But rather than question this, just think: Well things sometimes change.

When you finally arrive back to the hotel lobby, your friend Rodney will see you talking to Nick Flynn, and he will come up, introduce himself, and ask him, “How did Obama ask you about the inauguration? Did he call you or what?”

And you will turn to look at Nick Flynn and his face will suddenly rearrange itself. Not familiar because he was in the dim bar reading about his father the night before, but familiar for another reason—this was this face that filled the TV screen on inauguration day. And all of a sudden, you will be at a loss for words. But then you say this, which makes things worse, not better: “I didn’t know. I mean, I’d forgotten. I mean that you were the inaugural poet. But your poem, it was just great.” Your friend Rodney will look at your with a wrinkled forehead, his mouth opened into little frowning O, and you will smile and say, “Super great,” the word great trailing off, swallowed by the din of the lobby.

At that, Nick Flynn—now Richard Blanco—will make his escape. He will say, “I need to find my husband outside.”

You will think, Ah yes, husband. Of course he has a husband, as your brain reshuffles itself.

You will then try to explain what just happened to Rodney—an abbreviated version—and you will say, “Oh my God. I have to go outside and find him, to explain what happened.” You make for the lobby’s revolving door, but Rodney pulls you back, saying, “Oh no you don’t. I think you’ve said enough already,” to which you can hardly disagree.

flynn and blanco

Flynn and Blanco

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net

Food Bloggers: Call for Nominations

November 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

Attn: Food Bloggers: upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).

Creative Nonfiction magazine is looking for interesting, true stories that focus on food, including restaurant reviews; tales of meals gone awry; secrets, tips and kitchen short cuts; confessions from cooks, chefs and/or servers; an examination of the kitchen life; and so on.  To be used in the upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).

To nominate, you’ll need to know the title or specific URL of the post. Nominate your own work, or that of someone else. Nominate as many posts as you like, though the good folks at CNF mag ask that you not nominate the same post multiple times.

The deadline for nomination is 11:59 PM EST, Monday, November 29, 2010.

Nominate at: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/blog_nomination.html.

Contests, Glamour, Food, Immortality

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Glamour’s Seventh Essay Writing Contest

If you have an inspiring story about a life changing event, an obstacle overcome, a relationship or passion that’s defined you—then we want to read it!  You could win $5000 and a meeting with a top literary agent.See complete rules for details

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18th Annual SiWC Writing Contest

Non-fiction: maximum length 1,500 words.

Prizes: 1st: $1000 and anthology (per category). Honorable Mention(s) $150 each.

Deadline: September 10, 2010

Fees: $15 per submission

http://www.siwc.ca/contest/2010

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Memoir (and) Competition

Prose limit: 10,000 words maximum. Graphic memoir limit: Must fit on no more than twenty 7” x 10” pages. Narrative photography limit: Up to 5 images.

Deadline: August 16, 2010

http://memoirjournal.squarespace.com/contest-details/

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Creative Nonfiction Immortality Competition

Essays must be unpublished, 5,000 words or less and written on the subject of Immortality.

Deadline: August 6, 2010

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/submittocnf.htm

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Creative Nonfiction Food Competition

Essays must be unpublished and consist of 5,000 words or less. Submissions must be true stories that incorporate or involve food.

Prizes: 1st: $1000, 2nd: $500

Deadline: September 3, 2010

Fees: $20

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/submittocnf.htm

In Praise of the Light-Footed Indie Publisher

April 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Jay Nicorvo, in a recent Guernica essay, offers a convincing examination of what is wrong (and right) in publishing these days, and begs to differ with Ted Genoways’ recent essay on “The Death of Fiction.”  Nicorvo’s argument, in brief, is that the big NYC houses have lost their connection to readers, while limber, light-on-their-feet” indie publishers see nothing but opportunity in the new media new market.  He makes good sense, and give us hope.

Read on:

These days, editors at commercial publishing houses … no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information … And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well — blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.

It’s the Ted Genowayses of the world, editors at literary magazines, university and independent presses, who still … (choose) those manuscripts which, to the best of their subjective judgment, are really the prettiest as they see them. And while we’re still in the recesses of the Great Recession, even as retirement funds and university endowments begin a gradual rebound, university-affiliated publishers are feeling particularly pinched. But the more limber, light-on-their-feet publishers—those not tied to state institutions funded by tax revenue—the indie publishers mission-driven to publish literature, they’re the ones surviving and even thriving, thanks to changing, cheapening technology and the preferred tax status that their missions afford them. This, the privileged position of the first degree, may be a main reason why the incoming editor of The Paris Review is leaving a storied commercial publishing house, and an imprint thought to be a last commercial bastion of the literary novel, for independent publishing.

… The best writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors need to change what, and how, they acquire. And what better encouragement for change than a terrible economy? Or, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry, aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.

Writing for the Worm Bucket

October 19, 2018 § 8 Comments

linkedin profile picBy Adrielle Stapleton

Peace finds me sometimes, in spite of my best efforts and the conspiracies of my brain. I look up from my task, and peace is there. Today it finds me as I am sitting alone in my little enclosed back patio. The high brick walls trap sunshine that bakes my small container garden. I have cherry tomatoes in blue 5-gallon buckets, an enormous eggplant in flower, Thai Basil, fennel, parsley.

I am cutting up my old manuscripts into slender strips of paper to feed into the vermicompost, feeding my words to the worms. Worms are easy pets, but they need a balanced diet of kitchen scraps and carbon bedding, damp paper or cardboard. After a few rounds of reading drafts in workshops, I have many hard copies of marked-up essays and stories. I want them to become something.

I have left the worms without food for months. I was tired of checking them and finding no progress, so I ignored them. Now they have eaten everything and they are restless. When I feed them, they stay down below, working quietly and slowly, digesting, reproducing. I can leave them alone for weeks and they will not die. But today they are crawling out.

I swish the paper strips through lukewarm water to speed up the decomposition process. Along with words, my worms like food that is already rotting. Coffee filters full of grounds, banana peels, mushy foods. Slowly they turn waste into something that will feed us. Their castings enrich my potted garden.

I don’t mind that my creations end up in the worm bucket. This is how things go. An ancient poet wrote a poem about how his poems would end the day as a wrapper for fish. But this displacement from view can be generative. At Oxyrhyncus the diggers find lost Sappho poems in a trash heap. I begin writing about a prosaic moment and through multiple drafts, letting go and revisiting with fresh eyes, an internal subconscious digesting, I mysteriously discover my secrets and how to tell them.

My husband is not so sure about my worms. He does not like to know they are in our house, with their rotting food. He especially does not like it when they begin to crawl out of their container. Who can blame him. He did not ask for a wife who is composting rotting scraps and turning it into material, and then turning that material into rotting scraps.

But I am losing my grasp of edges in a world that is constantly shifting, and want to overlay the clean cartography of metaphors and symbolism onto the slippery forms that I do not understand. I need to map my drafts onto the compost and my finished pieces onto the dusky red cherry tomatoes. I need my garden, and my ugly worm bucket, and my ugly drafts, and the way that they all reassure me that the becoming and unbecoming are a process, steady and imperceptible, organic and life-giving, and when I trust the process, sometimes peaceful.

___
Adrielle Stapleton received her MA in Classics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She writes and composts in Lexington, Kentucky. You can find her on Twitter at @adri_staple

Timely, As Ever: Marcia Aldrich and Jill Talbot on Christine Blasey Ford and “Trouble”

October 9, 2018 § 5 Comments

finalrevised

illustration by Stephanie Kubo

Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich discuss the release of their Longreads essay on the morning that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Jill:  When we submitted our collaborative essay, “Trouble,” to Longreads in early August, we included the following synopsis:

The essay details the trouble we ran toward during our adolescence (drinking, boys) and the trouble that found us both, including sexual assault. While we had different upbringings—Talbot attending public high school as the daughter of a football coach in Texas in the late 1980s and Aldrich attending a private school for girls in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s—we share a history of daring, of lost direction, of dark bedrooms. Jill begins the essay, and we alternate sections throughout to reflect on our wild behavior, its consequences, and our respective parents’ inability to control or contain us.

Marcia and I were delighted to receive an acceptance from senior editor Krista Stevens about a week later, but when we were asked to approve the preview in September, I grew anxious. Anxious about what I had divulged, anxious about the details that pinpointed a young man so clearly that anyone with an MHS yearbook could identify him, and anxious about describing my own reckless behavior. I wondered when the essay might run, feeling more and more a desire to run from it. And then on September 26th, Marcia and I received an e-mail from Stevens:

In light of the subject matter of the piece we want to get it out ahead of Ford’s testimony and so we’ll be publishing this tomorrow morning at 7:30 am Eastern.  

Marcia: When we began our essay “Trouble,” we didn’t think about how it might participate in any specific event larger than our own personal lives. It was the second iteration of our collaborative essay writing experiment, undertaken after we completed our first essay on our mothers, and we wanted to continue the practice. “Trouble” seemed the natural next subject because it had defined and troubled both of our lives, haunted, one might say, and those are the kinds of subjects that we feel compelled to write about, that call us. Of course, I was aware of last year’s dramatic rise of the #MeToo movement although it didn’t explicitly influence me, at least I don’t think it did. I couldn’t talk about trouble without at long last resurrecting a few of the sexually disturbing experiences I had as a very young girl. Entering those experiences again was made more meaningful because I was doing it with Jill and not alone. I don’t want to say writing with Jill made it easier exactly, but it emboldened me, bolstered me.

***

Here’s an excerpt from the essay, from one of Marcia’s segments:

At some point he hauled me to my feet and got me back in the car and drove me to my house. I don’t remember any words between us. He didn’t get out of the car and help me to the door. He leaned across me, opened the car door and looked at me as if to say get out. Which I did. Somehow. And I walked up the flagstone path to the back porch, stumbled around looking for the key, and finally opened the door. It was way past my curfew and my father had been listening for my return. I can’t remember if he saw me or just spoke to me from behind his bedroom door. It’s hard to believe he could have set eyes on me and not known something wrong had happened.

And it’s hard to fathom what he made of my running a bath at 2:30 in the morning. But that’s what I did.

My mother never stirred.

**

Read the entire essay “Trouble.”

On Writing, Time, and Tangling with Leonard Bernstein

October 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

zz osheaBy Heather O’Shea

“Oh, no!” I thought. What have I done?

In recent weeks when kids were being shot at school, immigrant babies were being yanked away from their parents, and beloved icons were deciding they had had enough of life on this planet, I found myself quoting Leonard Bernstein. Specifically, a quote I found on the bulletin board in my church’s choir room: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. 

Yes, I thought the first time I saw it. Yes—let’s double down on art and music and prove we still believe that love wins in the end. I love making music, and I believe in its redemptive power. When I’m not writing, you’ll likely find me singing in a choir or playing my piano, mandolin, or violin. But as weeks passed and the world kept spinning through a never-ending meteor shower of violence, I started losing patience with Bernstein’s words. He wrote them right after JFK was assassinated; he was replying to a specific act of violence that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I started working on a blog post in which I argued that making music wasn’t going to cut it this time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted my musician friends to do instead, but I didn’t want them to retreat to their studios and practice rooms and leave the rest of us out here alone, trying to pick up the pieces every time something new breaks. I worked on the essay for weeks, but I couldn’t make it work. Everything I wrote sounded too cynical. I finally left that post to languish in my drafts folder and moved on.

But something else Bernstein said started haunting me. I’ve recently made some huge changes. Not only did I leave my teaching job, my husband and I sold our house and are in the middle of a cross country move from New Mexico to Florida. I’ve cleared all the decks—work, the choir I sing in, violin lessons with my granddaughter. I’m moving away from everything and everyone I’ve been saying yes to for decades. My calendar is clear.

Instead of fitting writing in around the edges, in my new plan, all those edges will radiate out from a firm core of words. In just the first few months, I’ve completed the revisions on the novel I’ve been wrestling with for the past four years, guest-posted for another blogger, added new content on my own blog, and started sending out work that’s been gathering dust for years. In other words, I’m killing the new plan.

I’ve also adjusted my relationship to money and things, as it has become necessary to live a little more lightly in the world. I purged and packed and packed and purged until 3,400 square feet of house (who needs 3,400 square feet of house?) could fit into an 18-foot truck and whatever room my husband and the golden retriever don’t take up in the Subaru. I’m dreaming of spending my life sitting on the lanai, writing words that people actually read.

I’m training myself to say lanai instead of porch or patio or stoop since I am moving to Florida. I like lanai. It makes me think of Joan Didion. If I weren’t in the middle of a move, I could go to my bookshelf and look at my Joan Didion books and figure out why lanai makes me think of her. Unfortunately, my bookshelves were built-ins, so they are holding up someone else’s books and knick-knacks now. My books, if I can believe the man who drove away with them, are stashed in a warehouse in Austin. They should join me in Florida sometime in November, when my new house and its lanai are completed.

But I digress. Why did I start this essay with an “oh, no!”? During the weeks when I was busy clearing the decks and struggling to write a blog post arguing that playing music just won’t cut it this time, I stumbled on these other words, also supposedly spoken by Leonard Bernstein. “To achieve great things, two things are needed;” he says. “…a plan…”

Check. I’ve got a plan.

“…and not quite enough time.”

I flip through the newly blank pages of my planner, empty as a night without a dream. Oh, no, I think.

What have I done?
___

Heather O’Shea is a freelance writer and author of the blog LiveLoveLeave.com. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame ReviewBlue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. Heather left a career in business for a career in education, and just left that career to fulfill her dream of writing full-time (on or off the lanai). Any day now, she will be looking for a publisher for BookEnds, her first novel.

The Fire is a Lion: Writing at Rock Creek

October 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

zz FullSizeRender (6)By Emily H. Freeman

On the way to write with the boys from the group home, we turn off the highway at a piece of land adjacent to Rock Creek, the pristine fly-fishing stream that attracts anglers to Montana from around the world. Mountains loom in the distance, shaded in varying grays from the 20,000-acre wildfire burning in their midst — the Sapphire Complex, it’s called, a joining of what was once three smaller fires, each with its own evocative moniker: Sliderock. Goat Creek. Little Hogback.

Lily, my partner from a local watershed restoration organization, stops the truck and unlocks the gate, and in the distance I see a vast fenced-in area of dried-out dirt surrounding a small pond. It’s a construction scar from a failed development project, Lily explains, putting two words to something I’ve seen, but never named: construction scar. A thwarted attempt at change.

A white van rolls in behind us: four teenaged boys and two staff members of the group home where they live.

We hand out notebooks and pencils at the base of an old cottonwood snag, its sides stippled with perfectly round holes where birds have made feasts of what once lived beneath its bark. My job this morning is to write with these boys, and to be as present and encouraging as I can, in the hour that we’ll spend together. After we write, we’ll take care of the land.

The boys tell me their names, their ages. One says he loves to write, is working on a novel. Another, politely unabashed, tells me he doesn’t like writing at all. A third tells me that he sometimes writes raps and poems, and the fourth, a shy redhead, mumbles something inaudible, barely meets my gaze.

A woodpecker flies to the tree above us, perches on a high branch, as though listening. Lily points it out to the group. “Pileated,” she says. “Largest woodpecker in Montana.”

One by one, the boys turn their heads to look.

We talk about wildfires, about the smoke that’s been filling the valley for weeks, and I ask the boys to write about it.

With such a short time together, and little knowledge of their backstories, I throw out my best hopes for quick and fruitful writing prompts. I tell them to use their five senses, to imagine the fire as an animal, an emotion, metaphor.

Heads bend down to notebooks; pencils start to move. It’s quiet now, save for the intermittent roar of semis in the distance, the chattering of kestrels wheeling overhead. Through the trees behind us, Rock Creek throws its voice into the song.

When it’s time to share, the boys’ voices start quiet and tentative, growing in strength as they realize they have the group’s full attention. The fire is a lion, they say, a tiger, an unnamed mythical beast. It is greed, it is violence; it is an insatiable hunger. Some of the adults share what they wrote, as well, privileging the boys with their own vulnerability.

And then: it’s time. Too short, but writing is only a part of what we’re here to do. Bodies shift and notebooks are rounded up.

We shift our attention to the construction scar, brightly colored plastic flags marking spots where young plants are growing: black cottonwood and mock orange, choke cherry and rocky mountain maple. These are the plants that will restore the soil, create habitat, and heal the land.

The boys know the drill, having worked with Lily all summer long. They walk over to her truck, its bed filled with a 150-gallon tank. She opens the valve, and water drains through a hose into a large container set on the ground. We scoop out bucketsful, then slowly walk through the warming mid-day air to pour out the contents at each flag. At some, a foot-high wild rose grows, branches prickly and resilient-looking. At others, a small red twig marks a willow, and at still others: nothing. Lily insists they be watered anyway, that roots will get established even if there’s nothing to show for it above ground.

For an hour we fill, and trudge, and tend. In the center of the pond, a duck family floats, nearly still, on the water’s surface. Two boys across the pond spot salamanders, catch frogs. Another finds a snake. The reemergence of these small and fragile creatures is a sign that the project is working.

Water gone, we circle up at the truck. Lily sits on the tailgate and pulls up a wildlife identification app on her phone.

“What kind of frog do you think you found?” she asks the boys.

“Leopard Frog?” one offers.

“More likely a Pacific Chorus Frog,” she says.

She finds the frog on the app, turns up the volume on her phone and holds it in the middle of the circle for the boys to hear. Conversations fade, and the frog’s call – a kind of guttural chuckling — fills the air.

In the next two weeks, the fire in the distance will grow to nearly twice its size, with no signs of slowing, evacuation and pre-evacuation orders in place for the houses at its borders.

In the next three weeks, the boys will start school again, moving through already complex channels with an added burden that most of their classmates will never know.

In the next few months, one of them — a high-school senior — will turn 18, and age out of the group home system entirely. He’ll have to move out on his own, and, as much as the staff of his home has done to prepare him for this inevitability, he’ll nevertheless be a not-yet-high school graduate, somebody’s still-young son, navigating the world largely on his own.

But none of that is happening right now.

Right now, we are a motley assemblage of kids and adults, standing within an ember’s throw of a fiery mountain, crowded around a phone from which emanates the call of a small amphibian.

And somewhere in the pond, another frog turns to listen.
__

Emily H. Freeman has taught writing in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. Her work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.

 

 

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