June 9, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
I am a writer. Combining words to forge meaning makes me feel whole, alive, as if I matter.
The global pandemic and quarantine measures to slow its spread changed the way we live, on a granular level, perhaps irrevocably. For me, as I imagine for many others, time seemed suspended. Connections to the world beyond the walls of my home and the tree-lined streets of my suburban neighborhood, were severed. Untethered from accustomed routines and obligations, I floated in a bubble. One day became another, then another, indistinguishable, unhinged from any broader context, meaning or purpose.
As the monotone days mounted, it became increasingly implausible to presume that anything I might write, or not write, do or not do, mattered. I wandered without a compass to orient myself, on the page, or in life. Suspended in time, I whined and worried over the loss of my creative spark. I took naps and consumed massive quantities of processed carbohydrates, all because the words wouldn’t come.
The brutal murder of George Floyd ended my quarantine limbo, jolted me back to reality, to the state of this nation.
I am a writer. I have long pictured nirvana as a secluded mountaintop cabin, a writing desk with an expansive forested view, my mind unfettered, free as an eagle to swoop and soar. Months of quarantine have convinced me seclusion isn’t the key ingredient, and that, though I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I am also connected, part of a community, a country, and the wider world. Absent those connections, relevance, significance and context are thwarted, minimized by self-absorption.
What happened to one black man in Minneapolis, and so many other black men and women, matters. This is our nation, our society. One where hatred and divisiveness, disparities between rich and poor, homed and homeless, black and white, have mushroomed in plain sight. One where truth is fast losing any meaning or importance, facts are considered opinions, and civility, decency and respect are belittled. One where privilege is so ingrained in white America, it’s hard to see, easy not to try, easier to enjoy and benefit from the rights and privileges that under the law should be afforded all Americans.
This latest unprovoked killing of a black man can’t be undone.
I miss President Obama. I miss believing we are on a path to a better, more equitable life for all Americans. I miss believing that what is good and right and fair will prevail in the end. I miss believing that there is an American dream, a dream any man, woman or child, anywhere in the world, can aspire to. I miss believing there is justice and liberty for all.
America, as one nation, undivided, never was. We are north and south, east and west. An agglomeration of territories wrested from the indigenous Native Americans. Stamped with the identities of conquering European nations. England. France. Spain. Enriched by waves of immigrants from every continent. A mix of languages, religions, ethnicities and cultures. We are the melting pot, the tossed salad, the seething cauldron. We are brutal crimes against humanity and moments of light, of wisdom and grace. We are welcoming arms and border walls, inclusion and bigotry, brave laws and surging white supremacy.
I am an American. Which means what? That I was born here, first generation on my Philippine-born father’s side, more deeply-rooted on my mother’s. My DNA may be mixed, but based on physical appearance, I am white, and on that basis alone, I enjoy the benefits of passing and blending, of not having to consider race, skin color, ethnicity or religion when I go about my business. No policeman, authority figure, gatekeeper or garden-variety bigot, is going to see me as distinct from the background. Just another white woman.
I am a writer. I work at combining words in ways that show me something I hadn’t realized before, that amuse, teach, reveal, deepen, touch and heal. I am responsible for the wrongs I lament, the optimistic, brightening world-view I miss so much. My words must do better, be better. I must do better, be better, at stepping outside my protective cone of white privilege and working, speaking, acting, writing towards solutions, towards equity and the elusive American dream.
Our words and actions matter. Both can hurt or heal, build bridges or widen the gap.
Black lives matter.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60 from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. She now works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit, and co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, a literary performance series. For more information visit dorothyriceauthor.com.
June 8, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
“What are you working on?” This is probably the question I am most often asked, after forced to reveal (at a cocktail party, to a random seat-mate on the train) that I am a writer.
I always experience a bit of impostor syndrome, even after these many decades of writing and publishing. After all, I know that when I answer the next question: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” a pleasantly vacant facade will settle onto the face of the questioner, when I answer, “Mostly, I’ve published essays. Hundreds of them.”
A look of dismay – or is it panic – then settles onto the face of my seat-mate. Their only likely life experience with “the essay” might not have been since school days, when they were asked to write any number of three to five-paragraph essays in order to satisfy English curriculum requirements. “The essay” does not have a great reputation.
At this point, even if they are moderately impressed by and slightly curious about my credentials, they are also not eager to take a selfie. (Here I am with a famous essay writer I met on the train!)
I try to steer the conversation back to them, but they always want you to answer that first question (what are you working on?) I mumble something vague about writing a memoir about my family, about being a sister – and here there is an even longer pause, followed by genuine puzzlement. “Wow,” they usually say. “That takes guts. I mean, writing about family.”
Yes, it does take guts. Actually, what I would like to say is that one has to have any number of questionable personality traits to write anything longer than a few pages about one’s family, and expect it to hold together in a way that other people (not your family) might want to read. Especially when you are writing memoir. Writing your truth – which memoir requires – requires bravery. It demands audacity. It calls for some skill. And, indeed, it requires guts.
Sometimes I feel like the word “bravery” is too strong a word to describe the act of writing memoir. After all, isn’t memoir just remembering how things happened, and then writing those things, and your interpretation of them, down on paper or on your laptop? It’s not like you’re going to get a writing medal for your bravery, or a commendation for courage. It’s not like you ran the rapids or scaled the sheer face of a cliff.
Nevertheless, it is pretty brave and audacious to reveal your truth, and trust that that truth will resonate with others. Many would-be writers are stopped before they even start by voices in their upbringings that whisper (or maybe even scream) that it’s not polite to talk about yourself, or tell family secrets, or assume anyone has the slightest interest in anything YOU might have to say. (You get the idea.)
Audacity isn’t something often discussed in polite company. But if you don’t have a certain amount of audacity as a writer, you might as well keep writing those first bland twenty pages over and over again until the end of days (which doesn’t sound so far away right now…)
Audacity itself might be described in many different ways. Audacity might range from such spirited traits as “impudence” or “pluck,” to what I seek in my writing: boldness, backbone, chutzpah, daring.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Or, for our purposes, the guts. Because the two are linked. The heart and the guts.
The guts are the more energetic and visceral of the two. Okay, so the heart does its pumping thing, and obviously we would die if the heart stopped doing its job. And the heart gets all the lovey-dovey Valentine bling. But the guts … The guts imply your innards. Literally, intestinal fortitude. And what does that imply? Yes – the aforementioned pluck, along with confidence, mettle, tenacity. Nothing sugar-coated or wrapped up in a pink heart-shaped box.
You know the difference, even if you can’t explain it. It’s the need to express something in your heart, yes – but maybe it’s also the need to write something you feel in your gut. Or maybe you need to express that thing that bypassed your heart completely and started in your gut. You took that gut-thing, wrestled it into a heart-thing, then added the narrative to give shape to it. And, presto – you have a piece of writing. A real, organic, living-on-paper story made of heart and gristle and sweat and guts.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review, and – of course – the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01
June 6, 2020 § 3 Comments
Now is not the time for silence, so Brevity’s website has been modified to acknowledge the importance of this moment in our history, and the crucial struggle now underway:
We at Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog stand in solidarity with the protesters and with the Black Lives Matter movement. We deplore the ongoing police violence toward people of color. We unequivocally stand with those who seek justice and reform through protests across our country and the world.
Learn more to become a better ally.
“If now isn’t a good time for the truth, I don’t see when we’ll get to it.”
~ Nikki Giovanni
June 1, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Holly Hagman
One of my earliest memories of spending time with my mother was of us at the beach. Between sandcastles and shell-collecting, my mother would pick up her newest James Patterson novel and suddenly be unreachable for vast chunks of time. She would read all the time while I was growing up; picture books with rhyming words for me, mystery novels and realistic fiction for her. Christmas one year, instead of the traditional booklight, my father bought her a miner’s headlamp to wear in bed at night while she was reading. When she pulled it out of the stocking, we all laughed hysterically, but she wore that thing every night that Dad had work the next day and she needed just one more chapter.
Despite being surrounded by reading for my entire childhood, I didn’t pick it up myself until freshman year of high school. A late bloomer, my love for independent reading didn’t kick in until The Perks of Being a Wallflower was assigned for a friend’s summer reading project. I didn’t like my own summer reading book whose title I cannot even recall. Whether it was the epistolary structure or the relatable teen angst, I’m not sure. Regardless, that book drew me into the magic of literature. Since then I’ve found solace in the texture of a paperback in my hands, the sound of rain against the window, the comforting scent of fresh pages.
Maybe it’s because I started later than your typical “reader,” but I’ve noticed it takes me longer to read something than it does my peers in literary circles. When discussing common reading material with my fellow MFA candidates, they are often chapters ahead of me even though we received the books at the same time. A friend from college runs a “Bookstagram” account that reveals a new novel on average every two to three days. My mother, who still reads at bedtime every night, goes through approximately a book per week. As my personal to-be-read list grows – both figuratively as friends suggest titles to me and literally as I pick them up at Barnes and Noble and stack them in a haphazard pile on my TV stand – I feel more and more defeated.
So, if you’re a slow reader living in literary circles, feeling slightly inferior, what can you do to boost your own morale and avoid feelings of inadequacy?
Count minutes, not pages.
When sitting down to read something, decide on a time frame. Whether that time frame is twenty minutes of a lunch break or an hour of free time, measure the time you spend reading rather than setting a page goal. You will feel much better saying, “I spent forty-five minutes reading on my porch” than saying, “I only got through ten pages yesterday.” Frame it in a positive manner, because the truth is, reading is reading despite how many pages were turned.
Make sure you have the right book.
As a writer, I know that not all magazines are a good fit for the types of essays I write. I submitted the same piece to seven different magazines before it found a home, and that’s a small number when considering the vast, nebulous world of Submittable. The same is true for choosing a book. If you’re reading something, and you find yourself reading the same sentence again and again, maybe that’s not the book for you. Put it down for a while and try something else until you find a match that works. It’s important to know that not all books grab readers the same way; if they did, getting a manuscript published would be a lot easier.
Build a good reading environment.
Are you picturing an empty field of grass with a plaid picnic blanket and a light breeze? Maybe you’re imagining an aisle seat on an uncrowded flight, or a corner spot on the couch by the window. The best reading environments are different for different people. I personally need a place that is quiet, well-lit, and mostly free of distractions. Others may be able to read while a roommate watches Love is Blind or their husband snores in bed next to them. You know yourself best, so in order to read well, place yourself in an environment that suits your reading ability.
Try an audiobook.
As a lover of all things paperback, this one was hard for me to get behind. Then, a friend told me he was able to “read” all of Stephen King’s It in one month all because he played it every day during his commute to and from work. If you’re looking for a way to maximize your time and still engage with literature you love, an audiobook might be a worthy option. Amazon provides Prime members with an Audible free trial, and the subscription is $14.95/month afterwards. If finances are a consideration, many popular books are available for free on YouTube.
This part is probably the hardest thing to do, but if you are a slow reader, own it. Admit that often times when you sit down to read and get through less pages than you would like, it bothers you. Then take that self-consciousness and throw it right out the window. Know that it’s okay if you were only able to read fifteen pages yesterday, that it’s taking you longer to comment on a workshop member’s submission, that even though your friends are raving about it, you just can’t get into that new YA novel. Whatever happens, don’t lose your love of reading. Don’t forget the feeling of accomplishment that spills out of you when you close a book, spin it in your hands, and breathe deeply, releasing a well-deserved sigh. Hold onto the love of literature deep within your gut. Keep turning pages, no matter how long it takes.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Teaching. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brevity blog, The Nightingale, and The Citron Review.
May 29, 2020 § 38 Comments
By Barry Casey
About 15 years ago, after a divorce, mid-way through a teaching career and suddenly alone with my books, I looked at them and thought, “Alright, time to earn your keep.” All these books, many of which I had not read yet, were calling me, so I began keeping a common book, a journal for writing down quotes and ideas from the books I was reading. History, politics, theology, ethics, philosophy, social issues—I was reading up and writing down what I learned, what intrigued me.
So I began blogging.
In the evenings, after I’d finished grading my communications and philosophy courses, I’d jot down interesting sentences I’d come across. Then on Friday nights I’d choose one as an epigram and look for two or three quotes from authors in wildly disparate fields—the farther apart the better. Eric Hoffer and William Blake, Thoreau and John Stuart Mill, Emerson and Albert Camus, Thomas Merton and Nietzsche. The pleasure was in pulling together ideas from opposite ends of the spectrum and creating an essay that made sense and sparkled.
I’d start about nine p.m., write for four hours, post it, and go to bed. I rarely rewrote. The ideas were pouring out of me. It was exhilarating. I called the blog “Wretched Success” because I liked the way it sounded.
Three years later came another fracture. The president of our small college took a position at another university and a new president was imposed on us. He alienated almost everybody. Within three months he had slashed several departments and, without cause, fired two of my colleagues in our department. I resigned in protest.
Without a job, but with a wonderful woman as my fiancée, it felt like a leap and a liberation. In the next couple of years we married and I took an interim position directing a faculty development program at a local university.
When that was up, I began adjunct teaching. That meant hours of commuting and teaching five or six classes per semester at three universities. At the end of every week I was exhausted. I stopped writing. Whatever fountain of creativity I’d enjoyed had dried up.
But I knew I still had much to explore, so eventually I began again, in a herky-jerky fashion, a paragraph here and there between classes. This time around I found that the words did not flow; the ideas came laboriously. It was difficult.
Instead of splashing together ideas for the sheer joy of it, I was struggling. It felt like hearing voices through a wall, but not clearly enough to make out the words. I needed some structure, some idea of form. Perhaps what I lacked in spontaneity I could gain back by adapting within my limitations.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” Joan Didion once wrote. That became my touchstone and the subtitle to my new blog, Danteswoods.com—“Writing to see what I think.”
I began reading essays voraciously, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, Samuel Johnson’s essays from The Spectator and The Rambler, and favorites from Didion, A. C. Grayling, George Orwell, and Emerson. I began to see patterns, new approaches, ways to begin and to conclude. It was exhilarating all over again.
I discovered that what I needed to start writing was a phrase, a fragment, that could serve as an evocative title. Or, more often, an epigram would set me on a trail to answer a question. I took Didion’s line seriously, asking myself what I honestly thought, felt, understood, about what I was reading, what I was experiencing. At the same time, I fostered a kind of innocence, an openness to going where my curiosity led me, to follow the path the narrative was carving through the underbrush.
Sometimes, I got stuck. I couldn’t find a finger-hold on this sheer cliff of an empty page. In those times, my fallback was Annie Dillard’s first sentence in her 1989 book, The Writing Life: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” That was often enough to give me the jump-start that I needed. And I knew that the first few paragraphs were not the beginning of the essay—they were the warm-up act for the real one.
Almost three years ago, I was offered a weekly column, writing for an international publication on spirituality and faith. Every week I would explore something I had been wrestling with in my own experience. Often, I would imagine my way into one of the Gospel stories, trying to feel the intensity of a first-century encounter with an itinerant healer named Jesus. My essays took on a lyrical aspect as I immersed myself in Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays, and those of his mentor, Jean Grenier. From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Mark Oakley’s The Splash of Words, I learned the value of a singular thought amplified and collaged with other fragments into a whole. I took my time, choosing my words, cutting and rearranging paragraphs, spending time on the details.
Just over a year ago I retired from teaching after 37 years. In November 2019, my first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf & Stock. I am finishing up a second collection and working on a book about Albert Camus with a friend in England.
I am grateful for the mentorship of a myriad of writers to whom I am unknown. And I’ve learned to adapt to my process of writing and claim it as my own. My limitations become advantages when I work with them, not against them.
Barry Casey is retired after 37 years of teaching philosophy and communications. He writes a bi-weekly column for Spectrum Magazine and is a contributing writer for Mountain News in Colorado. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery was published in 2019 by Wipf and Stock.
April 28, 2020 § 27 Comments
By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen
I was due to receive an award at the Boston Public Library on March 21. As I was fantasizing about my 15 minutes of fame, the organizer canceled the ceremony. I felt devastated, but I’m not alone. Other writers have contended with delayed publication dates, and worse, their book tours vanishing due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The words of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh galvanized me: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” Slowly, I’ve discovered new ways to show up.
Here are some ways to be present, for other authors and your own work, during this crisis:
- Wave to a writer or send bouquets of hearts on Instagram during a Live gathering hosted by your favorite literary magazine.
- Attend or hold a virtual reading.
- Take a course. Multiple companies are offering deep discounts and scholarships and/or using courses as charitable vehicles. One editor pledged 50% of tuition to U.S. hunger-relief organization Feeding America.
- Help someone with a book proposal.
- Retweet others’ good news to share it with your followers. (Type “RT” at the beginning of a Tweet to indicate you’re re-posting someone else’s content.)
- Hold your book club online. Invite your chosen book’s author to speak.
- Shop on bookshop.org. As of April 20, Bookshop has raised $788,837.85 for local independent bookstores.
- Invite a writer to appear on your podcast.
- Organize a Twitter follow-back thread.
- Compliment another writer’s work—especially somebody you don’t know.
- Take the time to read essays online. Add a comment, a clap, a star, a thank-you.
- Attend a virtual book launch.
- Post a Goodreads review of a friend or stranger’s book.
- Hold an Instagram benefit.
- Read another writer’s first draft.
- Encourage a less-experienced writer.
- Thank a mentor for their support.
- Volunteer to be a first- or second-pass reader for a local writing program.
- Express sympathetic joy by congratulating a writer.
- Search GoFundMe for bookstores that need help.
- Share best practices and tips for Zoom.
The March 21 award ceremony, the BPL notified me, would now be held online on May 2. I wouldn’t get to meet judge Porsha Olayiwola as I’d hoped, but I would still read and discuss my work. I organized a Twitter follow-back for the alumni of my writing program. I kept writing at home, although my family was around more often, and my schedule now included homeschooling our 10-year-old daughter.
One early evening, my husband Vinh walked into our bedroom. I called from my supine position, “Hey, who wants to go to an Instagram Live literary reading with me?” He didn’t seem to have heard me. He went downstairs. At bedtime, Vinh, an amateur magician, returned to read Hiding the Elephant, a history of conjurers.
“Hey,” he said. “You should write a book that reveals magic secrets.”
“You wish,” I said. I know he’d like to disappear from my memoir-in-progress. We had a good laugh.
Some things, it seems, never change.
Add a link in the comments below to let the literary community know about an event or cause you cherish.
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the Writing Life Editor at Hippocampus Magazine. Her work is forthcoming in The New York Times. Her flash nonfiction, “Neighbors,” won an award from Boston in 100 Words. Join her on the Boston Library’s Facebook Live May 2 to hear her read and discuss her work.
April 23, 2020 § 35 Comments
I went and hugged my husband hard this morning. Long. We’ve been isolated, home, for 35 days.
He hugged back, hard.
“What was that about?” he asked.
I’m sixty-five. He’s sixty-nine.
“The world is acting like it’s going to lose us,” I said.
His smile was wry. As was mine.
“Well, they’re losing us anyway,” he said.
“That’s true,” I laughed.
“Just not en masse, like this.”
The warnings to people over sixty have been repetitive and stern, especially early on. Now we see this affects us all. We will lose the young, too. Just not as many.
We decided to stay home before they told us to. We went to Costco and stocked up on canned goods, but left toilet paper for others. We’ve had groceries delivered and tipped two, three times as much. We are so fortunate we CAN stay home.
Bob Dylan just released a new song. Seventeen minutes long. “Murder Most Foul” centers around the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. I was nine years old. The lyrics are chilling:
…Hush, little children, you’ll understand
The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll…
Exit song, I think, on the first listen. That’s our exit song. The baby boomers, born between 1944 and 1964. The final scene.
Am I being morbid? I can’t believe the timing, Bob.
Those over sixty are being marginalized, written off, along with those with pre-existing conditions.
Sixty-five, it feels surreal to be in this group. “Who, me?”
I am a writer. On fire. Ageism is real. It often goes over my head because I don’t think of myself as outdated, over-the-hill, irrelevant, invisible. But that is often the attitude of those younger.
Other writers, much younger writers, are often surprised to discover my age. A few years into creating a presence as a writer on social media, I attended a reading hosted by someone I initially met on Facebook. As someone who is photogenic and has a fairly youthful appearance, my age evidently wasn’t apparent online, because the hostess, upon meeting me, said, “Oh my god! I had no idea you were this old! I thought you were, like, my age!”
I had published a story that many of those attending had read and loved. Along with compliments, I repeatedly also heard, “Oh, wow! From your story, I just assumed you were a lot younger.” Clearly, my story was relatable to people of all ages. But when they met me, I didn’t fit their construct of a person capable of writing it. For the younger women who had loved my story, for the hostess eager to meet me, my actual physical presence seemingly broke some taboo, unspoken; my age defied the construct that says “Beyond a certain age, you must comport yourself differently; less visibly, less enthusiastically. Dampen your fire, recede into the background and stay out of what is deemed “youth culture,” culture occupied by youth, and constructed by youth. KEEP OUT.
If they had met me in person and I told the same story, they would have written it, me, off. I wonder what’s so terrifying about my aging face, this well-worn body?
Over sixty, they say. Most at risk.
“Wear masks for essential trips,” the governor of Colorado told the state recently. “Except those over sixty,” he added. “If you’re over sixty, don’t go out even with a mask. Stay home.”
In a movie from my youth, Wild in The Streets, everyone over thirty was rounded up and taken to camps. The youth were going to create a better world and anyone over thirty was in the way. That’s often how I’ve felt as an older, unestablished writer. My route to writing, a lifelong passion, was a circuitous one. I was a teen mom, then a solo working parent of two, and it took decades to get beyond poverty, the struggle to survive, and to find my way to writing.
On March 23, POTUS threatened to reopen the country, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” he said. He acknowledged a tradeoff: lives lost to save the economy.
No, I won’t die for capitalism, for Trump, for Wall Street.
I would for my girls, for my grandbabies.
But for consumerism? For the lie that there is not enough?
Not a chance.
Ageism is real. But since this pandemic? In addition to the snark on social media (some youth calling the virus a “boomer remover”) I have seen a sudden, and often tender, respect, concern, and care for elders. Who, me?
Healthy, active, passionately alive. And yes, over sixty.
Like my husband said, “You will lose us anyway.” We are in the third act. Age is a construct and so is time. But death is not.
Nothing like this has ever happened, kids. Not in my lifetime, and not in my grandparents because no pandemic has happened during a time of air travel and global reach. All of it working together to pull back the veil on us.
Satellite photographs of China show the view before the pandemic and after. Before shows horrendous pollution, brown and dirty, ominous. After shows clear skies and the topography untouched. Like a world without us.
If we didn’t know we are one before this, we will after. It’s time to, as the Beatles sang when I was fifteen,
Come together right now over me.
Kelly Thompson has been published in Guernica, VIDA Review, Yoga Journal, Entropy, Oh Comely, Proximity, The Temper, and other literary journals. She is a contributor for the Rumpus and editor and curator for Voices on Addiction. She lives in the sunlight of the spirit in Denver, Colorado. Find her on Instagram @kellyblog or Twitter @stareenite.
April 2, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Grace Bauer
There was no way to lie that didn’t hurt. I’d already tossed and turned from left to right and back a dozen times, but the pain in my hips was not going to let me sleep. I tried my back, tried pillows under my knees, between my knees, my knees scrunched against my chest. Wasn’t happening. Being kept awake by pain was nothing out of the ordinary, but pretty much everything else in life was, so at 3:00 a.m. I succumbed to worry.
I got up to stretch and take another Advil, then fell into a slow steady pacing around the house—thinking about the virus they sometimes called novel and its possible effects—on me, my family and friends, my colleagues and students, my community and country, the world; about how I was going to finish up a semester teaching on-line when my tech skills are limited; about the economy—my 401K account taking a nose dive a few months before I’m about to retire. I continued pacing—getting in more steps, as my friends with Fitbits say. I paused now and then to stare out a window at the empty street, thankful for neighbors who had kept up the Christmas lights that cast a bit of shine into the darkness.
It was only a week ago that I said goodbye to what I knew from the start would be my last-ever class of creative writing students. Knowing this was, undoubtedly, part of why I’d grown especially fond of them, but it was also the students themselves—some were dealing with issues far beyond anything I had ever faced at their age, yet they were bright, funny, forthright in their responses to poetry, each other, and me. The more extroverted among them had announced themselves from day one; some of the quieter or more tentative had been opening up more each week. There was some of the compulsive phone checking that drives every teacher crazy these days, a few late assignments here and there, but mostly the class was lively and engaged. They had bonded in a way that does not always happen, formed the kind of community of writers we always hope for in a workshop, but don’t always get. They took to heart my advice to not just push the envelope in their poems, but turn the envelope into an origami swan. Or a dump truck. They were finding that balance between being too hard or too easy on themselves and each other in critiques.
On what had just been announced as our last day of class, they insisted we spend the hour focused on poems—and they stayed, despite the looming uncertainty, laser focused till it was time for class to end. Then they lingered in the hall almost teary-eyed, lamenting that we would not get to hang out face-to-face anymore. “I know it’s kind of weird,” one young woman said, “but I feel like I should say I love you to you guys.” This, I thought, is how I’m wrapping up 30-plus years of teaching.
Since I was in the process of cleaning out my office, I had already given the students many of my books, which I hoped would keep them reading long after the class ended, even if it had not ended on such a sudden note. Now, as I paced the dark house, I wished I had given them more. I worried about how the switch to on-line teaching would affect them, that one of them might catch this nasty bug. That I might catch it myself. Or that my ninety-year-old mother would. That all of us would. Or could. Worry is as contagious as a virus—one what if/could be leads to another and another, until your entire brain is infected with possible catastrophes you can’t stop from spreading further. Worry is often a matter of blowing things out of proportion, but in this case, it seemed all proportion had already been blown. I paced some more. Stepped out onto the back porch to stare up at a sky too overcast to allow the glint of stars. Shivered, and came back in.
Some of my students were from Lincoln. Others had headed home to Omaha or small towns out in the sandhills, or to South Dakota, Colorado, Chicago. We were on the verge of what would have been Spring Break, but now the break would be more like a rupture. One I will do my best to build a bridge over. I’m confident most of these students will do their best to walk across it. I will encourage and cajole—hound, if I have to—anyone who hesitates, being careful not to push them closer to an edge we’re all feeling pretty close to these days.
Some of us remember that infamous Dana Gioia article from back in the 90’s that asked Can Poetry Matter? While various poets and critics tore each other apart over the question and Gioia’s analysis of the poetic moment, I stuck with the answer I came up with before I even read past the title: of course, it can. I’m still sticking with that story. While much of higher education is focused on outcomes and assessments, and STEM is the acronym of the hour, creative writing programs flourish and students, even some of those STEM students, fill our classes because, as one techie told me, “Sometimes you just need a class where you get to use your words.”
This, for me, will be the last of such classes. It would have been memorable for that reason, even if things had gone on as normal—a word whose definition may have permanently changed. My students will be sending me new poems tomorrow. I’ll respond, trying to tell them what matters most in their words.
My mind was spinning, but my bones were tired. I got back into bed to see if body or brain would win this night’s battle for rest. There was still no way to lie that didn’t hurt.
Grace Bauer’s poems, essays and stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including recent issues of Ascent, Tin House, Rattle, and others. She has also published five books of poems—most recently MEAN/TIME and a 20th anniversary re-issue of The Women At The Well. She is currently the Aaron Douglas Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.