The Poets and the Helpers

2024-01-26T07:43:43-08:00Categories: arts, Creative, featured posts, featured posts, nature, politics|Tags: , , |

We were practicing small talk. “What is your favorite season?” was one of the questions on our worksheet. When the teacher asked me—her once-a-week classroom helper—what I  wanted to say was “all the seasons, every one of them,” but for the sake of demonstrating to English language learners how small talk typically goes, I said “Summer.” And smiled. And on this cold, gray January morning, everyone in the classroom sighed, because just by saying the word out loud—summer­­—I had brought summer into all of our minds for about one second. I felt like a poet, who had just recited a one-word poem. Short though it was, it needed no other words. I felt like a helper, who had just taken a classroom of refugees, exhausted by the daunting task of learning English, on a one-second vacation. As we plunge into this fraught year, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Rogers’ oft-quoted advice—“Look for the helpers”—and pondering why this simple phrase has had such a comforting, calming effect on so many millions of people, myself included. I came across a 2018 essay in the Atlantic by Ian Bogost in which he chastised adults like myself who have clung naïvely to this advice intended for children. “Ironically,” Bogost wrote, “when adults cite ‘Look for the helpers,’ they are saying something tragic, not hopeful: Grown-ups now feel so disenfranchised that they implicitly self-identify as young children.” But I disagree. Adults understand nuance. We know the helpers can’t make everything better. But we also understand that it is essential to know they [...]

Uncanny

2023-08-25T07:59:26-07:00Categories: arts, Creative, featured posts, hiking, nature, reading, Uncategorized, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

I have never written a ghost story. I’ve never wanted to write a ghost story. So what uncanny wind was it that blew through my brain and compelled me to sign up for a week-long workshop titled “The Ghost Story: A Guide to Writing Compelling Prose?” Baker City, Oregon It all began on a slushy March evening in Enterprise, Oregon. My husband and I were just beginning a two-week road trip, meandering our way through places where he could film small-town cinemas of the West for a documentary project. We were off to a wintry start, on this first day of Spring, here at the edge of the Wallowa Mountains. I’d spotted a poster for a talk that evening hosted by Fishtrap, a nonprofit known for its annual Summer Gathering of Writers at nearby Wallowa Lake. Why not go, on this chilly night? The speaker was Molly Gloss, author of The Jump-off Creek, The Hearts of Horses, and other books and stories about women in the homestead-era West. Her knowledge of writing about and by western women is wide and deep. I scribbled notes like “...the real and changing West of Model-T Fords, movies and Prohibition” and “...the shadow of violence.” That night, I began reading The Jump-off Creek, a book steeped in cold hard daily life on a hardscrabble farm. No ghosts in sight. By the time we left Enterprise, I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to the Fishtrap Summer Gathering and meet other western writers and get [...]

Hello, Ceiling

2022-01-15T14:02:26-08:00Categories: arts, brain, Creative, creative aging, dementia, faith and doubt, family, featured posts, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

“Mom is trying to see a bug on the ceiling using binoculars,” my husband texted our grownup children recently. “Should we be concerned?” “The pandemic has altered everyone’s perspectives in different ways,” my daughter responded. “Or is she just delirious from her reading??” Among the many first-ever virtual experiences I had this year was to participate in an online literary reading hosted by About Place Journal. I was thrilled that they had published my essay, "Regeneration," and equally thrilled to be part of the reading. Alas, we had technical problems. The show did go on, but it was stressful. Remember Willie Nelson’s classic breakup song, “Hello, Walls?” --In which he talks to the walls, and the window (“is that a teardrop in the corner of your pane?”) and, finally, the ceiling? (“I’m gonna stare at you awhile.”) In the final verse, he addresses them all: “We gotta all stick together or else I’ll lose my mind.” Pandemic Winter: it’s a little cozier than Pandemic Summer, isn’t it? Me. My laptop. My walls, windows and ceiling. After the tech-trauma of our reading, I guess I just wanted to figure out something in my tiny world, like: what the heck is that winged insect on our ceiling? Instead, it became kind of a Lucy Lucy Lucy moment of hilarity, which really was much more cathartic than actually figuring out what the creature was. (A moth?) And I learned something: binoculars don’t really work very well for indoor wildlife viewing. As I wrote about in my last post, six whole [...]

Emotional Truth: Teaching Memoir in the Time of Trump

2020-02-29T10:33:18-08:00Categories: arts, brain, Creative, creative aging, featured posts, memoir, politics, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Sixteen years ago, on Leap Year Day, my mathematically gifted brother left this world. Felled by glioblastoma, he did not have much choice in the timing of his death. But he did have a flair for drama, and it may have pleased him to give a parting nod to the beauty of numbers. The fact is that he died on February 29, 2004. The emotional truth is that he died not on any old dreary winter day, but on a numerically elegant date that only happens every four years. We memoir writers like to talk about seeking, and writing, the emotional truth. It’s an intuitive concept; more what you feel than what you think. Yes, you tell yourself, when you feel you’ve got it right: what I’ve written is what happened, and why it mattered. Or no, you sigh as you stare at the words on the screen: no, I’m not telling it right. I’m holding back. Or telling the wrong story. Or writing around the heart of the matter, instead of into it. Here’s a famous example of emotional truth, from Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again,” Hemingway wrote, of a woman who walked in to the café where he was writing; a woman he still remembered three decades later. “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” When I teach memoir [...]

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