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Begin Again, A Summer Retrospective

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

You go to see Begin Again at the cheap theater near your house with your husband to celebrate your second wedding anniversary. This after a six-day visit from your mother — who you’ve been emotionally preparing for since her last visit twelve months ago — and your fourteen-year-old niece who you haven’t seen since she was nine.

The whole trip becomes an act of juggling dull knives, a negotiation between reality and expectation. You pick your mom and niece up from the airport, breath measured, smile painted on. You see yourself in your family’s eyes, you see your faults. And you’re determined not to break or dive too far under the surface of their lives.

But then night falls and you find yourself tucking in your teenage niece at your house, listening to her wondering about your life, sharing hers, and you feel the immensity of her questions, her stories full of implication, clues as to who she’ll be in another year and another and you’re overwhelmed by the weight of it all, these lives crashing into yours.

You’ve always wanted to be a fixer but never knew which tools would do the job.

A week or so before your family arrives, you walk to the park for a picnic with friends. The scene is all urban bucolic: lawn for yards, climbable trees, a tennis court adjacent to the community garden. And then the vagrant guy walks up, kneels down, holds out a blue paper plate, asks for exactly two deviled eggs in a whisper. He has his delivery down to a science. He’s patient, Christlike. You think of that old admonition about treating the ragged and poor and deserted as if they’re Christ returned; you consider letting him in, giving him what you have to give. But before you consider this you grimace and scold him. Please don’t, you say. Your friend chimes in, This is a private party. As if your blankets are locked doors and he’s the wolf threatening to blow down your house.

You leave feeling a little sick at how easy it is to keep a hungry man hungry with piles of food at your disposal. You leave wondering who you really are.

Then you’re sitting by a pool with your mother, telling her all the reasons she’s wrong. About what, you don’t know exactly, but you know these words have to be said even though you see what’s happening in her eyes and you know, too, that you’ve chosen the wrong tools again. What if the right tools don’t exist in your reality, you wonder. What if some lives just stay broken?

Then you’re sitting, arm woven through the arm of your love, in a dark theater watching Mark Ruffalo spiral out and back into control of his life, watching him find the tools, be the fixer. You watch people lose each other and find themselves. You watch a girl fall in love with her father and understand what it means to be beautiful and wanted. You watch Keira Knightley make music artfully and choose not to sell out. You watch lives move like a dance and embrace in understanding. You tell your husband how glad you are that Mark and Keira don’t hook up, that it would ruin their romance. You’re in love with their kind of love: a tight rope, a life raft.

And you know that you’re not exactly sinking or flying and you know that you’re full of something that can be good when it’s not tired or frightened and you tell yourself to keep trying, that someday the tool might be there, just the one you’ve been looking for all these years.

My Favorite Teacher Is…

imagesThe consistency of the cake batter after I’ve made it the second time the wrong way.

The taste of the too salty cream sauce before it goes on the pasta.

The too black color of the grill marks on the London Broil.

The smell of the sugar and butter solids browning the cookies in the oven after they cooked too long.

The flicker of real fire in the oven the first and second times I tried to reheat a cheese biscuit and forgot it was in there.

How easily the eggs lift onto the spatula, the yolk holding or not holding its shape when flipped.

The sandy seizure of chocolate heated too high.

The omelet that won’t hold together.

My bare fingers absently lifting a cookie sheet straight out the oven.

The curdled vodka sauce looking like scrambled eggs instead of vodka sauce.

The bread dough that wouldn’t rise because the water was too cold to wake the yeast.

Having to buy more cream because the rest is somewhere between whipped and butter.

The pudding that failed the fourth time in a row.

The smoke alarm going off when the paella welded to the bottom of the pan, when the milk burned, when the turkey juices dripped onto the element in the oven, and almost every time I use the oven after cooking for more than one person.

That thing they say when all the dishes are used and dirty, when the kitchen is a mess, when we  are sitting on the couch, or at the table, when they taste it, after they have eaten it: “It was delicious.”

To My Teenage Self

The writer as a middle-aged, unglamorous teenager

The writer as a middle-aged, unglamorous teenager

If I could write to my teenage self, I would tell her that she is doing okay. I would tell her not to be so worried and that people come and go all the time. I would tell her to follow her instincts and not trust those people who say they know what God thinks. A lot of them are wrong, and anyway, saying so is heresy.

I would explain the concept of Twitter, or Instagram and tell her who to get in touch with so that she could make a ton of money off of it.

I would tell her not to take herself so seriously and to learn how to tell jokes, to notice how funny her Dad is, learn the mechanics of humor.

I would tell her to remember that the time zone changes between Nashville and Atlanta and pay attention to flight departure times.

I would tell her to pay more attention, that she has impulses and instincts about situations and people that she is afraid to believe because people can’t sense things before they happen. Practice paying attention to that knowledge, it is invaluable.

I would explain how an iPod works, and tell her how to write a proposal for it and who to pitch it to.

Watch more movies. Read more books.

I would tell her to expect her world to shift, expect that horrible things will happen and be prepared to give grace to everyone involved. Bitterness doesn’t solve anything and picking sides is useless.

I would tell her that it is okay to not like beer.

I would tell her not to worry about things that get wasted along the way.

Stay in touch.

I would tell her that she doesn’t need to know everything about her future. It would take the fun out of living.

I would tell her to stop being afraid of the carb count in potatoes.

I would tell her to take her time.

I would tell her to stick around.

I would tell her to show up to swim lessons.

I would tell her everything’s going to be okay, just like in the song.

poems of the people

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
– walt whitman

it’s april.  which means it is, once again, national poetry month—that time of year when poets try like hell to get non-poets to give a shit about poetry.  (i kid because i care.)  if we are to believe the poetry foundation’s 2006 report, poetry in america, then 64% of adult readers think that people should read more poetry.  not only that, but while more than 80% of former poetry readers find poetry difficult to understand, only 2% of poll respondents didn’t read poetry because they felt it was “too hard.”  to me, this sounds suspiciously like all those nielsen families who over-report the amount of time they spent watching pbs.

but i’d like to give the poetry foundation huge props for trying something different this year.  last fall, they asked america “what’s your favorite poem?” and, god bless them, americans responded.  i’m not even talking about the obvious respondents: professors, mfa students, and sullen/lovelorn teenagers.  no, i’m talking about the people you didn’t think gave a shit about poetry.

the favorite poem project has some pretty fantastic video footage of everyday americans not just reading a poem, but talking at length about what that poem—and poetry—means to them.  you’ll see a jamaican immigrant talking about sylvia plath, a marine reading yeats, a construction worker waxing about whitman, hillary clinton (and her husband) reciting some verse, and dozens of others.  it’s enough to make you believe that, goddamn right, poetry is not dead.

still, on more than one occasion, i’ve found myself siding with the non-poetry crowd, those who say the knock against much contemporary poetry is that it’s not—what’s the word?  accessible.  i don’t recall ever thinking that poetry should be *easy* mind you.  but damn if there haven’t been some times when i’ve seen a contemporary poem and just thought, “you’re fucking with me, aren’t you? you fucker.”

that being said, i recently got a piece of direct mail from the poetry foundation, and in it was a quote attributed to the magazine’s editor, don share.  that single sentence is, perhaps, the best counter-argument to that “accessibility” issue that i’ve ever heard:

The value of reading contemporary poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they’re up to, is that it gets us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, things we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction.

i swear, i’m ]this[ close to subscribing to poetry magazine myself.


506aed87fb04d60a51001515._w.1500_s.fit_The most popular place in Spokane on a Saturday night might be my local grocery store’s Redbox.  Last weekend the queue was six deep, not counting the people who abandoned the line to do their shopping first.  A day old copy of the Wall Street Journal was stashed on the closed checkout counter behind me, so I read about Flight 370 still lost somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while I shifted my weight from foot to foot and swayed with impatience. Not only did I spend ten minutes in line to return a DVD; in the past month alone, I’ve spent $27.38 on three DVDs due to late fees. If I were a member of Netflix, I could have rented the same number of movies for $7.99. If Redbox is more time intensive than streaming movies and, in my case, so much more expensive, why was the queue six deep?

I can think of several reasons. First, Redbox offers new releases that aren’t yet available for online streaming. Netflix also offers new releases through its separate DVD service, but you have to wait two days for your DVD to arrive. Two weeks ago, on a whim, I rented Woody Allen’s take on A Street Car Named Desire called Blue Jasmine from my Redbox on my way home from work. Last week, I rented Nebraska, a black-and-white, oddly-paced film about a father son journey and a nonexistent million dollar prize. If I hadn’t just seen it in the local independent theater, I would have queued up at the Redbox for the Dallas Buyers Club, too.

The little red movie serving machines are also placed strategically in my line of travel, in the places I already frequent. In fact, 68% of the American population lives within a five-minute drive of a Redbox, which means you don’t have to make an additional stop at a movie megastore because. Now, you can go grocery shopping and pick up your movies along with your eggs and milk.

According to Redbox CEO Shawn Strickland, this willingness to rent DVDs is not just a throwback to the age of rentals and a nostalgia for the material. About the movement to steaming,  he said, “There was a choice forced on the consumer.” Until Redbox, easy access to DVDs was disappearing. However, this was not necessarily a result of popular demand, as evidenced by Redbox’s continued growth, proving that some of us still want to go rent a movie.

I no longer have internet at home, and it seems  that the best option for me is some combination of the Netflix $7.99 DVD rentals and Redbox for those nights when I’m waiting on my DVD but still want to watch a movie. And this is exactly what the company is hoping for. Rather than compete with streaming, Redbox is in the business of giving customers another choice.

Observations on Bus Rides (or: Temporary Delusions That the World Might Not Nuke Itself After All)

NISE 12 1343

For a minute we’re all part of the same thing. The sun flickers and rests on the sides of our faces as we pass trees, highway signs, 18-wheelers, tractors. It’s all quiet. 50-some years after Rosa Parks and no one makes a fuss, black-white-purple-green we all sit in comfortable silence. Floor vibrating under the settled rubber of our shoes, seats bouncing us like a lullaby. The world passes us by outside, beige fields of weeds, leafless winter branches, working class, upper class, middle class, nowhere class, but on the bus we don’t stop for trivialities, we don’t patiently wait for our respective exits, on the bus we trust the same driver. On the bus we amble together along the same road.

Tour of the House Called Longing


Prints by Zarina Hashmi

There’s a tree blocking the house from the front, a needled tree, but that can be cut back. The house is green and lovelorn, it is 1093 square feet on a 3 thousand something square foot lot, room for lemon trees, anything. It borders an alley, industrial spaces, its street address is 808 and all of this points toward yours.

The house is listed for 550,000 and will need some work.

You will take up the carpet to expose the old floors, and somewhere in there you hope you’ll find an alcove, an indentation, a place to build some kind of shrine like every house in India.

“This is my house.” So said Navita, packed dirt floor, we stepped over a gutter moat to reach the front door. Walls painted bright orange, one plastic chair, nothing else but the shrine: Durga’s picture hung on the wall with a calendar. The next room was all but dug out, where she and her mother kept their sleeping mats rolled during the day.

“This is my house.” It will contain only the best of what you need and love, you don’t need more and more. Potted palms in the corner of the living room. Necklaces hung for the choosing near the bedroom window. The bathroom tiled like an Istanbul hamam. Things you’ve found, collected, resting finally.

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How Going to Church Prepared Me for Watching the Olympics

A sheet of stamps from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta retails for $27.00, but collectors can purchase them on eBay for $14.99 plus shipping. The stamps feature athletes from various sports suspended in motion; their hardworking muscles shimmer with sweat. When I bought a sheet of these stamps during the heat of the summer games, I never licked the gum adhesive on the back. I carefully separated the stamps and taped them to my bedroom door in support of my favorite Olympic events. 1996 was the year of the Centennial bombing, the year that Kerri Strug stuck her vault to clinch the team all-around gold in gymnastics, and the year that Michael Johnson gold-medaled in the 200 and 400-meter dash. I was thirteen years old with a keen sense for how beautiful it was for well-trained bodies to push, even in the perforated frames of those stamps.

The decadent privilege of staring at perfect bodies compete in slow motion was not the only reason I loved watching the Olympic games. The profiles and human interest stories captured my adolescent attention as much the athletic events. I choked up every time an earnest reporter narrated the obstacles, disappointments, and hard earned successes in the moving clips between events, which started airing during trails and intensified just before a gold-medal heat. I couldn’t get enough of the athletes’ histories before becoming competitors on the international stage. Now I know that crafted interviews and brilliant editing created my intense investment in the outcome of these events, which, in reality, were drastically removed from my personal experience. Without the glimpse into the athletes’ pasts, it would have been easier to zone out and flip from NBC to regularly scheduled programming. It was the stories of the athletes that fostered my connection and kept me cross-legged on the carpet with my chin in my sweaty palms.

Although these clips were engineered to trigger an emotional response, I knew how to believe in the underdog even without the cues of dramatic lighting and music because of church. Read more »


William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Two_Sisters_(1901)When I moved to Berlin I had almost no money. I couldn’t get a job without getting residence papers and couldn’t get papers without a contract job.

Due to a friend, I lived in an enviable neighborhood for almost no rent. I walked the fashionable streets near my flat in the cold and watched all the real, speaking, living people go in and out of the brightly lit shops and restaurants on Bergmannstrasse laughing brilliantly.

I rode my bike to a far away flea market one Sunday morning and bought a bike light for two Euros and then had buyer’s remorse. The ride was perfect, took you over bridges and train tracks and across a cobblestone plaza that felt like a village in the middle of the city. I saw a woman I knew behind a table at the market. She was from Syria and went to the same free German class I went to, at the cultural center for immigrants and refugees. My German was still nothing and we made sounds at each other and smiled knowingly.

But what did I know. I was just having a bleak adventure and could go home whenever. I’m sure this wasn’t the case for her.

The bike light didn’t work.

I wasn’t going home though. I responded to every, tiny job ad I saw. After some months, I got a job babysitting.

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Winning the Kokoro of the People

In 1689, Basho went for a long walk into the interior, Oku. After he returned in 1690, he began revising his travelogue from the adventure. I offer the introduction as a testament to its beauty:

The moon and the sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times, there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn to windblown clouds into the dreams of a lifetime wandering.

It’s not your average travelogue. It’s not a day-to-day record of events. Basho avoids either or the major tropes in travel writing: “I went to an exotic place and found it exotic” and “I went to an exotic place and found it quite ordinary, just like home.” And while most travelogues are meant to relate useful or timely information, Basho’s writing feels timeless to such a great extent that I have been enjoying it 317 years later.

Basho’s haibun works in a similar way to the headnotes in the Kokinshu and haiku emerges through the hybrid form: the prose sets up the poem. The travelogue aspect of the work is as crafted as the poetry—his account of his journey in The Narrow Road to the Interior does not represent a straightforward, factual, or complete rendering of his travels. He did travel, walking for a hundred and fifty days with the goal to visit the famous places mentioned in poetry, but in the book, the order of events has changed, details have been deleted or embellished. Likewise, the poems might feel spontaneous embedded in the narrative context, but he spent five years revising the text that appears in the final compilation.

His autobiographical prose sections rarely lean overly lyrical, since Basho observed the renga (linked verse) tradition of including less lyrical passages before and after gemlike vignettes, so as not to exhaust the reader. For instance, his account of visiting the place called “Under-the-Trees” moves from the mystic to the mundane—from a narrative description of this dense, dark, dew-laden forest to a quote from the Kokinshu (Poem 1091) where the speaker suggests that one should carry an umbrella in this place.

“Kokoro” means the “heart and mind,” here, the beautiful cohesion that cannot be found in form alone. It includes the sincerity and conviction of the poem.

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