Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Photo/Text 10: Shadows

When the low-hanging winter sun paints us gold and persimmon hues with its lukewarm laving, I look not so much at things as at their stretched taffy shadows. Reading them like tea leaves, it is not the future nor the past that I seek, because I am imbued always in these other times, in these not-nows; they are like cataracts upon my eyes, the future and the past, clouding my vision. So what I read in the shadows is something much more fleeting and inscrutable, something that eludes my gaze: the slippery present, not distorted but rather enhanced as shadow, the clarity jarring and pure, showing me the outlines of the desert, of where I am and who I am today, right now, this moment. Distilled into shadow, I stand and look upon myself at the setting of another year.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Xylotheque: "Soviet Trees"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. The photo accompanying this post was taken in Riverside when I was twelve, shortly before the events described in the essay. “Soviet Trees” first appeared in Parcel in 2011.

Excerpt from "Soviet Trees"

The girls crowd around you, studying your face, your hair, especially your clothes. They scrutinize the words Highland and Riverside printed in goldenrod letters on your royal-blue sweat shirt. What do they mean? Are they a brand name? The girls demand answers. They ask you to repeat the words again and again. You’ve been taken captive by these anthropologists in the guise of Soviet teenage girls. Like all anthropologists, they see you projected through themselves. They don’t understand why you would grow weary of saying the words—Highland, Riverside, Highland, Riverside—like some tired incantation. As far as you’re concerned, whatever significance the words carry has been eked out on the third or fourth repetition, and you want to tell them that the words are now nonsense on your tongue, that you yourself have forgotten what they mean. Highland. Riverside. For the girl-anthropologists the words are redolent of freshly manufactured goods, and of freedom and dollars. They stare at your sweat shirt as though it provides a window into America, all of it, in its unimaginable wealth.

There a few things you need to know. It’s the summer of 1987, and you’re in Kuybyshev, a city closed to foreigners. The girls are Young Pioneers, and this is still the Soviet Union—but actually, there’s no still about it. Remember that. It simply is, for you and the girls, for as long as you’ve been alive, and for as long as your parents have been alive. To say it is still the Soviet Union is like boarding the Titanic for her maiden voyage, looking out at her massive decks, and thinking, Someday, I’ll remember this as the time when the Titanic was still afloat. How could you believe, standing on the deck, that either of those colossal ships, the Titanic or the Soviet Union, would ever go down?

You’re only twelve—remember that, too—but you’ve been put in the oldest group, with girls who are mostly fourteen, because you’re tall and precocious. They keep asking about what kinds of things you own, how much stuff costs in America, what the stores are like, and how much money your family has. They want a full inventory of America, from top to bottom, from side to side, as though America is just a vast storage unit full of material goods. You don’t know where to begin, but you feel like a celebrity. For the first time in your life, you’re popular, the star attraction. You suddenly have so many friends you can’t remember their names. They crowd closer and closer, trying to lay their claims on you, trying to see what an American looks like. They comment on your American face, which leaves you stunned. Americans have always commented on your Russian face. It’s turning out you look like no one at all. It’s turning out that your amalgamation of Russian and American features has made you only uniquely yourself, unlike anyone else, which is the last thing you want. You’re twelve, remember. You want to shout—but I’m Russian like you!—though quite clearly, you’re not. Quite clearly, you don’t belong here. The hot heavy press of the girls in the cramped humid room renders you an exotic cornered animal whose fate lies in the hands of your captors. And quite clearly, they haven’t finished sizing you up yet. They haven’t yet decided what to make of you.

They demand to know, among other things, how you got here. To get into the camp you have to have a pass, and in order to get a pass, you have to have connections. You explain that your mother was able to get you a pass through her former college roommate, who is connected to the trade union. The girls seem dubious. This is a camp for future Soviets. It certainly is not a camp for American girls, even American girls who don’t believe they’re American, who think they’re Russian, which is the kind of American girl you are.

In your slightly awkward Russian, you tell your unlikely story: that your mother is Russian and your father American, that they met in graduate school in Leningrad, that you were born in Kuybyshev and lived there with your Russian grandparents and mother and aunt until you were three. And then you left with your mother to be with your American father in a fantastical place called Riverside, California. Yes, you’ve seen the Pacific Ocean. Yes, you have a river of sorts, but it’s puny—often just a dry riverbed—compared to the Volga,. Yes, that’s the unlikely kind of rivers you have in America. And you have unlikely trees—palm and navel orange and avocado and eucalyptus—and unlikely stores, too, where, yes, it’s true, you can buy just about anything you want, as long as you have money. Yes, Highland is the name of your school, but you don’t know why. You know the names for many things in America but don’t know why those are their names.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Life and Work after the MFA

Recently I was asked, along with two other alumni, to return to my MFA alma mater to teach a graduate class and give a reading as part of the visiting writers series. After the reading, we alumni were asked to discuss life and work after the MFA. So on my seven-hour train ride from Hartford to Washington, DC, I began to think about what I would tell students currently in the midst of an MFA program about what might await them.

I was fortunate to be able to come down a couple of days early, which allowed me to catch up with my MFA friends who still live in the area. Ten years out from the MFA, we talked about where we were, what we had done, what we were working on, and what roles writing and reading still play in our lives.

My friend Ananya and I both had children (who are now fourth graders) right after finishing our MFAs. While her full-time day job, an editing position, does not allow for a great deal of creativity, she’s published nonfiction at the WashingtonianThe Guardian, and The Baltimore Sun, and she is also an assignment editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

My friend Christa accepted a full-time editor/writer position with a federal agency right after finishing her MFA and has now worked in this career for a decade. With two preschool-age children, she currently doesn’t have a lot of time for creative projects, but she does carve out writing time when she can—writing on her phone, for example, just to capture observations, dialogue, whatever comes to her. Since completing her MFA, her nonfiction has appeared in the Oxford American (available online here) and on PBS.org.

My friend Amanda had her debut novel, I Know Where I Am When I'm Falling, published earlier this year. The mother of adult children, she is currently at work on more fiction, teaches part time at a community college, runs book discussion groups, and is also a sculptor.

Unfortunately, the four of us were not able to get together all at the same time, but I did get to spend an evening with Ananya and Christa, and the following afternoon with Ananya and Amanda. (Amanda blogged about our conversation here.)

And as I was talking with these friends, I kept thinking about what advice I would give to current MFA students about what awaits them after the degree. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

You might look back on your time in the MFA and wonder what you’ve squandered those two or three years on. Right now—these years you are in a graduate program supported by people who care passionately about writing—is your time to write. Seize it. Make the most if it. You might feel overwhelmed with seminar papers, part-time jobs, teaching duties, but remember that right now your life is largely devoted to creative writing. And that may never be true again. Your life is likely to become even more overwhelming and complicated after the MFA. You may never have the kind of time you have now. And take advantage of all the resources available to you in your program (and in other departments as well). Take classes with a wide range of faculty in multiple genres. It took me years to figure out I was also a nonfiction writer because I stuck so stubbornly to classes within my chosen genre—fiction. And to this day I regret not taking a single poetry class during my MFA program. Seize these opportunities.

You aren’t likely to make your living as a writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. You may make some money at it, but it probably won’t pay the bills. And unless you’re independently wealthy or have a spouse with a well-paying job who is able to support you financially, you’ll need to take on other work that does pay the bills. Consider this before finishing your MFA. Think about ways you can make yourself marketable in a career. Think about the types of work—editing, teaching, technical writing, curriculum development, grant writing—that you might take on and how you can begin to prepare for that future now. This might mean working as an editor for a scholarly or literary journal affiliated with your institution, being an RA for a professor, being a TA to get teaching experience, taking a class in grant writing or business writing, finding an internship in the field you’re interested in, working at a part time job that might become full time, volunteering, finding a mentor, taking classes with faculty outside of your department, etc. This doesn’t need to take up a huge amount of your time; even making preliminary steps can help poise you for employment after the MFA.

Keep writing after the MFA. It will be hard. Suddenly, your vast support network—your professors, your fellow students—will be all but gone. No one will be demanding work on a regular basis. No one will be encouraging you in weekly workshops. Writing may quickly slip down to the bottom of your to-do list. Writing will go from being the center of your working life to a labor of love. Writing will take time away from your family life, from paid work. And you might find—as I did and as I still do—that days, weeks, months can slip by without any creative work getting done. Christa said, “In the MFA program and right after, I had these ideals of what writing time looked like—long stretches of time that I could set aside for unfettered and uninterrupted writing.” For most, this is the ideal, not the reality. You will need to find ways to get the work done, if you want to continue to write. This perseverance takes on different forms—writing before dawn, writing after bedtime, writing on weekends, writing at your paid job, writing in little notebooks while your toddlers play. Find the ways that work for you, and stick to them.

Select your writing projects wisely. If you’re like me, you might have half a dozen books that you’d like to be working on all at the same time. There are always more projects than time to do them in. Pick the ones that you pursue carefully. If publication is important to you, then ask yourself: how likely is it that I will be able to publish this particular piece? Christa pointed out to me that while all four of us received our MFAs in fiction, three of us—Christa, Ananya, and myself—have published more nonfiction than fiction. Do I love nonfiction more than fiction? Not necessarily. But publishing it is easier. In Christa’s words: “The time crunch of post-MFA life has made me so pragmatic in a way I wasn't in graduate school.  I love all of my creative writing projects—short fiction, novel, nonfiction—but with so little writing time, I feel this pressure to ‘choose wisely’ in what I do write—what’s most likely to get published? It's become important for me to balance that pragmatism with making sure I love what I'm writing.”

What you now think success will look like is probably not what it will look like. When I was asked, during a casual conversation on my trip, whether or not I consider myself a “success,” I didn’t immediately have an answer. For one thing, I guess I don’t think of my life in terms of “success” or “failure”—I just keep working. But also, ten years ago when I was finishing my MFA, I never would have thought that I would end up here. True, I have published two books and have had work in numerous journals, but at the same time I don’t make my living as a writer. There are a lot of other things I’ve done—teaching, editing, curriculum development—that bring in more money and actually pay the bills. When I asked Amanda the question about success, she said something along these lines: “I get to spend most of my time, paid and unpaid, reading and writing, and thinking about reading and writing, and talking about reading and writing.” Yes, I thought. Me too. Even when I’m teaching or editing, I’m still engaged with reading and writing. When I think about it in that context, my days are full of the work that I was preparing to do in my MFA program. Success. My MFA writing friends and I have not (yet) penned bestsellers, but there is success of the daily, quiet kind, which is more lasting. Like spending our days reading and writing. Like being asked to return to my alma mater to teach the students whose shoes I was once in. Success.

Keep your writing friends. Stay in touch with people in your MFA program. Find good, sympathetic readers for your work—people who get what you’re trying to do and are generous with praise and criticism—and be proactive about continuing to exchange work with them after the MFA. If you get a full-time day job, you might find yourself surrounded by people who are not sympathetic to your creative goals. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself adrift, your writing friends scattered, distant. Find ways to stay in touch with them. Keep seeking out people who love the things you love, and connect with them, virtually or in person—however you can. Amanda and I have read one another’s book drafts. I hope to read a draft of Ananya’s novel soon. We are, as Amanda once said to me, members of the same tribe. Ten years after my MFA, this is one of the things that endures—the connections I made with fellow students. Even though the members of your tribe may scatter far and wide, keep those relationships. They will help to sustain your writing life long after you receive your diploma.

Friday, September 26, 2014

We Turned Off the TV, for Good

In a recent post titled “We Turned Off the TV,” Allison Hart writes about the amount of television that her children used to watch in the mornings and what happened after she decided to eliminate it. Just two weeks into the new regimen, she reports, “I can't tell you how much of a difference it's made.” I applaud Hart for the change that she’s made for her family. And if two weeks without television can make such a difference, what effect might years without a television have on young children?

I can tell you what I know, based on my own experience. My children, ages nine and six, have lived since birth in a house without a television.

“So what do your children do?” people ask. Many other parents can’t imagine how we fill the vast chasms of time that seem to stretch endlessly from waking (sometime around 6 a.m.) to school (the bus comes after 8 a.m.). What do the children do on weekend mornings without cartoons to keep them occupied? What do they do in the evenings in that extra time between dinner and bed?

The short answer: they do a lot.

Here are some of the things I’ve found them doing in the morning: reading, writing, drawing, playing with Legos, playing with stuffed animals, watching the fish swim in the tank, solving math problems, cooking, building marble runs, putting together snap circuits, playing with paper dolls, dancing, devising a comedy routine, listening to an audiobook, taking photographs, telling jokes, cutting and gluing paper, making a doll house out of recyclables, making cookies with Play-Doh, nailing together pieces of wood, stringing beads, pressing leaves, and . . . talking.

And not ever having had access to a television, they don’t miss it. Seemingly not one bit.

That’s not to say we’re completely against technology, or that we’re purists when it comes to TV. Of course the kids have seen TV—when they visit their grandparents or when we stay in a hotel, for example. And they are occasionally allowed to watch videos on a small portable DVD player. But for the most part, our lives are TV-free. And though we have computers in the house, the kids rarely use them—usually only when required to for school. And they don’t have access to other devices with screens either (no smartphones, iPads, or video games).

But before I wax poetic about how idyllic our lives are without television, I should add one disclaimer: My husband and I had decided we were better off without TV years before we had our first child. So not having a television was not so much a conscious parenting decision as it was an extension of what we were already doing. And what seemed natural to us became natural to the kids. Only in the last few years have some of the effects of our TV-free life become apparent to us.

If all of this sounds like bragging, I apologize. My family is not perfect, and I could easily make a list of our faults. On the other hand, since I believe that not having a television has had a remarkably positive influence on our lives, here I’m going to focus on the good qualities in my children that I believe can be attributed, in part, to their lack of TV exposure.

So what are the benefits of raising TV-free kids? I’ve come up with a list of seven broad areas.

1. Behavior

My kids are well behaved. All their lives, I have been getting compliments about their behavior—from teachers, from flight attendants, from strangers in restaurants, from other parents. They’ve never had public meltdowns of any sort (and very few private tantrums either). They’re “easy” kids—they entertain themselves, they become engrossed in tasks for long stretches of time, and they are generally happy and good natured. Yes, they complain from time to time, they get whiney or obstinate, but for the most part, they’re fantastic kids. They listen to us. Almost always.

How is this related to television? Kids mimic what they see. As Hart notes, “my kids were watching obnoxious TV shows and were acting obnoxious accordingly.” Studies have linked high rates of television viewing with antisocial, aggressive, and even criminal behavior. And even if the content is geared toward young audiences and seems harmless, ask yourself if you want your child’s behavior and values influenced by the shows they’re watching. Personally, I don’t want a little Hannah Montana on my hands.

2. Concentration

My kids have long attention spans. When my son started preschool, his teachers marveled at his ability to sit still and focus on a task. He would still be sitting at the table, drawing or working on an assigned activity an hour later when all of his classmates had become distracted and wandered away. My daughter can read a book for hours at a time—for even longer than I can sit still reading! She’s read 300-page books from cover to cover without hardly moving. In short, my kids can concentrate on a single task for a long time. They don’t get distracted.

Researchers have been telling us for years that television (along with video games, texting, and other technologies) erode children’s attention spans. Watching a television show does not require much mental effort or complex thought; it is largely a passive activity. And the constantly shifting images are not conducive to concentration; in fact, some researchers have suggested that exposure to television and video games may contribute to ADD/ADHD. So why offer my kids a frenetic, fast-paced cartoon—possibly with frequent commercial breaks, making the experience even more disjointed—when I can offer them a book?

3. Academics

Probably not a day has gone by in my daughter’s life that has not had a book in it. She’s been read to or has read on her own every day for nine and a half years since the day she came home from the hospital. She has been exposed to thousands of books. Think of all the hours that the average fourth grader spends looking at screens (television, computer, etc.). Now imagine what would happen if that fourth grader had instead spent all those hours reading books. That’s the reality my daughter has lived.

And it shows. She excels academically. Her vocabulary is extensive—better than that of many adults. One of her teachers calls her a “walking dictionary.” She performs well above grade level in virtually every subject. She has been deemed “gifted” in math as well and receives individualized enrichment, allowing her to advance several years beyond her grade level. I could go on and on, but you might ask—how can you attribute all of this to the lack of a television?

Of course I can’t. It would be folly to say this is all due to our TV-free lives. In the endless permutations of the nature versus nurture debate, it’s impossible to isolate any single factor. If my daughter had spent hours in front of a television screen every day of her life, she would probably still be smart. On the other hand, she would unlikely have her stunning knowledge of Greek mythology or her extensive arsenal of Shakespearean insults.

4. Materialism

My kids are not materialistic. Or at least they’re a lot less materialistic than their peers. When we go shopping, they don’t ask for things. Admittedly, I go shopping as infrequently as possible, but they do end up at the grocery store with me every couple of weeks. During our last trip my son asked if we were getting raspberries. I told him no, the price was too high—and that was the end of it. Last Christmas, my daughter asked Santa for a ball of yarn. Yes, just one. That was the extent of her Christmas list. She hates shopping even more than I do and has no interest in clothes, especially the clothes that some other girls her age seem to obsess over. My son has a weakness for Legos, art supplies, and all things Egyptian. He is a little more materialistic than his sister, but his wants are minor compared to some kids, and the requests are few and far between.

How is TV involved? TV makes you want things—especially the programming that is interrupted every few minutes with advertising. The average American child sees somewhere around 20,000 commercials per year. This is an astounding number! The cumulative effect of being told 20,000 times that you should buy something—toys, articles of clothing, food products, video games, digital devices—has to be monumental, especially for an audience of children who have not yet learned to distinguish information from persuasion. Viewing all of these ads not only makes children believe that their lives will not be happy or complete without certain products, but it also affects their behavior, causing them to nag their parents to purchase the products. Researchers have dubbed this the “Nag Factor,” defined as “the tendency of children, who are bombarded with marketers’ messages, to unrelentingly request advertised items,” and advertisers design commercials to specifically encourage this behavior in children.

That’s why my kids don’t ask for much—they aren’t being told, 55 times a day, 385 times a week, 1,667 times a month, that they want stuff.

5. Gender Stereotypes

If you want a girl to believe that she should play with dolls and fluffy stuffed animals, that her favorite color should be pink, that she’s likely not that great at math or science, that she should like clothes and cosmetics, that she should behave like a drama queen, then turn on the television. If you want a boy to believe that he should play with trucks and machines, that he should be macho and tough, that he should hide his emotions, that he should like violent video games, that he’s better than girls, then turn on the television.

Otherwise, just leave it off.

While some children’s shows have made great leaps in portraying gender equality, many are still lagging sadly behind, and what’s worse—much of the advertising, especially for toys, targets boys or girls exclusively, maintaining the divide between the genders and creating fixed notions in children’s minds about what it means to be male and female.

My son has taken ballet lessons and art lessons. My daughter loves science and chess. We want our kids to explore their interests wherever they may lie, to reach their potential, to be fully human—and that means not being pushed into narrow spheres by the outdated, rigid gender roles that sadly, are still perpetuated in so much of the media.

6. Nonconformity

My daughter is an individual, someone who is comfortable in her own skin. She plays the tuba because it is “awesome”—never mind that she’s the only one in fourth grade who picked that particular instrument. The height of fashion, for her, is a navy blue T-shirt that has a somewhat obscure math pun on the front, a faded pair of tan shorts, mismatched brightly colored knee socks, and worn-out sneakers. She loves mythology and Shakespeare, puns and logic puzzles. She’s proud of the fact that she’s the only one in her class who doesn’t have a TV. It makes her even more different. And being different, she will tell you, is awesome.

And it’s not having a TV all of these years that has enabled her to be different—without exposure to television, she’s never felt a need to conform to the stereotypes perpetuated by popular programs and advertising.

My kids have never said, “I have to do XYZ because Jane is doing it.” Or, “I need to have XYZ because all the kids have them.” Or, “But Tom’s parents let him do XYZ.” Or, “But all the kids are watching XYZ, so I have to.” Or anything along those lines.

7. Finding Their Passion

If your kids don’t watch TV, they spend a lot of time doing other things. A lot of other things. And as they do those other things, they just might find something that they love.

My son is an artist. He’s only six, so it’s hard to tell if he’s going to stay with it, but for now, art is his passion. He draws, he paints, and he sculpts. His art teachers have commented that he has talent. And he can sit still working on a piece of art for an astonishing amount of time. He finishes his pieces with painstaking attention to detail and care.

Maybe if he watched TV he’d still be an artist. But we might not know it yet. And he wouldn’t have had all of those many hours to sit in silence with a pencil and a piece of paper. Just the pencil, the paper, and him.

Watching television would have made him more like other kids. Not watching television has allowed him to be himself.


But it’s hard to give up television, you might argue. It’s deprivation, torture, a punishment too severe for the adults in the household. Remember, you don’t have to go cold turkey, chucking your flat screen out on the curb. Give up TV in the mornings, as Hart did. Or evenings. Or limit it to weekends only. Or to one carefully selected film per week. Make sure the TV isn’t on as background noise. Be selective and thoughtful about when you turn it on. And pick programming that is ad-free and that emulates the behavior and values that are in keeping with your own. Your kids will benefit. Really, they will. Even with just a small change.

We are not really radicals. Since we had already been TV-free for five years when our daughter was born, we never felt deprived. I can understand, though, that many parents might feel inconvenienced giving up TV. But having children is not a matter of convenience. It’s also not convenient to be up all night with a fussy baby or to change diapers or to read a dozen storybooks before the sun even comes up. In fact, I’ve discovered that most of the things worth doing in life are not especially convenient or easy. It’s a matter of what we choose, where our priorities lie. If it’s more important that the children be quiet and occupied in front of a TV so that you can sleep in or stare at your own screen to check email or Facebook, then you have made a choice. Turning off the television is another choice. It’s not that hard. And it’s important. Because our choices have repercussions that extend far beyond the here and now.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Xylotheque: "Mulberry"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Mulberry" first appeared in Adanna in 2011. 

Excerpt from "Mulberry"

Seeing for the first time the purple glints of my newborn’s eyes, her skin downy and puckered and tumescent, perfectly ripe for this world, I thought again of mulberries, of being held in their branches, of purple stains, of the burst of berry on tongue, and I saw giving birth was akin to climbing a tree: a reaching toward light, nourishment, endurance, life, a cradling and an offering of the most cherished to the world.

Maybe this is not true. Maybe I did not think of the mulberry then. Maybe I seamed it into my memory later: mulberry, birth. Who can say what thoughts occur during birth? It is stark physicality, a rending. It is an elbow against sky. And yet, on some level, the mulberry was there, subsumed by my laboring. Everything in my life was there with me, on that delivery table. Is it a lie to create memories after the fact? Is it a fiction to plaster over experience with words? Is it a violence to insist a tree means something other than itself?

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Xylotheque: "Cause of Death"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Cause of Death" first appeared in South Dakota Review in fall 2009, and it was cited as a “notable” essay in The Best American Essays 2010. 

Excerpt from “Cause of Death”

The man who came to see me to buy a site to bury his wife looked like a man who’d been inexplicably slapped by the earth itself. He looked like a man who’d been knocked down by a colossal sea wave while standing in the middle of a cornfield. He looked like a blind, burrowing animal that had been spit out by the dirt and left to blink and burn in the glare of full sunlight. Actually, he didn’t look all that different from many of the people I met while working at the cemetery, but I remember this man while I have forgotten many others. He was blindsided by grief, bewildered, as though he had been unexpectedly thrust on a stage beneath blinding lights and asked to play the role of a man who has just lost his wife. And he was still only figuring out how to be an actor, how to play this role, and it was vastly unfair that he didn’t get acting lessons or at least a dress rehearsal. He was just in his forties—and his wife had been, too—and this was completely unexpected, he told me. It was just completely unexpected, he told me again. He repeated this phrase a number of times during our morning together, as though offering an explanation or even an apology for why he had not come sooner, had not prepared for this, had not filled out the paper work last week before this had happened to him and he could think more clearly. Completely unexpected: this was why he blinked his eyes so rapidly and seemed unable to concentrate fully on what I was explaining about the internment paper work. Yet he tried to be kind and attentive, decorous, as though he didn’t want to be any trouble at all, as though he was there to please me. It was as though he was the one doing all the comforting and had come to make his wife’s death easier on me, and not the other way around.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Treasure Hunt

It’s the last day of school, and the treasure hunt is ready.

The first year, there were just a dozen clues. The second, we were up to twenty-five. Last year, thirty-four. And this year, they’ve requested fifty clues. Hard ones, they told me. They want clues that will send them looking in the dictionary or searching for abbreviations on the periodic table, clues that will test their knowledge of the Greek pantheon and Harry Potter lore, clues that contain algebraic equations and puns, scientific names for plants and animals and words in foreign languages.

I will hand them their first clue as they get off the bus, and for the next couple of hours, they will run all over our property—upstairs, downstairs, basement, front yard, backyard, garage, shed—as they solve the riddles I stayed up way too late writing for them. They will consult books. There will be words they may not know—ornithology, velocipede, codex, antiquated, subterranean, textiles, cathode, pate, doppelganger, supine—that will require a dictionary. There will be inside jokes. (And there will be some bathroom humor for the six-year-old.)

And there will be a few small prizes along the way, with a larger prize at the end, but that’s not the point. They don’t even remember what last year’s prize was—but they learned nearly every clue by heart. After the hunt is over, they will carefully redistribute all the clues to have the hunt again—and again. They will soon be chatting about velocipedes and doppelgangers.

They still have last year’s clues, and the ones from the year before. They still hide them for one another to find. And they make their own treasure hunts for one another, hiding scraps of paper all over the house with their own riddles. I find them occasionally, in the backs of drawers, between the pages of books, in coat pockets. They are always writing these little notes to lead one another on to the next good and surprising thing.

Their bus will come in an hour. I have the first clue in my pocket, ready to go. I can’t wait.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Xylotheque: "Quercus"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Quercus" first appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review in spring/summer 2011. A condensed version titled "The Wisdom of the Oak" was reprinted in Reader's Digest in the June/July 2011 issue. 

Excerpt from “Quercus”

When I was just out of high school and thought I wanted to be a journalist, I spent close to four years working at several local daily newspapers in California. I wrote about hockey players and real estate agents, about preachers and bowlers, about criminals and mountain men. And often, as I gathered information for a story, I would feel the tug of those other lives that I glimpsed. For a day or an hour, I would mentally abandon my own life and imagine myself as someone else. I wanted to be a convert to another life.

For an afternoon, I dedicated my life to teaching pottery to senior citizens. I became a pyrotechnician and wowed thousands with my stunning fireworks displays. I joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church to become a follower of the charismatic black woman pastor I interviewed. I married the young, God-fearing trucker I met at a truck-stop chapel; he was from Pennsylvania and looking for, among other things, a wife. I became a classic-car buff and renovated a 1952 midnight-blue Chevy Fleetline. I trained to be a computer programmer and learned to design GIS programs for police to use in mapping crimes on a nationwide grid. When the Texan high school football players—whom I had come to interview to find out how much they ate—asked me what I was doing later, I became the kind of party girl who hung out late with athletes. I went to medical school to learn how to perform heart transplants on nine-year-old boys, like the one I wrote about, the one whose photo I took as he clutched a Winnie the Pooh doll in his hospital bed.

Daily I sought conversion: something powerful and sudden like a tornado to seize me up and shake me senseless, something to ravish me, to take me in its clutches forever and never set me back on earth. But working at daily newspapers, every day the view was different, the religion changed, the weather turned, the story was new. I never studied anything at length, I never knew anything in depth. I ran from one story to the next, my knowledge rudimentary. I was promiscuous in my yearnings, my many aborted passions. I took cuttings from all those lives, lined them up on a windowsill, where they shriveled, and all that remains now are yellowing clips in three-ring binders.

Now I am more than a dozen years removed from that life. Now what I want to learn most is how to stay put, how to be a student not of the sensational and transient but of the commonplace, the everyday, the enduring. Now instead of leaves of newspaper print, I collect a different kind of leaves, the real deal. Now I have become the student of a tree.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Xylotheque: "Song of the Redwood Tree"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Song of the Redwood Tree" first appeared in South Dakota Review in 2011.

Excerpt from “Song of the Redwood Tree”

We look and look, but we do not see the trees. There is no place to stand to see an entire redwood. For hours we crane our necks, peering into the sky where the trees disappear from sight. We circle their behemoth trunks, stupefied. We are underwater. The light on the forest floor is murky, greenish, yet freighted with clarity. There is levity to our steps on the spongy duff. We are walking on the ocean floor. “The forest canopy is the earth’s secret ocean,” writes Richard Preston in The Wild Trees. Hundreds of feet above us, the trees collect fog from the air. Their canopies are like root systems reaching into the sky. They seem as distant as the stars from where we stand in our green-tinged seafloor environment. The trees reach into the earth and into heaven, drinking, drinking. We are blind to the work of the roots under our feet, to the slow constant pull, to the enormous suck, the seep of water upward, unceasing for centuries.

“You really can’t tell much about what’s happening in a forest from the ground,” says noted redwood expert Steve Sillett in 2009 National Geographic documentary titled Climbing Redwood Giants. So true. From the ground, we do not see the life that teems within the canopies hundreds of feet above us; we never glimpse, for example, the salamanders that live their whole lives in trees without once touching the ground. We do not see the epiphytes, fifty-plus species of mites, copepods, earthworms, bumblebees, huckleberries, lichens, voles, rhododendrons, currant and elderberry bushes, or the bonsai groves of California laurel, western hemlock, Douglas fir, tan oak, Sitka spruce, and buckthorn that perch atop the sprawling canopies that are like land masses held aloft in the sky. The canopies of the world’s forests, I learn, contain half of nature’s species. The scientists who rappel themselves into the trees, scaling redwood trunks like the faces of sheer cliffs, go into this undiscovered country. And they see.

Science has other ways of seeing. Researchers peer at the redwoods through microscopes, poring over cellulose, lichens, the structure of shrimp found snarled in trees hundreds of feet above sea level. They fly over the forests in twin-engine planes, using LIDAR, light detection and ranging, to create highly detailed maps of the topography of redwood forests, determining the heights of the tallest trees from the air. Dendrochronologists squint at great slabs of redwood cross sections, peering at the rings, counting, seeking out minute differences in annual growth. All of these are ways of seeing. And all ways glimpse only pieces of the whole.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Keeping a Field Notebook

In “Why Keep a Field Notebook?” biologist Erick Greene describes an assignment that he required his students to complete over a semester:

I asked my students to pick one “thing” and observe it carefully over the entire semester. The “thing” they chose could be anything from a single plant, one place, a beaver dam, their garden, a bird feeder, and so on. They had to record their observations at least once a week in a field notebook.

What is the purpose of a field notebook? Greene lists several functions that it can serve:

These notebooks tend to capture the beauty and wonder of the natural world and help to hone the observational skills of the authors. They typically combine field sketching and painting with keen observation. . . . Another value of field notebooks is their ability to serve as an incredibly fertile incubator for your ideas and observations. By jotting down interesting observations, questions, and miscellaneous ideas, your field notebook can serve as a powerful catalyst for new experiments and projects.

I would argue that field notebooks can be just as valuable to writers as they are to scientists. I have kept a journal of one sort or another for most of my life, and for the past three years, I’ve worked in a large sketchbook that has become a field notebook of sorts, containing illustrations and observations of the natural world. I often take my notebook into my own backyard and make notations about the garden. I also regularly visit nearby ponds and favorite trees.

This spring, I asked students in my “writing about nature and ecology” class to keep a field notebook for the duration of the semester. They were to pick a single outdoor location and to visit that location once a week to observe it, recording their observations in writing and illustrations. For the first assigned reading of the semester, I handed out Greene’s essay to help get them thinking about their notebooks.

In the beginning of this project I had planned to take my classes on an excursion into “the field”—a nearby park—but in late January on the day I selected for this trip the temperature was barely in the teens, so I improvised. If I could not bring my students to nature, I would bring nature to my students. I collected a box full of nature artifacts—pinecones, seed pods, branches, leaves, needles—and spent time observing and drawing these objects in class. I wanted to get my students drawing—especially the ones who didn’t consider themselves artists—because drawing something forces you to truly observe it, to notice it in its detail, its spectacular complexity. It takes a long time to see and then to render all the veins in a leaf. Even though I am far from being an artist (with just one semester of high school art training), I have found that drawing something not only helps me to see it and to remember it, but it also helps me to write about it. I can describe in words what I’ve drawn much more accurately than what I’ve merely observed.

What kinds of things did I want to see in a field notebook? Many students had no idea where to begin. I told them they could list data like the date and time, the temperature and weather conditions, observations of plant or animal life, but they could also write down questions that came to mind, their thoughts and reactions, descriptions based on sensory data, metaphors and poem fragments—basically, anything they wanted. The point was to go to the same place once a week and write.

I pointed out to my students that Greene offers two principles for keeping a field notebook:

First, you will forget things far faster than you expect—most people think they will remember details of their observations and studies for longer and better than they actually do; and second, you will not know at the beginning of a study all the things that might be important or interesting—for this reason, it is a great idea to record more information than you think you might need.

In other words, I told my students, record everything—even if it seems obvious or irrelevant. I write all kinds of nonsense in my field notebook. And yet, as my collection of observations, data, and questions grows, I not only become more engaged with my subjects of study, but I also begin to see central themes emerging in my thinking. Are there certain things I draw again and again? Are there certain questions that seem to come up over and over? Do images from one week to the next echo one another? Do they contradict one another? What is the creative work that my subconscious mind is trying to do? The notebook is a place for me to put down this nascent writing, these fragments, without any expectation of creating a polished, finished piece of work.
Some students enjoyed the assignment, and others didn’t. Some wrote lengthy entries while others made telegraphic notes limited to temperature and time of day. Some made intricate illustrations while others drew little to nothing. Some included photos. One student, Vanessa, even did watercolor illustrations. With her permission, I am including an image of some of her work below.

For the last reading of the semester, I passed out “Landscape and Narrative” by Barry Lopez. I asked my students to think about their field notebooks in relation to Lopez’s idea of “interior” landscape and “exterior” landscape. Lopez writes:

I think of two landscapes—one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see—not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution. . . . The second landscape I think of as an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. . . . The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.

Before turning in their field notebooks at the end of the semester, my students wrote a brief reflection on the contents on their notebooks. I asked them to think about the following questions: What kind of “landscape” dominated in their notebooks? Did they write more about the exterior world, or about themselves? Did they see any parallels between the exterior landscape that they observed and their interior landscape?

Students had a range of responses to these questions, just as they had a range of approaches to keeping field notebooks. Some students focused on the physical world, on observation, not venturing at all into the interior landscape, while others wrote freely about the feelings that were conjured by the natural world around them, even to the extent that the exterior landscape was sometimes obscured, barely present in their writings. Some shifted over the course of the project, beginning with notations about the external landscape but slowly adding more of their internal landscape as the weeks went on. In one notable case, a student started the semester making notations about plant and animal life, writing down the exact number of birds and squirrels that he saw on each excursion, but by the end of the semester he was writing intensely personal poetry about his connections to the natural world. He went from tallying ducks to looking at nature as a manifestation of divinity.

Yet even students who did not make a strong connection between the internal and the external benefited from the exercise. One student, Liam, described his experiences in his reflection:

Over the course of the semester, I chose to observe a small clearing snuggled between the river in the back of Stanley Park and a trail that runs through the park. This spot is filled with large rocks and is very peaceful, as the rocks create natural seats to enjoy the calm movement of the river. Beginning in early February, the spot was covered in snow and the river was completely frozen. Almost three months later, the river was flowing and the bushes were beginning to bloom. It was beautiful being able to see the changes in the landscape as the weather got nicer. I’ve come to realize that I most enjoyed being able to see wildlife in and around the river. I never quite observed this about myself before the field journal, but there’s something I seriously love about seeing animals in their natural habitats, just living. It makes me realize that humans are simply animals, and although our way of living is much more complex, at the end of the day, we simply want to survive, just like the squirrels, geese, ducks, and one fish that I saw at the spot. This was my first experience keeping a field notebook, and to say I enjoyed it would be an understatement. I’ve always loved observing nature, but taking time to write about what I’m witnessing actually makes the moments timeless. I didn’t really write about myself a lot in the notebook itself, but I certainly think I grew as a person by having the opportunity to observe such a peaceful natural landscape.

Another student, Brendan, chose to observe the same tree every week. At the end of the semester, he wrote:

I am actually going to miss this tree. It seemed awkward at first, but as the semester went on, though it seemed like I was running out of things to say about the tree, I was growing in the way I felt about it. I can’t wait to come back next year in the fall and revisit the tree. I can see it with all of its leaves and the way they change colors.

Jeff was a student who had never before excelled at writing, but keeping a field notebook changed his perspective. He wrote:

I have never enjoyed writing but this experience has begun to change my opinion. I enjoy being out in nature but never wrote about my experiences in the moment. During the first semester I never slowed down and observed nature around me. This assignment forced me to keep in touch with nature and immerse myself in it. I really enjoyed this writing, being able to write whatever was on my mind and what I observed. There were no requirements that would restrict my thought and writing. I liked how it took me away from all my other work and left me alone with nature. With a lot of other assignments and work, having to relax and write about nature was not a burden. When I am home I spend a lot of time with nature and I believe from now on I will bring a field notebook along with me.

I have dozens of such responses from students. Here is one final reflection, written by Cathleen:

I liked keeping this field notebook. I realized, however, that people and scientists who do this regularly really have to be committed.  It was hard to make sure I got there once a week and sometimes it was longer or I had to go twice in one week. I also found it difficult observing one single spot because for many weeks not much changed. Watching winter turn to spring was interesting but it was very gradual and sometimes I found it hard to discuss what was new every week because I felt like I was repeating myself. I learned that nature is extremely subtle. When I was forced to really look for changes I realized they felt like they kind of happened without even being visible to the naked eye. Like, one day it was winter, and the next it was spring. But so much still somehow happens in between. I also learned that keeping this field notebook was a great way to have an excuse to sit and relax. It was peaceful and nice, even in the cold. I liked this notebook because it was very different than the other assignments in the class, but I think it got across the theme of the class more than any other assignment could. It made you stop and actually observe nature through your own eyes, not just read about it in someone else’s words.

Throughout the semester, I worked on the field notebook assignment along with my students, trekking each week to observe the same white oak in temperatures that ranged from the teens to the eighties. One week the wind chill was so extreme that I drove to the location and made my notations inside the car with the engine running. Some weeks, I wrote only about the external landscape, while others I delved into the internal as well. Every week, I drew. And now, some of my notes from those weeks are working themselves into a new essay I’m finishing. And others will sit dormant for a little longer. And some will never make it out of the notebook. That’s just the nature of a field notebook.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Xylotheque: "Lithodendron"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Lithodendron" first appeared in Blue Mesa Review in 2012.

Excerpt from “Lithodendron”

We come on one of the coldest days of the year. A steady wind pierces our clothing, and the overcast sky, bruised a faint gray and yellow, threatens rain. We are kept company by a raven that sits on a lone post and periodically rasps out a cry. The few other people who have come today are quiet and reverent, moving silently with heads bent to the wind. Wearing fleece jackets, windbreakers, and hiking boots, they move alone or in pairs. Our party of three seems excessive. There are no children besides my daughter, who is not quite five.

We have come to a forest that is a desert, a desert that is a forest. Vegetation maps identify this part of Arizona as “barren land” because greenery covers less than 5 percent of the surface. Shrubs, sparse grasses, lone stunted junipers, yucca, and prickly-pear cactuses stud the landscape here and there, but I have to seek them out. They are subtle, never accosting the eye. Petrified Forest National Park is a land of barrenness: cracked mud, dust, clay, multihued strata. In places the landscape seems rusted, and this is not so far from the truth. Oxidation produces reds, pinks, oranges. In other places, the strata are blue, gray, black. This land of arroyos, washes, canyons, mesas, and plateaus has been sculpted by erosion, picked clean by time.

The eye does not at first recognize the trees in this forest. They litter the ground in great broken slabs like ancient columns that have fallen to ruin. They have been literally turned to stone: petrified. What is a stone tree? Is it mineral or vegetable? They rest in heaps upon the desert floor like great bones sucked dry by the centuries. For millennia they were pressed between the strata of the earth, like botanical specimens preserved in the pages of a book. They are long-embedded splinters that have been exuded by the earth’s skin, which here is parched and scaly like a reptile’s. Or they are the blanched ribs of time itself, lying broken in an ascetic landscape. They are landmarks in time. The landscape itself seems broken, in a state of final ruin, and yet all landscapes are broken. All are in continuous states of creation and destruction. On this December day the land is just a single iteration of itself. It was never more complete. It was never fixed. 

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Xylotheque: "Navel Country"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Navel Country," which appeared in Colorado Review in 2013, was the last essay in the collection that I wrote. It is a memoir about my grandfather, about growing up in the Inland Empire, about orange trees and memory, about landscape and nostalgia.

Excerpt from “Navel Country”

Summiting, I look down. My eyes find the straight line of Palmyrita, now flanked by warehouses and a tech park. I search the land for groves and finally spot the eight acres still being farmed by an elderly widow; the block of green is nearly lost in the sprawl of houses and the rectangular white roofs of warehouses, a new patchwork overlaying the land. I look a little farther, toward the base of Blue Mountain, where the family groves used to be. Here, there is nothing at all, just leveled dirt. The developers have razed the trees but put nothing in their place. The project was halted when the economy went sour, the developers running out of resources or vision, running out of some essential quality necessary to effect a transformation. What is here is emptiness, waiting to be overwritten, waiting for the next iteration of progress, the next conquest.

I try to think of a way to tell my daughter what this place looked like when I was a child: all those verdant nubs of trees tucked up against the hills, tidy as machine stitching, nature perfected. I want to redeem my grandfather and the land that made him. Before I can say anything, my daughter speaks. “California feels like home because we’ve moved so many times we always live somewhere different, but California always stays the same.” This is her second trip up Sugarloaf so she has a reference point, a sense of continuity. “I can see why you would feel that way,” I tell her. I don’t say the rest out loud: You have the disease of nostalgia, too, I fear. You will someday think back to your childhood when you mistook your own innocence for an innocence of the world, when you mistook the simplicity of a child’s life for universal simplicity, your own happiness for universal happiness, when you mistook the long yawn of time that makes up childhood for permanence. Or worse, you’ll believe that you just missed out on something. And you did. And so did I. And so did we all. Even Grandpa.

Because when my grandfather arrived in California in 1922, even then people said the glory days were already past. I imagine the one perfect day—sometime in 1895 or perhaps 1905, when North and Tibbets were dead but my family was not yet on the scene—and it went by completely unnoticed. There was nothing remarkable about it, just a sun-drenched day with blossoms clustering tightly to the trees, their fragrance heavy in the air, and the Riversiders going about their business, driving their wagons up and down Victoria, men irrigating their groves, women buying eggs, and no one even suspecting that they had reached the pinnacle of their glory, that tomorrow and the day after and the day after the glory would slip a little further into the past, and even though more groves would be planted and more houses would be built, forever after there would be that sense of nostalgia, that sense that something beautiful and pure had slipped away. I see those Riversiders on their one perfect day, and they don’t know it’s perfect, and they have no one to tell them: This is it. You’re living the dream. Don’t let it go by unnoticed. Put a border around it and paste it to an orange crate. Hold on to it, however you can.

And then I picture myself as a sixteen-year-old girl, painting standpipes on a summer day that feels like it stretches forever, and I want to say the same things to her. I want to put a border around her. And does some future version of myself capture me here, today, at the top of a peak flanked by my young children, looking down on a vanished landscape, and does that future self long to put a border around this moment, render it as landscape? How many layers deep can nostalgia accrue? What is this palimpsest of the self? There is no extracting the self from landscape. We are the landscape, for it is our creation.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Xylotheque: "Living at Tree Line"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I will post here an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. I begin with the opening essay, “Living at Tree Line,” which is about working at a cemetery and bristlecone pines. This essay, published in 2004 in North American Review, was the first essay in the collection that I wrote.

Excerpt from “Living at Tree Line”

I am at the cemetery, waiting for my nine o’clock appointment to arrive. The two women are thirty minutes late. The cemetery is peaceful in the chilly October morning. A squirrel digs with frantic speed in a pile of brown leaves; jays twitter politely in the evergreens; a fat groundhog snuffles at the earth around his hole. If I am very still I may see a timid deer emerge from the woods and bask in the sunshine among the old bone-white headstones, streaked with rust and black from a century of rains. My fingers, grown numb from the cold, are curled tightly around a manila folder containing my color-coded cemetery maps, which I designed on a computer using a spreadsheet program. I walk, kicking at the drifts of crackly, dead leaves, and read headstones.

The two women, who are selecting a space for their father, are very picky. They are Caribbean and Catholic and think that we bury people too close together. Each site, I tell them, is ten feet long and forty inches wide. They think their father needs more space, but they are unwilling to pay for it. They do not like any of the sites I have shown them. The first ones were too near the parkway. We have since moved away from the parkway. Now they say they don’t want a site with dead grass. It is fall, I tell them, all the grass dies in the fall. It will grow again in the spring. They don’t seem to be paying attention. They point to a large oak tree—the only tree of any size in this section—and they ask if there are any spaces available under the tree. No, I say, everyone asks that. Everyone wants to be under a tree. And I repeat what I’ve heard my boss, the cemetery manager, say: that tree won’t be there forever.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


When the box of books finally arrives, when I lift the top one out and hold it up like a newborn, feel its weight in my hands, trace the length of its spine, riffle its pages, marvel at the number of words that I have somehow put down on paper, it is all a little like giving birth, like seeing for the first time the face of the child that I felt kicking within me for so long, like touching the infant’s skin, holding the weight of that new being, marveling that somehow, I created this person. And it is also like a reunion, to finally meet this being I have thought of for so long. There is a keen feeling of recognition. Oh, I have known you all along. Oh, there you are at last, and you are just as I expected. Babies and books—both erupting suddenly into the world out of their long, hushed crafting. Babies and books—now I have two of each.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Photo/Text 9: Click

Taking a picture is as much about excluding as including. I seek angles to cut out the detritus of life, avoiding images that are cluttered, junky. This time I cut out his sister—to whom he is walking with a snowball—to render just a boy, a field of snow, a winter sky, a row of New England houses, creating a moment that didn’t quite exist. I select this one from all the other shutter clicks—the dozens or hundreds of attempts that came before, that came after, each rejected image cradling the chosen one like parentheses, closing the moment off, keeping it distinct, clean, keeping the clutter at bay, saying—look, this is what I make of the moment, what I preserve; this is the moment distilled, as it should have been, free of distraction, of the terrible junk and entropy of life. It is the spare cherry-picked words of a lean poem. It is holding a fish for an instant out of the water to see the glint of scales before dropping it back into the obscurity of water. It is but one way of seeing a fish. But still it is seeing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Photo/Text 8: Winter Bloom

Starting from a place of dirty snow and incessant talk of wind chill, you board a plane and emerge, half a day later, in a tepid place that confuses your senses, a place of plants in strange winter bloom. At first, your winter-hardened self recoils from the alien landscape, from roses and bougainvillea, jade plants and birds-of-paradise. You walk from one botanical specimen to the next, as on a movie set, marveling. When your skin relaxes, no longer steeling itself against cold, you don summer clothes and sit in sunshine. The locals, sealed up inside, seem impervious to the miracle of warm winter; no one else’s bones are starved of warmth. Yet you were once one of them, believing winter was but a milder form of summer and not a different species of season altogether, a gray season with teeth like a wolf. You moved from this place nearly fourteen years ago, trading year-round bloom for winter, for the wolf, and you would not trade it back. Never again do you want to be immune to blooming. Heading back on the plane, stepping back into winter, you welcome the terrific chill that claims you, sinking its teeth in your flesh.