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.