Reunion

Priest River bears

Bears like the Eagle’s Nest Motel in Priest River, Idaho. They lounge on the railings, shimmy up poles, and dangle from porch swings. We spent a couple of nights there this summer while attending a family reunion at nearby Diamond Lake, and all I could think was that someone with a knife – or chainsaw? – had had a really good time carving all those smiling bears. They made us laugh every time we came back to our room, even on the night when a storm had blown down trees, and we had to navigate the branch-strewn roads back to our motel in darkness.

One morning, Arline and I took a walk through Priest River and discovered a book sale at the town’s library. There were some good books there, but the one I chose was from 1981: Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? The 20 Questions Men Ask Most Frequently about Women by Celia Halas, Ph.D. Those twenty questions included some beauties: “Why does she act so helpless?” “Why can’t she handle her emotions better?” But once I started reading the book, I discovered that the questions were a marketing gimmick; at the heart of the book was a plea for feminism: “Stop seeing ‘women’s liberation’ as a dirty word. Recognize that the women’s movement is not ‘out to get’ men. It’s purpose is to equalize power between the sexes to the benefit of the human race.”

I looked up Halas and found that in 1972, at age 50, she went back to school to earn her doctorate in counseling psychology. She joined the women’s movement and focused on counseling women. In a small Idaho town, in a small library, in a small room, I found a book, and in that book was the voice of a foremother.

Ancestral voices spoke throughout that weekend. I heard the calm, kind voice of my grandfather, who had built the family cabin, in the roof-beams and plank floors. I heard my grandmother’s easy conversation in the quilts and tole paintings hanging on the walls. Sunday morning, we gathered in a neighbor’s garage to remember them and the others who were not here to eat blueberry pancakes with us: uncles, an aunt, a cousin. For each of the departed, someone stood and told stories, and the tissue boxes were passed up and down the tables. And then we hugged and sang, and it seemed as if all our voices together made a song that every one of us had always sung and would always be singing, and the ones we could no longer see and touch were singing with us, and that was how we would hear them now, and that was okay; that was good. And then we got to those blueberry pancakes.

The night before, the storm had hit. My uncle had got word that a bad one was coming, and the neighbors offered their garage for our dinner, and just as fifty members of my family sat down to eat barbecue, the lights went out, and a fierce wind whipped up. Lanterns were lit. We heard a crash like glass breaking. The children were oblivious, digging into mac-and-cheese, but the adults shared worried looks and picked at their dinners. And then the wind was easing, we realized, and within an hour it was over. As soon as someone went outside, we discovered that a huge Douglas fir on our property had fallen – away from the cabin, away from the garage, and into the only empty space between nearby structures, missing even a small shed. It was a tremendous sight that Douglas fir with its branches heaved from the ground.

That night, Arline and I drove back to our motel and our cheerful bears. The clerk gave us an electric candle, and we poured wine. The electric candle was tiny, about the size of a stack of three quarters, and its light didn’t flicker like a real candle’s. But in the almost complete darkness of that small town, it was what we had. Our little light.

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A Fairy Tale

Writing Retreat

Once upon a time, four writers went to Fort Worden for a writing retreat: Waverly, Donna, Jennifer, and Allison. They spent a week working on short stories, essays, memoirs, novels, and proposals. They compared submission spreadsheets. One night, they read their work out loud.

During the week, they took turns making dinner. They ate pasta, tacos, sandwiches, and salads. One of them surprised the others by baking parchment-wrapped cod that she had dusted with pollen from fennel growing outside one of their cottages.

During the week, they drank coffee, tea, champagne, wine, beer, and juice. One of them infused vodka with lavender and made lavender vodka tonics. Guess which one. Surprisingly, they did not ever appear to get drunk.

One of them went running every morning. A couple of them took long walks. One drove them into town whenever they needed strong coffee and good wi-fi.

They tweeted, posted on Facebook, emailed children in far-off countries, and talked to family members at home. They listened to classical music, read the newspaper online, and, of course, read books. They played Scrabble three times. One of them felt kind of pouty when she lost, but she tried not to let it show.

They watched deer sleep in the nearby shade, picked blackberries for their oatmeal, and toured the lighthouse. One talked to the Alfa Romeo-driving man staying in Alexander’s Castle and spun gothic mystery stories that might take place there.

Mostly, they wrote. And wrote and wrote. This made them feel, at times, that it might be possible to live happily ever after.

 

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Needs Improvement

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Before report cards

My parents are cleaning out. Dad tells me he’s got a stack of cookbooks going to Goodwill and do I want to pick through them? Mom stops by to drop off an envelope. It’s got my report cards from elementary through high school, my ninth grade school photos, and a high school creative writing magazine with two of my angsty poems in it (“Seems paradise was just a mirage/covering the streets of a city….”).

I spend an afternoon in nostalgic reflection.

Second grade. I loved Mrs. Stern’s go-go boots and bouffants. The report card evaluated me for how well I was “developing a courteous manner” and whether I could “accept group decisions.” Apparently, I was doing these things well. I also was “developing better posture” and “practicing habits of cleanliness.” At the top of the chart, Mrs. Stern had the option of marking “needs improvement” or “does his best.” It’s still a surprise to be reminded that “his” was once supposed to mean “her” as well.

Fourth grade. We struggled, Mrs. Neitzel and I, over my penmanship. “She should strive,” Mrs. Neitzel wrote in the first quarterly report, “for neater papers and more legible handwriting.” By the fourth quarter, I had improved, but I still wrote sentences in the margins and drew loops and arrows to show where they went. Mrs. Neitzel did not approve. Mrs. Neitzel thought I should start over and re-write everything neatly. At least I was revising.

My worst evaluation in fourth grade came from the gym teacher: “Allison needs to think more about what she is doing.” I have never been good at thinking about what my body is doing. My wrist doesn’t connect with the volleyball; my racket doesn’t meet the birdie; my biceps don’t smoothly move the bat. So I just laugh and swing wildly and hope. And get marked down.

Sixth grade and I was still struggling in gym class. But there were new trouble spots. Mr. Hoffman said that while I was doing well academically, my “self-control” could use some work, and I didn’t always “play well with others.” In high school, Ms. Hardy, my algebra-trig teacher, said I seemed “to waste time.” I regret now that we called her “thunder thighs” and laughed as she spread chalk dust over her polyester pants.

Today my colleagues and administrators evaluate me every fifth year in post-tenure review. If they think I need to work on my self-control, they don’t say. It’s true that I don’t always feel like playing well with some of my colleagues, but I’ve learned in most cases to ignore them.            

I’m still no gym rat; my exercise of choice is walking because at least my feet can propel me forward. The computer fixed my penmanship and legibility. Do I accept group decisions? Not always, but for some reason I keep voting.

One thing I wish I could get back: wasting time. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t doing something productive, as pleasurable as many of my life’s activities can be. I can’t remember when I last spent an entire day doing nothing. Needs improvement, Allison. Needs improvement.

 

 

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A Sentence

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“This, too, is America: two middle-aged women, one North American and one Central American, eating cheese and apples in campsite #4 of the Mountain View Campground on Little Redfish Lake.”

I wrote this sentence in a notebook six years ago as I began a writing project that would become the soon-to-be-published Trout Frying in America: A Literary Pilgrimage (Ooligan Press, spring 2015). The sentence did not make it to the final manuscript. It did not even make it into the first draft because, by the time I sat down to write the scene in which Arline and I picnicked in the campsite where Richard Brautigan and his wife and baby stayed in 1961, the idea I was trying to express no longer fit the scene.

Still, I like that sentence. It has echoes, for me, of Adrienne Rich’s poem “North American Time,” with its call to write about our lives even as we don’t know how our words might be used against us. Too, the sentence responds to a line in Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America in which the narrator describes his search for that elusive idea: America.

Arline and I, as my memoir describes, are not easy travelers in rural places. We worry about being women alone and women together. Arline worries about reactions to her “otherness”: immigrant, woman of color. So the sentence took shape in my mind as we were walking the hills around Redfish Lake (the big one, not the little one) after lunch. The glory of the Sawtooth Mountains, just two days’ drive from our home in Seattle, made me grateful for living in the Pacific Northwest, but my anxiety about how others might react to us tempered my joy. I wanted to shout a defiant: We, too, are America! Back in our hotel, I wrote the sentence in my notebook.

We returned to Seattle a week later, and I began to get up early every morning to write for an hour. By December, I had forty-four short pieces related to Brautigan, our trip, my Idaho ancestry, and trout. The years went by, and I wrote some more, solicited feedback, and re-wrote. The sentence, “This, too, is America…..” was marooned in my notebook. Until the folks at Ooligan Press told me they wanted to publish my manuscript.

This week, I pulled the notebook out of a closet; I wanted to re-read my first tentative ideas for the project. There was the sentence. And even though it is a singular sentence, a sentence disconnected from other sentences, not destined to be part of a paragraph, let alone a book, I wanted to honor it in some way. Because it reminds me that most of my work as a writer is making sentences. A sentence, like a breath, keeps me alive in this moment. It may seem like something small, but without it, I wouldn’t be. And, really, it’s a good, sturdy sentence. It still flares with the spark of my defiance that afternoon. It still breathes.

 

 

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Writing Process Blog Tour

Point Udall, St. Croix

Point Udall, St. Croix

Thanks to Ann Hedreen for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Ann is the author of the forthcoming Her Beautiful Brain; read her work at The Restless Nest.

What am I working on?

Island, 1969 describes a pivotal experience in my family’s life when, not long after we moved to St. Croix so my father could do research for his dissertation, someone broke into our house, threw rocks at my head, and fractured my skull. My mother, brother, and I left the island soon after to live with my grandparents in Spokane while my father spent almost two more years there. In 2013, I returned to St. Croix to see the place I had tried to remember for almost half a century.

This story is about my parents’ guilt and anguish; about race and class; about a little girl wondering at the scars on her head. It’s about a specific time in North America and two small cities, 3600 miles apart. It’s about wanting to understand how these places and these people made me.

How does my work differ from other writing in its genre?

I don’t write straightforward narrative memoir. I’m drawn to work that combines a narrative arc with excursions, fragments, and meanderings — books like Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. I also love (and emulate) essays that read like poetry. One of my favorite books is Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere.

Why do I write what I do?

Like many writers, I write to understand what disturbs and confuses me. Recently I attended a workshop with Caren Gussoff, who urged the participants to create personal mission statements to guide our decisions about how to write and live. This was what came to me: My mission is to create, out of the essentially meaningless chaos of life, pleasure and connection. Pleasure in language; connection through shared stories.

Also, writing gives me a dopamine high.

How does my writing process work?

Teaching at a community college keeps me busy during the school year. I write during the summer and on breaks when I can give myself over to a project, whether it’s an essay or a book-length manuscript. Then, I typically write three to four hours each morning.

Next on the Writing Process Blog Tour:

Katie Woodzick is a writer, actress, director, and External Relations Manager for Hedgebrook. She considers herself a smattering of Rogue from X-Men, Mae West and Tina Fey, among others. She is working on her first poetry manuscript: Theatrical Mustang.

Caren Gussoff calls herself a sci fi and literary fiction writer, geek, and bon vivant. Her latest book is The Birthday Problem.

 

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Bill Knott, 1940-2014

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What was it about those bad-boy poets that I loved so much at 16? Brautigan, Ferlinghetti. And Bill Knott, whose recent death made me think about him and how our paths crossed, twice.

The first time, I was a high school junior attending a week-long poetry workshop at the beautiful old army base Fort Worden, which sits on the tip of a peninsula jutting into Puget Sound. Every day, we students met in seminars with real, true poets. My teacher, Jim Heynen, set out a display of books and invited us to borrow them during the week. On the cover of one book was a cartoon girl, her arms doughy blobs, her eyes red hearts. When I picked it up, Jim told me that the author, Bill Knott, was in residence at the fort, and that if I wanted to, I could knock on his door and talk to him.

I took the book back to my dorm room. In the author photo, Knott seemed worried or distracted, his forehead creased. His hair was messy; it might have been sticky with sweat. Like the girl on the cover, he looked doughy.

Inside was a stream of surreal poems, like this one, in its entirety: “Just hope that when you lie down your toes are a firingsquad.” There was a lot of death, poems about the war in Vietnam, about his own death, like “Goodbye,” which made the Internet rounds after he died: “If you are still alive when you read this,/close your eyes. I am/under their lids, growing black.”

What stirred me most were poems of love and desire, often for a woman named Naomi. In one, he tells Naomi about the “summer fragrances green between your legs.” In another, Naomi’s face is the “altar where my/heart is solved.” In another, “I breathe your/heartbeat, Naomi.” I wanted to be loved like that, to love like that.

I was afraid to bother the famous poet, but I went anyway. I walked across the fort on a misty afternoon and knocked on the door of his cottage. Long pause. The door opened a few inches. Knott looked just as disheveled as in his author photo.

I told him I was at Fort Worden studying poetry, and that my teacher had suggested I come buy a book from him.

He asked my name and left the doorway. Through the crack in the door, I could see dozens of copies of the book I’d borrowed spread across the floor. When he returned, it was with a copy of his book, signed. He refused to take any money. I was delighted, when I got back to my room, to see that it had a list of poems on the inside flap, as if he had used this copy for a reading.

Almost a decade later, I started my first classes in Emerson College’s M.F.A. program as a fiction writer. Knott was the poetry professor there. Throughout my time at Emerson, he was a kind of apparition, wandering in a raincoat through the halls, not looking at anyone. Still, his presence reminded me of the poet girl I’d been once.

What I wanted then was to be one those bad-boy poets, striding through the world with all that passion and power. There were bad-girl poets, too, of course; Anne Sexton was one I read at the same age. She had the passion, but her power sometimes seemed compromised. I wanted more. It would be some time before I found Sandra Cisneros, Marilyn Hacker, Jessica Hagedorn. Women who could stride like that, burn as bright.

 

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Booktopia

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I took my empty book bag to the writing conference that was here in Seattle recently, and I wandered through the book fair and scooped up free tortilla chips at the receptions and waved at my friends across the crowded aisles, and by the time I came home, that bag was so heavy my shoulder hurt.

It all started at registration, where I tried to look like it meant nothing to me that Joy Harjo was a few people ahead. I chatted with a man named Ken, and later I ran into him, sitting in the Gival Press booth, and then we crossed paths on the sidewalk, and what was there to do the next time I saw him but buy Poetic Voices Without Borders? Guess who’s in it? Joy Harjo.

Richard Blanco (poet of Obama’s second inauguration) made me think of Arline, who loves Miami, so I asked him to sign Looking for the Gulf Motel to her.

Tom Spanbauer, that beautiful genius, has a new book out from Hawthorne Books. I took his “Dangerous Writing” class many years ago. I wish I could go back in time and watch him walk into that kindergarten classroom again. (We all got grown-up chairs, but the bathroom sinks were three feet off the ground.) Hawthorne had I Loved You More at their table.

Wednesday night, Arline came down and we celebrated Latino/a writers with Donna Miscolta and Alma García and new friends Ruben Quesada and Brian Kornell.

We were all three degrees of separation by then, and Ruben, it turned out, had organized Queertopia, a reading (12 readers! 120 minutes!) at the Barnes and Noble, which is where Arline and I spent Thursday night. There, I bought Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon, Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, and Roxane Gay’s Ayiti. Why those? Because I already had Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians and Barrie Jean Borich’s Body Geographic. And because, while the authors were signing my books, I could stand really close to them without seeming creepy.

Did I mention lunch with Jennifer Munro, who talked me up to an editor at a really cool press? What kind of writer does that? We’re supposed to be stingy and self-absorbed.

One day – Friday? – I chatted with a professor and graduate student at Ooligan Press. From them I bought Oregon Stories and The Portland Red Guide, by Michael Munk. Next time Arline and I go to Portland, we can check out where radical Marie D. Equi lived in the late 1920s and early 1930s with her lover, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

I wasn’t the only one exhausted and overstimulated by the last day, but I managed to make it one more time through the book fair, where I picked up an anthology of craft essays and Frank Bidart’s latest, Metaphysical Dog. Many years ago, when Northwest Bookfest was down on the waterfront, I sat on a folding chair in a drafty pier warehouse and listened to Bidart read. Another beautiful genius.

After lunch at Le Pichet, I carted my books home on the bus. And now, dear Reader, I am reading them.

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