What a difference five years makes: the latest news

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And hello again to you too. Such news from here!

I met recently with a group of concerned friends who want to take action after this year’s election. We had a union organizer meet with us to talk about tactics, and it was so helpful.

But I also want to remember the first thing he said to us–even though the larger elections might have felt difficult, we also need to celebrate the gains that have been made in the last eight years and even in this election.

There have been difficult and wonderful things about this year for me professionally, too. But I’m starting to look back and five years after leaving academia, it’s amazing that I can just introduce myself to people as a writer. A freelance writer, arts writer, community journalist. So much gratitude to my family, and to my editors, including Hanna Brooks Olsen , Alan Lau (International Examiner), Omar Willey and Jose Amador (Seattle Star), Yoko Nishimura (Discover Nikkei), Tara Austen Weaver (Edible Seattle), and Jennifer Niesslein (Full Grown People). You have all encouraged me, nudged me out into the community, and made me a better writer.

Since graduation day, I’ve been working on so many projects, an abundance ventolin inhaler no prescription australia really. I’ve learned so much. Here are my recent projects and news:

Stay tuned for more news about these events:

  • My first published interview as an author should be up at The Rumpus in February 2017.
  • I’ll be reading in Seattle with some friends, also in February 2017.

Five years ago, I couldn’t have predicted that this is where I would end up. I’m so happy to be here still. Thank you for reading. I’ll keep going.

Legible (the diary, part 1)

This month I have been thinking about what it takes for something, or someone, to become legible: clear enough to read.

And in thinking about legibility, I thought about grad school. In my first quarter, I had a grad professor whose unenviable job it was to teach us literary theory. We began in summer, actually, with one thousand pages of required reading from a textbook with fragile Bible-paper-thin pages. All this before we started the fall quarter. I think it was a tough class because I was so resistant to the ideas, but also because I was so incredibly resistant to the writing in the course readings.

Literary theory, which we could define very simply for now as a lens (or set of lenses) to read the text, can be painfully dense sometimes. My grad class was not my first class in literary theory, I’m ashamed to say. I say “ashamed” because it was the first theory class that actually “took,” where I actually decided to learn and absorb the material.

I’d taken a theory class during my senior year of college, but (perhaps I shouldn’t admit this?) refused to read very much. One of the biggest obstacles in literary theory—ideas which are supposed to illuminate the very texts they are discussing—is the density of the language. In fact, literary theory felt so dense that it felt like white noise, that raspy shower of ashes that used to come up when televisions still had antennae, before they went digital. When I used to start reading literary theory by someone with particularly difficult writing, my brain would just tune the words out like white noise, or maybe the spaces between radio stations. Take this sentence by the philosopher Jacques Derrida:

“To grasp the operation of creative imagination at the greatest possible proximity to it, one must turn oneself toward the invisible interior of poetic freedom.”

When I would read literary theory, especially by someone like Derrida, it felt something like when you are learning a foreign language and you only know a few basic phrases:

“To grasp the EEEEEE ERRRRRH at the AHHHHH to it, one must ERRRRRRH….”

And so on. It felt like paragraphs and paragraphs and chapters of white noise.
It was enough to make me throw the book against the wall, several times. It was as though some part of my brain decided to shut down deliberately whenever I’d try to read. “What? WHAT? WHAAAAT?” my brain would shout at the text, and I’d give up. Really. I’d reread, and reread, and fight the text the entire way. I really thought that the writers were doing it on purpose, and this really pissed me off.

So in my grad class, one of my professors gave me an interesting lesson in reading comprehension. He suggested that if we were struggling with a writer’s prose, we should take a page of their writing and write it out. We could handwrite it, he said, or retype it. But he wanted us to rewrite that person’s writing in order to understand them better. Only when we’d traveled the same path of commas and compound clauses and conjunctive phrases could we begin to understand how that person was thinking.

As I’ve been transcribing my dad’s diary (really, a diary of five years!), my professor’s lesson in legibility has returned. It’s one of those very old diaries with five years, a page per day, but organized only by the day rather than the year. Each page contains 5 years of the same date: five years of January 11th, on the same page. As a narrative, it makes no sense if you read one entire page and then move to the next. And my dad’s handwriting is so small because the spaces for each entry are so small. Tweet-sized, if you will. So until now, I haven’t actually sat down and read through the entire diary. Instead, as Josh suggested, I’ve been transcribing it.

This means that I’ve been writing my father’s diary in order to read it.

(Unless you’re a historian, how often do you read a long piece of text by writing it out first?)

It’s an amazing experience, an exercise in writerly empathy. And of course, it’s a metaphor for the entire book I’m writing: it makes me wonder what it takes for my father to become legible again. I’ll be taking the next post or two to talk about it.

Thanks to everyone who responded here and privately to the last post. It was very hard to write, and terrifying, but I’m feeling how necessary it was in the book-writing process.

The beauty of visible grief

Out of all the griefs there are, a child’s grief may be one of the hardest to witness.

I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it’s partly because children feel emotions with naked intensity. If they’re hurting, they’re hurting badly. But I also think that as a culture, we often want to protect children from death, from grief, from feeling sad. There’s some strange unwritten agreement that childhood is supposed to be sadness-free, and that it must be innocent, even though we know (or forget) that these words would not always describe our own childhoods.

Childhood is part of life, right? And all life contains some slice of sadness. Why should childhood be any different? It may even hinder a child’s emotional growth to deny them the opportunity to learn what my friend Jeanne calls the “skill” of grieving.

And still, it has been difficult to watch my oldest daughter grieve. I’ve been watching my child, and many other children, grieve for the last two weeks. It has been hard. And this has surprised me: it has been beautiful.

Maybe for you too, “principal” was a word to fear when you were growing up. You only saw one if you were in trouble. Principals were Grownup and Scary, and they stayed mostly in their offices. They were somewhat like hibernating bears: you didn’t want to see them, and you didn’t want to make them angry.

But C’s principal, Bob Dahl, was a beloved leader for staff, students, parents, and community members alike. He died a couple of weeks ago. He’d been sick and out of school since last October, but I think that many of us thought that he would recover.

So many people have Mr. Dahl stories. When C went to visit school one summer with Josh, Mr. Dahl was there, unpacking boxes of textbooks for the teachers. Mr. Dahl took them around the school, looked up her teacher’s name, and showed her what her classroom would look like. He did his very best to make sure that C felt welcome and at home. This was the summer before she started kindergarten. The last time I saw her with him, she was giving him a huge hug at her first grade back-to-school welcome celebration. C trusted him very early.

I’ve heard many other stories about Mr. Dahl, and they all say essentially the same thing: he was a kind, respected, and reassuring man. All this, and we’ve only been part of this community for two years. I can only imagine what it must be like for the families who have known him as their principal for ten or fifteen years, who have watched several children grow up in Mr. Dahl’s school. I can only imagine what it must be like for the staff who worked with him for the same amount of time.

As a parent, it was comforting to see Mr. Dahl each morning and afternoon at one of the crosswalks, where he did crossing guard duty. After the first few months of school, some of the older students joined him at the crosswalk to help. At first, I thought it was just charming—a way of saying that the highest administrator of the school had something to contribute to the small everyday workings of the school.

Upon second thought, though, it was clear that crossing guard duty was one of the smartest things Mr. Dahl could do as a principal. Crossing guard duty meant that he was there at the school: he was reliable, he was visible, and he was accessible. He greeted parents and students as we came to school and as we left. Crossing guard duty was more than his office hours, because office hours require the student go to the instructor. It was his way of bringing his office down to the crosswalk.

The evening after Mr. Dahl died, her teacher called us at home. (I thanked her later for the call. Imagine what it cost her to break the news to twenty-four families, while still reeling from the loss herself. She’s worked for him for fifteen years.) Though C was getting ready for bed, Josh and I decided to tell her anyway, instead of waiting for the rush of morning activities. We sat her on the couch between us, and explained that Mr. Dahl had died. We had explained death to her when she was a toddler, in the simplest possible terms—that someone’s body stops working. (A flexible thinker even then, she thought that death meant that they needed to get new batteries.) A distant family member died a couple of years ago. A family pet had died a year before that. We’ve talked about my dad, and she’s now old enough to be a little sad about the grandfather she never got to meet. But Mr. Dahl was the first person that C knew who died. This is really the first death that she’s old enough to understand. When we told her she buried her face on her dad’s shoulder, and she cried a bit. “Why?” was her first question. We talked about it some more. And then we read her some extra stories, and tucked her into bed.

What I really want to tell you about, though, is how amazing it has been to watch this elementary school, this larger community, teach my child how to grieve.

When I dropped C off at school that Monday morning, parents and staff were already weeping and hugging at the playground. But thanks to the school district, grief counselors were available the next day for the entire school, including parents, staff, and caregivers. The counselors had been pulled from other elementary schools that day. If kids became too sad to function in class, ventolin inhaler generic they went to the library, where they could talk to counselors, and do simple activities like coloring or doing math problems. Many classes did some form of activity to honor him, even the kindergarten classes. C’s class, which usually talks about kind words and deeds in a “kindness circle,” formed a circle to talk about Mr. Dahl and his kindnesses. They made a book of drawings and notes to give to his family.

And then there came the visible symbols of public grief, which have been equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. Two classes, whose rooms face the street, painted murals on their windows: “We love you Mr. Dahl.” Flower arrangements arrived from neighboring schools, and were placed on a table near the main school office, with a guest book to sign. That very afternoon, the school marquee changed to mark his passing. This week, students and parents have written on colored plastic memory flags, and tied them to the chain link fence surrounding the school playground. (You can see some of them in the first photo, above.) Many students wrote messages and traced their handprints onto colored construction paper, and someone made these into flowers to decorate the stage in the school cafeteria. The hallways are filled with the children’s letters and drawings for their principal. At the candlelight vigil that the school held this week, the school chorus sang a song that two students had written for him.

And for two weeks now, there has been a steadily growing pile of bouquets, handwritten letters, illustrated signs, and balloons at the northwest corner of the school. Members of the school community have laid these at the crosswalk where Mr. Dahl used to stand every day.


At our house we’ve talked about Mr. Dahl off and on, whenever C wants to raise the subject. Though it makes C sad to talk about him, I think it is also comforting to her that she can talk about him. Yesterday she brought home two things: a wallet-sized picture of him, and a blue plastic bracelet that says, simply, “[Our school] loves Mr. Dahl.” After the memorial flowers have wilted, and the signs have come down from the hallways, the children will still have this bracelet that they can wear as a symbol of collective mourning.

Not so long ago, in Victorian England, mourners wore special clothes which were black, and (after a time) half-mourning clothes which were lilac or gray. Having to wear these clothes might feel somewhat restrictive now, I know. But I’ve been wishing for those outward symbols of mourning. If you’ve been reading here, you know already that I’m writing a book about my father, and his early death when I was ten, and that this book is partly my way of grieving. It’s taken me far too long—well over two decades—to learn how to grieve my father.

I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to help my daughter grieve, or if I could stand to watch her grieve. I think that if I hadn’t been writing the book, I would have wanted to detach from far too much these past few weeks. I would have avoided talking about it, asked her not to talk about it. And I probably would have avoided the school as much as I could. I would have stayed away from anything like a memorial service or candlelight vigil.  I think I would have sprinted towards full emotional retreat. Emotional detachment’s been my coping mechanism for far too long.

Now I wish that I’d had something like C’s blue bracelet to tell the world that I was in mourning when my father died. Sometimes I felt as though I was in a completely different planet than almost everyone else, and I couldn’t remember how normal life felt. Maybe because I was a child, I felt strangely important. I knew that this massive catastrophe had happened and I was one of the few people who knew about it. I wish I’d had a bracelet or a sign, even a sandwich board I could wear, that said, “My father’s just died.”

And yet I don’t know how many people would have talked to me if I had worn such a sign. Why is there such a silence around grief?

I’m thinking of so many people I know who have lost someone vitally important to them. I’m thinking of family members and friends who have lost loved ones to aging, miscarriages, illness, suicide, accidents, abandonments. Some of these deaths have happened under brutal and inexplicable circumstances. There are so many of us, walking around with so much loss, and we don’t really know each other. I bet we could have a sandwich board party, those of us in the Grief Club. I bet the membership would be larger than any of us would expect. But we don’t speak enough about our losses to each other. Shouldn’t we be able to offer more than “I’m sorry”’s to each other?


These last two weeks have been hard. And they’ve been beautiful. My daughter’s elementary school community has taught her how to grieve. The teaching’s happened not through direct instructions or textbooks, but a tapestry of collective actions. And I’m so grateful that it’s happened in terms that she can understand:

It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry. Crying might even make you feel better.
It’s kind to comfort other people who are also sad.

We are never alone in our grief, though it often feels that way.

Beauty is not only possible but crucial at these times. It unfurls when we need it most.

And finally, one of the best things to do with grief is to bring it into the light.

I take it back

The skies were cool and gray, and they’d been that way for weeks. At first these looked like red beads, or berries that had fallen from a nearby bush.  So when I walked towards the back of our yard, taking out the garbage, two red dots in the garden bed caught my eye. On my way back inside, I thought I’d check to make sure that the berries were still there.
They weren’t. They were tiny heads of rhubarb, getting ready to come back from the winter.


It’s funny, the hobbies I’ve picked up since I moved to the Northwest from California. Cookbook collecting. Jam-making. And, funniest to me, gardening. I’m terrible at houseplants, so cross your fingers for the two plants I’m managing to keep alive. (Jade and Ruffles, I hope your days are not numbered.)

And gardening’s something that I never understood. It sounded mind-numbingly boring, something I’d ranked up there with home decoration as Grownup Old People hobbies. For a very long time, I remember snorting and tossing away the gardening and home decor sections of the Sunday newspaper—who does these things? (People who have gardens and homes to decorate, I now understand. Along the same lines, I never understood the appeal of a yard with a lawn until I had one. It’s like a park….behind your house!)

When I moved to the Northwest, I thought it was quaint that the number one hobby here is gardening. It really does make us sound like a region of nice senior citizens, puttering around with our pruning shears and shaking our passive-aggressive fists at, I don’t know, the non-recyclers. Gardening! I take it back now, I really do.

Not a yard with ornamental bushes, though we do have some of those. I mean, a garden, with raised beds for food. Except for those dates in high school, food gardening is some of the most fun I’ve ever had outside. I’m not a hiker, I’m not a kayaker, I’m not a skiier….all those Northwest pastimes that I’m supposed to enjoy. But I do love having a garden.

Since we started our garden, we’ve had some amazing years and some not-so-great years. We’re nowhere near Barbara Kingsolver’s family in Animal Vegetable Miracle, able to raise and put up food for an entire year. We’ll be regular farmers market customers for a very long time. But we’ve had tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, Rainier cherries, and blackberries, all from our own garden: from our own backyard. Summers have been quietly delicious.

(First, cookbook collecting, then jam-making, and now food gardening. Upon reflection, the senior citizen part of the gardening stereotype may not be too far off. I’ve turned into my grandmother, who loved all of these things.)


Last year wasn’t a great garden year. We had high hopes, since the Rainier cherry tree had snowballs of blooms that nearly covered the branches. The blooms weren’t pollinated enough, though. (We’re trying Mason bees this year, which are supposed to pollinate more than honey bees and aren’t as prone to stinging humans.) We planted some basil, lettuce, zucchini, tomatoes, and these performed modestly well. And for the coming year, we planted rhubarb and strawberries. With both of these crops, it’s recommended that you don’t harvest anything the first year (even down to pinching off the blooms of the strawberry plants), leaving the plants to conserve energy towards the next year’s harvest.

I bought a rhubarb crown, planted it, watered it but-not-too-much, and hoped. It obligingly grew several large leaves and stalks. And then at the end of summer it died, shriveling into a brown fist. Our next-door neighbors have an incredible set of rhubarb plants, and those didn’t seem to have died altogether. So I thought that was it. I’d let my rhubarb die.


And then: those drops of red in the garden that day. The rhubarb was coming back.

Northwest sap that I now am, I nearly cried. I had to look so closely at the plants, to make sure they were not berries dropped in the garden bed. These pictures are about as close as I could get to the crowns, and even then, they look bigger because I stuck my camera so freaking close to them. Those wood chips in the pictures? They’re probably no longer than a knuckle on your finger. I’m surprised they didn’t put up celebrity hands in self-defense—no papparazzi, please.

The color was just what I needed to see on such a gray day, after months and months of gray days. Our color palette here is mostly greens and grays and blues, and while I’m grateful for the greens, I also miss other colors during the winter. By the time spring comes back, glorious blossoming spring, I’m ready for the color.

Color may be one reason why we love to garden in the Northwest. But this year, gardening’s also about renewal, about second chances, about plain brown patience and rich green reward. I needed to see that, especially on a day like that day, after a winter like this winter has been. I’m still working through the occasional grieving, still driving through the uncertainty fog, and I still don’t know what will happen next.

The garden reminded me how to look, and what to see. “The rhubarb’s back! The rhubarb’s back!” I told C, and we ran to the backyard so she could see it, too.

How I wrote my artist statement

Anyone remember that Muppet (Don Music, above) on Sesame Street who kept trying to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano? He would almost reach the end, then play the wrong note. Then he’d groan, “OH, I’LL NEVER GET IT! NEVERRRRR!” (and, sproing: the sound of his head hitting the piano keys.)

That’s how I felt about writing my artist statement for a grant application. Lately I’ve thought about that Muppet, a lot.

Writing the artist statement was one of the most productive writing assignments I’ve had on this blog. Translation: it KICKED my ASS over and over again. It was excruciating. I actually tried to write an artist statement back in November, for this same grant, and I actually missed the application deadline. Uncharacteristically, I gave up. Now, I usually let the pressure of the deadline work its magic, and Just Do It. But I didn’t, and I missed the deadline. I decided that I wouldn’t let the deadline pass me by again.

What paralyzed me for so long was, really, two things. The first thing was the perfectionist voice: it BETTER be good. I can understand how artist statements can be bad for those who have not been taught how to write. But, some voice sneered, a writer’s artist statement better be GOOD. Writers write, after all. We usually don’t paint or compose music or use other artistic forms to express ourselves. Words are what we have. I’ve read some terrible artist statements, ones which made the artist seem incredibly pretentious, or ones which made me respect the artist less. So my internal editor voice kept butting in: ’that’s SO cliche,” “that’s how EVERY artist statement starts,” and so on.

The second thing that paralyzed me was an issue of identity. Having been a professor and a scholar for so long, and having worked so hard to get there, it was hard for me to switch gears and claim myself as a writer. Writing the biography of myself as a writer, as an artist, then, was invaluable, and I had to write that before I got to the artist statement. I had to believe that I was—no, am—a writer.

Now in my teaching, I’ve asked my students to write artist statements. I’ve emphasized that artists need to be able to talk about their own work intelligently. Our culture demands (and gains) access to the artist and creative processes. Because of this demand, artists who can talk about their own work are often artists that I respect.

But in this case, ironically, I couldn’t let myself trust the writing process—the very process that I kept emphasizing as a writing teacher.  As the editor Bill Germano says, “You don’t write to record; you write to discover.”
I wrote six drafts of my artist statement. Most of them felt miserable and inadequate. I complained most of the time. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty writerly process. I wanted to describe some of the drafts, so that if you are struggling with your artist statement, you could take some of the approaches below. Consider them writing prompts, or a mishmash of ways to brainstorm for the artist statement.

  • In one draft, I wrote three anecdotes about the things that I write about frequently.
  • Another draft made me erase the stories and anecdotes. I think I was trying to hide behind the stories, the equivalent of the artist’s plea, “Should my work speak for itself?” But on my way out the door for a run, some tough-love voice said to me: “No. You do know why you write what you write. To pretend otherwise is dishonest.” So I wrote for that voice for a little while. I did know why I write what I write; I just didn’t want to claim these things, and risk being vulnerable or wrong. I looked at the whys and the hearts of the anecdotes: what were the lessons or themes to take from the stories?
  • In another draft, I wrote about the things I’d like to stand for, as an artist: education, literacy, compassion, questioning. (In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this your “moral point of view.”) They don’t describe what I do write about, all the time. And that gave me pause.  I ended up putting these things into the statement anyway, because they do inform my work.
  • The next draft brought me to a more honest place. I looked at a bunch of things I’d written, and tried to find common threads and themes. These themes didn’t match the lofty goals that emerged in the earlier draft. But they felt accurate, and they felt sincere. And they felt raw.
  • Still another draft made me think about the emotional and psychological place that I inhabit when I write. The place where I’m writing freely and honestly, where I feel like I am doing good work. I thought about how I am scared by some of the things that I write, and I thought about Nikki Giovanni’s wonderful quotation, “If you’re not scared of your own work, it’s not doing anything.” And I’ve found that to be true: the writing that’s scared me the most is the writing that people respond to the most. That’s been my best writing. I thought about the strengths I try to access, the weaknesses I try to ignore, the wounds that I pretend don’t exist. I named those things, and I put them into the statement.
  • I also thought about my goals as an artist, and thought about them as goals that I haven’t reached yet, rather than descriptions of what I actually do. To do this, I had to admit that my work does not always match my goals. There’s the artist I’d like to be, and there’s the artist that I am. I think there will always be a gap between the two, and I had to make peace with that. I know very few artists that are completely happy with what they’ve released in the world—there’s always something you can do, something you can fix. And I thought about the artistic struggle between what the artist wants the art to be (or their original vision of the art) and the art that emerges.
  • I looked at the forms that I tend to use in my writing, in my blog posts and my creative nonfiction essays. I noticed that I like certain forms, such as the essay strung together with vignettes. I thought about the poetry classes I’ve taken, and how they’ve stayed with me because so much of my work is image-driven.
  • I thought about how I wanted to challenge myself as an artist, and how challenge is a goal for my writing. I do want to challenge myself, and I want to keep learning. I added something in the statement about how I value the work that is making art.

I sent the draft, a sad little cluster of sentences, to a writer friend from Twitter who generously offered to read it. She gave me wonderful and thorough comments on the rest of the application, including a biographical statement. But she liked that little cluster of sentences. I knew I had to write more. And that was enough to get me through the rest.

Most of all, I wanted the statement to clarify my writing. I wanted it to illuminate my writing, the way that sunlight illuminates the colors of stained glass. What emerged is not a great artist statement, but I think it describes what I do, and clearly. It’s a good beginning. I know I’ll revise it again. I’ll revise it one more time, and put it up here in the next post. I’ll try to add more about what I learned about artist statements, too.
I’m just glad I made it this far. For now, I want to remember how it felt when I finished that last draft. How I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before I hit “send” on the grant application. “It’s taken me twelve years to return,” I wrote in my biographical statement. “But I’m a writer again.”

My own private MFA: the final project proposal

Thanks for all your responses, here and elsewhere, to the last post about beauty. I loved reading what everyone had to say. I’m trying to hold onto that momentum, and trying to remember how lovely the trees were last fall (see that picture above?). It’s been a bit gray here lately.

Coming into Year 3 of this private MFA and the second anniversary of this space, I’ve been thinking about the Final Project. Yes, I’m on the 3-year program. Tortoises, represent.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading still, which is lovely. I still find myself itching to get things when I’m in bookstores, but I no longer feel the rush to buy the latest must-read or bestseller when I’m there. Instead, I find myself making lists of things to place on hold at the bookstore. Now, I know that writers need to make a living (boy, do I know), but it’s also gratifying to know that the books I really want to buy now are the books that I want to keep around forever.

I’ve been drafting pieces of my book project all along, here on this blog, as well as in a separate document that I call “Book journal.” But the other day, I realized that I haven’t really laid out what the project will be for you, here in this space.

So it’s a good time to describe the final project of my private MFA to you. I want to tell you more about it, to give the project some needed rejuvenation, to kickstart me back into action (remember, go) and to bring some narrative flow back to this space (for you non-lit types out there, some “what’s going to happen next?” action).

I’ve been thinking about it for so long, I can’t believe I haven’t explained it to you properly. I wrote about an earlier version of it in a writing contest, almost 2 years ago. Over the last year I’ve been reorienting myself to life outside the academy, rethinking myself into writer identity, and looking for a job. But lately I’ve been talking about the project to a few people, and I can feel some energy coming back. And I’ve found that two things motivate me: 1) making lists, and 2) making promises to other people.

Here’s the project. And aaaaah, I can feel the fear creeping up as I type, so I better type fast. I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain the book, and I’m going to keep figuring it out over the course of the project. So this is not my elevator pitch, or my NPR “Fresh Air” draft, but another draft of my explanation to you.

I’m writing a memoir.

It’s a memoir about the aftermath of two—no, three—major events which have affected my life. The first event is my father’s death. He died when I was 10 years old. The second event is the Japanese American incarceration of World War II, which affected my father’s life and continues to affect my own. The third event, the one that made me turn to writing this project at all, is the loss of my job and my return to the writing life.

Here’s another way to explain it: it’s a triple-voice memoir, one that intertwines my writing, my sister’s artwork, and the voice of our father, who died when we were very young (10 and 6 years old, respectively). We have our father’s voice in many things, but perhaps most concretely, we have it in an unpublished memoir manuscript that he wrote about his incarceration experience. I plan to intertwine parts of my father’s manuscript, some of my sister’s artwork about memorials and memory, and my own musings about the aftermath of death, as well as the aftershocks of camp history. For right now, I want to organize the book into chapters using different forms of documentation, and writing about the different forms of memory that they evoke. For example, there will be a chapter about a family recipe, a chapter on the albums of Polaroids that he took of me when I was a baby, a chapter on his diary when he was in the military, well before I was born. There will be a chapter, or a series of chapters, about my dad’s typewritten book manuscript itself. I hadn’t seen the manuscript in twenty-five years, until I reread it a couple of summers ago. And when I began to read, I realized just how much I hadn’t worked through my feelings about his death.

And yet here’s another way to explain it. No one knows everything about the lives of their parents. When they leave us, they leave so many unanswered questions. I wanted to look at one particular stretch of time when I know the least about my father’s life: the time after his memoir, after his wartime incarceration, and before he married my mother.

Writing has helped me to clarify and discover and process what I’ve learned about my father’s death, and myself, and memory, over the last two years. So it’s a book about a writer’s (and visual artist’s) struggle between loss and memory, the ways that we memorialize our dead in an age where so much information is “in the cloud.” In some ways, it’s a present for my daughters, who never got to meet their grandfather.

Over the next few months I’ll share pieces with you, some revisions of blog posts, and updates about the writing and publication process. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about the project in process, and I look forward to sharing the journey with you. I’ll continue to post intermittent musings like these, so it won’t all be about the book. But I need to move forward, to keep writing, and to keep moving towards this bigger goal. Comments mean a great deal to me, even a quick line or two, so please don’t be shy. I promise to respond, too. Thanks.

One more breath

Just to be clear, because I don’t want to scare anyone, everyone’s fine here.

I’m not talking about one last breath; I’m talking about one more breath. If you practice yoga, you know what I’m talking about. I’ll come back to this in a minute. While you wait, you can take a look at the picture I took, over left there. It’s a tree that I pass every day when I drive back from my yoga studio.

So: I’ve been looking for a job.

I’m not going to write too much about the career change here, for a number of reasons. Maybe I’ll write more later. But I can say that the job search hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had a job or some version of a job since I started college. Nevertheless, I’ve been lucky in so many ways.

I have the very best of partners, the one who surprises me with a copy of this book by one of my favorite authors, the one who nudges me to go for a run when I’ve got anxiety to burn, whose belief in me is bedrock to my days. I have two adorable daughters who constantly make me laugh and teach me to discover the world anew. I have the very best family who has taught me about resilience through the courage of their examples. I have the very best friends both “on” and “offline,” who bring me presents like this book and send me messages and hugs and go out for coffee, where we analyze and then take over the world. I have roots in my community, and friendly faces at my grocery store and the playground at C’s elementary school, and my yoga classes. I’ve got a house that I love in a neighborhood I love. And during my unemployment I’ve been able to do a lot of writing, for causes and people that I support. If it takes a village to raise a child, I can tell you that it’s taken my village to support me during this time, and I’m so grateful for you all.

One of the most difficult (and in some ways, interesting) parts of the job search has been thinking myself out of one career and into another one yet to be determined. I spent almost 12 years thinking myself into that last professional identity; that career seemed to carry so much certainty and forward movement. I loved parts of that job, and I will miss them dearly. But as things stand now, I will probably be leaving that career behind. I’m glad that I get to keep so many of the relationships that I developed in that time.

I’ve been applying for jobs for about four months now, and I think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited about the possibilities. In a job market like this one, I’m extremely grateful that I even have possibilities. But right now, I need to wait, for at least a few more weeks.

Last week, the waiting room space was just about to drive me a little insane. The suspense, the tension, the lack of resolution. I wanted to scream, or go for a run, or tear up a hotel ventolin inhaler no prescription room, or preferably all three. “Why does it take so long?” my 3-year old likes to ask. “Because you’re not being patient,” I like to answer sometimes. And last week I realized I’m not being patient. (Great: just like my 3-year old.)

For the first time in my life, I understood the idea behind Waiting for Godot, if not Waiting for Guffman. I wanted to write a play called The Waiting Room. You know: the set would be furnished with bad landscape art, and old issues of Good Housekeeping, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” played on Muzak panflute. The main character would be waiting, unable to leave the room until someone else unlocked the door for her. People would come to slide unexpected presents under the door, and talk to her through the windows, but she couldn’t leave until it was time.

But of course, I didn’t know how the play would end. I suspect that I’ll just have to write it and find out.


And here’s where I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of “one more breath.”

Yoga teachers often say this phrase to you when you are holding a pose—let’s say, downward-facing dog, or Warrior 2—and they want you to stay in the pose for just a little bit longer. They usually say this to you when you’ve been in a pose for a while, or for a little longer than you’d like. In those poses your legs might be screaming like 1960s Beatles fans, your arms might be stretched out taut as John and George’s guitar strings, and the rest of your muscles might be protesting like Beatles fans stranded outside without tickets.

In that kind of tension, “one more breath” can feel like a very, very long time.

If the pose is especially challenging, “one more breath” is the very last thing you want to hear. Some days you’re kinda pissed, actually, that you have to stay there a bit longer. (Not at your teacher. Don’t get pissed at your yoga teacher. They can make you hold poses even longer. If you’re my yoga teacher and you’re reading this, I don’t mean you.) But I’ve decided—and this must be yoga rewiring my brain, I can think of no other way to describe it—that “one more breath” is one of the very best things that yoga can give you.

See, in yoga the breath becomes a way to measure time. The space of “one more breath” is where you’re challenged, you’re waiting, and (somehow) you’re calm. In those few seconds you hold the pose. Sometimes, it’s true, you fall out before it’s time to move to the next pose. But more often than not, you stay in the pose, and you keep breathing. Your mind and your body say together, “It’s okay. You can do this. Just a little bit longer.” You learn to inhale slowly, in, and exhale even more slowly, ouuuuut.

There, you realize it: one more breath is really just fresh life, waiting to rush in.

Time to make pie

I helped to make the crust here! Photo by Shauna James Ahern. Used with permission.

I can make bubbling crisps, chewy cookies, melting brownies, moist cakes and quick breads. But I haven’t tried pie.

Well, that’s not quite true. The last time I made pie, it tasted like a cheese plate minus the saving grace of cheese: fruit and crackers. Oh, the shame. And I’m a baker, so I was really upset. So I never made it again. Besides, I reasoned to myself, I don’t have a food processor. And I don’t want to use shortening—scary stuff in a can! And yes, I know there are other options besides transfats, or besides just butter. Pre-packaged crusts seemed to go against why I love to bake. So, I went on, rationalizing my way through all these excuses.

See, I also thought that pie crust was like the other forms of baking that I’ve done: mostly following a recipe, playing very little with the amounts or the ingredients, but mostly using the best-quality ingredients possible. But I cook differently than I bake—I do find recipes, but I often play with them quite a bit. This ingredient sounds good, but maybe I’ll use this instead of this. I’ll look, and taste, when I’m cooking, and mostly relying on my palate’s memory. It’s a lot more of an improvisational game than a putting together a model train, or painting by numbers.

So this week I was thrilled to see some different approaches to pie crust, and to making pie. My dear friend Shauna decided to give me a pie crust crash course. I watched her cut butter, roll her index fingers and thumbs together in order to coat the butter with flour, and  pat crust into her pie plates. It was a busy afternoon—two pies, one by hand and one by food processor, plus an online Facebook/Twitter pie party of 1500 participants, plus four children six and under needing different kinds of attention and snacks—but I learned so much.

If, like me, you are a piecrust novice, I thought I’d list a few things here that might be useful. Here are some things I wanted to remember for myself when making pie. They are not hard-and-fast rules–looking at different recipes, pie-makers will swear by their own rules, which seem to vary widely–but there are some guidelines that I can’t wait to put into practice.
• Chill everything before beginning to mix: your flour, your butter (it should be like ice cubes), your hands, your bowl. Maybe the water, which can be ice water.
• Make your filling first, especially with a fruit pie, so the fruit can macerate and rest in its juices. Cut your working recipe in half, and make the bottom buy albuterol inhaler online no prescription crust, leaving the other half of the ingredients to remain chilling in the freezer/refrigerator. Then once you have rolled out and patted the bottom crust in, you can make the top crust.
• If using a food processor, use about 8 pulses in order to cut the butter into the flour and salt. You want it to look something like dry cottage cheese curds.
• Kerrygold butter is the best. Using European butter with a high butterfat content helps the flavor.
• Work quickly, but not frantically.
• When working the dough with your hands, there’s a motion you can use to cut the butter into the flour—or rather, coat the butter with the flour. Holding both hands out in front of you, pinkies down, practice rolling your index fingers down the length of your thumbs. That’s approximately the motion you want to make in order to meld the butter with the flour.
• Contrary to what Pepperidge Farm and others might have you believe (at least, I did), the goal is actually not a uniformly consistent ball of dough, like pizza dough. You do want it to cohere, but you don’t need it to be smooth all the way through.
• A few lumps of butter throughout the dough actually help. They do not all need to be the size of a pea, either; some might be as large as a shelled walnut.
• The end result, the ball of dough, should feel something like cold cream cheese.
• Most importantly, chill your attitude. Be relaxed, be comfortable, be happy. It’s pie. It’s made to be shared.

Watching Shauna make the pies was inspiring, and it made me understand how I could get into pie-making this summer: it is baking as I like to cook. It is playful, it is flexible, it is creative, and it is pleasurable.

I saw how piemaking could be a meditative act, seeing how the baker should see what is happening to the dough, and simply roll (sorry) with the punches and adjust accordingly. I realized that I want a French rolling pin, which looks more like a mallet slightly tapered at both ends, rather than a log with handles at each end. Christmas elves, take note, please.

And I realized that the truth is that I am a perfectionist, and I hate getting stuff “wrong,” and I have a hard time fixing my “mistakes,” large or small, or starting all over again. I really need to get over that if I am going to return to my childhood dream: being a writer.

It’s time to make some pie. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Readers: any pie tips for me, or any favorite recipes? Or, do you have something “basic” that you’ve been afraid to make, and why?

5(ish) Questions: Elizabeth Wade’s Own Private MFA

My friend Elizabeth and I have bonded over food, Twitter, grief, writing, and many things  in between. She has been an informal writing mentor for me in this private MFA process, and while she’s  published quite a bit (poetry, essay, memoir, creative nonfiction), she doesn’t have an MFA, herself. I’ve admired her bold and sensual writing for a while now, seeing various pieces online (more about where to find her writing below). She’s married to a longtime dear friend, Colin Rafferty, which is how we met. I’m happy to introduce her here, as the inaugural guest poster in my “Other People’s (Private) MFA” series.

1. Did you go through an MFA program? If so, how was it structured?

I do not have an MFA, and I’m not sure I’ll ever pursue one. I’ve told myself that if I ever reach a point where I can’t find the time or the community I need to do the writing I want to do, I’ll think about my commitment to writing, and, assuming it still holds, I’ll then consider the MFA. From my vantage point, those two things–time to write and a writing community–appear to be the most valuable aspects of an MFA program. For those reasons, I’d probably gravitate toward a longer, residential program instead of more compressed options.

2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your MFA program—what would it look like, and why?

I’d love to answer the question you’ve actually asked–what I would do. But I think it’s more honest to tell you what I have done in “my own private MFA” (thanks for the term!), and to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been intentional or well-conceived.

I spent several years running from writing, for various and complicated reasons, most of them concerning my twenty-something-self trying to figure out how to make her way in the world, and exactly what sort of way she hoped to make. Eventually, I realized that writing was an essential part of that way. I think that realization was an important thing for me–it took embarking on a life without writing to make me see how crucial writing is to the life I want to live.

Once I acknowledged that, I started setting my life up to make it conducive to writing. Some things—and, frankly, some people—weren’t really amenable to my choices. I got out of a bad relationship in part (though certainly not entirely) because my then-partner disparaged my longing to be a writer and actually referred to his belief that someday I would “wake up and realize this writing thing isn’t real life.” When I did go back to graduate school, I was too scared to acknowledge my fervent belief that my critical sensibilities and my writerly tendencies are intricately connected, so I applied to PhD programs and pretended for a time that my creative work was outside of my academic interests.

I was wrong about that, and things got easier once I sorted that out. So here are the things I’ve done in “my own private MFA” that I’d recommend for others.

  • Surround yourself with a variety of talented writers and readers. You won’t agree with them all in issues of aesthetics or craft, and that’s okay, even good. Learn from them. Talk with them extensively about writing and reading, about art and process and anything else that comes up.
  • Find a local writing group. Take a class.
  • Go to AWP, the yearly conference of writers and writing programs, and spend a lot of time in the book fair. Find some journals you love (one of mine is Hayden’s Ferry Review, which published the first prose poem I ever wrote ) and support them loyally. Read them. Subscribe to them.
  • Read voraciously. Think about what you read. Consider why it works or doesn’t work. Talk to others about what they read. Ask people you admire what they are reading. Ask what you should be reading.
  • Read in different genres and forms and time periods and traditions. Read classics from the canon–I especially like Homer, Donne, and Woolf, but you should read enough to figure out who you like and why.
  • Read contemporary work–start with Brian Oliu‘s new collection So You Know It’s Me, any of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poetry collections, and the weekly advice column Dear Sugar. Read anything that interests you–not just literary works, but history and biography and field guides and maps and instructional booklets and anything else you can get your eyes on.
  • Memorize the writing of other people. This works best if you’re into poetry, of course, but I think you could pull off flash prose pieces, too. Let words generic ventolin percolate. Let them be the rhythm that undergirds your daily life. You know how songs can get stuck in your head sometimes? Try to switch out songs for poems.
  • Write your ass off. This is something that gets overlooked a lot, which is weird. But a lot of writers–at time, myself included–go through phrases where they pretend that writing is a mystical thing that just comes to you. Sometimes it does, and that’s lovely. But in my experience, that’s rare. Be attentive enough to listen–if you notice your inner voice or your muse or whatever you want to call it tugging at you with an opening line or an idea, then certainly be mindful of that. But don’t sit around and wait for it. Write. Get a schedule going. Have regular times when you commit to writing. Sometimes you’ll produce crap. But sometimes you won’t, and that is good.
  • You’ll read a lot about people who write every day. This is interesting to me, though I’ve never really done it. If it works for you, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. My point isn’t that you have to write for any arbitrary period of time. Rather, it’s that you should allocate times to write and stick to those. Don’t cancel or postpone them for quotidian things. Keep those appointments as if they were sacred. They are.
  • Once you get a sense of what you do well, experiment with something different. If you write long forms, try shorter ones. If you’re a poet, try your hand at prose. Write a review, a letter, a list. Find things in your daily life that are not usually approached as writing opportunities, and make them writing opportunities.
  • Eventually, find readers you trust to look at your work. Accept criticism. Be willing to change things, but always know how to stay true to your vision. Recognize that your vision may not always be marketable or publishable. Figure out your priorities, and proceed accordingly.
  • To the extent that you’re able, think about working in projects or units. I picked this up from my friend & fellow writer Brian Oliu, who’s also one of my favorite people to engage in conversations about writing. Writing a poem or essay or story is like planting a tree. Be mindful of the forest.

3. Do you teach creative writing, or do you teach in an MFA program now? How do you measure student progress, or grading?

I currently teach literature and writing (i.e,, composition) courses at the University of Mary Washington. I do include some creative work in most of my classes, and I generally try to stress process. Work rarely emerges fully-formed. The real work of writing is in revision, and I try to teach my students that.

4. What have you read lately that’s just blown you away?

This essay on writing and gender by Lidia Yuknavitch. And this benefit e-book of Alabama writers in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that hit the state in April: (full disclosure: I have a piece in this collection, but that’s not why I’m plugging it. See the essay by B.J. Hollars. See the poem by M.C. Hyland. These are the stories of my town and her people. Please read them.) And this debut short story collection by Alissa Nutting.

5. What are you working on now? Do you have anything coming out? Can you say a little bit more about it here?

I’m wrapping up a sequence of prose poems that synthesizes the protagonist’s medical history with a love story.
I’ve been writing a lot about grief this year.
I’m pretty sure my next project is going to concern the circus.

Later this year, I’ll have pieces from the prose poem sequence out with Packingtown Review, Kenyon Review Online, AGNI, and Shadowbox Magazine. I also have two nonfiction shorts forthcoming this year from Sweet. These pieces concern the recent death of my younger brother, Austin–or, maybe it’s more accurate to say they concern me as I learned to deal with his death. And my poem “Selling the Saddle” will be out in Cave Wall next year. This is a longer poem that traverses everything from sex to death, from tampons to Kentucky basketball legends. It sprawls. I kind of love it.

These are all great journals, and I’m thrilled to be included in them. Also, I tend to post little “behind-the-writing” pieces on my blog for each publication. To read those and see my previous publications, please see this site.

Many thanks, Elizabeth! As I said to you once, I look forward to some distant kitchen where we will bake and cook and eat and write together into the wee hours of the morning.