Friday, December 18, 2009

heavenly host

The "Shop Local" craft fair was a blast on Saturday, due in large part to the pleasant atmosphere of The Raw Deal (a mostly raw food restaurant, though I had a most fantastic muffin there) and the fabulous live dulcimer music of Debbie Peters throughout the afternoon. It was my first shot at a craft fair, and though I ended up spending more than I earned, it was still a nice afternoon. Here are pictures of my table, which I'm pretty proud of, along with these lovely little knit "dishrag angels," currently decorating our apartment for Christmas.They go well with one of the poems from my chapbook, ("Community") which I will put up soon.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Going through an old box of my elementary school writings, brought out, I think, to show my now husband on an early visit home, we came across a "book" I wrote in probably first grade. It was about a king and a queen, as most of my stories were, and they all stood pigeon-toed because I can't draw feet. I only remember the ending, because Matt and I quote it often:

"And they lived happily ever after, with books."

I am currently bookless. Oh, there are plenty on my list, including a number to preview before I start teaching a new lit course (American lit post 1945--woo hoo!) at the end of January. But last night, Matt and I finished reading the Prydain series. If you have never run across this wonderful 5-book children's series written by Lloyd Alexander and based on Welsh myth, find them. Read them. The second book The Black Cauldren, is the most famous. I first read the series through when I was in elementary school. I found the books at my grandmother's house, and I liked the colors on the covers. The Black Cauldron was a favorite of my mother's. These are high adventure books, filled with vivid characters who each have their own speaking patterns--quite a skill--and who live on beyond their pages. The second time I read them through was in high school, and when I finished the series, I cried. Then I wrote a poem about how that world (at least as far as it was written) had come to an end. I doubt the poem is any good, though I probably still have it somewhere.

Now, more than 10 years later, Matt and I have been reading them through at night before bed--and any other chance we get. We finished yesterday, Matt reading while I made supper.

And I cried again. I'm still sad. To be immersed in a world and have it be bookless...sigh. I know I'll start another one soon. But I don't want to launch in just yet. Leave a little space to honor a beautiful creation which has been, deservedly, in print for decades.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sample Poetry

Follow the link to see the new edition of on the literary journal Astropoetica: Mapping the Stars Through Poetry. Or, you can go straight to my poem "Beyond These Thin Apartment Walls," which appears there. Thanks, Ed Bok Lee, for giving the writing prompt that inspired it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Film Recommendation: Into Temptation

I never would have watched the film Into Temptation if my sister weren't an extra in it. Something about the title just didn't excite me.

But, duty bound, I did watch it now that it's available on Netflix, and I was impressed. Filmed in Minneapolis with several familiar scenes in the background (including the inside of the beautiful Mpls Basilica, the neighborhoods of Lake Calhoun, the outside of Chino-Latino, and the scuzzier parts of Hennepin Ave.), the film opens with a young Catholic priest (Jeremy Cisco) listening to a litany of rather mundane confessions and concerns from his parish. Through the confession box, a woman enters and asks if she can be absolved for a sin she has not committed. "I'm going to kill myself on my birthday," she tells him. "And I'm an Aries, Father, so I don't have a lot of time." The woman is a prostitute, and after she leaves--without really having received an answer from him--he cannot get her out of his head. He wants to find her, wants to help, but he does not know who she is and cannot break the bonds of confession. You can imagine the awkwardness of a priest walking downtown streets at night trying to find a prostitute--but not like that.

There are many ways this film could go wrong in a hurry, but it avoids them. The script is tight, the piano music interspersed throughout is lovely, and the make-up artist succeeds in making the beautiful Broadway star Kristin Chenowyth (the prostitute) look like a woman whose life has aged and emptied her beyond her years.

Bits of the priest's sermons and the characters' actions combine in a study of what it means to live a godly life. The ending, which, again, deftly avoids several pitfalls in order to strike the perfect note, emphasizes the importance of small acts of kindness. I've been thinking about the film all day.

If you are looking for the talented actress Stephanie Bright, by the way, she's the dark pony tail and blue scrubs that passes Kristin in the hospital scene.

Monday, November 30, 2009

First Draft Completed!

November is National Novel-Writing Month, a month when crazily dedicated people who write far more quickly than I pledge themselves to completing a novel of at least 50,000 words. I make no such claims. But, I did write 10,386 words this month, which is pretty darn good for me. And, I'VE FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!

In the summer of 2007, I realized that the short story I was working on really wanted to be a novel. Crazy. I was pursuing a degree in poetry. But there Renata was, fairly fully formed and talking and waiting for me to write it down. From the start, I've figured I was on the 5-year plan. I wrote two-and-a-half chapters in the fall semester, then took a break that spring to write my thesis and get married, but I've been working regularly on it since August of 2008. It was my 2009 New Year's Resolution to complete a draft by the end of the year. Today, the last day of November, I wrote the last scene, linking (I hope) all the pieces together. It's rough in places, and in the second draft I'm going to be combining some of the characters and selling off their scenes to others. Dear Guisy, Renata's innocent, homely choir partner who wants to be a nun when she grows up, is getting written out, as is her rebellious older sister. Tired Sister Maria Clara and her nursury will both be gone. Too many characters. It does feel a bit like I'm shoveling them under. Sigh.

But that's for tomorrow, when I copy into a new document and label it Draft 2. Right now, I'm done! I've written 286 pages. I'm flying high...which is a bit unfortunate since it's nearly 10:30 PM and I have to get up tomorrow at 6. But nevermind that. Woo hoo!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

pumpkin cheesecake recipe

Check out this recipe for amazing pumpkin cheesecake here.

Hunting Season

Michael Perry a wonderful writer and graduate of U-W Eau Claire, called this week "Holy Week" on his blog. Which is to say, shotgun and rifle hunting opened this week and continue through Thanksgiving. For at least one family I know, this overlap between the time you're supposed to be sitting down with family for turkey and the time you're allowed to be sitting in a deer stand is a big conflict--and hunting wins. Minnesota's hunting season does not overlap with Thanksgiving. I could draw all sorts of speculations about who wasn't thinking when they picked Thanksgiving week, but I'm sure there are others who would say this is the perfect time for family sport. I work with a woman for whom hunting time is family time.

(Don't let the picture throw you off: turkey hunting season isn't until spring. But, even though I'm preparing to eat turkey tomorrow, somehow the average non-hunting person is less bothered by looking at a cartoon turkey and talking about food than looking at Bambi...)

Fun fact: this blog is being read by people in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Panama. Four continents, baby!

Monday, November 23, 2009

down town Menomonie

I am coming to love my small town's down down. The buildings are mostly brick and coordinated, with little shop fronts and rooms above. (Typical, perhaps, but I grew up in a suburb without a "downtown," so this is new for me.) I thought from the beginning that it was "so cute," but now I try to get different places to sell my chapbook, I am walking the area more and more, starting to get to know people. I love that there are six places within a 3 block radius that support local artists: two book stores, a theater, the co-op (which will have my poetry and photos on display in March--woo hoo!), and two cafes. What a privilege to be able to walk into town and say "I'm a writer and I live in town" and get a welcome response. The owner of the Rose of Sharon Christian bookstore cleared shelf space for me on the spot. I had a pleasant 10-minute conversation with the owner of the other bookstore, Book Ends. I only wish that customers had come in during that time, that the customers who flood Wal-Mart at all hours of the day would come flooding in there. But, Main Street continues along. Soon, there will be window decorations and lights in the shapes of Santa and stockings, etc, hanging from every telephone pole. In December, we'll have our own version of Minneapolis' Holidazzle Parade, with floats and free hot chocolate in the Mabel Tainter Theater.

Here are two things I love about down town:
-Last weekend I went to the winter farmers' market (churches take turn hosting this once a month, with vendor fees going to charity) to buy local veggies, lamb, and ground flour; I stopped in for supplies and/or to inquire about selling my book at the quilt shop, the book store, the theater, and the co-op. Then I went to the library. And I was able to do it all on foot, within view of the lake most of the time. (I did, however, pass up buying 5 pounds of apples or potatoes for precisely that reason.)
-There is a sign in front of the consignment shop that reads "Hours of Intent" 10 - 7, "For Sure Hours" 10 - 5. I don't precisely remember the times, but that was what the sign says. I love it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

feeling fortunate

I would like to go to Venice. My novel is set in Venice, and I am determined to visit and absorb the atmosphere and make sure I imagined everything accurately before I publish. What's more, I am determined to be funded to go. Plane tickest to Venice are astonishly expensive, and I don't expect prices to drop once I show up in the city. Having been in academia in one way or another for a while, I know that there is always money floating around somewhere if you know where to look. I suspect it might hurt my case a little bit that in order to support my scholarly endeavor of writing a novel, I need to go somewhere so darn beautiful and fun. (Hey, wait: I think I've stumbled upon something. Maybe I should set the next one on a tropical island...)
Here's why I feel so fortunate. I asked if I could meet with the people at the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to see if they could suggest funding sources I hadn't thought of. Three people met with me. They suggested three funds through the school as well as a few national foundations. They offered to do more research and get back to me. I am blown away. You sit there on your couch, chunking out your 500 or 1000 words, trusting that the dream of this book is beautiful and putting in the work to get there, and suddenly other people are willing to help you make it happen, just because you asked. Of course, I have to write the application and get accepted, etc. But still. I feel so fortunate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yogurt Making: Entering a New Culture

Apparently, one of the things Matt has "always" wanted to do is make yogurt. Intrigued myself, we decided to give it a try. Hey, I figured, it's a new craft (science?) project, I like yogurt, and I like the idea of having half a gallon of yogurt for the price of half a gallon of milk. There are ample resources on the internet giving you instructions for how to do it yourself without a kit, though most of them disagree with each other. Our first batch came out better than expected, which is to say it was edible. Though it did rather look like viscous milk.

But here's what I've find intriguing. I suppose I'd already entered into a certain category of "like to bake, time to bake, frugal, homemade kind of people" because I make my own bread--in the bread machine, of course--and granola (less sugar). But once you start playing with cultures (beyond yeast) friend, you've entered a whole new realm. Since moving to this small town, I've met people who make their own kambucha, a fizzy, sugary tea that's supposed to help your digestion and possibly save the world; people who make a kind of fermented vegetable salsa, which involves sitting and fermenting on your counter for at least 2 weeks and has similar proposed properties; people--several people--who brew their own beer. I have yet to try those first two. Once you enter the world of foodery, you just keep going deeper and deeper, it seems. I find that delightful.

If you're interested in making yogurt, a google search is all you need. Here are the basics:
1) Heat milk without boiling it until it is 175-180 degrees. You may want to add milk powder or even gelatin to thicken it.
2) Cool milk down to 130 degrees. Add 3 or so tablespoons of plain, store-bought yogurt (for the first batch) that has live culture in it. Pretty much all yogurts do.
3) Stir it up, and place it somewhere that it can stay at 110 degrees for the next 7 hours or so, longer if you like more bitter yogurt. Every site has its own recommendation, from crockpot or oven (if you can keep it warm enough) to wrapping it in towels (which we tried and doesn't stay warm long enough) to setting it on a medium-setting heating pad (which sounds like a good idea but calls for lots of electricity), etc. A friend from Indian said you could just set it on the counter for a few hours. Then again, where he's from, it's a lot hotter. I'll bet, if you keep it in direct sunlight, it might be almost warm enough. November in Wisconsin, not so much.
4) When it's done, stir it up to stop to bacteria from doing their thing and leave it overnight in the fridge.
5) Eat and enjoy. Don't be scared of greenish liquid. Just mix it back in.

What a fascinating world.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: Strength in What Remains

Tracy Kidder came to speak at the University of Minnesota about two years ago, while he was working on this book. He's a wonderful speaker, a very personable guy, and as I drove him to and from his radio interview with MPR, he told me he was working on this book about a Burundian refugee. One of the challenges he was running into, he explained, was that he did not speak French. I do speak French, and I worked part-time in refugee resettlement at the time. If I had not also been in graduate school, or if I had been less attached to finishing by the planned date, I would have followed my instinct to beg him to hire me on as an intern/researcher/translator. Alas, alas. Not that he would have necessarily taken me up on the offer. And, clearly, he did fine with out me.

Strength in What Remains, the final product, received the kind of New York Times review that writers dream of. It was a rave, and it was deserved. The book, particularly the first half, is hard to put down, as we follow Deogratis on his flight out of chaotic Burundi and into New York on a false business visa. He arrives with $200, little English, and no connections...and winds up homeless. Kidder artfully moves us between the despair of that situation--poor in a wealthy country--with the Tutsi genocide that erupted in Burundi 6 months before neighboring Rwanda. Why have we never learned of that? We read knowing that Deo, who was a third-year medical student in Burundi when the world fell apart, eventually does make it medical school (after first repeating his undergrad)...eventually heals and returns to his country to build a medical clinic in a remote area of his country. We read, wanting him to make it, unsure how it would be possible, yet of course this is a true story.

Kidder's storytelling is deft and moving. In the first section, Kidder stays out of the story entirely (after the prologue), allowing us to walk alongside Deo. In the second section, he reappears, and we see him revisiting with Deo all of those places where he almost didn't make it--Harlem tenaments, Central Park, Burundi--as well as the places that turned his life around: the home of the American couple who took him in, Columbia University, Partners-in-Health. It's impressive that we readers have nostalgia for these places, having only spent 100 pages there, though it comes close to being repetitive. But, Kidder has a reason, and we need to see much of that to feel the full weight of the final chapters, to understand how far, with loving help, a person could come.

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I've asked my creative writing students to keep me accountable on my novel, and when one of them asked me for the first time on Thursday how the writing was going, I was proud to say that I'd written 10,000 words in October. That's about 40 pages. Draft one of The Violinist is nearly done, which is good, because I'm itching to get going on draft 2. The difference, you ask? Fewer characters and a hopefully more streamlined plot.

Speaking of writing, if you're in the Mpls area, I'll be reading with poets Luke Pingel and Francine Tolf at the Loft Literary Center this Wed. (2/4) at 7 PM. There will be chapbooks. There will be cookies. Fun will be had. 1011 Washington Ave SE.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

book review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

When I was in graduate school, I read through my roommate's collection of children's literature. On nights when I wanted to read, but really didn't want anything above a 5th grade level, I had Rohl Dahl and Lemony Snickets to entertain me. It was wonderful. I ventured into the lovely children's section of our college library the other day, seeking young adult (YA) books that are required for an upcoming YA writing workshop. One of them was Sherman Alexie's recent national book award winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I read it in a day.

Told in the insecure, flippant, observant voice of 14 year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., this book is a perfect combination of funny and deep. When on the first day of school Junior receives a geometry textbook that his mother had used in school, he decides he needs to find a new school, not on the Spokane reservation where he lives, but 22 miles away, at all-white school called Reardon where, he says, the only other Indian is the mascot. His best friend on the rez, and many others, view him as a traitor for trying to get a better life, and at one point Junior comments that people confuse trying to make a better life (which involves being around white people) with trying to become white. He talks about poverty, racism, the high death and alcoholism rates on reservations, and being Indian in America--huge subjects, dealt with deftly and with humor--and often with illustrations. Junior is a cartoonist, and his drawings appear throughout the book to illuminate his life. Junior sees and reports all of this, but his gaze is loving, as when he reports of his parents "they didn't love me perfectly, but they loved me the best they knew how."

I can see why this book was chosen for the National Book Award. I didn't want to put it down.


Monday, October 12, 2009


It's snowing. It's been snowing all day. Steadily. And sticking in some places. We haven't even reached peak foliage yet. Yikes.

I wanted to write a book review today of the fabulous Strength in What Remains, but something about the white stuff coming down prematurely outside (beautiful though it is) makes it hard to focus on the story of a man from Burundi who came to the U.S. seeking asylum. That will be coming soon. Instead, in reference to the way things do tend to, ahem, pile up, let me offer a bit of earned advice: do not make a credit card call from the airport.

I know this. You know this. But we'd just come from Panama, our cell phones were dead, and we'd told the friend who was to pick us up the completely wrong time. The cost of emailing would have been at least $10, and we figured a phone call would be less. Later, when we got the bill for $29.92, we thought perhaps we'd improperly hung up and someone had had a nice long chat with Aunt Marge on our credit afterward. Today, I talked with a very helpful service rep, who told me the bill was correct and broke it down as follows:

3 minute minimum phone charge at $1+/minute: $3.87
operator's fee: $10 and change
airport tax: $3 and change
not-normal-service-provider fee: $6
taxes: $4 (note that the taxes are more than the phone call)
and there was an aditional $2 for something else.
Cost of talking to our friend for 2 minutes: nearly $30. Cell phones look better and better.

So, next time you find yourself in an airport without a cell phone in need of making a call, you'd have better luck asking random strangers if you could borrow their phone. The cleaning woman, for example, later offered me hers without my even asking.

So there you go.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

a taste of philips

Below is the press release for a wonderful artistic event this weekend in Minneapolis. A taste of Philips, organized by the talented pastor-poet Patrick Cabello Hansel. I'm reading as part of it on Friday night.

Imagine a 122-year old congregation, founded by Swedish immigrants, where the halls are filled with art work and photographs by children from Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, as well as several communities in south Minneapolis. Imagine giant puppets that perform in street festivals alongside stained glass windows from the early 20th century. Imagine photographs of youth from the 19th century next to murals painted by youth from the 21st. That’s the incredible diversity of the arts on display at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Phillips the weekend of October 9-10.
“St. Paul’s has a rich history and a mission of engagement with its neighborhood”, says co-pastor Patrick Cabello Hansel. “Art has always been a way for people to express their deepest longings and hopes for change, as well as a way for communities to communicate across divisions of language and culture.”
For the past four years, St. Paul’s has sponsored “Arts and Music on the Corner”, which brings artists from the community together. In addition to hosting local performing artists, and visiting artists from countries such as El Salvador, St. Paul’s has sponsored community arts workshops in pottery, banner making, puppets and drama. During December, St. Paul’s co-produces La Natividad with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater and Mercado
Central, a production which tells the traditional Christmas story from the point of view of a poor family from south Minneapolis seeking shelter.
“We see the arts as a very vital way to help transform our neighborhood, and we work with community artists and organizations to utilize the arts for change”. Pr. Cabello Hansel states. “For example, our ‘Take Back the Alley’ project uses arts and gardening to enliven public spaces that have been places of crime and vandalism. Seeing a garage painted with a beautiful mural can bring a sense of both beauty and empowerment to people”.
The October 9-10 arts festival at St. Paul’s, located at 2742 15th Ave S. in Minneapolis, will include a guide to neighborhood murals done by youth programs from St. Paul’s, Waite House, Youth Farm and Hope Community. Neighborhood artists will display their works in the church building alongside traditional and contemporary religious art. Community visual artists include Greta McLain, Sandy Spieler, Paul Robinson, Bart Buch and Sharon Ulrich.
The weekend kicks off with an artist’s reception and poetry and spoken word reading on Friday, October 9 at 7:00 PM. Poets Emily Bright, Marion Gomez, Patrick Cabello Hansel and Spoken Word Artists Bruce Axelrod and Jeremy Little will read. On Saturday, “A Taste of Phillips” begins with Scandinavian pastries and café con leche at 10:00 am, followed by an art scavenger hunt and hands-on arts activities for children and adults. At 1:00 pm, participants will go to one of dozens of ethnic restaurants to sample some of the rich culinary diversity of Phillips. The art will continue on display each day from October 11-14, from 3-6 pm, or by appointment.
All events are free and open to the public. St. Paul’s is located at 2742 15th Ave S. , two blocks north of Lake, and one block east of Bloomington in south Minneapolis. For more information, call Pr. Patrick Cabello Hansel at 612-296-2231.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

word count

I am not a high-output fiction writer. Blame the poetry degree, if you'd like. I, much like one of my talented classmates in graduate school, "draft prose with the swiftness and grace of a tectonic plate." Teaching a full schedule, I have three chunks of time blocked out throughout the week in which I write. That's the goal, at least. Given that the first week of September I took off because I was getting classes settled and that I lost nearly another week from a cold, I'm happy to report that I wrote 25 pages in September. I'll be posting my page count at the end of each month. Celebrate the small stuff.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

blog of note

Wish you knew more about Tajikistan? Don't we all? Keep your eyes on the blog of my dear friend Bethany, who is spending a year in Tajikstan's capital Dushanbe teaching English (and teaching teachers how to teach English) through the state department.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Beloved on the Earth: a new anthology

I know that poetry reading isn't the most popular pastime in America, but one time when most people seem to turn to poetry is for funerals or for comfort in grief. Back in May I wrote about the pleasure of receiving my copy of Holy Cow! Press's fantastic new collection, Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude. I want to come back to it now. I had the privilege of taking part in the publication reading at the Loft in Minneapolis on September 11th. Here is what surprised me, and here is why I'm recommending this book: you'd think that a reading of poems about death would be depressing. You'd think after an evening of hearing those poems of "grief and gratitude" read, you'd feel like you'd been stuck listening to the same notes for far too long. Not so. True, several of the poems by famous and lesser-known authors alike brought tears to my eyes. But the poems I heard read by my fellow poets that night were gracious, original, beautifully crafted, and ultimately life-affirming. Consider the note struck Ted Kooser's poem "Father:" "Today you would be ninety-seven/ if you ahd lieved, and we would all be/ miserable, you and your children..." Or how, pages later, Mary Oliver concludes her series of metaphors describing how death comes with the sudden and beautiful call to life, "I don't want to end up simply having visited this world." There was such a warm and loving feeling in the audience that evening, and it was a full house, too. A highly recommended anthology.

On a related note, here is the epitaph on Ruth Bell Graham (wife of Billy Graham)'s tombstone:

"End of construction. Thank you for your patience."

If we're all works-in-progress...

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I've just begun teaching Kao Kalia Yang's lovely memoir The Latehomecomer in my composition classes, and it's got me thinking about the act of storytelling. The Hmong language did not have an alphabet until the 1950s, and it remains a culture rooted in oral tradition. I found this when I taught orientation classes to new Hmong arrivals. I used all the pictures I could--so many of our handouts had writing on them, and so few of the adults in those particular classes could write in either language--but I found that the best way I could keep their attention through our 3 hour classes was through anecdotes. Health care, housing..."I have a story for you," I'd say, and they would listen.

And so, in attempt to get my students thinking about the forms that stories take, I told them a story in class. The Latehomecomer includes a story about a beautiful woman named Yer who is kidnapped by a tiger and later re-kidnapped by a handsome man in her village, to her chagrin. And so, I told the class the story of Beauty and the Beast--the late 1800 French version. None of them would say the last time they'd been told a story in that way, and I have to say it felt strange to me, too. It took me until the second class to get into a rhythm and let the story carry itself, and when I tripped over a word, I could feel the whole class thinking "hey, get back on rhythm." What a wonderful tradition, telling stories.

And yet, entertaining as they are, many of our old fairy tales served another important purpose that most of our bedtime books today do not: warning children. Even in Beauty and the Beast, which is remarkably tame when compared to, say, Hansel and Gretl or Cinderella, has a very stern warning about keeping promises. The beast allows the father to go home and bring one of his daughters to take his place; he must promise to return within a month or else be hunted down. Later, Beauty is allowed to return for two months to see her family, but she must promise the beast to return, lest he die. In the Disney version, on reflection, Belle charges off both times to save her father. In both versions, she is selfless, but in the Disney movie there are no promises made which carry consequences if broken.


If you'd like to read the original versions of some of these tales, with annotations, check out

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Recommendation

Thorin Tatge happens to be one of the smartest and most creative people I know. Matt met him when they taught chess together, and over the past few years we've encouraged each other on our own creative projects. Thorin's are substantial: song, poetry, fiction, drama--you name it. I'm proud to announce the publication of Thorin's first book!

What is Best? is an interactive novel, kind of like the choose-your-own-adventure books that you read in one sitting as a kid and then kept rereading for weeks. Except in this, the choices are more substantial, and Thorin's creativity as well as his background in philosophy are clear. The novel opens with the opening of your existance, and Creator gives you a choice about what form of existance you will take. No mere "do you choose to open the door?" here--you are tasked with choosing from among animal forms, with being given life on earth, and with trying to discover, through your choices, the meaning of life. If, that is, you even remember that you were given the assignment once life on earth gets rolling. This well written and imaginative novel, which allows for 80 different endings, is full of pleasant surprises, from problem-solving challenges to poetry. It'll keep you going back for another spin. Check it out here.

And, Thorin's already working on book two.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I'm back to the blogging world after time away for vacation, brain-clearing and class-planning. Class is up and running, and experience assures me that soon, honest, I will adjust to waking up at 6 AM again.

In more important news: my sister is in two movies! Into Temptation is out now in select theaters and is getting good reviews for its complex characters. Steph plays the nurse who walks past Kristen Chynoweth in the hospital and gives her a funny look.

She's also in the trailer for the new Cohen brothers' movie A Serious Man. Freeze the screen on second 38 and look for my brunette sister sitting in between two brunettes to the left of the aisle. You can see the shoulders of her orange sweater.

Shucks, I'm so proud.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Someone told me the other day that professors have very high levels of job satisfaction. I wonder what time of year they were asked to report. I like what I do, but I'm guessing if they asked them in, oh, July, job satisfaction was way up.

I like having two months off.

I could get used to this whole jet-setting thing, though it's coming to an end. I left for Panama hearing word of JetAmerica's incredibly cheap flights to mid-sized cities, like nearby Minneapolis and home-town Hartford. I return, full of hope and longings for home, to find out the airline went belly-up before it started. Which isn't surprising. But it is unfortunate. Particularly when you think "I'll just pop over to see my parents for the weekend," and then you look at airline prices. Oh yeah. That's why people work. Income.

My contract period starts two weeks from today. Already I'm in this weird state where I'm still on vacation but I'm coming to remember what school entails. And the other day, I found myself looking fondly toward fall weather and fresh apples...and a regular schedule. It is amazing how having four seasons always keeps you looking hopefully toward the future, even when it entails going back to work.

(But not yet.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Now Featuring (More) Pictures!

Please follow this link to see my pictures from Panama. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

around the world

I'm finally getting around to reading Laurence Bergreen's fabulous book Over the Edge of the World, about Ferdinand Magellan's around-the-world voyage from 1519-1521 (drawing of his flagship Victoria above). Appropriate reading after a month in the country whose canal makes global shipping possible. I can hardly imagine what it would have been like: sailing beyond the limits of your maps, beyond where anyone you've ever heard of has gone before, when everything you've heard says that only sea monsters, cannibals, and the edge of the world awaits. Every time a storm hit, and there were many that hit as they neared the Antarctic, could have been simply a storm or the end of the world. Can you imagine running into an elephant seal for the first time? Given that my flight home from Panama was accomplished in a day and required nothing from me (get on, buckle up, fall asleep, watch this movie, have some peanuts, get off, repeat)...I can't even imagine what they went through. How this world has changed in 400 years.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back on Familiar Ground

We're back in the U.S.! After a month in Panama, it's surprising and completely pleasant to be in a place where you know exactly how things work. The customs officer greets you in English. You pick up background conversations and song lyrics without even trying. You know where to buy what you need, how much it will cost, and what's the best bang for your buck, food-wise, during the airport layover. You know where things are and how things work. This is amazingly comfortable.

Our cell phones were dead after a month of disuse (always remove the batteries from the phones if you're not using them), and we realized just how hard it is to manage a call home, or anywhere, if you can't suddenly whip a phone out of your pocket. How easy communication has become...if only you have the right gear.

We're in Michigan for another week or so, visiting Matt's family. If we can turn this visit, too, into a writer's retreat, we'll stay longer. If not, we'll have a nice visit and come back to Wisconsin sooner.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

country mouse, city mouse

I've gained a bit of an understanding on the country mouse, city mouse story.

In the countryside, in Boquete where we've been for the last three weeks:
  • There is one main street. There are shops for most of what you need, and the center of town is several blocks long.
  • If you want to travel anywhere or see a film or stop light, you have to go to David, which is 32 km away and 900 meters lower.
  • There are kids who walk up to 3 hours down from the mountains to get to school.
  • There are lots of Gnobe Bugle Indians in their traditional bright colored dresses walking around.
  • In the schools, which are made of cement and incredibly hard to hear out of when it rains, the desks are gifts from the Ministry of Education. (That's printed on each desk.)
  • The teachers have to pay for their own photocopies at the local internet cafes. There aren't copy machines in the schools. A normal starting teacher salary is $625/month.
  • Most of what Panama eats is grown. A number of people I met at the night school, trying to get their GEDs, work on farms during the day. Coffee is almost exclusively harvested by Gnoble, who are the poorest indigenous people in the Americas. I have heard several "reasons" as to why, flavored by various people's points of views.
  • You can get a huge meal for $2 at the local cafeteria, though even that is kind of pricey at it's at least half expats.
  • When you have to visit the big city, you say "I'm going to Panama." Even though the countryside is in Panama, too. The politicians are not very likely to speak to your issues.
  • If someone speaks English, they are either a) retired Americans b) visiting on vacation or c) working in tourism.

A mere 7-8 hours' bus ride away in "Panama," however:

  • It's hugely international. Most banks have a presence here. People live here from all over the world. Half of Panama's 3 million residents live here.
  • Prices are about doubled.
  • There are tons of sky scrapers built right up to the water's edge, and there are more being build.
  • There's still fresh fruit, but you don't know the grower.
  • There are the projects, built by the Americans to house the workers for the Canal. There is supposed to be a lot of drug selling in certain areas.
  • You can feel the former colonial presence. Our hotel is in the old American area, where those who oversaw the canal lived. It is tree-lined and lovely.
  • There's still fresh fruit, mostly shipped in from Boquete area, but you don't know the growers any more.
  • Tourist traps. Monuments. A mall to rival the Mall of America. The canal that funds all the projects in the country.
  • 20 degrees hotter, way more humidity, and less chance of rain. When it rains, the water doesn't know where to go.

The presence of history, particularly colonial history, is strong here. Here are two fun facts learned from today's here-is-where-you-can-buy-more-stuff "tour" of the city:

Balboa, that famous explorer, gave the Pacific ocean it's name right here in Panama City. He was the first European to cross on land to see the Pacific ocean (1500s) and it's so calm (pacifico) that he named it "Pacific." Amazing to think that if you set sail straight west from here, you might not hit anything for 3000 miles. Lots of stuff named after Balboa here: beer, a district of town, a short-lived attempt at their own money system before turning to $. There's a statue of him citing the ocean, except just a few years ago they finished this huge landfill project that now has him citing water from some half a mile inland.

From Panama City the Spaniards planned most of their invasions of the Incas. Here they brought the gold, silver, emeralds, etc., back to the Atlantic (via donkeys) to ship it back to Spain. The rich Panamanians rented out the donkeys. There were so many pearls left over from eating oysters that the indigenous people who lived in this area used to cover their canoes with them. But wealth has its price, and Captain Henry Morgan, that famous English pirate, demolished Panama City and stole all its riches. They rebuilt. The ruins of the old are still visible and tour-able. For his great deed, Captain Morgan was rewarded with the governorship of Jamaica. Poor Jamaicans!

This may be all I'm able to write for the next week, as we'll be out and about. Thankfully all our time won't be spent in the city before we head back to the States.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

eco tourism

Generally, I'm not a fan of touristy stuff. I like museums and all, but in general, if it's carefully geared for the comfort of tourists, I get antsy to leave. I want to see the real stuff, the real daily life and food and points of view of whatever place I'm in. Nothing like a home-stay to accomplish that. But, eco-tourism. That, I could get into. So far this trip (whose outings were not planned by me, though I've been pleased with them) I've gone horseback riding in the mountains, zip-lining, and white water rafting. I'm in love with rafting. We got on the river in Panamá and got off in Costa Rica, and in between was 17 km of level 3 rapids with just enough of a pause in between each set for you to see the water water coming up and start to get worried again. And the entire time, when you're not timing your stroke with the guy in front of you or sitting in front thinking "we're going through that!?" you're looking up at the rain forest on both sides, with steep banks and vines hanging down into the water. I want to learn more about eco-tourism, which is kind of a new word for me. My thinking is that if it is supportive of the environment and gives people jobs while giving me a chance to really get into the countryside, that's a good thing.

Tomorrow hopefully Matt and I will go hiking up a trail called the Camino Quetzale that runs out of town up the mountain. We'll bring a picnic and our binoculars and see what we see. Only four more full days in Boquete. Yikes. Time flies, I suppose, when the mornings are filled with writing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

now featuring pictures!

A house in Cerro Punto, Panama, tucked in by the mountain. I hope you can see how steep the fields are.

A primary school in Guadalupe, Panama, built against the mountain side. Note the Panamanian flag on the right-hand side.

Most of the food in Panama is grown in Chiriqui, the region where we are staying. (This region wants independence--they check your passport when you enter, and they have their own prominently displayed flag--but they're too valuable for Panama to let go.) Most of the food in Chiriqui is grown in Cerro Punto, a gorgeous little farming town on the other side of the volcano, whose name means, appropriately "near the summit." Every bit of available land is used to grow lettuce, carrots, onions, celery, strawberries, flowers--everything is fresh and beautiful. Oh, there are lush mountains on all sides. There's no way to really take a picture of that. Please imagine. This was the first place in Panama that has completely wowed me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Fincas (Farms) and Fighting Cocks

Over the past two days, we have been learning quite a bit about Panamanian life from our host father (C.). Fighting roosters is a popular sport here and in much of Latin America, and though C. retired 6 months ago from the fights, he still raises and sells fighting cocks for a tidy sum. He has, he says, a good reputation, and the backyard is alive with crowing. Yesterday at lunch he walked in with a rooster underneath his arm and said "This one's ready. Let's test him out!" The rooster held impressively still while C. tied protective pads around the long spurs on the back of its legs--so that it wouldn't hurt the other, younger rooster it would be pitted against. Then he simply pitched them both one by one out into the yard, and they went at it, flapping and pecking at each other´s heads. He did not let them go for long, and they were not hurt. Still. C. showed us his prize rooster who'd won 7 fights and now sires highly prized chicks. This rooster had lost both its eyes in the last fight, which he still won. Matt and I, both in sandals, sidled away as it went after any nearby rooster as well as C's jeans. "You're crazy," he said, laughing and pushing it aside.
Buy-in for a fight is $100, but there's not limit on betting. A good rooster (untrained) can be sold for up to $300, and the trainer takes 20% of winnings. This is in a country where $8 per day is an excellent wage. Fights last 15 minutes or until one loses by
a) lying down and refusing for fight back for a full minute
b) running away 3 times (smart bird)

So, winning 7 fights means defying death 7 times. This is a brutal sport. Don't get me started on the turtle-shell spurs they tie onto the roosters' legs for the fights.

Speaking of betting, the lottery is incredibly popular here. Numbers are sold on little stands on the street. I feel just a bit like I'm on the scene of 100 Years of Solitude.

On a more peaceful note, today C. took us to his coffee farm (finca in Spanish refers to a small farm) high up on the volcano next to the national park/rain forest. Three of us in the cab of his 18 year-old truck with his partner standing up in the back, we rocked (literally) our way up roads that not even an SUV add would feature--logs and rocks and partial ditches--up to his farm with a gorgeous view of the city. The coffee trees were planted in close rows on the hillside, their branches hitting at face and chest level as you pass. Tight green coffee beans (red or yellow when they ripen in November) clung to every branch. C. spoke of fertilizer and a fungus (imaginatively called "they eye of the rooster") that strikes trees at random during the rainy summer season. We trailed behind, noting how Washington orange, banana, plantain, and avocado trees grew mixed right in with them.

I am so impressed with people who speak the language of growing things, who see with their hands as well as their eyes.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

bella vistas

Ever wondered what it was like to go on a 2-hour horseback ride through the mountains of Panamá with 14 school psychologists? You spend a lot of time, basically all of the time, analyzing and discussing the personalities of the horses. Mine was on an eating tour of the mountain, and the grass was always greener off the path. The ride was absolutely gorgeous. I'll try to get pictures uploaded. The paths were steep, and the earth was deep red underneath the bright green grass and trees. A countryside of cows who looked at us curiously from across the fences, of streams, of more mountains in the distance and a glimpse of the Pacific ocean beyond that. If you stand on top of the volcano at dawn on a clear day, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Panamá is, as our host father says, "the center of the world" (or at least of the Americas.) I caught a glimpes of why people love horses. How amazing it must be to have such a connection with your horse. What magnificent animals.

After horseback riding came a visit to the hotsprings, along a gravel road that few tourists would ever find. Natural hotsprings...what a gift.

Finally, one more view of Panamá from the top. On Sunday we piled into a truck that, if it ever had shocks, doesn´t anymore, drove up more steep mountaint roads, and arrived at this in high up in the rainforested mountains where we went ziplining. What a thrill. I don't know how it is in other places, but after a short demonstration of do's and don'ts we drove farther up the mountain and came out to our first to a waterfall. The zip-line crossed that river, though you could barely see it below. This was the "baby line." Guess there's only one way to learn!!! It took me until about the fourth line to start looking down below the zip-line, and I wouldn't recommend this trip as a way to get up close with nature, but what a thrill to go flying through the canopy up to 90 feet in the air.

Friday, July 10, 2009

rainy season

Mornings dawn cool and lovely, announced at regular intervals by the rooster behind our house. First thing in the morning is the time to run errands, line dry clothes, walk to town. Picture it: the road goes straight for almost 3 miles with houses and shops spaced neatly on its side, then suddenly the road turns and you are surrounded by mountains, green and jagged on top, which drop off steeply into a red-roofed pueblo. Take a good look; by 10 or 11 the mountains start to disappear behind fog and gray clouds. You see it raining in the mountains first, then by noon, just as the day is really getting hot, the gray has covered the blue sky and thickened. Around noon it begins to rain, sometimes a drizzle, sometimes in a thunderclap that turns the hilly streets of town into rivers. There is a reason all the shops and schools have awnings. The university we´re attending for Spanish classes has no entrance or exit doors, only open hallways of classrooms, buildings connected by awning-covered sidewalks. If it never gets cold, why close yourself off?

And with guaranteed rain everyday, what better thing is there to do than take a siesta, or brew a cup of Panamanian coffee and write?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

welcoming strangers.

I am forming a list of things I resolve to do when situations reverse and I meet people who are new arrivals in my country. I will

  • offer food. It´s amazing how, with the uncertainty of the first few days in a new place-new schedule-new customs, etc., food is often on our minds. We eat well, don´t get me wrong, and our host family cooks delicious food--often meat with rice and some sort of salad. yum! But I think it´s safe to assume that new arrivals to a new place have food on the brain. If you can´t offer any, show them where they can buy some. Tell them how much it costs, what people normally eat, what time.
  • Show them where to find or purchase the essentials. (today I bought an alarm clock for $2.42. Yes, less than $3 including battery.)
  • Speak slowly. Enunciate. Use charades. In the U.S. I get so concerned about insulting someone´s intelligence, but when my host mom gestures and speaks slowly, I´m so grateful! It´s amazing how much you can understand through body language. I¨m becoming fluent in charades.

Check out pictures of Boquete here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boquete, land of poets

Greetings from Boquete, the land, I´m told, that has inspired many poets. I can start to see why: rolling mountains, a dormant volcano, rainforest, coffee plantations, two rushing rivers with rapids. Chiquiri, the province in which we are located, grows most of the food in Panama. Oh boy. It´s the rainy season, which means it´s sunny in the morning, and just when it starts to get really hot around noon, it rains, and it stays raining on and off for the rest of the afternoon. It´s almost noon now, so I´m typing quickly at this internet cafe, racing the rain.

Back in Panama City, we drove up to the top of a large hill from which the Americans oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal. On top of said hill, there is a statue of a woman poet. She wrote of her love for the land and her sorrow that its people did not own it. A statue of a poet. Good country.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

in Panama

It's strange to think how simple travel has become. You wake up in Chicago, board a plane, sleep, board another plane, read, watch a dumb movie, eat your proffered peanuts, you go through customs which looks just like other customs you've gone through, and, a mere 8 hours later, you're in Panama, hungry but not at all worse for wear. Perhaps if you had taken a steamer several weeks over rough seas and gratefully found land, perhaps then it would hit you immediately that you had arrived somewhere ELSE. As it is, it will take you a few days to adjust, to really realize that you are in Central America, a part of the world where you have never been, and you will be here for a month.

There have, of course, been a few signs of somewhere new:
  • Everyone speaks Spanish, of course, and you're proud of yourself if you can conjugate "to be" and find enough words for a sentence. For now, this is enough. You managed your first successful exchange in Spanish by walking up to the waitress at breakfast and saying without preamble "Que hora es?" only to realize when she brightly greets you back with "buenas dias" that there should have been some sort of preamble along the lines of "excuse me, but..." if only you knew the words. You sound out every billboard you pass.
  • It's so humid, your glasses fog when you step out of the air conditioning.
  • There's a quadimundo outside the sliding glass doors at breakfast. It's like a raccoon but with less hair, and when eventually some man cracks the door to feed it papaya, it chomps that fruit with impressive teeth, holding the remainder with impressive claws. It does not chomp the man's fingers, and you figure this thing's got a great racket going, pacing and getting fed. It's got cute little swiveling ears and a long quivering nose. You'd like to pet it, but of course you won't.
  • Palm trees. Mango trees, the mangos on them green and the size of your fist.
  • The jungle is behind your hotel. Literally. The Panama canal is five minutes away. Later in the day, you will visit the Miraflores locks and watch, awestruck, for an hour as three freighter ships, each carrying uncounted loads of shipping containers (each the size of a semi) are moved through three locks, the water system raised and lowered with stunning efficiency. The length and width of every ship in the world (that does not want to venture around Cape Horn) is controlled by the size of these locks, built from Pittsburgh steel in 1914.

You know you're in a fantastic new place. You know you're seeing amazing things. But it will take a few more days before it really sinks in that YOU are HERE.

Until then.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Lately, Matt and I have been watching through old seasons of West Wing. I just love the witty dialogue of that show and the way it addresses issues. It was one of many factors that brought me from "What's the difference between republican and democrat again?" in college to my current, more engaged state. But my point is this: last week, after I'd seen several such episodes, I turned on the radio on my way to work to hear President Obama giving a short speech speaking firmly to Iran, then taking questions. And the way he answered his questions, cracking witty jokes, identifying the important issues in each question, putting it all into was as though I was watching West Wing. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have a president in the office who is as smart and compassionate and capable as one dreamed up by brilliant writers.

On a more regional note, Minnesota FINALLY has TWO senators! Franken's in, and any disagreement I might have with him is replaced by my relief of having Minnesota fully represented...8 months after the election. (And having 60 Democrats rocks, too!)

Central America

Summer school comes to an end tomorrow, and Saturday we get on a plane to go to Panama for a month. (I confess I'm disappointed to miss the fireworks.) I'll keep posting from there and try to let this blog be a window into what is for me a new world. In the mean time, courtesy of my friend Mark, here are two articles with rather different views of the coup in Honduras:

BBC New: Honduran Leader Forced into Exile
Wall Street Journal: Honduras Defends its Democracy

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

sample poetry

Three of my poems were published in the May issue of a cute online journal called Sweet: A Literary Confection.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

anniversary--year one

Today is our first wedding anniversary. Hard to believe that it was a year ago that we were in Maine, having the most wonderful celebration. We're going out to a nice dinner tonight, and we'd each gotten each other chocolate and a card, but here's what captured my poet's imagination. Earlier this week Matt got me these gorgeous delphiniums at the farmer's market. These were the colors of our wedding. By this morning, thouogh, the flowers were dropping petals like crazy, and the wind that's always gusting around here was doing its job spreading the petals. At first, I swept them up--our 5 year-old neighbor came to visit and asked, "Mommy, can I sweep?--but then I thought, why now? This isn't mess. On the day of our first anniversary, our kitchen was strewn with wedding colored petals. Now I call that romantic.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

phrase of the day and two links

One of the women I carpool with grew up on a farm, and from time to time she educates me. From her comes my phrase of the day:

"hind teat again"

For use when you just get the short end of the stick, when nothing's going your way and everything seems against you. The teats closest to the hind legs of most animals produce less milk than the front ones. So, when you see a litter of puppies or pigs or what have you squirming over each other, they're not just trying to get a teat. They're trying to get a good one. I challenge you to use this in your daily speech.

Link one: Park Avenue Methodist Church in Minneapolis has a fantastic series of summer camps. The camps draw together a beautifully multicultural group of kids, many of them on scholarship without anything else to do during the summer, for a fun time of games, art, education, Bible study, and swimming every afternoon. Check out their blog.

Link two: The June 23rd post of chocolate and zucchini featured gratin dauphinois, a potato gratin cooked in cream that was the specialty of Grenoble, France, where I studied abroad. A pleasure to see that recipe up there, and so good!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

teaching writing

I am always fascinated by the way we talk about the writing process, like it's some kind of mysterious thing that happens when we are lifted up by the muse and carried away...We argue that you can't rush genius. We talk in flowery language about inspiration as though it were magic. I'm in love with my novel, and I love being on a writer's high, but still, I find this idea fascinating.

My first time teaching creative writing at the University of Minnesota, in grad school, we had two visiting authors come to speak back-to-back who demonstrated this. Charles Baxter read his story "Shelter" and told us how it worked. There was a character, he said, that he called a "spark plug character," who showed up and sparked everyone into action where they wouldn't have otherwise. I learned a lot in that lecture; I thought it was brilliant. Coming from a family of engineers (that's my excuse) I LOVE to know how things work. The more I see the individual parts, the more beautiful it is to me. My students weren't so sure.

The next week, novelist Susan Power came to visit. She spoke warmly and lovingly of her characters coming to life, of listening to them and interviewing them to find out what they want, of letting them tell her what they want to do. She wrote in a great essay on writing called "The Wise Fool" that when she tried to manipulate her characters into her preconceived plot line, they didn't act naturally on the page. It didn't feel write. My students, then and now, can't say enough good things about her. She celebrates the mystery and cooperative nature of writing that so many of us love and so few of us talk about, especially in class.

You can't teach inspiration; that's the problem. Technique, you can teach, and it's important. But even though my students' poems grew stronger after we talked about meter, they looked at me, annoyed, because it's work to learn it and--here's the problem--we have this idea that work is a polar opposite of inspiration. I'm not calling them lazy. Quite the opposite: I'm realizing that I need to honor inspiration even while I'm trying to give them the tools they need to write well.

I've got good justification for resisting talking about inspiration. If students wait for it to come to them, rather than training themselves so that they can step back into their writing at regular intervals, I worry that they'll become the people who love to write but never get around to it. (Goodness knows how often I talk about wanting to write, then turn on West Wing or go for a walk or clean the bathroom.) By not addressing or even dismissing it, I and others like me argue, I'm encouraging them to stick with writing even when it's hard. But in doing that, you're not tapping into the magic that draws people to the art of writing. Susan Power has that figured out. In life, in our spiritual lives, in the classroom, mystery draws us. I need to let it remain.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

the writing life

It took several months, but finally I have a lovely writing spot, rather than just sitting on the couch with my laptop on my lap. The wild flowers are from just up the hill, and I'm sorry you can't see them, but there are thistle and Queen Anne's lace and daisies, among others. There's a lovely field to the right of the house, but I couldn't capture it with my camera this morning. My favorite part of this, though, is the bush right outside the window, just behind the screen. There's a robin red breast nest there, and for the last month, several times during each writing session, it would stick its head out, look around, see that the scary looking human was still there, and fly noisily away. I haven't seen it in a week or so--I don't know how long robins nest, but I keep hoping it will reappear, even if it won't befriend me.

Given how this day has moved along at its own pace, looks like I won't be at my desk today but trying to record today's writing into a tape recorder as I drive to work...

Wishing you a lovely and cool day. 90 degrees here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

book review: what is the what

Time for another book review of my ongoing search for excellent examples of refugee literature. Today's feature: What is the What: an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a novel by Dave Eggars. Spend a while musing on the title. Eggars worked heavily with Deng, a "Lost Boy" of Sudan, who also toured (even solo) to promote the book. This gives it truth and legitimacy on its side, implying that even if the events didn't happen to Deng, they happened. (This is the kind of thing that people go nuts and sue over in memoirs.) And, being a novel written by a talented author, it's beautifully written and structured. We move back and forth between the adult Deng, struggling in America, and the child Deng, who flees his home with the Civil War invades his village and ends up walking to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan, then to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. I love that it doesn't end with "and then I came to America and lived happily ever after." Anything but. It's a powerful read that teaches you about Sudan without feeling like you're being taught. Much recommended.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


I had the amazing good fortune of attending my 5 year college reunion this weekend. Talk about taking moments to reflect on where you've been and how you have been shaped. I realized once again how incredibly privileged I was to go to Williams College, surrounding by amazing, brilliant people who are doing interesting things. One of the things I loved about Williams while I was there was that it wasn't competitive. To get in, yes, but once you were there, no one asked you what grade you got or tried to one-up you. That hasn't changed. People were genuinely excited to hear what others were doing. You're a social worker? That's great; the world needs good social workers. You're going to business school so you can better address women's entrepreneurship in developing countries? Environmental law? That's wonderful. And then there's my brilliant friend Jude, who's just finished his first year residency, talking about how you cannot save them all, no matter how much you want to. And I fit in, somehow, with all of these amazing people. And I felt totally cool. I pray my class's impact on the world will be far-reaching and all for the better.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


My wise friend Katie commented the other day that "people are hungry for community but aren't sure how to go about it." She said this in response to my comment that I didn't know most of my neighbors after 9 months in the building. I make a big deal about the importance of knowing your neighbors and being connected to your community, but if you don't run into someone doing laundry or getting the mail, then you have to (eek!) walk up to their door and ring the bell. Then what do you say?

In my defense, most of that time we've lived here we were heading into winter, in winter, or emerging from winter. The best time to meet people in the upper midwest is when the weather finally starts to warm up (April or May, depending on how far north you are). Suddenly, the people you've said hello to stop and chat. People hang around more after church for conversation. Everyone emerges from their cocoons, blinks, realizes the sun is starting to set at 8 PM instead of 4, and comes to life.

And so, after the weather fully warmed up and finals ended, I went with the best meeting-people tool I know how: food. Specifically, homemade cookies.

The student couple who just moved in upstairs to their very first apartment were surprised and touched. We didn't talk long, but now we have each others' names and can talk in the future.

The Nepali couple invited us in, and this is what brings me joy. Over tea (which we'd call chai), we probably spent an hour chatting, getting to know the couple who lives there (who's our age) and their parents visiting all summer from Nepal. When we discovered, toward the end of the visit, that the parents were both educators, they went from being the-parents-who-don't-speak-much-English to neat people with whom we have a connection. We see them out and about almost every day now.

Our apartment of 8 units has Hmong, Russian, Nepali, and Taiwanese residents, as well as a number of people from small town Wisconsin. We are so incredibly fortunate to have such an international home. Now, if only I could get that all-apartment potluck underway...

Friday, June 5, 2009

small town life

Every Tuesday evening all summer, the Ludington Guard Band, which has played together since Gov. Ludington commissioned a calvary band for the civil war, plays a free concert at Wilson Park in Menomonie. They wear red blazers and play a mix from marches to show tunes, with a heavy emphasis on polka.

I live in a town that has free summer polka concerts. I love it. This week drew about 200 people, including lots of small, dancing children.

There's more. Every Tuesday, to accompany this music, there is a pie social. It's so popular that if your organization wants to bake (and sell) pie at the event, you have to be picked in a lottery. I'll bet it's a great fundraiser if your group has pie-bakers in it. Thanks to the Boyceville Methodists (some 20 minutes away) for the tasty dessert.

So this is small town life. What a treat.

(to clarify: our "city" of 16,000 is actually the county seat, with most other towns in the county being less than 1,000. Driving home from the pow-wow, we realized just how centered our town is. We have more than one restaurant, a Cinemagic theater, and (inward groaning) Walmart.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Discovering Wisconsin: our first pow wow

On Saturday, Matt and I visited the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in NE Wisconsin in order to attend our first pow wow. It was amazing, and we already can't wait to go back. It's been a while since I've been completely in the minority on American soil, but this was such an occasion. Growing up in New England, I never met any Native Americans and never learned more in school beyond the elementary school basic curriculum (though I did read tons of biographies, but that's different.) Very fortunately for us, we had a cultural interpreter for the event; one of Matt's classmates (who actually identifies herself as Polish) is the school counselor there, and she explained what was going on. The event was a competition and lasted for the entire weekend, with categories for kids through seniors to compete. The regalia was absolutely incredible: bright colors, beadwork, feathers. I feel so fortunate to be able to attend and to learn.

The picture above shows women in jingle dresses. Originally each of those hanging jingling things were made from rolled lids of chew tobacco cans, though now you can buy them already rolled. Every step they make makes noise in a beautiful, dignified dance. I'm told that some regalia can weigh up to 90 pounds. After a woman starts her period, she is able to give life, which means (according to our interpreter) that she must stay connected to the earth by always keeping on foot on the ground. And so while little girls jump and skip and use their shawls like butterfly wings as they dance, a woman's dance looks much quieter (to me).

These pictures, I confess, are both borrowed from the internet, but they give you an idea of a little bit of what we saw. These feather bustles as well as feather headdresses, in addition to being just plain gorgeous, are worn because they obscure where the body is, making it harder for an enemy to shoot you. When you see these men whirling in dance, it's hard to tell where they are going and where, precisely, their bodies are.

Most of the dances kept my focus on the ground, with the dancers pressing their feet into the earth. The entire space felt so peaceful by the end. I literally felt my body slow, let go, relax. We were loathe to get back in the car and drive home to reality.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Perhaps everyone knew about this but me, but my lovely friend Katie just introduced me to, which analyzes the text that you paste in and arranges it according to which words appear most frequently. Here's my poetry manuscript!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

refugee literature

I am on a search for well-written books that tell stories of refugees. The Latehomecomer, Crossing Three Wildernesses, What is the What, and the Kiterunner are on my list so far. All good books. But I'm trying to put together a long, solid list that could possibly be a course list for a class. I'd love suggestions!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

discovering Wisconsin (or, a New Englander on the Prairie)

Back to blogging after a lovely couple days canoeing the Kickapoo River. I have a newfound respect for Wisconsin--it's really beautiful. We finally got off I-94 and got to drive through hilly farm country. It had what I adore about the Midwest--big sky, huge sense of space even when you're surrouonded by trees, small towns with huge amounts of space between them--but unlike where I lived in Minnesota this area was hilly and well-treed. If you check out the map, you can pretty clearly see the change topography in the SE corner where we live and visited: the glaciers never hit there. You can basically see the line where they stopped.

Everything is lush and green now. The Kickapoo gets its name from an Algonquin word meaning essentially "goes this way and that." In some places, this river was 200 feet from being ox-boxed. Hugely serpentine, which was a great challenge on the canoe. Plus, we saw bald eagles, red tailed hawks, redwing blackbirds, swallows working in a tandem to building their mud-nests against the joints of bridges. There is no end to the list of things I want to learn about. Birds is now on that list.

We drove home through towns of less than 1000 each with lots of farmland and cows in between. Nearly every house we passed as we left Ontario, WI had a sign announcing the sale of quilts, braided rugs, eggs, custom-built barns, leather tooling, baked goods, fireword. Everyone doing a little business on the side.

And, after only 5 years of living in the wide, beautiful Midwest, I can now say I've been to the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. One of them, anyway. This is the Little House in the Big Woods in Pepin, WI.

Pa Ingalls worked hard to find remote locations for his family to farm in peace, and those this one is in now surrounded by fields and has a road near by--the "big woods" were cut down and are now in the process of being regrown--it is still very remote. 7 miles outside of a small town. While we were there on Memorial day, two other cars and 3 motorcycles drove up to see the fun. It is indeed a little house for 5 people. The doors are just over 6' high, if that helps your perspective.

Caddie Woodlawn lived only about a half hour away, by car, though in comparitively much nicer conditions. Saw her home, too.

Thumbs up, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Going (Leafy) Green

Last week I had the pleasure of hanging out with a number of long-time co-op users, including two local organic farmers who seemed to know pretty much everything under the sun. They were currently living mostly off nettles, because they were out and growing on their property. I was there basically for the free meal and the company, but I guess you could say I was useful because I represented the "bottom line" voice: people who will even shop (shhh, don't tell, but it IS the major place to buy things in my town of 16,000) at Walmart sometimes for the lowest price. But they got me thinking.

When it comes to food, I feel like opposite pressures of pocket-friendliness and environmental friendliness are winging me back and forth. I go to the co-op so I can refill my old containers with spices, oatmeal, nuts, pasta, dish soap, etc. Cutting down on waste, that's a good thing. But I don't even look at their beautiful produce section, where it seems like everything is at least a dollar more, even if it is probably higher quality. Likewise, I don't like most of Walmart's practices--bullying producers, shutting out other stores, paying their workers too little--but we are on an extremely tight budget, and saving $10 a week on groceries is huge. And then of course there's the thought of just what kind of carbon footprint we're making, trucking all this food all over the place. Frozen foods are the worst as they have to be shipped frozen, which costs more energy. I say that, but is there a frozen pizza in my freezer? You bet. For those times when I work long days or have simply run out of fresh food and need to make something for dinner.

cost vs. health vs. time vs. shipping costs...(back, forth)

I'd say this all comes down to when I think about myself vs. when I think about the earth, or in Christian terms, being a good steward in how I spend my money, but it's not quite that easy. I know several people who just plain can't afford to buy anything other than the cheapest food possible, along with supplements from the food shelf. I'd like to introduce them to the co-op people who only eat organic (since when did kinder-to-the-earth become elite? that's another story). Some of them would get along beautifully. Some of them live on different planets. I"m grateful to know both, don't get me wrong. I guess you could say I'm floating in the space somewhere in between.

What to do?

We're almost in June, and I figure that the least I can do is to buy local produce during the next 4 months, when everything's growing and available at the local farmer's market. I know what to do in August and September, when everywhere you look there are fresh local bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, egg plant, zucchini, basil, bok choy, etc., but what about now? What is growing now? I've heard whispers of broccoli and asparagus, but I hardly know anything about these things. What comes up in June other than strawberries?

The lovely French foodie blog Chocolate and Zucchini was talking the other day about using radish leaves to make pesto, arguing that pesto is basically green leaves, hard cheese, and olive oil ground up. Intriguing, though I haven't spotted radishes with or without leaves during my grocery store forays to pick up, I confess, stuff for the next cookout. The chocolate cake posted for today also has my attention.

I'll keep my eyes out. This matters. I'd love suggestions.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Beloved on the Earth

19 months after submitting my poetry, 6 months after being accepted, I was thrilled to receive in the mail today my copy of the brand new anthology Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude from Holy Cow! Press. The cover is lovely, though the copy of it here scanned bluer than the actual cover is. Find it here. Scanning the list of those 150 poems, I truly feel like I'm walking among greatness: Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Basho, Li-Young Lee, Denise Levertov, Marvin Bell, Lucille Clifton, etc., etc.! It seems like a brilliant idea for an anthology, for when do we pick up poetry if not when we are in a time of contemplation, seeking wisdom, comfort, perspective...? I hope it sells well.

I can't help listing a few of the things I am grateful for. Don't worry about reading this list; you can insert your own:
  • perfect temperature today
  • constant breeze up on our hill that makes me feel like we live on the ocean
  • the inauguration of our grill, with actual steak! Matt got for his birthday
  • homemade cherry cheesecake, also for Matt's belated birthday (and also the fact that we have low cholesterol levels)
  • a sense, after the craze of getting grades in, that today was Saturday (it's really Monday) and there was nothing I had to do, even if it took getting over a migraine to make me slow down and stop trying to do everything anyway
  • going for a walk at sunset and looking at the pink streaking the sky
  • an upcoming canoe trip
  • lovely rest and peace.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

pretty dress

My talented aunt who lives in Shanghai designed this gorgeous dress for me!

(Nothing brilliant to say today. I'm turning in grades today, then it'll be time for a much-needed break)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


See, if you stop classifying people who cause you problems as "citizens," you can always claim that you never harmed your country's citizens. Reclassifying people in order to avoid responsibility...many countries have been guilty of this, including ours. Here, Sudanese President Bashir blames everyone and everything, denies wrongdoing in Darfur, and claims only "insurgents" were hurt. Four minute interview, courtesy of BBC. Watch it here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

sample poetry

I'm honored to have my poetry included in this international cyber anthology of contemporary poets. I'm in volume 41. Happy reading:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

check it out

My dear friend Katie has a wonderful blog she calls "becoming what we love." Reading it is good for my soul. She talks about living in community (5 people sharing a house owned by our friend Wanda), being a youth pastor in a diverse urban church, eating good food, discovering Minneapolis, social justice, fun adventures...all the things it means to be a Christian and be alive. Katie is one of the most fun, genuine, and deep people I know. We lived together for four years, three of them at the Stevens House (so called because that's the avenue it's on). It's a beautiful old house (dark wood molding, stained glass, a library!!!) in Whittier neighborhood, a diverse and rather transient neighborhood (25-30% turnover rate yearly) that includes a renowned art museum, community gardens, small apartments, restaurants with food from 5 continents, all the Southeast Asian grocery stores you could want (5 within walking distance)...even after living there for 3 years, I'm still discovering more when I go back to visit...

Anyway, read the blog!

Thursday, May 7, 2009


For the first four months we lived in Wisconsin, we didn't have a working TV. We had spotty internet that I used to watch episodes online. We put a decorative blanket over the TV and, when Christmas came, but our mini fake Christmas tree on top (which looked kind of...disproportionate).
(Those are lobster ornaments on either side. Too big to fit on the tree!)

But then one night in January when I had nothing to do and so I went to buy a converter box and antennae. We picked up 6 channels, 3 of them PBS. And what came on exactly at that moment, that Sunday night? Masterpiece Classic's production of Wuthering Heights. I am in love. If you've never seen Masterpiece Classic, check it out here. They turn classic novels into excellently done miniseries(es) with no commercials. I love having a bit of epic drama in my life (especially when you can turn it on and off).

Charles Dickens

Having watched or read most of Dickens' work, I've got a formula now:

take one poor, noble, innocent, and selfless character (either an orphaned boy or a girl with one male guardian of obnoxious character, whom she serves devotedly)


  • bankrupcy (if you weren't there already)
  • several members of authority who range from cruel to stupidly incompentant (but who make it their goal to thwart the main character)
  • one helping hand, who is noble and wealthy and has
  • at least one terrible secret
  • which often comes out by way of a poor servant (who is most likely out for himself)
  • several more completely quirky characters who stick in your memory from monthly installment to monthly installment
and at the end throw in

  • sudden riches (thanks to the helping hand or to a long-lost relative who made his/her fortune abroad
  • a heartfelt reunion for the now-not-poor-but-still-selfless main character
  • most of the bad people getting what they deserve, but
  • sometimes nice people are crushed along the way
And spread it all over monthly installments with a lot of cliffhangers. If you can stretch it out over two years, all the better.

The advantage of doing an entire Masterpiece Classic series on Dickens is that you can reuse much of the set. Down-and-out London and all.

I sound like I'm mocking. I am, only a little bit. But I had a hard enough time waiting week to week for the five installments of Little Dorrit.

Dickens strikes again.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


It's the last week of classes in the U-W system. I've got 5 more classes to teach, Matt has just a few left to take, then on to finals. It's crazy busy like it always is at the end of the semester. There are research papers and final portfolios to wade through, but then...freedom. Camping. Other summer work. Writing time, much of which may take place at my favorite Golden Leaf Cafe, which sells really good pie. But pie isn't what I was trying to talk about. It's milestones.

The wonderful thing about the academic system is that is has regular beginnings and endings. It has a rather unnatural setting (a whole group of people of the same age-ish together in a small space, deadlines that don't correspond with the rest of the world) but I'll take it because it understands how to step back and admire accomplishments. So few places have this. Think about it: in the business and nonprofit worlds, when, outside of retirement celebrations and fundraising events, do we stop and see what we have accomplished? time passed, projects completed.

Some of my Intro to Lit. students saw their first professional play and attended their first poetry reading this semester. They've started using the word "postcolonial" and know more about southern India than they probably ever thought they would, thanks to Arundhati Roy's gorgeous novel The God of Small Things. I think that is so neat, and I'm so proud watching them grow as readers and discussers of literature in its various forms.

It's a lot easier to notice what other people have accomplished or learned than to notice the same in ourselves.

I grew up in a family that celebrates occasions. Birthdays. Christmas. Easter. Did I mention birthdays? They're huge. Matt's family didn't. They note the occasions, but they don't make a big deal. They give gifts at random times, rather than waiting for a date. I like both systems. But I still like occasions. Points that allow people to stop and look and celebrate. What can you celebrate in May?

Monday, May 4, 2009

check it out

A group of University of Minnesota students in a human rights advocacy class got a quick invitation into the real world when one of their classmates, originally from Sudan, learned that two of his young neices had been violently abducted from their home in Southern Sudan. A year and a half later, they are in the process of forming a non-profit organization, Child Protection International, to address and prevent child abduction in several countries. They are devoted people who do wonderful work. Check out their website

Saturday, April 25, 2009

writers: check it out

Hurrah! A free site devoted to the profession of writing. Which includes things like (gasp!) getting paid. I've been following their weekly updated writers' market for a while. Recommended!

Monday, April 20, 2009

sample poetry

Please check out my poems in these lovely magazines:

"Connecticut" in The Pedestal Magazine:

"January" in Flurry:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Latehomecomer

I'm reading The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang right now, and I highly recommend it. Subtitled "A Hmong Family Memoir," this book describes the refugee experience better than any book I've ever read. She tells the story of the Hmong people coming from the jungles of Laos (where they were in hiding because they helped U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam war), crossing the Mekong River, wasting away behind the fences of refugee camps in Thailand, and adjusting to life in the U.S., and she does it all with beautiful writing and an excellent sense of storytelling. This book was chosen as the "common text" next year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where I teach, and I'm looking forward to discussing all the issues of identity it brings up with my students.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome

I wanted to teach this in my Introduction to Literature course, but it didn't fit. Leif Enger is an incredible writer, and his stories have real characters, a grand sense of adventure, and lovely prose. Like his first book Peace Like a River, this one gives us the sense that the west is alive and well, that epic stories are still possible and indeed necessary. I'd love to sit down for a chat with the characters.

In the "making of" special, the director of the film 3-10 to Yuma said that we like westerns because they are larger than life, because they allow us to talk about good and evil in a way that little else does. That statement alone was enough to make me a fan of westerns. I mean, how often to we get to enter into a discussion about Those Big Things That Matter?