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.