Friday, May 31, 2013


Social stratification isn't new. Many institutions practice it - how about, say, junior high? Or my first real job at Burger King, where one's ability to speed through orders figured heavily in the social capital metrics. I got pretty high up on that scale, being assigned to "push" drive-through, which required speed and attention to detail in the short term. I was good, but I was not the queen. R -- presided at the drive-through register during the lunch hour rush, keeping thousands of details about each order in the her head, barking when drinks didn't materialize fast enough, waving a metal tray over the car sensor that recorded how long a piece of metal was in front of it, to improve her aggregate time.

My son's Boy Scout troupe before he thankfully quit gave four feet high trophies to the boys whose cars won the race. The first year my son didn't win. The second year he got the big-ass trophy. Then he quit.

It's no surprise writers practice it. But shouldn't we, given that we plumb the depths and map the heights of human possibility, be just a little bit more generous with one another?

Shouldn't we, as in the Buddhist adage, feed each other? We all want our place in the pantheon. Some of us will never make it there. Fair enough. But the idea that one might not bring home the trophy causes fear so cloying they feel they must exploit, hoard, denigrate. Some writers pull others down, made possible by a complex interplay between each writers' personal demons.

I offer as evidence the existence of MFA programs where the survivors emerge bloody from the infighting, where comments like "I'm embarrassed to be in the same program with someone who would write shit like this" go unchecked by faculty. (That is a report from a Top 12 graduate who is, now, doing fine.) It's not uncommon to meet the survivors of such programs and hear they went through a long fallow period after graduating. And workshops wherein people hold their accomplishments or connections over themselves like haloes to bask in the golden light then eviscerate the work of others. And the whispered comments, the "what has he done lately." And the current sniping over "likeable characters," which is the same argument, really, as the one about plot-driven v. character-driven narrative.

What's the value of that eternal conflict? If it doesn't kill us, it makes us stronger? Or couldn't we all make each other stronger?


Had a bad dream last night in which two of my fifth graders came to me crying, because I'd given them an exercise that didn't speak to them, exercises that tied their metaphorical hands and made it impossible for them to write poems. "I couldn't do my exercises," they said. They had nothing to read to the group. They showed me blank pages. I said "Didn't I tell you that you could write another way?" and I woke before I got their reply.
Poetry must be made for poetry’s sake, for writing’s sake, for the sake of reaching through the space between us, connecting one human to another through this moment – not to fashion a ‘pome’ – but to give you the means to show me how it feels  or felt to be alive in various poses and incarnations.
It’s not the passive receipt of a set of feathers, glue, sequins, and cardboard tubes to affix to one’s imagination (that word capitalized, sound drawn out, syllables stretched until flabby – ih MAAAG in AAAYY shun.) Not that.
I mean image-ination. Making images out of lines, curves, dots, jots and  tittles, of holding back the force of ideas with a tiny comma or stopping them with a steadfast period. Of the clever turning of the winky  semi-colon. Of the held breath of the Dickensonian dash. Of the vehement and dramatic colon, double dots meaning half the stop of the period.
That’s what poetry does, dear. All that. It's the women in sub-Saharan Africa making small 'banks' for one another. It's Rosa Parks. It's WS Merwin, it's George Saunders, it's Elissa Schappell, it's the freckle-faced fifth grader with a raft of adult-imposed difficulties. It's the parent who fights for her kids and others. These are our tools. Raise them high, girls and boys. Bring them down, with force and accuracy.

This do in memory of all who went before.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Across the weedy, trash-strewn alley from my work place is a motel, one of those places that was cute in the Sixties, an L-shaped building segmented into small units. Now people live in those tiny places long-term. The Home Oxygen guy drives in each week, and it's within spitting distance of the Mental Health Center across the street. One guy even lives in a motor home on the lot. The windows are propped open with fans in the summer, shut in the winter - but not shut tight, not with peeling paint exposing the frames, not with the wind rattling the unprotected panes. There's an old man who lives there, who comes out on an irregular basis. This March I got really afraid for him. The wind pushed me along with enough force I had to plant my legs to stay upright. Here he came up the street, on a bitter morning, against the wind. I can't say he walked up the street. He more quavered, he shook up the street. When Olivia was five months old she could not crawl, but she managed to move herself by sheer willpower. She moved every muscle in her body over and over until she was in a different spot. That's what this man was doing, putting everything he had into the next faltering step, on staying vertical when the wind and the ice conspired to flatten him. The wind blew his hair around, long strands of white combover flying around his head, exposing the skin on top. He wore a dark cloth coat, cloth pants, those man-type shoes all guys his age wear - black, rounded toe, slight heel, vibram sole, and no gloves. I don't automatically offer help when I see someone is struggling. I stay on the scene and make myself available until they ask - sometimes it's an assault on human dignity to offer help too quickly. People sometimes just need time. But this man seemed to need help. I watched for a while. He didn't go down. He didn't move more than half a block in ten minutes, either. Finally, my hands were cold and my conscience burning. I went across the street and asked. Would he like help? No, he wouldn't. He would be fine, he said. His eyes were not angry, but they were determined. He would manage on his own. So I went inside and said a prayer at my desk. I didn't see him again and I wondered how he was faring. I wondered what was so important he had to go out in THAT weather?

Two weeks ago, I saw him again, coming around the corner, with his head up, moving towards home, face set in the neutral expression of kings. He made it through the winter.


We bought snails to go in the frog tank to eat the frog poop. So now we have a perfect system. Crickets feed frogs. Frogs poop. Snails proliferate. Extra snails go back to pet store in exchange for more crickets. It's not often things work out that neatly.

An aside: early in the morning, since the weather has (finally) become more warm, the frogs make a sound I can only describe as barking. Is that normal?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Move to Montana?

Friday night we took the kids to Dairy Queen after dinner. The spring weather brought out a line of cars that held steady about ten long, and the dining room was packed, too. Yesterday I drove to Missoula with Jamie for Nicole's bridal shower, severe winter storm warning notwithstanding. We left the party early because Larry said it was dumping back in Helena. The roads were wet at first, then snow-covered, then the wind picked up and with the snow coming down visibility was poor. The road were only icy in the passing lanes, though, so that was alright, but the snow was so wet it kept sticking to my wipers. Between Drummond and Avon we had to stop and clean them off probably five times. The only scary part was on the narrow two-lane between Garrison and Avon; it winds a bit, and the snow made it hard to see the few pull-offs. A couple of times I had to slow to 20 because the wipers were so gunked up. Most of the semis were pulled over; those of us in cars kept our flashers on between wiper stops.

So Friday DQ, today sledding and going to the hot springs. Last week we got snow and I thought that was the last one of the year - I forget that I have seen snow in this area in every month of the year. Happily, we leave the snow scraper in the car year 'round and I have not yet gotten around to taking the snow tires off.

Florida, anyone?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Poetry Festival

Got to meet some phenomenal poets in Great Falls; the blizzard turned out to be a good thing, because we all wound up going out to dinner. As an outgrowth of that and in honor of National Poetry Month, I'm going to go to the Poetry Festival at Flathead Valley Community College next weekend, April 11-12. Moreover, Debra Magpie Earling told me once, years ago, when I tugged at her coat-tails, that writing poetry was one of the best ways to inform one's fiction. Or enhance it. You get the picture. (DME sustained lyricism and poetic images throughout her amazing novel, Perma Red. A must read.) The whole fam damily is coming with - not to the conference, but up to Kalispell with me. They are much excited over staying in a hotel, swimming in the pool, eating waffles. Would be that I could find bliss in such simple things again.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Great Falls Festival of the Book

So Fred Bridger and I will be waxing pontific at the Great Falls Public Library on March 29 on the value of establishing and maintaining a writing community. That was the topic of my graduate lecture and an issue dear to my heart; how do we, who are so dialed in to the inner radio, interact with one another? How and why do you get introverts together? And what do you do when everyone's there? I now have a group of people I trust to be both generous and honest in their criticism of my work, and I try to give that back in return. I was fortunate to avoid the sort of bleak maim-and-be-maimed atmosphere of some MFA programs; I'll never forget having a conversation with David Jauss about that. He said he and several others of my instructors had barely survived that themselves and had resolved that their students would not have to be impeded that way.

Different people, of course, want different things from their writing community. It took me a long time to find a group, and in the end, it happened through intention and work. My friends and I created a community of writers I treasure. (Before we formed our current group and I was looking, I was fired from one group because I was too new to the craft - and truthfully, at the time, I gave the sorts of crits that drive everyone crazy, like "I don't think your character would do (whatever)." I was told I could join a group but I could never use a cuss word. Another person offered that I could join a therapeutic group - that one cost money. I forget how much. Another group tried to include everyone in the world and died after on an endlessly long, bad story submitted by the founder. The protag was so miserable I wanted to kill it . . . slowly.)

At any rate, we've got much more in common than we have differences, and ain't we funny?

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Lsat Wednesday we made an emergency trip to Denver. It's only fourteen hours one way, about half of which was in windswept Wyoming. From Billings on south, it's pretty much all the same until just after the Colorado border. Brown hills for miles in every direction, paltry sun, endless road. There were stretches so straight I fantasized about having an RV so I could put in cruise control, make a sandwich in the kitchenette, and come back before I had to jog the wheel to the left or right. (Not really. But there were long, straight stretches, long and straight as I would have liked my train of thought to be.) Part of my job in serious situations is to pray, part is to make people laugh. There were a few opportunities for that. One was singing all the peace songs our elders taught us in the Seventies. Another was the odd sign about a mile out of Podunk, Wyoming, population 36. On a colored, 3' x 3' board, was an advertisement for vasectomy reversal. Must be for the steers. I can't imagine there's enough human business to even pay for the sign. Mostly, nothing was funny.

There were so many strangers who gave us kindness for no reason, not knowing anything about us, I have to think that God sent those to us. There was the woman in the convenience store in Buffalo, WY. Paul wanted sunflower seeds, and I had done nothing but tell him "no, we don't have time" and "come on, let's go," and "we won't be there for a long time" all day. I said yes, but Larry was worried about the mess. I was so tired I stood there cogitating. She gently suggested, why don't you get a go-cup with a lid? It was so small, her stepping into that space and offering the cup, but I felt so grateful. Then Paul cut his finger. I went to buy some bandaids because my purse stash was out, and she gave us some. For no reason. Then there was the man who was playing one of those games where you try to grab toys by controlling a metal hook with a joystick. He won two toys and gave them both to my children. Small things with great love.

Jennifer is in trouble. We're home for the weekend. Next week, who knows. I can't say it again. If you want to know, go to Pray hard. Pray for a miracle.

Monday, February 18, 2008


So I just got back from this women's retreat in sunny CA. You can keep California as far as I'm concerned. I was nervous it was going to fall into the ocean at any minute. All the weight of those big box stores and chain restaurants, wave after wave of them, plus the visible particulate matter in the air, can't possibly be sustained.

If you drive inland just a bit, there's a hill in the middle of the city; if you go up the hill, you get to Rancho Palos Verdes, an otherworldly expensive settlement that looks down on the carpet of lights spread out all over the valley. We drove past homes worth several million, past riding stables, past Lexus, Jaguar, Mercedes and Range Rover dealerships to get to the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center. The view stuns. The gardens amaze; old-growth aloe vera plants the size of a volkswagen beetle, palm trees, all manner of blossoming plants. Wish I'd had a plant id book with me. Anyway. The retreat was amazing. It was held at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center. When you leave, they ask you to pray over the bed for the next retreatant.

I felt at home and at ease right away and connected with some amazing women. The entire experience was characterized by person after person as "amazing." It seemed to reduce our collective vocabulary to that of Aerosmith. (Remember? the words Crying Crazy Amazing For You Baby comprise the bulk of the lyrics on an entire 90s album.)

Wish I could say what it meant. I'm still processing it all. But I don't really know as yet, I only know I've been touched, deeply, from sitting at breakfast in tears listening to Annette's story, to hearing how women walk through their lives with dignity and grace in moments from the mundane to the sublime to the drop-dead painful. We talked about what it really meant to be of service, to be a force for good, to find a way to keep on going after horrific mistakes and/or experiences and turn that darkness into something positive for others by sharing it.

I had to miss some important events to go. I hope I can use what I learned there well enough that my absence is worth it in the eyes of those I love.
The peacock above is one of six or so who roam the grounds.