Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

We only get this day once every four years. A gift, the anniversary of nothingness from the year before. The day when we're all—or most of us, at least—perpetually less than twenty. Heck, I'm only eight in Leap Days.

Today I pulled down my McSweeney's 8 from the shelf. There's a chary balance, as a writer, between reading and writing. It's so easy to sidle over to the bookshelf, and think—I should just do some serious reading today.

But I digress. McSweeney's 8 happens to be full of stories about truth and fiction and the difference between the two. The one I happened to flip to, the one I had dog-eared, was a story/essay by Jonathan Ames, about how two chapters of his novel were stolen by a woman named Julia, the daughter of a famous writer, who deluded him for months into believing that he was being invited to Sweden for a symposium held by a literary magazine. Halfway through reading the essay, which I assumed was autobiographical, I began to question whether it was in fact fiction.

In it, Julia publishes her novel with the same publisher, with an epigram from Balzac: “How fondly swindlers coddle their dupes.”

So who's swindling whom? The best part is not knowing.

Then this review, of a book based on a Believer article, also published by McSweeney's, about an essayist's war with his fact-checker over facts. And the reviewer folds his facts around, too.

“Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” said Tim O'Brien, as quoted by Dan Kois. But he may have been lying.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

If you see a shadow

I'm doing my work. This is my work—sitting at a desk in front of an over-priced laptop, looking out the window at the iced ridges that mark the tire tracks of the driveway, at the heaped snow over the compost barrel, heaped snow over the untrimmed raspberry bushes, massive plowed icebergs that line the doorstep's narrow entrance. It's one of those days when my life seems spectacularly useful and useless at the exact time, like putting words onto digital paper is the most important thing anyone could do and also an utter waste of effort.

I've been putting aside farm and fiction for a grant-writing project, an application for a nursing college in Uganda. I believe with my whole heart in the project—my blessed grandmother left money for it, to educate nurses to have the career she always dreamed of—and still it feels an exercise in futility. Lining up the numbers in a spreadsheet, telling the story of a school that may never be to faceless officials.

As a distraction, I pull out back issues of The Sun, and read essays by writers who choose each word with such exquisite care, such riveting diligence, such careful composition, that I feel my heart breaking in my chest. How can my words ever measure up? How can it at all be important for me to spend another one of my precious hours here, at this desk, crocheted flowers blanketing my knees, dim light bluing outside, and press my fingers into keys to make words? What value can they have to roll back the tide of despair?

I read this quote by Gandhi, another of those quotes intended as inspirational but which generally make me feel as if nothing I do will ever be good enough: "think of the poorest person you have ever seen and ask if your next act will be of any use to him." If I think of her, is it enough for me to sit at my desk and make up stories? Is it enough to steal an hour or two from Uganda to write words that may never be read?

A quote from the essay I'm reading, “Bruised,” by Joe Wilkins: “Here's what often happens: some workman, after banging away all day, comes in the house to say he's finished and catches me on the couch in my sweat pants, staring at my laptop, and he gives me one of those eye-rolling looks, one of those this-guy-is-just-pathetic shakes of the head.”

I know that look. I've internalized it to the point where I give it to myself.

Still, I'm managing to read both Jane Eyre and Moby Dick right now. Both are taking me months to get through, and are books that would never be published today, would be deemed “unmarketable,” “too slow,” ”too difficult.” They don't follow all the rules of fiction I have overlapping on my bulletin board—prohibitions against adverbs, Cinematic Structure in Three Acts, The Hero's Journey, beautiful jagged Freitag arcs I doodle when I'm blocked, McKee's universal laws of inciting incident, positive turn, and character desire.

What am I saying? Both books follow all of those rules. Both books are perfect, in their own flawed way. Melville is astonishing. He takes entire chapters to describe the substructure of a sperm whale's tail. Bronte likewise. She wastes pages on difficult dialog, and through those alien words I see in intricate detail a a plain, elfish girl, with a backbone of iron. They both make me want to live a better life. They both make me live a better life.

Is it enough? Are any words enough?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Look up at the mountain

“Snow is like therapy,” said the Aroostookrat, the one who came over to my house with her husband to play Wii. We were watching the snow fall around the glass room, silently, the wood stove burning, the white flakes drifting down and caught in the flood lights. Last night twelve inches was carried slowly over the Great Plains and blew down in the night. Today the spruces are towering wedding cakes.

The people who I know belong here are the ones who say that they love winter. It requires a certain kind of audacity. I did a long snowshoe today, about an hour, with the heavy snow collecting in my crampons. Shadow tugged me along, dug in the snow after the little voles that nest beneath the drifts. Halfway back I could barely catch my breath, and I unzipped my down vest and unwrapped my scarf, only to trip myself on a snowshoe and tumble into a pile at the side of my little trail.

That's not unusual. On the days when there's fresh snow, I fall about twice an hour. On the Appalachian Trail, I fell about once a day. The legend about my parents, who backpacked Maine while I was in utero, was that they became known as the “Flying Jenkses” thanks to their tumbling propensity.

My favorite yoga DVD ends with this directive: thank yourself for showing up today. That's how I feel on the days when I get out into the muck. Like I'm finding the joy. Not letting the dark days get me down.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The dreaming moon

Maybe poems aren't so dangerous after all. Maybe the dangerous thing is not writing them. Is not listening to the voice.


The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do,
and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting their bad advice
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy was terrible.
It was already late enough,
and a wild night,
and the road full
of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly recognized
as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do,
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

If you want it you got it

Today's quote, from a Chicago Tribune profile of a McSweeney's writer:
As for Levin, after initially worrying about the book's length, he decided at page 700 that the book would be as long as it needed to be. "If I have arrived at a stance on literature, I guess, it's this: I want books to be huge. Not page counts — I want giant stories that end big," he says. "Because as I get older, I'm getting bored, with domestic fiction, especially. And I want to read writers who are bold, who go for it all. I want all the significance, everything."
McSweeney's editor Eli Horowitz agreed: "The reason most books are not as big as 'The Instructions' is not necessarily because books are not supposed to be as big as 'The Instructions.' It's because publishers are afraid of them and authors get worried people won't read them. To get past that and write to the length you truly believe you should write to requires a mixture of courage and obliviousness that Adam has. He's brave, and when it works well, it's thrilling."
Reading quotes like that are the good part of the internet. Reading quotes like this one (from a Poets and Writers interview) are the bad:
Stein: Novels are beginning to feel that way too. I mean, really—it's like the novel is the new short story.
RUTMAN: The short story is the new poem...
STEIN: Yeah, the short story is the new poem, novels are the new short story.... It's hard out there.
RUTMAN: If you're talking to a certain audience, say an MFA audience, you hear the sentiment of, "Ugh, if only I could get past the short story collection and get on to the novel, easy street can't be far behind."
STEIN: There is no easy street.
RUTMAN: Exactly. It doesn't exist. But there is this unhelpful assumption that you just need to get to a novel, at which point your publishing fortunes will brighten.
STEINBERG: There are probably only a hundred people in the United States who make a living off novel writing.
STEIN: Did you make that number up?
STEINBERG: Yeah, I just made it up.
STEIN: I think that's a really great point and that number sounds about right to me.
100 out of 300 million people. Might just as well start buying lottery tickets.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Summer portrait of Snow Road. Not gone forever.

And a miracle--I found what I thought was lost forever, the ludicrously over-mourned data, on fat Tuesday, the day when we feast before we take the ashes. The day when life seems unbearably lush, rich, full beyond imagination. And today, the next day, the long-awaited satellite dish arrives, giving me at last a connection to the great inter-web that links us all. No. I jest. But I do have a feeling of strange Jim Morrison-like doors of consciousness are opening.

I resisted buying internet for a long time, though. Hardcore. Being without it was perhaps the thing that made me feel most isolated about being here, and maybe the thing that I was the proudest of. So I had to let go. It was all pure egoism, and finally I chose to make things easier on myself rather than more difficult.

The internet is also very expensive. My resistance was born from frugality, and now I have through economic caution to the wind.

But now I have both internet and data back. Images that I thought were gone forever I have again, and I have all of Lent to play with pictures and videos and internet, instead of living in ascetic austerity, the way I'm meant to during this season of suffering. It feels like spring, like I'm coming awake from a long hibernation. I didn't get everything in my hunt through the savage hard drive, but just that I had the persistence to keep fighting for the 10GB or so I managed to salvage seems psychotic. Or maybe brave.

Or it was faith alone that gave me back these few gifts. My cup is full. It runneth over.

I remember having this feeling before, wanting to memorialize the end of one season, as the next begins. The church calendar cycles every year, and I climb the seven-story mountain, arriving at the new season, same as the old. But new. The air is new. The mountain is new. Behold, all things are made new.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The things you have the hardest time parting with

Snow fields to the horizon

Lent's coming on, and as in previous years, I'm considering a meditative praying and writing practice, to be posted here, and to refocus me spiritually. Again, in previous years, I debated whether adding something to my life--a public writing practice--was actually in the spirit of Lent. Adding something is not giving something up. So I'm debating also giving something up. Something difficult.

One year my sister gave up complaining. I've given up computer games, caffeine, on occasion, and several times all animal products, including eggs and milk, and used a vegan fast as a way to refocus my eating habits. This year the thing I really should give up is television, but I'm not sure I'm brave enough for that one. I'm thinking about sugar, or meat, both of which are traditional sacrifices, but don't seem that difficult.

Dylan said, in the conclusion to the above quote:
Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with
Are the things you need the least

Almost certainly true. I saw an interview of Woody Harrelson on George Stroumboulopoulos, a great Canadian talk-show host, and a very perceptive question, especially for a celebrated drug-user, was: What drug did you have the hardest time quitting? Harrelson's answer, after a long, well-considered pause, was: Sugar.

Sometimes I think about how it would feel to be one of those people who gives up sugar, or white flour, or meat, or high-fructose corn syrup--not just for Lent, but forever. Those people irk me when I encounter them in real life, as much as I respect their decision. I hate absolutists--I much prefer balance in all things. But isn't that just another attachment? What need do I have for white flour? For any of it? Wouldn't it be better for me, mentally, spiritually, to let things like that go?

Maybe that's what Lent is for. Seeing how little I need, what things I have the capacity to let go of.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Well I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith

Winter snowshoe scene

Sorry for the depression, guys. This afternoon I'm again thinking about grand plans for the spring--digging up the pond and using the moss in my flower garden, where I will plant bulbs and flowering shrubs, and turning the gravel pit at the back of the land into a swimming hole. That's a spring fed beaver pond out my office window, y'all.

Or maybe I'll build a sauna, out of all the cedar, and then I'll heat it up to 200 degrees--as hot as I can take without cooking my innards--and heat myself so I can go out and roll around naked in the ice, even in the heart of January Jones.

It's February, but I still think of it like that, thanks to an unforgettable Conan sketch on late-night television. Go YouTube it, oh ye in the land of internet. [We get Conan for free on Canadian television--Canada, where you get basic cable analog!] Now I have anthropomorphized the entity of winter into a hard-partying, chain-wearing African-American gentleman who does guest spots on Mad Men. When I feel glum, I ascribe it to him.

I spent the morning punching away at the keys of my grandmother's typewriter, a Hermes Rocket. K. repaired the ribbon, the ribbon that lived on Secret with us for two years, and now I have an operational typewriter that allows my brain to function in a different way than with computer keys. Slower somehow. More careful, but also more muscular. If anyone knows where I can get one of those big rolls of paper like Jack Kerouac used, send me the link.

I'm longing for that sweet fatback that sticks to your ribs

I’m not sure I’m doing all that well with winter. It’s like a daily checklist: am I getting outside? Am I doing something other than sitting on the couch with my crochet? How many baked goods?

The snow covers the horizon, endless. The thing I miss most is color. There’s no color. It’s a black and white world, and to go out into it, I need three layers, top and bottom. The last few days the moon has been so bright—effervescent—like a spotlight reflecting off the snow, so bright I check to see if the lights are still on outside the house. I wanted to take photographs for all of you, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on the layers. It was just too much.

I feel exhausted, all the time. And I’m doing all the right things. Taking Vitamin D. Eating oranges and lettuce, whatever produce was grown in places where human beings are actually designed to live and shipped in on the bones of dinosaurs.

Well, I’m not doing all of the right things. As I write, it’s 1:55 in the morning, which means if I were to use my sun lamp when I am meant to, as according to the almighty internet and, at 7:45 in the morning, that would give me less than six hours of sleep. Less than I got in college, most nights.

So I’m staying up too late, and I can’t drag myself out of bed, and I’m sleeping through those precious morning hours of daylight, the only real daylight I get here. I feel like I’m coping, but just barely. Treading water. It feels like a genuine hibernation—all of my essential processes are functioning, at their minimum possible levels—and I’ll only really come alive in the spring, which is so, so far away. I keep remembering the snow we got on April Fool’s Day last year, and I think really? That long? Our frost date is May 20. Only three months to go, guys!

Meanwhile, my magazines are sending me photographs of tulips and forsythia. I’ll be lucky if I get tulips and forsythia in August. Is it worth it? I feel like I’m complaining all the time. I don’t want to complain. I want to be bigger than the weather, to not let it affect me. But what if I’m not?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Philosophy of time travel

I am trying to buy a bag of potatoes and I don't know how. There is a potato farmer down the road, that has a sign at the road advertising potatoes, $10 for fifty pounds, and I would love to buy some—we've been out since before Christmas, which maybe shows where I fall down on the rice/potato conundrum—but his driveway, leading up to a siloed factory-looking metal warehouse structure, is a sheet of flat ice.

I'm just not eager to wander up to some door, wearing my going-to-town clothes, because that's the only way I'll justify the gas to drive there, and wrestle a fifty-pound bag of potatoes across a sheet of ice.

Face it, I'm scared. Of potatoes. Of an aspect of a cultural experience up here that I don't understand. How does one buy potatoes from a potato farmer?

There's a butcher right down from the potato farmer that I'm too scared to visit also. He has a nice little sign: custom meat-slaughtering, cattle, sheep, hogs. I'd love some nice mutton bones for borscht or a beef heart for the dog. They're supposed to give these things away for free, and still I can't convince myself to park in the driveway.

It's risking shame that's the hardest part of being an outsider. Even though I'm sure everyone already knows I don't belong.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Like we were unwise

Potatoes on the bonfire in the snow, at the Potatogether

Tonight dinner is green curry, with spicy paste and coconut milk both imported from Thailand, with royal basil--horapaa--and bird peppers—prik kee nu--I bought at the Asian market in Quincy four months ago and froze. I'm hungry for real food, rice and curry--kap chao. It's one of these cliches of Thai culture that instead of asking “How are you?” when people meet, they ask “Have you eaten?” But the real truth is that “Have you eaten?” in Thai translates directly to—kin chao reung? Which means, “Have you eaten rice?”

Rice is real food. Everything else is just pretending, as far as this little Asian-faker girl is concerned. And I'm saying that while living in the land of the potato—a tragedy. Not really. I love potatoes, too, because my family comes from potato country. My family farm was a potato farm, before we lost it.

But my formative years, my childhood, was spent eating rice, six days a week. One day a week was for “American” food. Potatoes, spaghetti, tacos. And I have to believe that how someone spends the years between 3 and 17 matters, because I'm coming on that anniversary now. I spent 14 years in Southeast Asia, and now it's 14 years that I've been away. My sister flew from Chicago to Bangkok, with her husband and three children in tow, this morning.

We're both terrified. She's just found happiness, in her own house, just outside Chicago, for the first time. I'm finding happiness here, in Aroostook County. Both of us, for the first time in years, may live in a place that we call home. And now she's going to the place that's our real home, our heart's home. We're afraid it will disrupt us, either by being perfect, or by being less than.

I say we're terrified, but I lie. My whole life has been caught between two places, knowing I'll never find true home, not in the way that other people have it. People whose roots are dug deep. Mine will always be shallow. But that doesn't mean they have to be weak. I'm changing as I age, I'm realizing that it's not that I don't belong. I can belong in two places. She can, too, and at a deeper level, we know we love the lives we've built for ourselves.

I know the air of Bangkok is toxic, polluted, gave my brother bronchial asthma. I know that most people don't consider 90-percent humidity pleasant. I know that the city smells of exhaust and dried fish and raw sewage and dirty canals—khlongs. But more than that, I know that whenever I stepped off the plane, from Manila, or the States, and hit that wall of Thai air, dense, heavy with moisture and scents, bad and good, fecund and rich--that's when I knew I was home.

I said to her last night: “You get to breathe real air.”

It's the thing I envy most.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

She looked into my eyes

Daily bread

You can't repeat the past, she said.
What do you mean you can't?
Of course you can.

That's the line from "Summer Days," a song from Bob Dylan's "'Love & Theft.'" It's stolen straight from The Great Gatsby.

Can't repeat the past? I don't know.

But today I made honey-soy bread, with Amish honey, from a Mennonite recipe. It's delicious--dense, and dark, and wheat-y. There's lots of whole wheat in there. Good winter bread.

I'm eating it with canned meat and pickled peppers. I'm hanging around with too many Swedes, or Poles, or something. Dark bread, sauerkraut, cured meats.

Summer days, summer nights aren't here. But I know a place where there's still something going on. My oven, if nowhere else. I bake my bread, I sing my song.

I just did a quick Bob Dylan and plagiarism search, and discovered that as of last year he's in trouble for painting other people's photographs and having them displayed at a gallery. That's Dylan all over. But I made a painting of it! It's new art--it's all new art. Even my bread.