Visions of Joanna

One hot day 
while living in Guatemala, 
A., my fiancĂ©, 
grew inspired 
to paint my portrait.  
I pinned it to the wall 
of our Tucson apartment, 
and later, of our Chippewa house.  
But sadly, 
according to A., 
my pinning-things-on-the-walls days 
are over.  



Heading towards sunrise
What will we find?

New lands
and our same old selves.


Bigsley and Bernadette: The Surprise

"Eggs!  I thought you were just getting fat.  And you didn't even tell me?  That hurts, it really does.  Why all the secrets?  Let me guess.  It's a little embarrassing to admit the father is that cock who just got tagged by the DNR."


New Neighbor

The hedgehog, if that's indeed what she is, wears her finest coat to sit at the entrance to her home. Doubtlessly, she knows the comings and goings of the neighborhood far better than I ever will, this her silent life, quickened by every flutter of leaf, every chirp of sparrow, every slam of door.  Still, the train, passing several blocks to the north, sends her darting into her hole.  I am determined to watch her reemerge, which I am certain she will because she was curious, I could tell, studying me, her new neighbor.  A cloud passes, and the sun gleams, and I lower my sunglasses over my eyes.  The glasses are smudged, as usual, so I clean them on my shirt and remember to remind myself to put the clothes in the dryer.  We are going out tonight.  We haven't been out for a very long time.  Probably, I should take a nap.  Better yet, I should finish that article I started in bed, the one about the boy who killed both his parents.  Stay focused.  The hedgehog.

What did that artist say on the radio?  That he watches a dull thing until he sees something interesting.  I have to remember to call the bank and email Biffy, and I really should wash the bathroom.  How nice it would be to have some chips and salsa.  But didn't I just have breakfast? Annie Dillard sat watching things like hedgehogs and moss and then wrote a brilliant book about it.  Don't forget, Wednesday night the trash must go out.

Suddenly, I am in the house riffling through the snacks, hunting for a pen and paper to write an overdue thank you note, which I do not find, which I do not do.  But never fear, more thoughts crowd up against my consciousness propelling me through the day, getting things done, with hardly an ounce of awareness, since while I am doing those things my thoughts drive me to do, I am having other thoughts about what I must do next.  I have forgotten all about my desire to see the hedgehog emerge from her hole until hours later, when I burst through the back door with a load of recycling, and I am halted by an invisible force.  I turn to see her, sitting at the entrance to her home, wearing her finest coat, regarding me with the full attention of her being.


The Sorting Task

It is hot, and we are very pleased with ourselves for buying such a fine house, though it has almost nothing to do with us and almost everything to do with the benefits of good fortune that have been flowing our way all our lives. We have never known war nor disease, hunger nor abuse.  We sit at the crest of the era of cheap oil, with all its conveniences, complications, hypocrisies.  How to justify, to ourselves and our descendants, that we spent an entire week moving material possessions from one grand inefficient house to another, not to mention the mounds sent to the trash? I spend another week (though this could go on for months) opening boxes we moved into the basement and trying to decide where to put each item therein.  Books are a relief.  Books are easy.  We put them on the shelves. But there seem to be a great many entropic box containing yarn, playing cards, plastic spoons, poker chips, a screw driver, a single glove, a fire alarm, five CDs, an extension cord, one hardened paintbrush, one toothbrush stained yellow, a dozen clothes pins, three pens that don't work, one flashlight, one sock, 7 batteries, one marker with the wrong colored cap, four markers with no caps, two hairbands, an empty match book, 5 bottle caps, one walkie-talkie, a handful of rubber bands, 3 thumb tacks, a plethora of nails, screws, marbles, coupons, a plastic thing that might be an important part to something, a tupperware lid, $1.79 in loose change, a spring, two superballs, a rock, a wishbone, a crumbling stick of incense, a packet of carrot seeds, beads, popcorn kernels, a stick of gum (wrapped), a piece of hard candy (unwrapped), a dandruff rimmed comb, a feather, an expired driver's license.

Where did it all come from? Mostly, from the other side of the world, no doubt. Where will it all go? Just thinking of the great effort that I will have to exert to get everything to a proper resting place exhausts me. What are the chances that these playing cards will ever complete a full deck?  What are the chances that the CDs are not too scratched to play?  Surely the batteries are no longer good.  Why not just pitch the whole thing in the garbage?  No one will ever miss any of it.  The batteries, though, give pause.  Everyone knows they shouldn't go in the landfill. I pluck them from the box and then what?  A-ha! That old jelly jar I set aside for just such a purpose. But where did I find to save it for just such a purpose? The kitchen would have been logical, though I remember not wanting to risk it getting swept back into the mix of abundant and sundry glassware. Maybe I put it in the bedroom, on top of the bookshelf, perhaps, or maybe the bathroom, under the sink. Just as likely, back in another box. But even if I do find the jelly jar, what then? We throw batteries in for a few months, until we get bored with being so organized, or the jar gets misplaced, or it fills up and we have no idea what to do with it then, so we stick it on some shelf so that, years hence, when we move again, we can pack it away in a box of household miscellanea to be moved to a new place where I will, when confronted with the sorting task, consider throwing it all in the trash, until recalling what everyone knows, that batteries don't belong in the landfill.

*Journal cover drawing by Josh Kurz


Bigsley and Bernadette: New Age Wisdom

"Hey, what's going on over there? You sick or something? I haven't heard a peep out of you for hours. Not like you're a gasbag to begin with, but it's getting kind of lonely over here, you know?"  Bigsley landed on a branch in Bernadette's tree to get a closer look. "Are you kidding?  Meditation?  Just think about it for a second. Empty your mind? Where does that get you? Tagged by the DNR and gobbled up by the cat, that's where.  If you want to stay alive, you've got to be alert. And I'll tell you this, Sweet Heart. You've got to be firing on all cylinders if you want to be alert. You've got to activate every thought you've ever had.  I swear. The crazy ideas people come up with these days.  Like all this bird turd about breathing. It's involuntary, Baby. Get it? I don't need to pay attention to it because my body does it for me without me having to think about it. Brilliant! So why waste a perfectly good afternoon thinking about something as boring as your breath when you could be hanging out with me?"


It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

On the fourth of July, I thought it appropriate 
to celebrate our true American spirit 
by taking the girls to the mall. 
 I brought my camera along, 
thinking I might get inspired to do a photo essay.  
I took just one picture:

It didn't occur to me
until late the next afternoon
that the sign meant something
other than I imagined:



Bigsley and Bernadette: Self-Evaluation.

"Look, I'm well aware of how knock-kneed I am, okay?  It runs in my father's family," Bigsley said.  "I'm just a little disappointed that you would allow something so shallow to prevent us from being friends.  I thought you were different from the other birds, I really did."

Bernadette informed him that his feet are sillier looking than his knees.

"My feet?  What's wrong with my feet?"

"They're kind of crooked, don't you think?"

"All the better to hold on with, Baby!  Besides, some of the most famous birds in all history had disturbingly crooked feet."

"Like who?" asked Bernadette.

But Bigsley, who had never performed well under that kind of pressure, felt his bird brain freeze shut and all the confidence drain from him.  "Abraham Lincoln," he blurted because it was the only famous name he could access under such strain.

Bernadette felt that maybe it was better not to point out that Abraham Lincoln was no bird.


All American White Girl

My parents always say I would have made a good pilgrim.

Maybe they are right.

I often wonder what it would have been like, 

To cross the vast depths of prairie
in an early 1800's covered wagon

How to begin to imagine the seas of bison?

The first sight of mountains,

The encounters with strange humans,

The deaths and hardships,

The building of a myth.

How curious

That here I sit, nearly a dozen generations since,

Amongst this patch of houses,

Connected by a massive grid of electricity and cement.


Am I here?

Why this life and not another?

How much more time until I'm gone?

Returning to where I came from,

That dearly held secret.

For here I reside

Amongst this strange cacophony of wonder.

Why me?

 Why now?


The Heart Lay Down with the Storm*

I once wrote a story about Flannery O'Connor.  The inspiration came from a March 1, 2009, New York Times Book Review of Brad Gooch's Flannery.  The article sits, yellowing, on the bookshelf behind my desk along with a couple of old love letters. Reviewer Joy Williams quotes the only man who ever kissed Flannery. He reported it was like "kissing a skeleton."

The very day I read the review, I saw an ad calling for submissions to Shenandoah’s special issue about Flannery O’Connor.  Inspired by the imagine of the kiss, I began.  But it wasn't too many days before I gave my story up for shit.  I had hundreds of story ideas in various stages of development, all given up for shit.  I could spend days on end, clicking though old files, trying to find something of mine I could stand to work on.


I had fallen into a bad pattern and realized it might be time for some professional help. I attended a four day workshop in San Francisco with a highly respected editor and 11 other needy writers from around the country. It was exhausting to realize I had just as far to go as everyone else.

I had always been scared to take a break from writing, worrying that three months would turn to six, to one year, to five.**  Still, on the plane ride home from the workshop, I decided it would be wise to take the summer off.  I made large pieces of colorful art and read Patangoli’s yoga sutras, and Vivekandanda’s The Pathways to Joy.  Many of the things I learned related directly back to my writing life.  I realized that in order to continue surviving as a writer, I would have to practice disengaging my ego from the products of my creativity.  

Meanwhile, I didn’t know what was going to happen after the kids went back to school.  I sat down at my desk and saw the note I’d made about the Shenandoah special issue and remembered the Flannery story I'd started.  By lucky chance, because of its nifty design, I had recently bought James Wood's How Fiction Works. Every night, I read a few pages, and every day, I wrote a little bit more on the Flannery story, convincing myself not to abandon it. 

The ending finally came, a bit of a surprise, since I thought that there was going to be a car accident.  Instead, Auntie Nel runs off with Mordecai.  (I changed Nelson to Mordecai after realizing that the little boy in “The Artificial Nigger” is named Nelson.  Also, Biffy said Aunt Peg sounded to her like peg-leg, so she become Nelma Jean.) 

Continuing to read Flannery’s letters I decided that I had to change the beginning scene as well because she hated exercise and wouldn’t be out walking on the road.  Plus, it didn’t seem right to have her fall and then just get right up again.  From the sounds of it, she was physically pretty fragile. 

Other edits I made and noted in Origins of "The Heart Lay Down with the Storm":  

Changing “ominious car” to “fierce car” because Flannery used "fierce" to describe most everything in her first novel Wise Blood, from Hazel’s hat to Enoch’s grip, to a little girl’s face. 
“Her stories. . . they spoke to me.” Mordecai said, but I changed it to “. . . they spooked me” because that’s what I heard in my mind every time I read it. 
I added the line, “She didn’t look as smart as he’d anticipated,” after discovering Flannery describe how a man came up to her after a reading to say exactly that. 

*Rejected by Shenandoah, One Story, Missouri Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Boulevard, Narrative, American Short Fiction, Kore Press, Santa Fe Writer's project, Georgia College and State University Press, Oxford American.

**Would that be so bad? Why is quitting so impossible?


Undated Journal Entry (2007?)

"And here another fleeting moment I long to capture, the coffee, the chocolate, the sunny afternoon, just waiting, for nothing, listening to the dry leaves of the elm, spreading the crinkling of the wind and the haunting chirps of killdeer, robin, sparrow, cardinal.  One daughter asleep on my shoulder, Eleanora on the deck floor, a latticework of shadow across her face as her curls vibrate around her serious expression as she cuts a rubber band, draws imaginary letters on index cards, arranges the papers from her supply box.  I begin a story by Peter Taylor, never read him before, but not three pages in am moved to put it down and write my own something, which used to be so easy, but now that I am out of habit feels awkward, like yoga class last night when everything felt awkward, telling people how to move their bodies in a silent room.  So quickly the vague inspiration fades, and I am here in the wind with a girl on my shoulder and a pen in my hand"

Today, after sending the two oldest on a scavenger hunt by the river, rewarded with lunch at a greasy diner a half mile north of here (as long as they walk) (a thing that only could have happened with the youngest at a friend's* since I don't feel quite comfortable yet sending her on such a long excursion with the others even though she is powerful enough to prevent the entire event if she is not included), finally, I sit on the porch with pen and notebook and write, as I so rarely do, it seems, anymore, so caught up in the blog and improv.  I haven't encountered a book for a while that has driven me to not read it in order to write. And because of that, I've been finishing more books lately and am so glad I renewed I am an Executioner** instead of returning it because for the last two nights, I've discovered strange and wonderful stories there.  Last Thursday morning, I lost my voice in yoga class, so proceeded in silence. It seemed to work out alright.  I never would thought to have done that in 2006. Now, I sit on the porch with a pen in my hand and notebook in my lap, alongside the pollinating bees and birds' songs, not knowing a killdeer from a swan.

*Thanks, Jen.

**Love stories by Rajesh Parameswaran