Climbing Ghazal

Below I play around with the ghazal form. Play around like this: I keep the long-lined couplets and the melancholy / spiritual tone. I think of the spiritual side of ghazals to be reaching but not quite touching, because we can’t know it all.

A few days before I tried writing a ghazal, climber Dean Potter died in Yosemite. I read about his death and watched video of him climbing. I think all of us have a part that wants to climb or sail or run long enough the world around goes quiet. In college I knew a couple of climbers who had plans to go west after graduation, to climb. One of those young men gave me his copy of Into The Wild which made me hungrier for a nomadic life and wide skies. So while writing this ghazal I thought about Dean Potter and the climbers I knew in college and my unfulfilled wish to be so strong, bold and wild enough.

As happens sometimes, my faith works its way into this draft too:

For Dean Potter And Others

The elegance appeals: Eden form on granite wall,
carrying only chalk, only one meal in the belly

He anchored mortality on a rope between two rocks,
stepping barefoot heel to toe, looking down, breathing hard

Make it spiritual: leave comfort money family for this
carved chipped pressed rock. Cling like clinging to Jesus

All we do is climb higher for a better view
thinner air, clearer mind. We are almost there

Break and bleed my sweet body. I am bored
of being so comfortable and afraid. Show me better

Tell me what you find on the face when you look up
or down, when you could be gone from this earth

Right now, I can’t have what you have: nothing. But a
view of the valley, wide sky, the moment before

Naming Names

For years, whenever I needed a character name I defaulted to names like


I favored single syllable names, even shortening Elaine to Laine for a piece I wrote years ago. I’m in recovery now. I pick names like

Elena, shortened to Lena

with two syllables. Give me five years and I’ll add a three syllable guest to the party.

Today I heard about a What Your Name Would Be quiz and thought: character names! I gave my name, birth year and sex and found out Mom would have named me Sandra if I’d been born in the 1950s and Ethel if I’d been born in the 1890s. Today I’d be Ava. I put in my daughter’s name and have another thirteen names to choose from: Kendra, Jaunita, Marion, Beulah, Ollie. Grant, my son, got me Patrick, Ramon, Felix, Sol and Archibald. Archibald! My husband’s name yielded Kyle, Travis, Terry, Lawrence and Eugene. (Also Jack, one of my favorite standby character names).

There you go. Need a character name? Take what a quiz spits.

Blind Contour Drawing

I saw Sam Anderson’s Letter of Recommendation in the NYTimes Magazine today and spent the last few minutes of writing practice doing a blind contour drawing of a classroom window. Then I told my students to try it. Blind contour drawing reminds me of writing exercises: loosen up, don’t worry what the product looks like. Instead, attend your process. Pay attention. Today I noticed the painted hinges on the window panes and the bunched curtains at either side. I’ve stared up at that window all semester but today, drawing it, I looked closely.

And when I looked down at the page, what delight! as Anderson notes in his letter. There were all the parts of the window in a floating order. It was a window, but off, like it might shuffle its parts again, put another pane in the curtains, add a hinge to the sky.

Try it yourself, perhaps as an opening to your next writing practice. Choose an object nearby and draw it without looking down at your page. Be quick about it or take your time. Practice observation. Purposely choose imperfection.

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

This exercise is by Jon Simmerman, included in The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Open the poem with the first project and close it with the last. Otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like, giving each project at least one line. Try to use all twenty projects. Feel free to repeat those you like. Fool around. Enjoy.

And below is my latest try, but with explanation first. This week there was a rumor that a teacher at another school was deported for driving without a license. That is within the law and expats are deported for that offense, but this was the first time I’d heard of a Western expat deported for that reason. Turns out, this expat wasn’t deported, only held overnight. I started thinking what I would do if I were picked up and taken to the deportation center, made to board a plane without a phone call to Justin. I started thinking why this teacher was allowed to stay in-country. Because he was Western? (Was he Western? I don’t actually know. I assume.) Because his employer lobbied on his behalf? I don’t know.

Also, ethnicity and socioeconomic status put a tag on people. I think this happens everywhere. Sometimes seeing people as equal is conscious work. (Change my heart!) I am uncomfortable with how noticeably differently I am treated as a white Western woman. My skin and nationality play more in my favor here than not, but I don’t like that. Or more so, I don’t like that I sometimes like what leniency white Western gets me. (Forgive me.)

So with all of that rolling around my head, and the challenge of (mostly!) completing twenty little poetry projects, the following draft:

By Way Of Deportation

My legs are roots
this chair a cliff ledge

I sit so still my thighs hurt,
my bladder burns

Around me: gray hum, sparks of yellow orange
when an Indian woman shouts like a song

If I move I will wet my pants

If I am released
there is a God
or wasta, Inshallah

I am called across the room
to an office where I sit across
from a man smoking a bored cigarette

The full knowledge of power
is sitting still and not wetting my pants
Easy-peasy, as my son says
Easy-pee-sy Sarah can hold it
in this windowless holding room
under fluorescent day/night

You’re the one who got caught?
No license? He smokes,
considers my tight pressed knees

I haven’t got a lie

I have one lie

Deportation as escape:
no last anything:
no last drive down Gulf Road
no last shwarma
no last sign-in at work

I don’t lie
I sit. He shifts
He lectures, I hear

Every year hundreds of brown-skinned
workers are relieved to be deported so
quickly and efficiently that suitcases and
passports are unnecessary, and you –

Equality by way of deportation

I will make it all the way to Chicago,
all the way to Kathryn, without crying

And you –

I sit long enough, white enough, that
he stubs his cigarette, lights another,
sighs, waves his hand, dismisses me

My bladder screams when I stand
I get a cot
no phone
no toilet paper
I get a morning taxi to my husband,
who is angry and relieved,
my children who cry

I might be over the Atlantic now
if I’d shouted or wet my pants
I might be drinking wine,
my ears full of gray noise

Third Culture Mom

Last week I was talking with a fellow teacher mom whose family is leaving Kuwait in June. She told me all the work involved in exiting the country. Moving necessitates a load of paperwork. (That’s the joke why Justin and I aren’t moving yet.) But moving also brings unexpected emotion. For kids too, which is what my friend and I talked about. She mentioned a book about third culture kids, which I haven’t read, and when I started listing not only my kids’ goodbyes but the ones I’d be making this year too, she said maybe I was a third culture mom. Her offhand comment got me thinking about where I belong and the unique challenges of living abroad. And so, an essay draft in its draftiest form:

One summer I took long runs from my parents’ house into the country and back through town. I ran past two houses for sale, one on a narrow country road and the other on a quiet town street. I looked at the front yards and driveways and windows thinking of picnic blankets, snow shovels and Christmas lights. If we lived there, my kids would grow up near grandparents and extended family. We could bike to the library and grocery store. Justin would have a workshop and garden. After dinner one night, I took Justin past both houses. One of them advertised an open house that weekend. You want to go? Justin asked.

What I craved from a house were friends who didn’t move away. Everything I’d been glad to leave – small town routine, especially – now had my affection. I went to my parents’ church and saw high school classmates with their own families now. I imagined how my life and theirs might overlap, how our kids might go to school together. I imagined finding a place in the community, staying for decades, maybe even watching my students come back to buy a house on the middle lot of a quiet street they’d wanted to leave too.

Finding a place underlies why I wanted to leave. And now I wish I was planted where neighbors remember when I had a paper route or knew my siblings well enough to ask after them.

One year I said goodbye to three dear friends in as many months. Two years of significant farewells followed. I started to think I couldn’t do this anymore. Last August I went to bed early while Justin joined a potluck of new and returning staff. I could think of nothing worse than answering where I was from and what I was teaching a dozen times, speed-dating for friends. One of my close friends (also leaving this June) thinks that means I’m ready to go too. I’m not sure. Maybe I reached an emotional pause. Like, I am full of dear friends right in front me and can’t take any more on board.

That’s selfish. So as the year went on, I learned better. Or am trying better. I want to love the one I’m with. I want to be present with the friend in front of me. Sometimes this means sidetracked conversation as babies, toddlers and kids weave around us. Sometimes this means I know this friend best in the courtyard or out for breakfast or before morning bell. What I’ve recognized is a wealth of relationships pouring into my day.

This June I am saying goodbye to a core of women who give me grace and wisdom (and laughter, recipes, books). I am afraid I won’t know how to be sad in a healing way. I am afraid I’ll count all my friendships lost, that the daily momentary relationships don’t add to anything sustaining and I’m silly to think so. I am afraid I’ll want to buy a house this summer only to find that there isn’t a good place for me there either. I am afraid I am running short on my allotment of dear friends.

Once I asked another mom friend what she found most difficult about being a mom. At the time, with an infant and toddler, I found nearly everything difficult. But she didn’t say sleeplessness or inexplicable grief or potty training. She said the most difficult thing about being a mom was spending time with people you wouldn’t choose. (I think she was talking about me). Being an expat can be like that, too, when we are finding our way through new cities, foods, currencies and norms, when what we need most is the stability and laughter friendship can give. So let’s try to like each other a lot.

Which is why June remains a unique heartbreak for me. Because I like you a lot, without trying. And because my sad heart will think it’s safer to stay closed or buy a house in Wisconsin. When August comes Justin (excited about meeting people he has everything or nothing in common with) will want to go to the welcome potluck. Fine, I’ll say, Give me a minute. I’ll go to the bathroom and put on mascara and lip balm, a spray of perfume, and head downstairs with my family. I’ll open up enough to tell as many people as ask that I’m from Wisconsin and I teach high school English. Yeah, I’ll say, Those are my two kids running around over there. I’ll open up enough to trust dear friends will come.

It’s What I Do By Lynsey Addario

I read It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life Of Love And War by Lynsey Addario in two or three days. I had similar awe and envy as years ago when I read  Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by Arlene Blum, about the 1978 all-women team of climbers making their ascent of Annapurna I. I at once want that life experience and am grateful for others’ commitment, risks and exploration.

I appreciated Addario’s work before I knew who she was. In particular, her spread of Afghan women for National Geographic. Reading It’s What I Do helped me understand how Addario works, returning to stories over a long time so that she can create a body of work that speaks more fully. That process reminds me of writers or documentary makers who pour into a single narrative for years until the end is a story for us absorb.

Absorb. That’s what I like about strong photography. Thinking pictures. I like seeing people and places and situations that aren’t mine but also are, as I return to the photo multiple times to wonder or empathize or question.

Perhaps because I’m in the region, I connected to her experience working in Iraq during the invasion and her more recent return to photograph Yazidis fleeing persecution. Her book covers her learning curve as a photographer and dedication to truth telling as well as the emotional toll of war zones and deadlines, an immediacy she knows on one side of the line that most of us miss until editors okay a print. And there’s love! As promised in the title, she tells about meeting her husband and choosing to start a family. In the middle, she loses war reporter colleagues (family in the field, really) and is kidnapped twice. After over a decade of work, she is recognized as one of the best photographers today and now balances a husband and child with her time covering events most of us learn from headlines. Go to Addario’s site and take a look at her work. Pick up her book and read. Be glad there are people like Lynsey Addario to show us so many stories.

For an audio peek into Addario’s work, check out Radiolab’s “Sight Unseen.”

Recent Reads: One God Book, One Parenting Book

First, the God book. I parse my issues. I like to know the root. I think about what I need to give up or forgive or atone for. So I picked up Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero after a pastor I listen to recommended it.. Despite spirituality being in the title, I need to note that Scazzero writes from Christian perspective, holding that Christians have deep spiritual needs we must address if our desire is to live our faith more fully. Scazzero spends the first chunk of his book assuring readers it’s okay to have feelings. This really cracked me up because I have loads of feelings all the time. But there’s a lot we don’t like to look at or take our time getting to and I respect that. I can be very insecure about some things or feel like I don’t belong and I’d like to know why I wobble in those ways when I am fully accepted in Christ. I’d like to know why there are times when God’s love isn’t quite enough but an invitation from ___ would make my day.

My suggestion (and Scazzero’s too, I think) is to read the book slowly. He leads us through ways to understand why we act (or react) as we do – depending on family, our understanding of God, personal expectations. He writes with patience, acknowledging that growing in our faith takes time and that uncovering hurts or roots of behaviors and beliefs can be difficult, even if necessary. The last part of the book gives a range of ideas about how we can nourish a daily spiritual life. One suggestion I am practicing is the Daily Office, a tradition kept by monks that I also see reflected in the call to prayer here: simply stopping three to five times a day to be quiet in the presence of God. I am not disciplined in this yet. But one way I take time to pray and listen is by turning off the car radio while I drive. It isn’t the same as meditation, but can reset my mind and heart.

One reason why I need to reset my mind and heart is that I have two kids I’m driving home to. Which brings me to All Joy And No Fun by Jennifer Senior. Great book. I read it because I guessed that any woman who admitted she’d turned out okay on a childhood diet that included processed food would probably not heap guilt on my parenting choices. I also read it because I’m a parenting trends junkie after failing to totally love my role as mom. Early in parenting, uncertainty led to comparison which led to frustration, anger and, eventually, bitterness that I’d married and borne children at all.

(See above, issues!)

I was wading through love and hate in a single day. I read about parenting, found a few parenting podcasts, talked with other moms, begged for patience and wisdom. I still have parenting insecurities even if I am more satisfied in marriage and family. But when I started Senior’s book, I still hoped for validation, that I am doing okay. That I sought validation from a book about today’s (insanely over-involved) parenting culture and why said culture may promote personal / social / familial imbalances tells me I need to return to prayer re: security, wisdom. So reading the book made me feel a little smug that I am, at least, uninterested in falling into the overscheduled-too-attached-high-stakes parenting that’s so so so North America right now.

Except, once the book was done, my smugness went thin again and I’m back to a Daily Office, hoping wisdom and peace and joy fall fast.