She rounded the curve and saw that water covered the road ahead. Her father always told her, “Don’t drive into water.” At the time, it had seemed too obvious, “Of course I won’t drive into water. Who would drive into water?” But at that moment, staring at the highway, there was no way to tell how deep it was. Should she risk it? This was the only route she knew, and to turn back now would mean returning to where she had started. And then what? She moved her foot from the brake to the gas pedal, but her father’s voice came through again, “Don’t drive into water”—almost as if he sat next to her, in the passenger seat. His voice was that clear. She looked to her right, close to believing he would be there. Of course he wasn’t. She had just that morning stood at his closet staring at his shirts hanging there. They made her cry, as if they had life, as if the sleeves would rise up and wrap her into the kind of hug only he could give. “Don’t drive into water”—there was that voice again. His unmistakable cadence. “No more crying, damn it,” she said aloud, even as the tears welled up. She stared ahead at the road, her windshield wipers clacking, the rain steady and relentless. She should listen to her father; she knew that. But in that instant of rain and clouds and memory, she hit the gas. She drove right into the water. She heard its swoosh under her tires, felt the pull of its power underneath the car. Through it all, the tires stayed on the road. The car made it to the other side, where she could see the pavement and the yellow line, where she could keep going to God knows where now that the world had changed forever.
“I think I got mine,” Jamie said.
“Got your what?” Opal asked.
The back door would not open. She stood on the inside turning the knob, pulling on the door. It would not open.
So she called a man who knows about doors. He came over and looked at it.
She watched from her window as the snow fell. Actually, it flew that day. The wind blew flakes sideways and upside down until everything was covered—even fences and signs and windows. And when she stepped outside and into it, she marveled at just how much the landscape had changed. Curbs were now huge mounds of plowed snow. Mountains, really. Trees and bushes were now white creatures, bent low and heavy. There were no longer streets or sidewalks—the world had gone white and vast and pathless. She looked down and noticed that her feet with their red boots had all but disappeared in the deep snow—her red hat and mittens the only color for as far as she could see. Gray sky matched gray trunks and blended into the deep, snowy ground. She looked for the horizon, but it did not exist. She dug her woolen hands into the snow and out of it molded a ball. She held the ball in the palm of her red mitten, and then she laid it on a drift. It should have disappeared, white upon white, but instead it glittered. The snowball glowed back at her, full of promise or loss—a crystal ball waiting out the storm.
Here’s a little piece I extracted and revised from something I was working on years ago—a piece of another novel.
They called her Four-Eyes. She didn’t care for the name; in fact, had another perfectly good one that her parents had given her. Still, her peers insisted on calling her Four-Eyes. The girl, almost blind from birth, had to wear corrective lenses so thick they made her eyes appear to throb behind them. It didn’t help matters that she was fat, that her parents were fat, and that they all lived on what was considered Willowood’s wrong side of the tracks.
The bare trees covered the hillside, and from a distance, it looked as if the hill was covered in fur. Funny that way—how hard branches soften. She drove a stretch of Vermont highway that even in the fall can ice over in spots. Her dog Gray slept beside her in the passenger seat. He curled up face to tail, and occasionally she laid her hand on his belly just to feel the slow rise and fall of his breath. She pulled the car off an exit and made her way down a back road and then to a dirt road. The tires hit ruts and bumps. Gray woke up then, propped himself on his hind legs, and looked out the window.
“Wanna take a walk?” she asked.
Opal looked out the window. A gray overcast filled the sky. Leaves hung on trees—orange, yellow, red. She watched one fall. It twirled and almost seemed to shine against the dark day.
She put on her red jacket and her brown shoes.
Here’s another Opal story. I’m still exploring her character. My friend Rita’s new play, which features the character of Death, influenced this piece.
Opal watched from inside looking out. Droplets hung in beads on the window pane. Rain flooded the street in front of her house and soon became a brown river rushing down the pavement, shiny under the cloudy sky.
This story was inspired by a baby cat bird that nested in my back yard blueberry bush. I had never heard of cat birds until this little guy showed up in my life.
Along one path in the woods, the girl tripped over a tree’s root. She fell onto the dirt, and her hands caught her. Shaken by the fall, she stayed seated on the packed ground in the shade of the tree that tripped her. She scooted back and leaned on its trunk. She looked up at the leaves—autumn red and ready to drop. In fact, some of those leaves scattered around her on the cool earth.
It started with a burning in her throat. Not long after, Liddy opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Nothing. Not a squeak, not a crack, not a rasp, not a word.
“I cannot find my voice,” she wrote in big letters on a piece of paper.
For years Faith had felt thunder inside her—a storm waiting to break. It was all so uncomfortable and exhausting, but no one had ever taken it seriously.
Until one day when Dr. Noah examined her. “Looks like we’ll have to open you up.”
Opal leaned against the mailbox, trying to catch her breath.
What was she supposed to do now? Her choices seemed so completely hopeless. She could either go back home, but that would just mean packing her things and staying with Aunt Mildred until Aunt Frances recovered. Opal had been there before, and she didn’t want to do it again.
Opal had no choice but to phone Aunt Mildred and tell her about Aunt Frances.
Opal missed the days, not that long ago, when Aunt Frances had a snack waiting for Opal after school—usually an apple muffin and a glass of milk or a piece of pound cake and a cup of weak tea. And then the two of them would pile onto the couch and watch late afternoon talk shows. When the news came on, Aunt Fran and Opal prepared dinner: toast and scrambled eggs or red beans and rice.
Aunt Frances appeared to retreat deep into the couch, the TV providing the only light in the room. Opal sighed. She put her hand on Aunt Frances’ arm. But Aunt Frances kept her eyes on the TV. Blank eyes. They were not really looking at anything. Or maybe, Opal thought, they were looking inside instead of out.
It used to be that Aunt Frances’ spells only lasted a day or so and then she would be back to her old self—wanting to plan hikes and camp outs and movie dates. But lately, the spells lasted longer than her good days, and Opal had taken on the duties of housecleaning, answering the phone, and cooking dinner.
Opal Fenster wanted an aisle seat, but they were all taken. Opal insisted on sitting at the edge of most anything and could not be bothered to crawl over feet and legs only to land in what surely felt like prison.
Ms. Esterholt, the principal of Table Mesa Junior High School, stood at the podium tapping on a microphone.
Opal Fenster was trying to get comfortable in a sleeping bag on the side of a mountain on a cold December night. Her Aunt Frances said, “Camping builds character,” but Opal wasn’t buying it. Character could be found in a book or on a TV show, as far as Opal could see.
“Ouch!” she cried out as her spine landed on a rock.
The little girl kicked at the leaves in the gutter. All the way down the street and back up the other side, she waded through the stream of orange, red, and yellow. She liked how the leaves cracked and rattled. She liked how, when the wind blew, they jumped off the ground in groups, swirling and dancing, finally landing back on the street. One or two still clung to branches, as if they might escape their fate below.
Soon the neighbors would pile their leaves into bags and send them away somewhere. The little girl hated when that happened. The colors looked like jewels on the ground and in the sky. She wanted them to stay forever.
She wanted to eat everything—the meat, the sauce, the bread, the greens, even the cake. She wanted it all. And still, she wanted more. After the wine, after the long sleep, she woke hungry and waiting. Her belly was a cave—damp and yawning, longing for one single shaft of light.
And then one day, the hunger stopped. The waiter brought her apples and cheeses and breads. They sat uneaten on the table. A slice of cake, its icing rich and full, remained on her plate. The cave of her belly seemed satisfied in its emptiness.
The ocean showed its restless side. Waves leapt against the gray sky. The late morning sun lingered behind the curtain of overcast air. A little girl, in her one-piece, ran barefoot on the wet sand and stopped just at the water’s edge. She backed up as the surf licked her toes.
“It’s soooo cold,” she called out. Then she laughed right into the roar of the ocean.
Loretta saw the jacket draped over the park bench. It was on her usual route from Kline Avenue down Bailey Road and then in through the gates of Clem Park and onto the dirt path that led through the hemlock grove. She looked around. Surely the jacket’s owner had just stepped away, left it there temporarily. But the dirt path showed no evidence of recent activity. Curious, she reached for the jacket, lifted it and held it out, as if she were in a shop, deciding. She liked what she saw: soft blue cotton, silver buttons, white thread on the seams and edges. She slipped it on. Just then, clouds rolled in, and the air changed. The hemlocks groaned in the wind. Loretta buttoned the jacket and pulled up the collar. Grateful for its warmth, she slipped her hands into the soft pockets, and her fingers happened upon a scrap of paper. She pulled it out—just a torn corner with the handwritten word, “Yours,” as if it were the end of a letter—the sign-off before a signature, “Yours,”—the comma hung there, as if waiting. Waiting. She searched through the pockets, hoping for more evidence, something. But that was all—the ragged edge, a piece of some letter—a story she would never know. The wind picked up. The hemlocks swayed, their tips reaching, brushing against the moving clouds. She read the word one last time, “Yours,”—and then let the scrap of paper loose on the wind.
He heard some woman humming in another room. That’s how he got to telling me about Fat Nana. He remembered how she enveloped him in her big arms and pulled him up into her ample lap.
“She hummed—all the time she hummed,” he remembered.
When the lightning came, it lit up the whole of the night. Not just the sky. In that instant, it was daylight. I got kind of disoriented like the way a pilot must when the horizon is no longer the horizon and when the instruments are more accurate than eyesight. I’m not a pilot, but that’s what I hear. And that lightning, it really did disorient me. It was like time changed gears. Like the rules were all new. Like I had a chance.
I used to watch westerns all the time, and there was always—I mean always— a “last chance” something: last chance stagecoach, last chance saloon, last chance watering hole. You name it, there’s a last chance for everything.
The dogs barked. They barked and barked. She thought they might be coyotes howling. She had heard about coyotes in neighboring areas. Out the night window, she could see the moon, barely new, like an eye closing. She waited in her chair—waited for the barking to stop, for the moon to wax, for the door to open. It would all happen with or without her. Her days moved on like scenes out a train window—blurred fence posts, momentary trees, sun and shade shifting. Her memories filtered in and out like fairy tales: the witches and their secret brews, the ogres and their thumping presence, the children searching, the woods, the hair falling down, the kiss that awakens. Mostly her mind took her where it would, sideshows of her past. What she remembered might as well be what she imagined. She settled deeper into her chair. The barking had quieted down. It was not the howling of coyotes after all. It was just dogs, out someone’s door and back in. She looked up to see the moon covered by a cloud, barely blinking in the haze.
The idea occurred to Bob at work while he sat at his desk. Out the office window, he noticed a shadow on the sidewalk. The shadow made it seem as if the cement had a gaping hole in it. And for the first time in a long time, Bob felt a sense of hope—of anticipation even. Even when the light changed, and the hole that was not really a hole vanished, Bob could not quit thinking about it.
When he got home, he found his shovel and went out to the front yard to dig. When he was done digging his hole, he sat on his porch and looked out at his handiwork. He still had dirt under his fingernails and blisters on his hands from shoveling. It was all very satisfying.
It rained. It rained and rained. It rained so hard the windows cried. It rained so hard the roof thundered. It rained for so many days the girl no long believed in the sun, no longer believed in the light. The rain came down so hard, it knocked leaves off of trees. It splattered dirt out of flowerbeds. It even took blooms off of branches, leaving red and yellow memories on the slick pavement.
And so she went out into it. All around her people scurried for doorways and bus stops. Some held umbrellas turned inside out in the wind. Some held newspapers over their heads. But she did none of these things. Instead, she stood perfectly still. She waited while the water soaked her clothes, her hair, her skin. She felt the weight of all that water, as if she might become rooted there on that city street.
“The brain has corridors”
She moved from street to street, from building to building, from floor to floor. She had done this for more years than she cared to count. In fact, she had grown tired of counting: one year became five became fifteen and twenty as fast as fists could unfold. The passage of time exhausted her, felt like running in place, eyes blinking, clouds covering the sun.
Those who knew her commented how the color of her skin matched the dry Missouri dirt she walked upon. They worried when the drought came. They watched the dirt open and crack. You could pick up pieces and crumble it in your hands. Dirt powder, everyone called it. And then they noticed her skin, just as thirsty as the earth, took on the same appearance. She tried to explain, but her parched throat would not let her. She tried to cry, but her tear ducts had gone dry.
Those who remember say her skin ached for water. That kind of thirst can cause damage—can keep the crops from growing, the tourists from coming. That kind of thirst can kick up dust that covers everything: houses, fields, cars—a thin film just enough to coat the windows and change the look of any day.
“Stay there, until you see
You are gazing at the Light
With its own ageless eyes.” —Rumi
She was cleaning out the attic when she found the lamp, its blue ceramic base chipped, its white shade yellowed with age. All morning she had been tossing old clothes and dishes: uncluttering her life.
All winter long she watched the same tree. She could see it out her back window, its branches stark and spare. A cup of coffee warmed her hands as she watched the birds perch and chatter to the gray sky. She made a game of counting them and waiting as they flew off one by one to some other tree in some other neighborhood where someone else in some other house could see them framed through a window. Sometimes the tree limbs reminded her of bones, as if the tree were a skeleton in the February air.
One day, she sat at her usual spot and forgot to look out. Another day happened like that. She looked down instead—at a crossword, at an article, at a spill on the counter that needed her attention. Until a morning when the light came in just so, and she finally looked out. The bones had gone. Green leaves crowded the sky. She could barely see the birds through all that green. She could hear them though—singing their spring songs.
All I knew was that I had to hurry. My muscles tensed. My blood rushed. I wasn’t even sure why. I rolled forward into the night. I pushed through the crowded city street. My own heartbeat fell in with the footsteps, the car horns, the tires thumping down the avenue. I was outside in and inside out. We all blended—all the beats and the clangs and the whines. My pulse was no longer my own. I had lost the rhythm.
And then it happened. The staircase must have been there all along, and I missed my step. I tumbled down. I heard myself clatter and clack. I saw the air turn. And I landed alone in a clump at the bottom of the stairs. A dim light gleamed over a closed door. The outside rhythms had stopped. There was no push inside. No rush outside. I lay there a long time, at the bottom of that staircase, waiting for a pulse. My own steady beat. My own. Steady. Beat.
She noticed a big house reflected in the pond: an exact upside down replica with windows, a front door, and faded red paint. She could even see the half-closed curtains. It was as if the house were built inside the water.
She sat on the pond’s edge and took off her shoes and socks. She let her feet plop right between the curtains. She slid down further over the edge and then down into the watery window.
The little girl sat on the stoop and looked out across the flat land to the place where the sun sat half circle on the horizon. She waited. She wanted to feel the earth turn.
She heard yesterday that the sun did not really rise in the sky. “The sun neither rises nor sets,” her teacher said. “It stays still, and the earth rolls around it.”
It was enough to make her crazy—the constant yearning for something she could not name. She saw glimpses of it—in the smile of a new friend, in the tree limbs scraping the sky, in the lone crocus on her lawn—glimpses that just made her want it more.
The wind picked up, and the clouds crawled in. And when the rain began, she listened to its steady beat on the roof. She watched it cry down the windowpanes. She imagined herself on an old raft, a dog at her side, letting the water take her down the river of her street and out into some new adventure.
The man sits on the subway. His elbow rests on the small ridge of window. His chin rests on his hand. Outside his window, tunnel gray and underground blurs rush by. He is Watercolor on Newsprint, 1962. I stand in a gallery watching him through a wooden frame; he is my window. I feel as if I know him—his tan coat, his brown boots, his deep eyes resting and open.
I leave the gallery. I step out onto wet pavement. I walk through the puzzle of parked cars. My ears fill with horns and the steady swish of tires on slick roads. I walk down stairs and under the city. I wait for the E Train, and when it comes, the doors slap open. I feel the breeze and bump of other riders—the dance of step off, step on. I find a seat. My elbow finds its place. My face leans into my hand. Outside is tunnel gray—underground blurs rush by. I am watercolor. I am fading.
Once there was a girl who lived with her stepfather in a house on the edge of the wood. “Your mother has left us both alone. It is your fault she is gone,” the stepfather told the girl. On a table next to the girl’s bed sat a lamp in the shape of a tree with roots for legs and a leaf-painted shade. The girl had a small memory of her mother giving her the tree-lamp. So at night before sleeping, the girl talked to the lamp: “You are my light. Please protect me.”
One day on her way home from school, the girl stopped by the stream that ran by the path. The sun shone down through tree limbs, and the stream called out to the girl. So the girl took off her shoes and waded in. The sky grew dark, and the girl, forgetting her shoes, ran home.
“What can I do for you?” The doctor rolled his chair so that he sat facing me.
“My eyes,” I said. “They hurt.”
I heard the tiniest of heartbeats. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. It wasn’t a Tell-Tale heartbeat, nothing frightening like that. This heartbeat had a soothing rhythm. From what I could tell, the beat came from the trunk of an old tree just off the path where I had been walking. I approached the trunk and put my ear up to its grooves. I listened. No heartbeat. I waited, and then I heard it again—faint, in the distance. A little faster now. Badumpbadumpbadump. I followed the sound and ended up at another tree—this one full of crows and their caw caw cawing. “Shhhh,” I called out. “I am listening for a heart.” One of the crows looked down at me and laughed, or that’s how I perceived it. The crows flew off one by one, and I waited for the heartbeat. When it finally started up again, it seemed to be coming from underneath the snow. So I dug down with my mittened hands. No heart. I sat completely still. Me. The snow. The tree. The crows cawing in the distance. And then I heard it again. But this time, I did not go searching. I sat still. I did nothing. I just listened.
Jules reached inside for a quarter or a tissue or a chapstick. Anything. Her pockets were empty. Not even a lucky rock. As a rule, Jules never left home with empty pockets. It was a thing she had. Pockets were meant to hold stuff. To make up for their emptiness, she put her hands there. A passerby kept his head down, his own hands lost inside his overcoat. In fact, all the passersby, men and women, looked just the same: sad, drawn, a bit lost. Jules could barely stand the gloom of it all—the gray sidewalk, the overcast sky, the cold air. Her empty pockets seemed even emptier. And so she dug deeper and deeper. She wanted to find something—anything. And finally, there it was, in the deepest recess of her pocket: a clear marble, the tiniest of crystal balls. Jules stood there, in the middle of the crowded city sidewalk and held the transparent orb in the palm of her hand. And people stopped to see what was there, what might be in store, what the future might hold. People needed something, however small, that was clear and round and easy to carry. Something to keep forever in their pockets.
I have been reading Aesop’s Fables and playing around with the form. I’m having trouble coming up with a moral to this story. One idea is “even a beggar knows good trash from bad.” Any other ideas?
The day had been long. Grace entered the dark kitchen looking for food. She found a box of cereal and poured some into a bowl. She carried the bowl, some milk, and a spoon with her to the couch where she settled in amongst the pillows. She aimed the remote at the TV, turned it on, then poured some milk into her bowl, watching the cereal change as she did. The TV lit the dark room, and Grace looked up to see a teenage girl lying in a hospital bed—her face wounded and distorted. An interviewer stood over her. Apparently they were in Afghanistan. The interviewer said, “Why do you think the men poured on acid on you?” The teenage girl with the damaged face said simply, “They do not want girls to go to school.” Grace put her cereal bowl down on the coffee table. She leaned into the TV light. The girl with the damaged face looked right at Grace. It seemed that way. It really did. And then the light changed. The image switched to a commercial about some man throwing a crystal ball at a vending machine. When the vending machine broke open, the man laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed so loud that Grace had to turn down the volume. The man who threw the crystal ball laughed right at Grace. It seemed that way. Grace switched channels hoping to find the teenage girl who just wanted an education. But Grace could not find her anywhere.
The cold air made her car cough. She followed the same path daily. Up the curvy road, over the hill, past the farm stand. Overnight, the temperatures had dipped to below zero. Even the pavement seemed harder. It occurred to her, just briefly, that nothing could live under such circumstances. Of course she knew that was absurd. Here she was breathing, driving. Still, the confinement of her coat—the static electricity of her scarf—made it all seem so plodding and old. It would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, to give in to hypothermia—that sweet, dark sleep? Before leaving the house, she had seen a cardinal in a backyard tree. A male—deep red against the snow. “Aren’t you cold?” she called through window. She stared a long time at its tiny body tucked neatly between branches of a Norway Spruce. Not a single feather shivered. Not one. And then, driving on that familiar road, she looked to her right and noticed a stream just beyond the local farm stand. Why hadn’t she noticed it before? And there upon it swam three ducks, happy and quacking and on with their day—as if it were just that—another day.
She has been thinking about shadows lately—how they change daily, depending on the light—how they offer a weird kind of mirror, a reflection: so there’s a tree silhouetted on the side of a house, a bird in flight flat out on the pavement. That’s the thing about shadows—they don’t make sense. But they do. You know, the bird isn’t really flying on the ground, and the tree isn’t really on the side of the house. But when she studied the shadows, they seemed real enough. And that got her thinking: maybe we had it all backwards—like the shadow is the bird. The shadow is the tree. If that were the case, would everything else be illusion? The question haunted her, so she spent a whole day following her shadow—letting it be her guide. She had to trust that her shadow knew where to go and when. And of course it did; the shadow simply listened to the light. It was that simple. The whole experience calmed her down considerably.
The blizzard wind whipped swirls around the black mouse as it scurried atop the snow, finally slipping under the tiny crack at the base of a garage door. “Great,” Lou thought as she shoveled more snow off the driveway, “Now it will find its way into the house.” And that night—New Year’s Eve night—Lou dreamed of that black mouse, curled up and sleeping on a towel in the entryway—a towel she had put down to protect the wood floor from her snowy boots. In the dream, the mouse purred. And when the mouse awoke, it stood and stretched like a dog. Lou watched it from some distance. Was she even in the dream? Or was she the mouse? Dreams happened like that. And then she woke up—in the dream or from it—she wasn’t sure. Dreams happened like that, too. On New Year’s Day, she could not stop thinking about the mouse—black against the white snow—anxious to find shelter. The wind died down, and tree limbs brushed lightly against the windows. She closed her eyes and saw the mouse there—just behind her lids. “It has gone and crawled inside me,” she said aloud, not at all startled by the thought.
It was a cold and frosty morning. The boy could see his breath. Actually see it! “Look at that,” he said and blew again. His mother reached out to grab his arm—there was traffic, after all—and the streetlight was about to change.
“Hey!” he yelled. “You put your hand right in my breath?”
The day was cold. Too cold for early December. Her shoulders tensed in the air, and she hated that bulky jacket—the way it took over and became her. She looked up at the trees, completely bare now. The sky shone through their gray branches, a deeper shade of the same color. Even the asphalt matched the sky. She smiled to herself. “I am walking through a black and white photograph—even my hair and coat are gray. My corduroys are gray. It is truly a gray day.” And then she heard the wings before she saw them—almost like breath on the sky. From the sound of it, she knew the bird was large. So she expected a crow, or by some wonderful chance—a red tailed hawk. But there, against the overcast sky, a blue heron appeared—almost dinosaur-like in the cold December light. The heron moved in slow motion flight. She saw its yellow eyes, its fish-shaped throat, close enough to touch, but not really. Its colors blended right into the day, and she was happier than she began, not near as cold and maybe even ready for winter. As if anyone is ever truly ready for that.
She makes them on special occasions. Meatballs. And once you have had hers, you shun all others. It’s just the way it is. She starts first thing in the morning, mixing the meat, the cheese, the pignolis, the oil—all in a bowl. Then those old hands scoop out the perfect amount—over and over—molding the balls, dropping them into the hot skillet. You wait. You smell. You listen to the sizzle from the living room. You move closer to the kitchen doorway. You peek around the corner at the empty plate wondering when one will land there. And when it does, you are waiting with a fork. You stab it, lift it, and hold it like a lollipop—barely giving it time to cool before you bite. And she stands, hands on apron hips, watching—waiting—listening to you chew. Before the first swallow, she smiles and says, “Well? How is it?”
“If we don’t change the direction we are headed,
we will end up where we are going.”
—Chinese Proverb (found on the inside of a bottle cap)
For weeks, the leaves glittered on the trees. Now and then, an overcast sky made everything like a dream. She had this idea—that maybe, just once, autumn would stay. The leaves would hang on in that in between world—winter might happen somewhere, but not here. The trees would not have to go bare. But then one morning as usual, she took the dog out. His paws rattled through dry leaves, gone brown and dry. She did not want to look up and see the bare limbs. So she kept her head down. The dog, accustomed to his daily route up the street, aimed his nose there. But she tugged at his leash, said, “This way today.” She pointed down the hill. The dog resisted, pulled hard against the leash—even sat down, stubborn and sure of his habits. He cocked his head the way dogs do. “C’mon,” she tugged playfully at the leash. And then, also the way dogs do, he looked up at some invisible noise. Her eyes followed his gaze. And there it was—one last red leaf twirling down toward them. She reached out to catch it, but the dog was faster. He leapt, and he caught it in his mouth. The way dogs do.
On Friday, I flew from Boston to Kansas City. Then I climbed into a rented car and drove five hours west—into the sunset—toward Hastings, Nebraska.
Destination: my niece’s wedding.
I have been fascinated with the news of Ingrid Betancourt’s rescue from FARC, her Columbian captors. They kept her and many others in the jungle for seven years.
I watched her interview with Larry King the other night. She spoke haltingly. She apologized for her English. Something n her eyes caught me. She seemed both pained and impassioned. She looked—I don’t know how else to say it—like truth.
Last summer I launched my website. It has paid off in ways I could not have imagined back then. People from around the world have visited, allowing me to make connections I would not otherwise have had the chance to make. The website has also allowed me to reconnect with friends from long ago. I am grateful for both opportunities.
All that said, I cannot seem to find my stride with this learning journal. While I had hoped to give it focus, I am not convinced I have succeeded. My original goal was to “document learning moments”—to “examine my own storytelling, as it hinders and helps me along my path,” but I now see that as vague and meandering—without a clear sense of direction.
Recently, I purchased three stemless wine glasses. I wanted six, but the store only had three. One evening, I poured some chianti into one of the glasses. I drank. It was a perfect wine experience.
These glasses are not thin, as are so many wine glasses. They have a certain stability to them. And the design cut into the crystal is called “pearl”—white dots neatly aligned vertically. The 15 oz. shape fits perfectly into my small hands.
I am in New York right now. In today’s Daily News an editorial cartoon depicts Hillary staring into a mirror apparently asking “Who’s the fairest of them all?” And the mirror keeps answering back, “Barack.”
The campaign has divided women in ways I never would have expected. A good friend just sent me a petition, signed by thousands of women, who call themselves “feminists for peace and for Barack Obama!”
My older brother and I do not get along. It’s a sad story, I suppose. Both in our 50’s, we live miles apart literally and figuratively. The figurative distance started in childhood. And now, he has five children—the oldest and I have found an adult connection, one I value very much. When she was born over 20 years ago, I wrote her a story about reaching for the moon.
The other day, she wrote me a story. She is a nurse in a NICU unit. Here’s how it goes:
At a recent dinner party, a sports fan suggested to the rest of us, non-sports fans, that we would be happier people if we watched sports. “It gives you something to root for. It gives you hope,” she said.
I said, “Well, it is true, that a game is a great story—conflict, crisis, suspense, resolution.”
Avid soap opera watchers generally refer to their favorite soaps as “my story.” And my sister-in-law, over the holidays, referring to the writers’ strike and Grey’s Anatomy, said, “I miss my story.”
Where did that start? Calling a serial drama “my story”? Not a story but my story? I love that.
I was pleased to watch the film called Once about an Irish street singer/vacuum cleaner repair man and a young woman who changes his luck. What a beautiful tale of intimacy, music, and friendship. It had fairy tale qualities, but its content surprised me with its unpredictable turns.
And on a different note, but still in the folk-tale-once-upon-a-time category, I happened to watch Tim Burton’s adapation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I was so drawn to Ichabod’s Crane mixture of vulnerability and strength, and so wrapped up in the story’s theme of the rational as it comes to terms with the irrational.
I love short stories; I love reading them; I love writing them. Recently, I saw Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain.” As I watched the movie, I was viewer and reader at the same time. The movie was at once literary and visual and…well…perfect. I wonder, what makes a great short story? Raymond Carver. Alice Munro. James Baldwin. Margaret Atwood. Louise Erdrich. Flannery O’Connor. Anton Chekov. Toni Cade Bambara… When someone says, “S/he’s a master of short story writing,” how is that defined? What makes a master?
I put this out as a question to anyone who may be reading these journal entries. It occurs to me, the more I write, that I would be content just reading and writing my life away. Well, I’d like some bread and cheese and wine mixed in, perhaps some human contact, perhaps a walk in the woods, an occasional TV show—but you get my point.
As I move toward the mid-term of my teaching semester, I see how my students struggle with the complexities of writing. And maybe more to the point, I see how I struggle. The process itself, getting an idea, figuring out how to structure it, how to express it, how to communicate it. And even then, asking myself—students asking themselves: what makes it matter to anyone but me?
When I was a kid, I used to hear my father typing on his electric typewriter. I loved the sound the keys made, clicking and clacking in some perfectly imperfect rhythm. I remember sitting in his chair, one day when he wasn’t there, setting my fingers on the keys, determined to make that sound.
For homework, students read three narrative essays, two by published authors Dick Gregory and Steve Brody, and one by a student named Lisa Driver. I showed students how Brody’s piece was built on a story structure with crisis, complications, and climax. Then I asked them to analyze the structure of Gregory and Driver’s pieces, using the same language.
Next class, I hope to continue the discussion with essays that are less story-like, showing students that crisis, complications, obstacles, climax, resolution are useful devices for any type of writing. We’ll see how that goes.