Tonight. Atlanta. Kavarna. True Story. BOOM.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that the outside world and I don’t often get along, so I am not often out in it.  But tonight?  Tonight, outside world, it is ON.  I’ll be participating in Show and Tell, which was my favorite class in grammar school, and reading an essay about an awkward date and my feet at the True Story! Reading Series.  It’s at Kavarna Bar and Coffeeshop in Atlanta (well, the Decatur part of Atlanta), Georgia.  It starts at 8 and Charles McNair and Benjamin Carr are reading too, which is very exciting but also makes me feel the need to breathe into a brown paper sack.  But in, like, an awesome way.

The folks at True Story! posted an excerpt from one of my essays as an incentive.  I figured I’d double that incentive and post the next bit of the essay here.  This isn’t the essay I’m reading tonight, but it IS the story of the most traumatic moment of my grammar school life that didn’t involve gym class.  It also tells the story of why I didn’t get to go to the Young Author’s Conference in 1988, which was totally a big deal.  Also, I should let the Internet know that all of the people involved in this situation ended up totally okay.  No one’s brain actually fell out, and Christopher beat me in the egg race at Field Day every year after this.  Enjoy.

            In that second I imagined what would happen: he’d thud to the floor and look up, startled, and regret with the force of ten thousand Acts of Contrition the great and torturous pain he’d caused me for months.  I imagined that he’d look at me as if for the first time, admiring my bravery and also my ability to be bad, really bad, as bad as he and Edric and even Johnathan Damiani were at their very worst, and stand up and kiss me the way he and every other boy on the junior varsity pee-wee football team, according to rumor, kissed Jennifer Williams when no one was looking.

It started the way it was supposed to start: Christopher’s knees bent. Christopher fell.  His eyes rolled upwards and then, for a second, leftwards at me.  Then his body thudded to the floor.  And then there was another thud.  And then I realized: he had hit his head against the corner of the desk behind him.

There was motion. Miss Hanks blurred into a run from her desk to our desks, then picked up Christopher’s head.  Christopher’s eyes rolled around like he was dying.  Jennifer ran for paper towels.  Miss Hanks yelled “what the hell were you thinking” and the whole class gasped.  No one knew what was worse: Christopher dying or Miss Hanks saying hell and not meaning the place in which we could spend all of eternity suffering.  She pulled Christopher to stand and said that none of us, not a single one of us, were allowed to move or speak or anything while she was gone, and then there was the space on the floor where Miss Hanks and Christopher and his rolling eyes had been.  And then I saw it: blood.  Three small circles of blood, and inside of one of those circles, two small brown specks.  They were from his brain.  They had to be pieces of his brain.

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Hobby Lobby (An Essay)

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Listen, Hobby Lobby. You know how I feel about you. But you have GOT to stop trying to make the Thanksgiving Tree a thing. I mean, at this point, it’s just embarrassing.

Summer Reading List

This is an entry about my Summer Reading List, which is part of my effort to stop having these strange little camps of books wandering all around my apartment.

This is an entry about my Summer Reading List, which is part of my effort to stop having these strange little camps of books wandering all around my apartment.

I’m still totally jazzed about reading and books and stuff, despite the seemingly endless continued continuation of Circumstances.  I’m also jazzed about talking about reading and books and stuff.  I’m also also jazzed about finding new books to read and stuff.  Therefore, I’m posting the recently-or-close-enough-to-recently released books on my As Of Right Now (Meaning 6:58 PM On Sunday, June 30th) Summer Reading List (Subject To Shift, Change, And/Or Especially Probably Expand As Soon As 6:59 PM On Sunday, June 30th).  I’m posting this in the hope that you, Gentle Blog Visitor, will also be jazzed about reading one or more of the books on this As Of Right Now List, and that you would also be jazzed and willing to talk about them.  I’m also posting this in the hope that you, Gentle Blog Visitor, can help this list expand — I’m always looking for new reads, especially ones that others are totally jazzed about.

My As Of Right Now (Meaning 6:58 PM On Sunday, June 30th) Summer Reading List (Subject To Shift, Change, And/Or Especially Probably Expand As Soon As 6:59 PM On Sunday, June 30th)

Fuse by Julianna Baggott: Okay, I’m kind of cheating with this one, so I figured I’d put it first as a warning: this blog entry, as a whole, is probably going to be a disappointment.  Sorry.  But I do have my reasons for posting this, which are mostly related to a heartfelt desire to find other fans of the Pure trilogy willing to FREAK OUT EXTREMELY about how amazing these books are.  I mean, SERIOUSLY.  I can’t even LANGUAGE.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris: I’m cheating here, too.  Sorry.  I’m a little more than halfway through this book, though I must admit that I’m making my way through it very, very slowly.  It just doesn’t seem as Sedarisish as other Sedaris books, and I love some Sedarisishness.  Still, it has been a very educational read.  For instance, I just finished one essay (which did seem to have some relatively Sedarisish moments) called “Laugh, Kookaburra,” through which I discovered that a kookaburra looks like this:

This is an actual kookaburra.

This is an actual kookaburra.

Which was a good lesson, since I though a kookaburra looked like this:

This is not an actual kookaburra.  Should it be?  I'll leave that to you to decide.

This is not an actual kookaburra. Should it be? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Also, my dad says there’s an essay about how good colonoscopy drugs are, which seems both ultimately Sedarishish and very, very accurate.

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee:  The cheating, as you may have guessed, is a running theme.  I’ve read the main story in this sure-to-be-too-awesome-to-language collection in the single-story-book from Madras Press.  Actually, you should follow that link and buy all of their books.  I’ll wait.  Are you back?  Good.  Anyway, it’s basically the most beautifully written story ever, and I want everyone to read it so we can talk about the sentence about supping.  And because Rebecca Lee is the kind of writer who defines brilliance.  Also, Oprah wants you to read it, and are you going to disobey Oprah?  I didn’t think so.

Clearly Now, the Rain: A Memoir of Love and Other Trips by Eli Hastings: I actually haven’t cheated when it comes to this item, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.  From what I’ve seen, it’s an eloquent exploration of Hastings’ friendship with a woman named Serala, who’s painted in layered strokes in all of her complexity.  If it’s anything like Hastings’ Falling Room, we’re in for a gorgeously constructed trip.

Safe in Your Head by Laura Valeri:  I have been lucky enough to hear Valeri read from this collection, so I guess I have cheated here, too.  But it’s a good kind of cheating because it means I can say this: if you can hear Valeri read, do it.  She brings new life to already-jumping-off-the-page-with-life stories.  I can’t wait to crack open this collection, about an Italian family who emigrates to America to escape the Red Brigades’ movement.

We Come Elemental by Tamiko Beyer: I’m stoked-beyond-stoked for this and the next book on the list.  Pick up any literary journal, and you’ll find Tamiko Beyer just freaking killing it with her poems.  Every single time, she shows language who’s boss, and language is glad to be bossed.  A masterful poet whose work is finally gathered in a collection.

Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann: Take what I said about the stoked and the literary journals and the freaking killing it with poems above, and repeat, with Matthew Olzmann’s name.  Olzmann’s poems feel more traditional in form, but they also feel as though Olzmann shows traditional form that he is the boss and traditional form is thanking him.  As it should.

Red Doc by Anne Carson: So, I’ve actually had this book for a long time, I just haven’t read it.  Or, well, I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and those bits and pieces are crazy.  Like, Anne Carson crazy, which means crazy in an oh-no-she-didn’t-holy-crap-she-DID-and-it-was-AWESOME kind of way.  Let’s all just be honest and admit that none of us understand Anne Carson, and we probably won’t.  And that’s okay.  I remember reading an interview in which Carson says that none of us will ever understand God, and that’s okay, because the fact that none of us will understand God is one of the things that makes God God.  Think about that for a minute.  I mean, RIGHT?  And that’s how I feel about Anne Carson.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed: No, I haven’t read Dear Sugar’s book yet.  And no, I’m not caught up when it comes to the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus.  I’m not even caught up on The Rumpus.  I don’t have one of those Write Like An [Expletive Deleted] mugs like all the cool kids do.  I’ve had things to do, okay?  Important things.  Really important things.  Like, educating the youth of America and writing books and learning how to crochet granny squares.  Okay, maybe not that last part.  I’ll read Dear Sugar’s book, okay?  God.  Thanks for the peer pressure.

The Story Behind “The Damage”

Today, one of my dreams came true, and I say that without exaggeration: a piece of mine, from Inch magazine, is featured today on Poetry Daily.  I found out about this a while ago but didn’t really believe it was actually happening until I saw it today, and I’ve had to look at it again and again to make sure that I’m not just dreaming.  I mean, I’m not, right?  You can see it too?

Here's a picture of the beheaded cherub.  I miss it, still.

Here’s a picture of the beheaded cherub. I miss it, still.

I thought I’d write a short blog entry about the piece, since I’m always curious about the poems that pop up on Poetry Daily and, well, like, everywhere that poems tend to pop up.  I won’t tell the whole story behind it because a.) I already did that, and b.) then where will the mystery be?  Suffice it to say that the story behind this involves a huge move, which is a new beginning, and a huge break-up, which is, of course, an ending.  Besides the relationship, a few things were broken during or missing after the move: a couch cushion, my bicycle, and the head of a cherub on this terrible and beautiful planter my grandmother had used as storage for cotton balls.  It was a strange time, a time when beginnings were muddled with endings, and I could hardly tell the difference between the two anymore.

Flash to September of 2012, over a year later.  A friend and I had just finished a stint on The Grind (explained beautifully here by Grind founder Ross White) and were following it up with a submissions grind.  We promised each other that we’d send out at least one piece a day.  One Saturday, I was poking around for places to submit short essays and I came across Press 53, (which, as it turns out, published a remarkable collection by fellow Grinder and all-around amazing poet and person, Shivani Mehta — Useful Information for the Soon-to-be- Beheaded) and then Press 53’s Tumblr, with their weekly 53-word story prompt.  The prompt for that week was to write a 53-word story about moving.  I read the prompt and the rules and then promptly shut down my computer and headed to Hobby Lobby for some emergency crafting supplies (the emergency, as always with Hobby Lobby, was just that it was Saturday, and they’re closed on Sundays, which always sends me into a crafting/quilting/crocheting tail-spin — what if I need very fine glitters on a Sunday?  It happens more often than one would think).  As I wandered around trying to figure out why there were so giant zebra-striped flowers, I found that my mind was working on a poem.  When I got home, I wrote it: and word count showed me that it was, miraculously, 55 words.  I cut two, and submitted it.  Boom.

Of course, the micro-essay (though I guess now I should probably call it a prose poem) was rejected.  I revised and sent to another magazine.  Rejected.  Repeat.  Rejected.  Then, I saw a call-for-work for an all-micro-essay issue of Inch, one of my favorite magazines, and I sent to that.  Miraculously, it was accepted — and so began the road to Poetry Daily.  I’m especially happy that this is the poem that made it, since Inch is a journal I really love and a journal that shines light on oft-ignored micro-forms, and since they were willing to give this triply-rejected piece a fourth chance.

Sometimes, I’ll end up with a poem or essay that just feels like a gift.  It feels like a well-made thing, though I don’t feel like its maker.  This poem/essay was just such a thing: I hadn’t intended to write about this part of my move — ever, really — and I didn’t set out to focus on the beheaded cherub.  But there it was, and then it was on the page, called into being by forces which didn’t seem entirely under my control.

I suppose, when I think about it, it does make sense that I wrote this poem at this time.  It was a time when everything seemed to be changing, again.  My relationships changed, my friendships changed, my health changed and therefore my body changed, and therefore my world and the way I lived in it changed.  I didn’t make a move, but the world around me moved.  It was a time of muddled beginnings and endings, and I again couldn’t tell which was which.  It was the beginning of a moment of great change, from which I am only now starting to emerge, to look around, and to assess what was damaged beyond repair and what remains.

And this, I suppose, is the greater gift, the greater dream come true: to have a poem that acts like a lens and focuses on what damage is, and what beginning and ending, for me at least, really means.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.