September 23, 2010

Three Walks

One was just out my back door. The sun was sinking. It seemed like summer was sinking with it, and I had an unquenchable desire to fill myselfdouse myself, evenwith an abundance of life. The first steps were easy, as there was a path, and I had been there before. I knew these bees and crickets, these rustlings below my waist. But I would not stop there, oh no. I would go deeper. And it was indeed like diving, for I was soon among golden rod higher than my head, and I was placing my feet in depths and darknesses that I could not see. I knew the earth had to rise up again, for there was a hill just beyond, but there was a moment of wondering if I would make it, if instead I might just be swallowed up, lost amid a sea of yellow. I pulled my hood around my head. Stepped. Stepped. How was it, I wondered, that in such a short season things could grow so tall and wild? Beads of sweat formed on my brow. When my eyes finally peeked again above the surfacemy clothes coated in thin golden dustthe sun had covered the earth in rays of soft fire, and every thing glowed.

Another was on my way to meet friends. I was early, and I drove down an unfamiliar road past an unfamiliar sign offering the word "park" like an outstretched hand, and seconds later I had turned my car around, had taken off my dress shoes and slipped on the flimsy flip-flops I had in my back seat. Never mind that it was fifty-five degrees. Never mind that my toes are always the first things to get cold. There was a path, and I followed it. There was a stream, and I listened. I did not drink the water, not through my mouth, but other parts of me did, because the malaise of the day, I found, had gone, my bare feet leading me next down a deer path, muddy and wet, slippery and tangled, turning and ducking between crab apple trees and bushes with black berries. Later I would have to walk into a restaurant filled with finely dressed people, and my feet would be dirty. I took a deep breath. The air against my insides, cool and invigorating, made me laugh.

I walked out a third time because of the light. Because of the colors. All week I had been looking out windows, and everywhere the earth was spilling out of itself. Not in the way of spring when everything is young and fresh, and not in the way of summer when there is constant, diligent growth. But in the way of autumn. In the way of finales: nothing held back. It is all so beautifully desperate, and perhaps because of thisbecause to such vulnerability I cannot say noI opened, unbuttoned my jacket, and allowed this new season to seep into my cheeks and run its fingers along my bones. And it became such that, when I glanced at a flush of sumac, I saw myself, the way I felt, all on-the-edge of something that was impossible to capture. I could only wait. Hope that I might be looking at the right time. That was what this walk was. Being ready. Looking. Wandering in colors that were all gems, that all belong in crowns, that hold the light like wine. Too soon the garments will be gone, but for now the world is awash in a frenzy of hues all found in our faces when we tip them up. 

September 20, 2010

Bill Holm

Hello Bill.

When I mention your name in Minnesota, there are always some folks who start to cry. And it's not because you poked fun at their habits or told the truth (often the same thing). It's because they loved you. They loved your writing, yes, but they also loved you. Who you were. As I've held your books this past year, I've turned to your picture on jacket covers and book backs, and it seems there was always a mass of hair, a deep beard, warm sweaters. Just from this, I think, had I known you I would have loved you, too.
But I didn't know you, so I must send these little claps to where they will flitter through the  grasses and occasional treetops around both Minneota, Minnesota, and Iceland, two places you loved specifically and with tender detail, two places that felt the force of your intuitive pen. 

When I went to my bookshelf of college texts and took from it The Music of Failure, I had memories of my own grumblings, of immature reluctance and bored eyes. So I was surprised to find my twenty-year-old self in the margins, speaking via my own pen, recording thoughts, marking down bits of inspired musings that I intended towhat?include in a paper, share with my class, with my professor of Ethnic American Lit? I don't remember any of that. But these years later, my intentions then don't matter. Now my scribblings read like conversations I had with you when you were still alive.
Bill: "At fifteen I could define failure fast: to die in Minneota, Minnesota. Substitute any small town in Pennsylvania, or Nebraska, or Bulgaria, and the definition held. To be an American meant to move, rise out of a mean life, make yourself new."
Me: "There is beauty in failing equal to succeeding. Both mean there was an attempt at reaching goals, no matter how fantastic."
Bill: "I left Minneota... In the meantime, I aged from twenty to forty, found myself for all practical purposes a failure, and settled almost contentedly back into the same rural town which I tried so fiercely to escape."
Me: "Roots hold you whether you pay them respect or not."
Bill: "Something succeeds if it is itself: victor and defeated, living and dead, are not separate states but a continuum, success and failure only different faces of the same thing."
Me: "Sacredness occurs if you decide your daily experience merits that holy classification."
Bill: "The heart can be filled up anywhere on earth."
Me: "Yes." 
It seems like maybe that's one thing you were after: getting all of us quiet types to open our mouths and let sound come out. Getting me to stop. To think. To consider small places, small essays, small truths thatif handled rightlyI could write about for years.

September 16, 2010

Paul Gruchow

Hello, Paul.

I've been wanting to sit down and talk with you for some time now. I opened up Worlds Within a World last summer, and then Travels in Canoe Country, and then Journal of a Prairie Year and Grass Roots. When I began The Necessity of Empty Places I already knew I'd agree with you, even though I'd find myself continually surprised by what you had to say. So it goes with kindred souls. And I don't think you'd mind that I claim that.

Other people and other places can tell your story better than me, so I'll let them. But I think it's important that I point a few other thinkers to your message. We are all so busy. It's good, before the leaves change this Autumn, to remind ourselves to slow down.
"I accept, when I am in the woods, the idea that I do not completely command my life. To venture into a wilderness is to submit to the authority of nature. This may also seem a regressionadults command, children submitbut it is actually a progression toward a higher maturity, one that realizes the conceit of the enduring human dream of dominion. Letting go of this dream, even temporarily, unstops the wilder and more creative dreams that we have not had access to since the last timeas children, perhapswhen we expected life to be an endless unfolding of surprises. It is only when we are prepared to be astonished and confounded that we are able to dream productively."
 -- Gruchow, Travels in Canoe Country

Here's to the unfolding of that dream.

September 14, 2010

Two Men I Never Met

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course called Ethnic American Literature. Being that I was 1) an English major, 2) from an ethnically homogenous small town, and 3) desperate for "culture," I was incredulous when the reading list my professor passed out that first day had no Ralph Ellison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Toni Morrison, but was instead full of all these, as he called them, "regional writers," a mix of poets and novelists and essayists from my home state that I'd never heard of and was sure had absolutely no relevance to my life. After all, I was going to teach, and how was I supposed to do that if I wasn't introduced to the writers who'd been anthologized?

I went to another professor and complained (and, Minnesotan that I am, this practically killed me) until she loaded up my arms with every Toni Morrison book she owned. And walking back to my dorm room, clickity clack, holding these canonical texts close to my chest, I felt fortified. Soothed. I would teach myself, then! And for the rest of the semester I gave those regional authors only bitter, cursory glances. I never took another class with that professor.
Sometimes I can't believe I'm edging up on thirty. I'm twenty-eight now, but when my husband and I are riding our bikes or when I'm climbing boulders to get a better view or when one of my seventeen-year-old students and I are talking about music or snowdays or the moon, it's impossible for me to grasp that I'm not ten years younger, that I'm not still some kid acceptably excited about the color of watermelon against a blue sky.

But when I think about who I was in that college classroomjust nineteen, maybe twenty, but so so sureI can feel the weight of years that have passed. I feel regret, something that didn't touch me then, I was in such a hurry. 

I'm glad I read Morrison and Silko. And I'm thankful for the part of me that's always been thirsty for the largeness of the world. But if I have learned anything in this first third of life, it's that understanding comes slowly. Sometimes you need to wait. And often when you are ready, you will realize too late what you have missed, and it will ache like the memory of a person you have wronged. 

My Ethnic American Literature professor introduced me to Paul Gruchow and Bill Holm, but I didn't listen to any of these menactually hear themuntil this past year, until something told me to look toward home. Then it was a flurry of books, of staring out windows, of wanting to hold not just Gruchow's and Holm's thoughts but their weathered hands, to speak and write back. So I searched out their contact informationletters already formingto learn instead of their early deaths. One in 2004, and one just this past year. 

It's a funny thing to grieve for two men whom you've never met. But as I forge ahead in my writing, I am talking with them after all in the one way I can. I write, I suppose, to say I'm sorry. And I write to say thanks. These men loved Minnesota and valued writing about home as I believe many of us should, and as I'm learning to. 

This essay was originally published in A View From The Loft on September 13th, 2010. Thanks much to editor Dara Syrkin for her kindness and support.

September 10, 2010

Where We Dwell

"Remember, the only thing that matters is you're alive on earth."

Mary Ruefle said this within the first moments of my most recent writing workshop, and amid all the insights both she and fellow advisor Larry Sutin offered in our time together, this aphorism has clung the most to my daily breath. 

"Remember," even though you're distracted by bills and busyness, by the laundry and lack of rice and the text-spam to delete, by the disappearance of summer heat, by the effort it takes to maintain trust, 

"the only thing that matters," even though you make lists that read pay electric, garbage out, change filter, fold clothes, buy rice, block spam, BELIEVE in your work, even though there is so much to do before Sunday, before the snow flies, before you get old,

(the only thing) "is" (as in being / will you just be)

"you're alive on earth," a place you love, a place that loves you back, and an experience—life—that cannot be had by making lists or worrying or filling up stores with regret. You're alive. On earth. Dwell there, in that good and gentle truth. It is more real than any of the rest.

This post was originally published on September 9th, 2010 in the Writer's Block (a great site for aspiring writers--especially those who find themselves in the Midwest).

September 7, 2010


I am storing up green like grain, opening my eyes wide like cellar doors. Winter is coming. Days without rain or sun or growth. I am filling my soul with this landscape of thick grasses and tall weeds and burgeoning forests as if it is a coffer, as if I am building an ever-green cathedral, as if one more glance will sanctify, render this view immovable and holy, immutable even by the whitest light.

September 3, 2010

"Lingering in Happiness"

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there, married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

where it will disappear—but not, of course, vanish
except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole's tunnel;

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

— Mary Oliver