July 26, 2011

Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet

I could say I had a hard time selecting my final Thirty Before Thirty "set in Minnesota" book. I could talk about John Hassler or Patricia Hampl or Carol Bly. I could write a very cerebral review, I suppose--you know, go out with some literary chops.

But I'm a sucker for kids books.

Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet came out in late 2010 to much fanfare, and it's been reviewed in multiple places, so the only thing I can really add to this conversation is another dose of love. Photographer Joe Rossi traveled the wild corners of the state in search of letters etched in the landscape, in the bodies of trout lilies, in the ears of cottontail rabbits. David LaRochelle's text matches up with the photos in clever ways ("Overhead or on the ground, Peeking, sneaking all around, Quietly these letters lie, Ready for your roving eye.") and adds in fun facts (There's a wildflower called butter-and-eggs. Who knew?). It's a book you could read in three minutes or three hours, a book you could read to thirty kids or the single dreamy one still inside you. It's an activity and a meditation. A brilliant idea. And my bet? A Minnesota classic. Thanks, David and Joe!

July 20, 2011

Heat

ablaze, afire, ardent, bake, bask, blaze, blood-hot, boil, broil, calefaction, calidity, canicular, calorify, chafechar, close, combustible, desire, diaphoretic, dog days, ebullient, enflame, enkindle, estiferous, excitement, ferocity, fervor, fever, fieriness, fire, flameflushfrizzle, fry, fury, glow, grill, grow hot, heatwave, HOThot spellhot weather, hot as pepper, ignite, incalescence, incandescence, incinerate, inflame, intensity, kindle, melt, molten, on fire, oppressive, oxidate, passion, perspire, piping hot, plutonic, rage, roast, scald, scorch, scumfished, sear, seethe, set on fire, singe, smoking, smoldering, sodden, steam, stifling, stuffy, suffocating, sultriness, sun, swelter, tepefy, toast, torrid, torriditywarmth, white-hot



What'd I miss?

July 19, 2011

Lake Rebecca Park Reserve

The Big Woods. In the early 1800s, pre-settlement, huge stretches of Minnesota were covered in dense elm, basswood, sugar maple, and oak stands. When the French explorers came here, they noticed that these trees were taller and larger than those in many of the other forests they'd traveled through, so bois grand, they said. Big woods.

Big, beautiful woods, I said, as I walked along the extensive trails at Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, just outside of Delano. My mother and I had met there for a picnic: chicken salad and crackers, a green apple, fresh-picked strawberries, and cold water. As we explored the quiet beach, the busy playground, and the shady walkways, I thought about those early-1800s years and how Minnesota looked then. One of my childhood dreams was to be an explorer, to walk over land few had seen. Although the many acres that make up Lake Rebecca Park were discovered long ago, ambling through it gave me a bit of that experience, because--what is up ahead of that bend, you know?
Today, just two percent of the original Big Woods remain in Minnesota, due to initial tree cutting for timber, firewood, and farmland. The Three Rivers Park District--one of my favorite organizations out here west of the Minneapolis metro--is doing their best to restore parts of the land to its original state, plump full of creatures like the pileated woodpecker, the little brown bat, the barred owl, the blue-spotted salamander, the chipmunk, and trees like the burr oak and green ash.

I wish them all the luck in our big world. Parks like these are literal gifts to their community. How lucky we are to have places to go that are tucked away, that are wild, that are full of the best and most rejuvenating kinds of sounds and smells and sights. Every time I discover a new one around Minnesota, I can't imagine living anywhere else.



July 13, 2011

Loon Island

What do you say to an island? 

Hello.
Hello, there. 
I came to say...
Yes?
Just hello, I guess.
Hello.
And what is it like and how does it feel and what are the sounds and smells and tastes of being here so always, so all-year-everyday, so long?
It is like...
Yes?
This.

When I canoe across the wide water, when I slide into the bay, along its shore, I pay attention. I notice muskrats and blackbirds, fish flopping, and wind. I think about its name--Loon--and its location--south--and I wonder at the way it was when those northern birds were here enough to leave their name. How much changes on an island like this? No houses, no campers, no impervious surfaces. Just green and brown and blue and green and green and green and green. What is it like to be so set apart? To have children watch you every summer of their lives, curious and wise? And then for them to go away, sometimes for long stretches of time, only to come back older and quieter and less brave? Does the island pay attention, I wonder? Does it know my name?


Hello.
Hello, there. 
I came to say...
Yes?
Hello.
Hello.
And that I'm glad you're here, there, where you are in the middle of all this water and in the winter ice because you are so much of my memories, a relative's face, and I look for you in my mind when I am feeling lonely and you are always where I knew you'd be.
I am here.
Yes.
Right here.
An island.
Surrounded by you and us and me.

July 8, 2011

Highs and Lows: The Writing Life

My girlfriends and I have a Christmas tradition: exchange ornaments, and after, verbally unpack our individual years, one by one, no time restrictions. The only rule we adhere to is that for every low, there must be two highs.


It is July now, months away from ornaments and tinsel, but one full year since I finished my MFA degree, and I feel the same tendencies today to look back and evaluate as I usually do at the close of a calendar. So, will you be my listeners here? My non-sweater-clad friends? All I ask is that you mumble a few hmmms, perhaps nod once in a while. After all, we’ve each experienced the ups and down of something, right?

Here are my writing-related lows of the past twelve months:

1.     Glimmer Train did not publish "Preservation."
2.     Ploughshares did not publish "Preservation."
3.     One Story did not publish "Preservation."
4.     "Preservation" was—I felt—my best short story, yet none of my goal journals published it, and I was left wondering (dejectedly) why.
5.     I reread it. Wrote a new opening. Deleted the new opening. Skimmed a series of old emails about fondue.
6.     Hope became a slippery thing.
7.     Sometimes, usually in the morning, I clutched at small spoonfuls of hope—"You will get this grant, your work is a perfect fit, it will all pan out, be patient"—but then I’d receive an email stating "Sorry," and I wouldn’t read the attached feedback, I just couldn't yet, I felt too tired.
8.     So I missed the deadline for the next grant.
9.     And got many more rejections.
10.  And stopped really writing.
11.  I began to think that—since I was a white, middle-class, working woman who’d lived a pretty good life, not much struggle, not much unordinary pain, not much grit under my fingernails that I hadn't put there on purpose because I felt I was perhaps too clean—I had nothing important to say.
12.  I began to believe this.

The highs:

1.     One Tuesday, on my drive to work, I watched an astonishing sunrise fill up my rearview mirror.
2.     I read a friend's brilliant essay and felt inspired.
3.     I started a blog.
4.     A small literary journal published one of my poems, a poem I’d written years ago, that I'd always loved, that I couldn't understand why others didn't love just as much. The publication contract came with this note: "I absolutely loved this one."
5.     I read the poem to my husband and we went out for Thai food.
6.     A month later, and then later still, we ordered more bowls of Toam Yum.
7.     A letter said that out of 250 applications, I was in the top 80 for a grant I'd practically forced myself to forget I'd applied for. Top 80, big whoop, I told myself. But it was a spoonful. And I held its sweetness on my tongue.
8.     I read books.
9.     I recited e.e. cummings to my students.
10.  I told Haley that her story was beautiful, mature, and full of nuanced surprises, and her whole face, her whole body lit up, and my throat tightened.
11.  I took them all on a nature walk behind the school.
12.  They wrote about it in their journals.
13.  I wrote about it in mine.
14.  I went to the Arboretum with my camera and found new angles, new ways to look at leaves, new levels of light and shadow.
15.  I went home and wrote.
16.  I published unproven and sentimental words in my own time, on my own created space, and though every time I was frightened, it got easier. 
17.  Someone left the comment, "I love this one."
18.  Someone else wrote from Greece, sharing that an essay of mine was in a publication that was currently on his coffee table.
19.  I paused, thought, refocused, and reminded myself that, yes, these small successes were nice, better, easier to bring to the lips, but what was most important—above any other outcome—was that my words mattered to me.
20.  I wrote more place essays. I wrote about Minnesota. I wrote about the lake where I spent my childhood summers.
21.  There was a wait, and it was excruciating—full of doubts and purposeful-forgetting—but a nice man named Gus told me yes. One year from now, next summer, "The Lake" will appear in the DNR's Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, one of my goal magazines.
22.  Over the Fourth of July, I shared the draft with my family around the campfire.
23.  I did not get that grant, but I applied for the next one.
24.  I did not place "Preservation." Yet.
25.  "Someday,” I promised myself, “You will write a damn good book."
  1. On July 8, 2011, I believe it.

This essay was also published here at A View From The Loft.