December 5, 2015

What I've Been Into - Autumn 2015

Dear everyone,

It is early December, and after a memorably beautiful and mild autumn where the leaves all but blazed out our windows, we had our first snow storm of the season early this week. The subsequent stretch of 40' days, though, turned the white quickly to water. Which is kind of how this season has felt for me. Things happen. And then all evidence of them is gone. And you wonder if you just blinked or were instead in some kind of truly beautiful but exhausting dream.

My husband and I talk a lot about the pace of our lives, whether it's healthy, how we could slow down, what we might take out. It's hard because we could make different choices: live in a smaller house, live in a smaller town, have one of us--me, probably--stay home to tend the home and this darling small child we've welcomed into this busy world. But we've come to love our house. And we like where we live. And my job, though it is incredibly demanding, fills me up and up and up (everyday, these teenagers, my stupid jokes, their eye-light, our discoveries apart and together). So: there are cobwebs in my corners, people. And I do not make fancy meals. And our Christmas decorations are meager indeed. 

But it is something to move my fingers over the smooth skin of my son. To hold his hand as we walk through the quickly melting snow. To see the way his eyes skip over anything as inconsequential as dust and instead alight on paw prints, on eye color, on a sunrise he has learned to call beautiful. And it is something to work a long week, and at the end of it, come home with a bag full of essays to grade, and yet not want for one second to quit. And it is something to watch my husband splitting wood, trying, as we all are, to make space for that which keeps us warm. 

  1.  A History of Love by Nicole Krauss -- WWII and NYC. The past and the present. Letters. Books. Words. Lovely. That ending.
  2.  All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr -- WWII. France and Germany. A young blind girl and a young Nazi boy obsessed with radios. Stairs. Shells. A possibly cursed jewel. Short chapters. Long book. Worth it.
  3. The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time, Oedipus the King -- All curriculum rereads.
TV & Movies:
  1. The Office -- I know, I know, I know, this show came out a hundred years ago. But it just never looked or sounded that interesting to me, despite the accolades of many people I trust. But we finally started it at the very beginning of September. And, folks, we are almost through all the seasons. We have watched little else. These characters are not even characters to us at this point -- friends, all, especially Dwight.
  2. Exit Through the Gift Shop -- Fascinating documentary on street art. Why did we watch it? I can't remember for the life of me. But it did make me want to go out and think differently about graffiti. 

Finds & Arrow Signs:
  1. The Sheridan Story -- Incredible organization my students and I volunteer at on Wednesday mornings. They are all about eliminating food shortage for kids who go home on the weekends to empty cupboards. Look them up. Volunteer at a packing event. Donate if you can. So worth it.
  2. Minnetonka Orchards -- I still like Deardorff better, but I went to this orchard twice this autumn with my son and he loooooooooooooooooooved everything about it, especially the hayride.
  3. 105.7 The Vibe -- I listened to this classic hip-hop station for most of September, and felt all the sweetness of being eighteen again. But...there are only so many times you can hear those first notes of "Big Poppa" before you realize you are decidedly not eighteen. It's still fun to dance to while doing dishes, though.
  4. Children's books on CD (particularly "Gus & Me" and "Whopper Cake") -- Game-changer for long car rides. 
  5. Spinach Feta Bread at Great Harvest -- Yum.
  6. Adele's "Hello" -- Because obviously.

Happy holidays, near and far.

October 22, 2015

On the Shortest Days

At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.

The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers

with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep

my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging

how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?

Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nests of stars

on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.

-- by Joyce Sutphen

September 30, 2015

A Quiet Autumn Night

It is so quiet, I hear the second-hand on the kitchen clock ticking. There goes an airplane overhead, somewhere up there in the sky, a hundred people belted in, dozing, reading, shifting, catapulting through the night. It is 54'. It is autumn.

This is always the season for me: the one where I seek out the still places in the day, listen for the silence. What I really want is to pull out my old sleeping bag, lay it down upon a hill, and climb in, stare up, watch how minutely and inevitably everything changes. I don't want to miss it. I know that I will. Suddenly all the leaves are on the ground.

Tonight, just before dinner, I slipped on a fleece and some gloves and dug little holes around the garden. Yesterday a friend's mother snapped off the tops of a flowering sedum, gave them to me, and said, "Plant them, like this, upside down." So I did, tucking those starbursts of purple into bed the way I do my child: tenderly, patting tight the blanket, hopeful for warm rest that buds into a fuller, rounder life.

It is autumn. It is 52'. Another airplane. The clock ticking. The furnace a dull lull of breath. It is so quiet, I can hear myself thinking. And isn't that the beauty of less? Turn off the lamp. Go to the window, now black with early night. The moon, full and cool, will illuminate the outlines.

August 31, 2015

What I've Been Into: Summer 2015

Good morning,

(And an early morning it is.) Last spring I could blame these sleepless a.m. hours on the turkeys roosting in the trees outside my window, but now I only have my swirling mind to point to. These are some of the things I would like/need to do, possibly today: transplant several hostas, dig up and move a good many big rocks, water the rudbeckia, move the shelves in the garage, organize the garage (!), call the insurance company, clip the little guy's fingernails, keep writing that essay, start writing college recommendations, finish rereading The Glass Castle, and oh (!) take in that sunrise.

That list will be a starting point, anyway. And much of it will keep me outside, in the air that has already taken on a hint of autumn. 

It's an exciting time of year, friends. Often stressful. But so very full of a pulsing, thrumming, chirping, calling, rushing, crunching, thrusting kind of life.

Summer, as always, was a sweet reprieve where instead of teaching I spent the days doing many of the things I mentioned above, but at a less frenetic pace, and almost always with my two and a half year old son by my side. Two and a half! What an age! Everyday there was some kind of beach or park or walk or play-date or bug-discovery or cabin or flower-watering or sky-watching adventure. He is my son, my darling boy. And we read the world together.

My husband and I also spent a lot of time working on this house of ours. There is so much to learn, so many words in the English language I had no reason to be aware of before. Mud-jacking? Polyurethane? Roto-router? I'll get those right on the next vocab quiz. We spent the hours after El went to bed last night caulking the perimeter of our front sidewalk, and where we've probably had more exciting dates in our lives, we laughed a lot, out there among the mosquitoes and moths, and when we were done, the pride in our work felt deeply earned.

And, in the midst of all of this, I started writing again. I would write that last sentence in capital letters if it didn't feel so obnoxious. Hell: I STARTED WRITING AGAIN! I took a Monday night class at The Loft Literary Center on the poetic power in essay writing, and having that space? that permission? The words were suddenly on the page, thoughts fully formed, the last line tapping out of the tips of my fingers as if it had been waiting there all along. And that is the lesson I'm taking away from this summer: for everything, there is a season. Let it turn, turn, turn, turn.

  1.  Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson -- I first learned of Bryan Stevenson last fall, so reading his book was a reiteration of how much he deserves the respect I already feel for him and the work he's doing with those caught in the justice system.
  2.  Waking Up White by Debbie Irving -- This was our summer faculty read. Some of Irving's observations about white privilege felt fairly obvious, but others really stayed with me. For example, I really don't think twice about going out in public in a sweat shirt and yoga pants; that's a privilege, isn't it?
  3.  Butchers Crossing by John Williams -- I read this one mostly because a fellow teacher used it last year in his American Literature course and I wanted to know why. Now I do. A gripping story wrapped around the idea of Manifest Destiny. During my son's naps, I chose it over house work every time.
  4. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston -- A reread for me, but just as good if not better this time around. I'm in awe of the way Hurston was able to go back and forth between voices and styles so easily. Beautiful.
  5.  Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut -- Eh. Tried to read it. It's sophomore curriculum. I have been a Vonnegut fan in the past, but this just wasn't my style.
  6.  Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hanesbury -- Oof, this one was powerful. The story sincerely moved me. And as I was reading this play, I kept thinking about how much I wanted to see it live.
  7.  100 Best American Essays of the Century edited by Joyce Caroll Oates -- I read a good numbers of the essays in this anthology for my Loft class. Stunning work. Some of my favorites were about bees and abandoned houses.
  8.  Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel -- This book was all about how to learn, teach, and present material in such a way that it stays learned. I'm not finished with it yet, but I have found it interesting and applicable. 
  9. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls -- This is a reread for me, a memoir I chose for my summer reading group. We'll have our conversation tomorrow (welcome back, estudiantes!), and I'm pretty confident most of my crew will have liked this one. It's a fascinating and often heartbreaking read of one person's childhood in a very unconventional, poor family.
TV & Movies:
  1. Mad Men Season 6 -- I wasn't a huge fan of the very end of the last episode, but otherwise I found this final season satisfying. Peggy's narrative had me in tears more than once. Sometimes happiness can feel so elusive.
  2. Comet -- A quirky kind-of rom-com that pretty much features just two actors. I found the writing entertaining, and sometimes right on.
  3. The One I Love --Speaking of quirky rom-coms, this isn't exactly that, but it isn't exactly easy to say what it actually is. Basically, a couple with a troubled relationship goes to a couples retreat, but then things start to get weird. Doppelganger weird. The ending wasn't satisfying in an I-want-this-all-to-make-sense kind of way, but the premise was pretty creative.

Finds & Arrow Signs:
  1. The Loft Literary Center -- If you're a writer in the Midwest area (or even outside of it), please check this place out. It is a gem.
  2. Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake -- A relaxing cabin vacation with your family is all fun and games until a super storm comes through... I'll share that story someday. For now: Northern Minnesota is all it's cracked up to be.
  3. Spray paint -- How great is this stuff? It has helped me transform more than one frame this summer, and oh, the plans I have for it.  :)
  4. Minnesota State Fair -- I'm not a regular at this annual "get-together" (gasp!), but I'm taking my students here today to volunteer for their first day back. Hopefully none of us will get too lost. I'll let you know what fried food was my favorite.

Hope you had a great summer, people! What did you do?

August 17, 2015

Song for the Rainy Season

Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.

In a dim age
of water
the brook sings loud
from a rib cage
of giant fern; vapor
climbs up the thick growth
effortlessly, turns back,
holding them both,
house and rock,
in a private cloud.

At night, on the roof,
blind drops crawl
and the ordinary brown
owl gives us proof
he can count:
five times--always five--
he stamps and takes off
after the fat frogs that,
shrilling for love,
clamber and mount.

House, open house
to the white dew
and the milk-white sunrise
kind to the eyes,
to membership
of silver fish, mouse,
big moths; with a wall
for the mildew's
ignorant map;

darkened and tarnished
by the warm touch
of the warm breath,
maculate, cherished;
rejoice! For a later
era will differ.
(O difference that kills
or intimidates, much
of all our small shadowy
life!) Without water

the great rock will stare
unmagnetized, bare,
no longer wearing
rainbows or rain,
the forgiving air
and the high fog gone;
the owls will move on
and the several
waterfalls shrivel
in the steady sun.

-- By Elizabeth Bishop

July 6, 2015

Monday Morning

 So, as I've mentioned here previously, we bought a fixer-upper this past spring. Where the house is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters (the unpredictable and quirky type), it is the land (of course) that has already merged with whatever voice I might use to write about it. One rainy morning, and it is all sanctuary and joy. 

Hope you are relishing your summers, friends!

June 4, 2015

What I've Been Into: Spring 2015

Good morning,

It it raining here, lightly, and the view out my window is an ecstatic shaking green. I am three floors up, and yet I do not see the sky, I do not see the ground: just trunks and branches and leaves, close and middling and deep. What a scene to wake to! As ridiculous as these last months have been, these trees are saving me. Have saved me. Are already old friends. 

I see now I'm going to have to write about them. Later. Soon. Graduation for the seniors tonight. And then: summer.

Spring was a new house. A new roof. New floors and carpets and paint and cabinet liner and drawer pulls and towels. It was so much more space, these large open rooms that echoed even with our whispers. It was windows, light streaming in through the then bare branches. It was one holy morning when the buds popped open, and everywhere was suddenly yellow green and green yellow and holy holy holy. It was worrying about an old house with holes and trusting a new world so very able to fill it up.

It was also my first AWP conference, where I remembered myself as a writer. It was Wild Turkeys. And Ecotone and Orion and The Sun. It was Sigurd Olson, those photos of him in a northern Minnesota river. It was some sadness and loss, some giving over, some promises I promised myself I would keep. I haven't yet. But I keep saying the words.

It was my students. It was my colleagues. It was my family. All the words we said to each other, all the stories we told, and the stories we watched unspool behind us. The mother with the pots of food. The father with the deep reading voice. The mother-in-law with her hands, cleansing and blessing. The father-in-law on his knees, laying down boards. The brothers and sisters and the sisters and brothers. The new nephew. The first nephew, blood-brothers with my boy. My boy. My boy with his squishy hugs, the way he loves so intentionally back. My husband: all the ways we are imperfect and held up by hope.

But mostly spring was, as I should have expected, about growth. All the metaphors. All the discomfort. All the disruption. 

Nothing is in the same place as it was back in February. Even the trees take up different sets of space in the world. They reach and they reach. How wide and improbable and lovely is the way they stretch open their arms.

  1. Where One Voice Ends Another Begins: 150 Years of Minnesota Poetry edited by Robert Hedin -- I taught a two-week May Program class on Minnesota writers and our arts community here. It was so refreshing for me (and hopefully the kids, too!). A bonus was having writers like John Jodzio and Joyce Sutphen visit and talk to the kids about both their work and what it means to be a literary citizen.
  2.  Fiction on a Stick: New Stories by Minnesota Writers edited by Daniel Slager 
  3. Coming Back To The Body by Joyce Sutphen
  4. The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008  by Louise Erdrich
  5. The Norton Book of Nature Writing edited by Robert Finch and John Elder -- My second May Program class focused on nature writing. We read, we took walks, we visited local gardens, and we did a lot of writing. "My nature girls," I called my group of 12 sophomores. They were wonderful. So crazy that I get paid to spend my days like this.
  6. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau edited by Bill McKibben
  7. Ecotone, Orion, and The Common -- Fabulous literary journals that found their way into my classroom.
  8. Wild by Cheryl Strayed -- I'm about half way in. It's good, and funny, and full of a kind of adventure I dream about some nights, but it's not great. At least not yet. I listened to Strayed speak at AWP this April, though, and I liked her, so I'm definitely going to finish.
TV & Movies:
  1. House of Cards, Season 3 -- A bit slow in parts, but -- so is ice. Ice cold. Methodical. Who rule the world? Girls.
  2. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 1 -- For whatever reason, we don't gravitate to comedy series that often, but I'm glad someone recommended this one to me. Light and full of laugh-out-loud moments. That scene in the first episode with the bottled water! Tina Fey is fantastic.

Articles, Essays, & Posts:
  1. "Discovering the Universe of Home" by Paul Gruchow. He feels like a kindred spirit to me. I used part of this essay in class, and the whole time I just wanted to reach into the past and hug this man.
  2. "Through the Windows of Brimnes" with Bill Holm. I'd like to hug him, too. And spend a long time talking over a drink or two. Irreverent and right on.
  3. "Little Mexican Boy Dancing" because my two-year-old self is flat-out in love.

Finds & Arrow Signs:
  1. AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference -- It strikes me as a rite of passage for any writer. Plus you brush shoulders with old friends from grad school as well as literary heroes like Louise Erdrich. Win, win.
  2. Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary -- I took my nature writing class here and it was magical. The best part was being able to identify some wildflowers that have also been growing in our new yard and finally figuring our their names.
  3. Noerenberg Memorial Gardens -- We journeyed here the last day of class, sat by the shore of Lake Minnetonka, and read our writing. More cultivated than Eloise Butler, but still beautiful, still serene. And irises! Those are coming up in my garden, too. 
  4. Belle Boggs -- A fellow high school English teacher and a lovely writer; she gives me hope that both roles are possible.
  5. Estate Sales -- I've recently gone to my first few and have found them fascinating. Things are things, but they also populate our lives, are the tools we use to define the boundaries of our homes, and are the touchstones of hundreds of stories. I go for the $1 scarves, but also just to look. 
  6. Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail -- This fantastic trail is just down the road from our house, and we've already spent considerable time exploring by foot and stroller. We're in the market for a Burley for El so we can travel a bit farther this summer by bike, too.
  7. Spring + our land -- Moving in, and then watching the earth come alive on our small patch of it has been one of the most enchanting events in my adult memory. I am learning the names of things, these things I am now the steward of. And these names are sticking with me. Finally. And amen.

April 22, 2015

Wild Turkeys

When I was a June twenty-two,
one week fresh from graduation,
I took a flight to Lubbock
and wore cowboy hats with friends
as young and sweet as grass.

One night we put on skirts
and tall boots and ambled through the halls 
of an old restaurant, bourbon and whiskey 
in glasses, all very kin to cigars 
and mustaches, dark with ranch wood.

The stars would be bright, the moon
uncommonly full in that wide sky,
so we stepped outside, a slight chill
wrapping down our boots and around
our ankles, expecting Texas.

Instead, the screams of a child--
two children? more?--broke the twilight,
and I gaped up--up, for they were in the trees, 
perched and wailing at the coming dark,
pleading in a language I couldn't decipher.

“Peacocks,” a man said, amused, thumb in his pocket.
I know because I stared at him in astonishment.

Pressed pants. No belt buckle. Thin tie.
No cowboy hat. Peacocks in trees, their tail feathers
draped extravagantly over limbs like evening
dresses, stars of blue and green and gold,
mad debutantes, filling out the harmony of oil rigs.

That night I removed my boots
and didn’t check for snakes.

And ten years later, while rocking my child
to sleep in a new home, dusk painting
the acre and a half in tree shadows--
all those Minnesota maples and oaks and pines--
my thoughts of twinkling little stars were interrupted

by hysterical laughter, a long throaty gobble--
two gobbles? maybe more?--and, though startled,
I didn’t need a man in a thin tie to tell me to look up.
Look up. Find the spirits in the trees. Open your windows.
Call back to them in the way you now know how.

PS: Happy Earth Day, all.
Hope the sun is shining where you are.

March 1, 2015

What I've Been Into - Winter 2015

Hi all,

This one will be short on descriptions, but long on heart. What I mean is: I have never been so busy in my life. What I mean is: the winter is cold, work is great, my son is beautiful, family is important, sleep is restless, and the lists are miles and miles long. Don't be mistaken -- this is all our doing, whether consciously or not. You see, we've gone and bought a house. A fixer-upper. We close tomorrow. 

It's all about to get very very interesting.

So, friends, that, among many other reasons, is why I've spent less time here recently. However, it cheers me to know I can come back whenever I feel the desire. Like today. Like right now, as I type these letters into words and press publish, as I share something of my life, and genuinely hope you do the same.

Below is what I've been into these last three months (when I wasn't creating lessons and grading essays and signing documents and filing taxes and contacting contractors and building the biggest Mega Blok towers the world has ever seen, etc. etc. etc.). 

How about you?

  1. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather 
  2.  Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove
  3. Macnolia by A Van Jordan 
  4. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. Fun Home by Allison Bechdel
  7.  The Things They Carried - by Tim O'Brien
TV & Movies:
  1. Downton Abbey, season 4 -- Don't ruin season 5 for me, people! Just don't.
  2. Good People -- Pretty predictable plot, but still fairly entertaining.
  3. The Dark Matter of Love -- Fascinating story about international adoption.
  4. Marco Polo -- Because it was on Netflix, and why not?

Articles, Essays, & Posts:
  1. "Why poor people stay poor" by Linda Tirado
  2. "You're doing allowance wrong" by Ron Lieber -- Because apparently I'm thinking about these things already? 
  3. "Model Mother" by Enid Irwin Madara -- A beautiful piece of writing.

Finds & Arrow Signs:
  1. Thumbtack -- Great website if you're planning on doing any kind of project that requires expertise
  2. Nextdoor -- Another website that's basically a social network for your local neighborhood
  3. Apostle Island Ice Caves -- Currently, I'm the travel-vicariously type. But if you can, go here! Then tell me all about it.

February 5, 2015


One Tuesday afternoon, a month or so ago, I lay stretched out on my bed, my not-quite-two-year-old son cuddled between my arm and body, reading poetry aloud.

"Before I was sixteen / I was fast / enough to fake / my shadow out," I read.

"The instructor said, / Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you-- / Then, it will be true."

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--"

I placed my lips against the feverish brow of my boy, my fingers running along the length of his arm, reading over the top of my worry. Reading because the sound had soothed him, had taken him away from the limbs of his discomfort. Reading.

[... And speaking of reading, you can read the rest at Mamalode.]

January 2, 2015

Temperance River State Park

May your new year be full of adventure and clarity.
(And lots of reading, writing, big hopes, simple dreams, and chocolate.)

xo from the north shore of Minnesota!