For Jeanne Leiby—four years in the blink of an eye

Four years ago we lost Jeanne Leiby in a horrible accident, on the road from Baton Rouge towards Lafayette. I think of her often, writing in my journal, or reading Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy in class the other day. How she loved that book, and her notes in the copy I own, her copy, the formation of her ideas for teaching the book to us, and now I cherish the book, rereading it almost yearly. It is cold almost, today, here in Carpinteria. The day she died was a blazingly sunny day in Louisiana, one of those harbingers of summer, and now seems so far ago as to be a dream.

Jeanne Leiby changed me as a writer because she told me the unvarnished truth, always. I met with Jeanne frequently in her office at the Old President’s House where she edited the Southern Review, and more often than not we’d step outside so she could smoke a cigarette and kvetch about the latest political issue, or the amazing excerpt from Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No.2 that she was so proud of publishing. Jeanne loved writers. She loved Bonnie Jo Campbell. She loved William Gay. She loved Philip Levine. She loved Janice Eidus.

Jeanne hated my metaphors. I hated my metaphors, too. With her guidance I wrote my MFA thesis, a novel. The pages she marked with her strange diagrams about structure, and the terse comments that read, “slow down,” “why is this here,” “slow down,” “too sentimental,” “slow down,” “write into the scene,” sit on my desk, festooned with her colored Post-It notes, her fingerprints all over those pages. I hear her voice when I sit at the computer to edit the manuscript and try to slow down and write through the scenes.

We were a year apart in age, and that’s part of why we got each other. We shared those cultural references that sailed over the heads of the younger writers in class. Jeanne made me believe in myself as a writer, by holding my feet to the fire, forcing me to look, to really look at my words. That first class with Jeanne, she said the most obvious thing about a story: “Every story is about someone, who wants something, and does or doesn’t get it because of something.” Jeanne applied that formula to our stories and drummed into us the importance of simplicity in storytelling. I start my workshops with her formula and now I can’t bear to tell the story of how I want Jeanne to be alive, and I can’t have that because of a terrible twist of fate. See, the formula applies to life, too.

That Jeanne is gone is terrible. I can’t believe I won’t hear her rave about Sanibel Island anymore, nor will we have dinner at AWP and complain about the slow service. Instead, I will continue to write, because that’s what mattered to Jeanne, and it’s what matters to me. We arrived at LSU about the same time, the first graduate class she taught was my first class, too. Now, I am four years removed from LSU, teaching high school, writing my truth as often as I can. I’ll raise a glass to Jeanne’s memory tonight, and know that she’ll always be with me.



Original Flight Pattern Logged

A thing of great beauty, the undercarriage strutted and riveted against the vagaries of the elements. We capitulate in the end because the motion of those upper-arm muscles will not be enough to raise the vessel from the ground sufficiently to clear the fence at the butt end of the field. Down there bleached bones sit in thick mud, jagged eye sockets and loose teeth in broken jaws. The nature of defiance. He bowls from the clock tower end, feet tearing up the turf, the scorched rectangle of summer as hard as tack. Triumvirate. Holy Trinity on pedestals. Bronze and impassive. Slightest movement turns the great bird towards the fence, once again, the creaking of wood and metal singeing the quiet of the morning. Hands let go, away, to the air. To the lakes and the reeds, the frog hollows and the drowned swans.

2015-03-05 18.05.25

Winner: Best Small Fictions 2015—Queensferry Press

Delighted to report my story, The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me,” originally published at the Mojave River Review was chosen by Robert Olen Butler as a winner in the Queensferry Press’s Best Small Fictions 2015.” It’s amazing to be included in the mix with writers of the caliber of Bobbie Ann Mason, Stuart Dybek, Ron Carlson, and so many others.


Easter1916yeatsandtheoldmanintheirgravesday’s Childe

Easter, 1916 by W.B. Yeats

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

My Father’s Last Full Day on Earth

Fifteen years ago today was my father’s last full day on this earth. What does a man do on such a day, I wondered, looking out the window at the breeze-stirred avocado leaves? I know he was unconscious and hadn’t spoken in almost two weeks. He’d have loved this house I live in, and my daughter and son. He never got to meet either of them. I picture him sitting in a deck chair on a warm day in Dublin, snoring, newspaper by his side, my mother pruning roses, or digging flower beds, or, asleep like him. He was a simple man, knew what he liked and what he disliked. There was no artifice with my Old Man. I wish I could magic myself inside his head on that last morning, before he stopped breathing and the monitor went to flatline. We’d all agreed, no resuscitation. The sun was coming up when he breathed his last, reaching its early tendrils across the window ledge of the nursing home room, the staff up and about their pre-breakfast duties. I was mid-air, en route from Los Angeles to London. When I landed at Heathrow I plugged a few coins in a payphone and called home. My mother answered. Gave me the news. I’ll never know his thoughts that day, or any of the days prior, only how little it took to make him content. Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, the egg hunt in our front garden for a second year, the hot cross buns to be baked, Jesus to emerge from the cave, as my toddler says. Risen. My glass, too, will be risen, to toast my father’s memory. “Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis!” 


Aprilsfoolsagooseberryfoolsday’s Childe

Fell hand defaced. Yesterday was the twenty-second anniversary of my arrival on these shores. I flew Dublin to Los Angeles and took a puddle-jumper down the coast, amazed by the stunning vista of San Diego’s harbor and the approach to the airport, low and close to Mister A’s restaurant and downtown homes and offices. I arrived with no ambition, a bagful of books, and about $3,000 cash. Looking back over marriages, break-ups, childbirths, miscarriages, kidney stones, and other landmarks of my life in America, I wonder how I am still here, still alive, writing under the bright California sun. My parents were sorry to see me go, but they’d already waved me off at the ferry in Dun Laoghaire years earlier on my way to live in London for a couple of miserable, lonely years, so maybe they knew I’d be back, defeated again by another country, sent packing with my paltry possessions and dented psyche. I vowed no return. One-way ticket. Still here. Writing. Teaching. Parenting. Planting berry vines in dry earth. Stories in anthologies and magazines. Book published. Mother in a home back in Ireland. Father underground. Eight tattoos. Two children. One divorce. The hair is grayer, thinner perhaps, though the hairline maintains. I’ve lived up and down the coastline here, from San Diego to Mission Viejo, to Dana Point, to Carpinteria. Baton Rouge and New Orleans, too. The accent wanes. Needs work. Reminding. Tangible connection to home. Spider’s thread. Home is a Barry’s tea-bag and a listen to the Dubliner’s on Spotify. Skype calls from brothers in Dublin, Cork and London. Home is the scar on my arm from our old neighbor’s glass-studded wall. Home is where the hurt is; in my mother’s slow decline, her arthritic fingers, the recipe books with her meticulous handwriting. A place of rain and music, words and worry, gravestones and faded photographs. Sometimes I hear of old acquaintances hanged in attics, divorced from wives, fighting eating disorders, spinning wool in dim kitchens where long ago I might have sat, reciting the blessing before meals. Those connections are few and far between, now, and my mind at peace more now my mother is looked after means I, too, am fading from view, like the old black & white negatives in her closet, my features softening, my shape less clear, and in a matter of years I’ll be more than half my lifetime in this new world. Maybe not. The future is never certain, the fall of a card, the roll of the dice, nothing is guaranteed us, which is why everything matters, the past and the future, both traveling inextricably in the same direction, both destined to collide in some epiphany under the shadow of Clery’s clock, or on a beach in Carpinteria at low tide. Either way, year twenty-three is under way and I go out to meet past and future, burdened by both.