Tassajaraandbackthensandiegosday’s Childe

Miles driven this week: 912

Pages edited at Tassajara: 209

Temperature high at Tassajara: 63

Fifth grade promotions attended: 1

Books read: 3

Deer seen: 1

Loads of laundry done: 4

Pages written in notebook: 18

Cane’s chicken fingers eaten: 4

Desks cleaned off: 0

Rejections received: 1

Days of bootcamp skipped: 2

 

Stormcloudsdropwisdomonearthsday’s Childe

The sound. A bubbling over, as if millions of child-blown bubbles are popping all at once, small ones running here and there to explode them. Triptaptriptrap. The loneliest time of night is 3am and the lit moon slanting in the dusted-over window. Dog shifts; a snort, a rumble of dissatisfaction.

Across the world my mother wakes from unremembered dreams. Everything she does these days is without memory.

“Thank you” and “Thank you,” the chorus of voices. Scoliosis. Backs bearing weight today will be irredeemably arched like the bow of a harp some thirty years from now. Then it will be me unable to bear witness to the unfolding day and the small events that make up life in a small place.

There are times I keep good company in my writing life. Between the pages of a journal. Sandwiched between stories of apocalypse and flight. These days the words are petulant; not wanting to emerge from the dark. Meditation might open roadways to progress. Not enough hours in the day.

Clock.

Cart.

Fence.

Bully.

Tinsel.

Death on the never never. Bass baritone spine tingling chill of the Irish Sea. Walls sheathed in snow like frosted cake on the dining room table at Christmas. The decorations of childhood are now no more. The sled. I remember the sled, and Santa urging the reindeer onwards, the back packed with parcels and bows.

A glass bead sits on the desk. The future reflected in its glow can’t quite make me understand. A list of sorts. Payment for services rendered. Boxes without packing slips. Meetings to discuss trivial things. Worry too much about checking off standards and measures, and not enough about impassioning the young students who want to be thralled.

Thanks.

Chicken.

Tape.

Heart.

A slow falling rain. The gauge ticks steadily to three. The downcast eyes of a stained glass Jesus. Before my time. Giant clips constrain the pages of disappointed manuscripts. Energy and effort are lacking. The writing must wait. There’s not enough time in the given day for all to be addressed.

Meat dried on a prairie. The lone coyote at the far end of the box canyon waits for the dim light of night. Men on horseback click tongues and move through the grey slush. Acres. Thousands. Widgets create wealth. A line item on an agenda goes unseen. The pastel painted card askew on the desk is a reminder of what’s left to accomplish.

Every falling drop is hungrily absorbed by the dried earth as it flexes its girth and welcomes renewal.

Sometimes I wake in the night and stare at the beams and their painted weight. Dreams remain forgotten. A hint here of what makes one anxious, a taste there of what engenders fear. A grave holds five coffins. There’s plenty of room for more beneath the frost-rimed surface. Don’t fool yourself to the ache of impermanence.

 

Nighttime Travelers: Los Angeles/Dublin and Back Again.

Ireland is cold. Freezing. Fog clasps the midlands in an embrace that chokes the breath in a man. Red berries tinged with white. The grave is the same; waiting. The old home town looks the same. Cafés, pubs, church, and the house our family called home, mid-century, post-war. Bananas and pineapples were unknown refugees on rich people’s tables.

A distillery peddling bitter whiskey to thirsty tourists. Rip-off merchants.

“Goodbye, Ireland, I’m off to Kilbeggan.” My father’s war cry.

My mother sits in the armchair, engulfed. A missing plate on the wall beside her. Careless caregiver knocked it off and shattered it to bits. She knows who I am. The same questions. On repeat.

“Have you seen any of your old friends?”

I answer each time as if it’s the first time of asking.

Receding. Hair white as a summer cloud. Collapsing in on herself.

“Have you seen any of your old friends?”

The house is empty of familiar furniture. Sent to auction. Give away for tuppence. 40% commission leaves little for her coffers. Simple needs these days. Hair done monthly. Cigarettes smuggled in by brothers.

Angelus bell at noon.

“The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…”

“Heathens,” my father said. We didn’t know our prayers and it was her fault.

A kite hovering above the motorway.

“Have you seen any of your old friends?”

The cold gets into your bones.

Kiss her forehead.

Say goodbye.

“See you tomorrow.”

The plane leaves at 5:55am.

“Have you seen any of your old friends?”

Everything is the same. Nothing is the same. From her you sprung. Nothing needs to be said. Everything is understood. There are silences. Walking across the parking lot to the rental car, the sobs send seen breath onto winter air.

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Manifesto 2016

  • Walk the avocado trees in search of owl feathers.
  • Write into the dark corners of the heart where the truth hides.
  • Turn your characters lives upside down and scour the debris for plot.
  • Place the owl’s feather on your desk before each writing session.
  • Look for inspiration in the unpublished manuscripts collecting dust in the garage.
  • Carry the 1952 Irish penny in your pocket as a talisman.
  • Invoke the spirits of the ancestors before any readings you give.
  • Only submit when a piece has been read, edited, re-edited and read aloud.
  • Construct small altars of fallen avocados for the dead to discover.
  • Review only those books that matter to you.
  • Write one creative affirmation for your wife every day.
  • Seek counsel from the seal in the wintry waves.
  • Find joy in the ordinary moments.
  • Read War and Peace aloud each day.
  • Listen to music you’ve never heard before.
  • Channel the rejections into incendiary writing.
  • Honor the words and wisdom of others.

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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.

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Mercuryrisingsday’s Childe

Swelter. The dial reads 89 degrees. March? Spring? Madness. Classroom is overheated, the kids are overheated, and the teacher is overheated. Books from a distance arrive in purple paper—sepulchral, magisterial, and important. Reading Homecoming, Marilynne Robinson’s quite spectacular book. God, some of the passages are so beautiful, so rich in language, so perfect, as to make one’s head spin. Reading such a book raises such questions about my own writing, about how seriously I’m taking the endeavor of revising a novel, of whether I’d be better off consigning it to the gutter. Last night I slept poorly, the second night in a row, and was up four times at least. Sometime around 5:30AM a skunk was close to the bedroom window and sprayed the garden as the stink came on pungent and overpowering. The dog barked not at all, raised not an ear, simply slept on. All the time we sleep there are movements and motions in the world. Across the continents planes fly, plunge into mountainsides, land, and still we sleep on. There was a “wind event” yesterday and the breeze picked up to quite a forcible level, sending trashcans flying, spraying blossoms everywhere. Brittle leaves rose to hundreds of feet high and spiraled to earth again. This is a good reminder of the world being in constant motion, always turning and always unpredictable. In San Diego someone tried to abduct a child from a school. Here in Santa Barbara the sun shone hard and a cruise ship berthed in the harbor. Tea in a cup, green pottery, the sweat on my wrists where they rest on the kitchen table as I type. Easter approaches, a week off work, or a week off school, for there are plants to be put in the earth, houses to be cleaned, stories and reviews to be written, and ideas to be hatched. All in motion, all in some haphazard way worthwhile.

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The Law of Diminishing Returns

The time of year. Holiday lights, Christmas music from Thanksgiving to New Year. School almost done, the ships righted and the course set for calmer waters. Lunch today was provided by our PTA, and included talk of Heidegger to Italo Svevo, covering Trieste and Puglia on the journey. Strange how conversations tip one way then another. Talked in class yesterday about a student I used teach in San Diego and how dark and awful her life had become and how I made allowances so she could pass the class she was failing at that time. The message I wanted to share was about how much we care for our students and how on the surface we might assume things, yet when we scratch the surface and see below, we understand in a far different way. That’s why I was crying while I was telling the story, and because I thought of that student and all the crap she was going through, and how today she’s doing great. Law of diminishing returns.

And I am doing great, or so I tell myself. Stress, destress, count, mis-count. Debilitate. Stories come and go. Tonight a great horned owl flew across our path as we walked through town and it alit on the side of a tall palm tree, where it sat for a minute before flitting across to another larger tree where it appeared to have its nest. In search of mice, perhaps. All over the playground the small creatures scurried, cuteness factor high, in attempt to avoid the fate of claws. Metaphor for life. A hand in a wicker basket. An unseen adversary. The flash of talon. How the owl’s ears stood out in contrast to the closing of the day, the light faded, the rainclouds over the nearby foothills. Nature in synchronicity with urban life, the market going on a little way off, the pre-holiday shoppers bundled against the supposed cold of a Southern California winter’s day. The law of diminishing returns.

 

Five thousand miles away my mother avoids the world. Cocooned in an armchair, greeting visitors like some potentate of old. Giant room. Small woman. Blue light, white light, the Christmas tree in the common area downstairs, other citizens at their supper, celebrating the loss of hair and muscle and faculties. All I can do is close my eyes and think of our old house at Christmas; the tinsel and the colored paper chains, the holly boughs behind every mirror, the Carrara marble crib scene, the paper-chains crossing the rooms to meet in the center and attach to the light fittings. Had I a time machine to take me home, to return me to days of old for even a brief moment, to see her industry in the kitchen, producing magic out of ingredients. She sits in her chair and signs her names to the proffered Christmas cards. They’ll wing it to the four corners of the world. Law of diminishing returns.

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