Every April I land in pure and blossoming enchantment every direction I look. Trees barely hold up their rain-weighted branches of all that’s pink, purple and white in flower. Tulips sing their quiet little songs of cheer. Driving down any particular block, I see no less than 30 shades of pale green, composing out of the whole world an impressionistic painting in motion.
Then there’s the other side of April. Between the poetry month status bestowed upon this month, the urge to stick something in the ground quickly, and all manner of opening out and spreading wide the wings of many events, there’s barely time enough to do what I want to do, which is stop doing all else but wandering down one street after another. There are magnolias still exploding their pink boats on north sides of old houses, forsythia towering yellow into green, and crazy-ass parades of cherry blossoms, pear blossoms, and whatever those ballerina-pink delicate flowers are that I see on quiet little trees doing their annual pirouettes. Don’t even get me started on the fuschia-purple redbuds, and especially lilac.
Every April I over-book myself with commitments and then hate myself for it. I should know better: all of this is fleeting, reminding us how fast paradise turns into a string of 95 degree days when we pray for rain and sanity. Every April I make myself a promise, a little like the Passover prayer we say at the end of the seder: “Next year in Jerusalem” (although for me it’s always, “Next year south of the Wakarusa), that next year, nothing but this. Even this year as many moments of watching, breathing and taking in beauty beyond beauty beyond beauty.
People say you either love or hate the desert. For me, it turns out to be both/and rather than either/or. When Ken and I first drove the many, many, many hours to Big Bend National Park for our honeymoon almost 30 years ago, my first response was crying, but not tears of joy. “We drove all that way for this?” I said. The despair that took over my stomach spread to the rest of me, including my eyes, which made it hard for me to see any value in being there, least of all for my honeymoon. Moreover, I had the very clear sense that this place with its heat, many plant beings made of thorns and needles, rattle snakes (especially the one I almost stepped on) and isolation from humans could kill me if I didn’t pay close attention.
Over our week camping in Big Bend, my hate softened. Maybe it was the wild horses, the eight-foot high bamboo forests we discovered in remote areas, riding a donkey while a little drunk in Mexico, sleeping under the stars, or lying on the ground while vultures wheeled over. By the time we left, I kind of liked the desert: the cooling air in the mornings and evenings, the radical sunshine, the blazing blue of the sky, and the flowering of the cacti. I would return, I decided.
Getting back to a remote place takes time, decades in this case. But the return was now love for the desert unfurling in stretches of wavering light and vertical rock. What was brown, gray, prickly, and otherwise not imbued with water didn’t push me away but drew me closer although I was careful where I stepped or what I leaned toward. It helped that, according to some of the locals, it was the best wildflower
season in 40 years, which meant we walked and drove through carpets of cacti and color, yellow, blue and white blossoms all directions with occasional Octotilla opening its high-off-the ground buds while the yucca went from pink to white to spent beige.
But it isn’t just the flowers. The desert is the desert, a place where you have to both give up control over the landscape and pay close attention to what actually is (rather than what you think is) according to the wonderful writer Gary Paul Nabhan,
who we had the pleasure to hearing twice during our trip. Ignore the reality of the desert at your own peril. Respect what’s here, and you arrive.
Yet recognizing that reality, which entails releasing agendas and clearing the mind of ideas about who or where I am, opens the door to the place without doors: the heart-breaking deep blue framing and infusing the mountain forged from sediment and volcano, balancing all manner of ochre and rust, bleached out or saturated with hue. The soft cold touch of the Rio Grande on the toes. The towering walls of time, rock and story
coming together in a narrow canyon that only allows the sharpest light through. The tumbling overhead of the stars and more stars even as the moon obscures some of them. The stillness punctuated by the mockingbird. The mule deer beneath the junipers. The fields peopled with forests of prickly pear, which can also grow just about upside down off the sides of rock walls. The preciousness of water and the ingenuity of what can live with so little.
As a 26-year-old touching the desert for the first time, I was afraid. It was a place I had no reference point for except in the yet-unexplored back fields of my psyche. As a 55-year-old returning, I was satisfied. Life has shown me as precisely as the needle tips of cactus how little control I have over anything, anyone, and even to a great extent over myself. It’s also shown me what magic might spring forward when I fall back into reality, with care of course when it’s in a desert. So we climbed and walked, drove and paused, drank outrageous amounts of water while stepping rock to rock to rock to where the desert led.
Maybe life itself, like the name “Big Bend,” is all about letting ourselves learn to bend, sometimes in a big way over a lot of time, to find our place in the wild and dangerous, the dry and distant, the stinging and blossoming turning of the light.
Despite living with a man who’s all about the stars (as well as the flowers, the grasses, and seasonal migrations of many species), I should have learned the seasonal wheel and tilts of the constellations years ago. Yet all of Ken’s explanations floated into my ears and out the top of my head with nothing to tether one pattern to another. Being star-proof, I could only pick out the Big Dipper and, after a few decades, recognize Orion, or at least his belt.
Then it all changed. We went to a star party at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of far west Texas, and for some reason, the shapes and stories came into focus with a fury and speed that left me breathless. Maybe I had too much noise, and knick knacks in my brain for the last 33 years each time Ken patiently explained, yet again, how that backwards question mark formed the Leo the Lion’s head and back. In the crowd of hundreds gathered to look up together, the marvelous guide at the observatory used a laser pointer to trace the shapes stars make. His talk, Ken’s words buried in me from so many dark nights, and a wonderful book by H.A. Rey (yes, that H.A. Rey) called Find the Constllations have since aligned me what’s right here in the depth of a spring night: Sirius as the dog tag on Canis Major (the big dog), the zigzag woman named Cassiopeia, and the big bear constellation of Ursa Major made, in part, of the big dipper.
In the nights since, I’ve been looking up, trying to remember what I learned the night before. There are 88 constellations, at least according to astronomy today, and while I can’t show you more than about 7 at the moment, I’m excited to finally learn more of what’s parading above and beyond us.
It’s counter-intuitive to have trouble falling asleep right after daylight savings time has stolen an hour from us last weekend and seemingly again every morning since. Add to that the cold I either have or am getting over (I hope) and the drowse-inducing cold medicine I took, and it makes even less sense. But there I was, wide awake at 1:30 a.m., sitting in a pile of flannel sheets and quilts while adding up all my business expenses for my taxes. A person able to collapse into deep dreaming shouldn’t be able to add numbers, although I can’t vouch for any accuracy even when I’m wide awake.
For the last week, I’ve slipped and slid through various installments of insomnia, sometimes successful catching the sleep train before midnight, but often missing it and having to wait another 45 minutes for the next one, or the next. I could blame it on the birds, singing brightly all the daylight lately, or the coyotes, united in their high-pitched howls at my running-in-circles-barking dog, who stayed out too late last night in his mission to save us. Maybe it’s the sudden burst of spring weather and early greening specks in the field. Or the dizzy of March with its sudden call to go plant sometime, wash the car, and give the bathroom a good scrubbing.
Whatever it is, such late nights for no good reason land me in more surrealistic mornings when I feel a second or two behind life no matter the strength of the tea. Yet there is a certain vague sweetness is being shaken out of my habitual meanderings so that I can, like right now, sit on the porch in a thin jacket, listen to music I’ve never heard before, and write this to you.
Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.
I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.
On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.
In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy teaching.
Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”). The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.
Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.
I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.
Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.
The linguine boils happily beside the meatballs and vegetables in tomato sauce while just below them, the garlic bread warms up in the oven. On top of the water cooler, the salad waits beside the baggie of parmesan cheese, both out of the reach of the dog who will eat everything. In one bedroom, Natalie watches “House of Cards” while multi-tasking on music business stuff. In another, Daniel naps, and in the basement, Forest does things involving Reddit that I can’t quite comprehend. But the kitchen table is relatively clean, and soon they will pour around it along with Ken for our Sabbath dinner.
It’s been awhile. With everyone’s varied schedules, our young adult children living far away or moving back in for short stretches, and the general morphing of families dinners into catch-while-catch-can, we don’t get to do this much. Years ago, when the children were children, Sabbath dinners were the norm, complete with a healthy dose of sarcasm as the sweetheart babies and toddlers turns into Simpsons-quoting tweens and teens. Our regular ritual of having each person at the table say something they appreciate about everyone else turned into a chance to say things like, “I appreciate my brother for not being such a big jerk all the time this week.” Still, it was a ritual, and rituals have their power for marking off one time from another and bonding people, even in bad jokes and thinly-veiled insults.
Moreover, the Sabbath is about slowing down and savoring time, place, people, and obviously, food. This is something that continually challenges me to step gingerly over the fence of being a fierce do-er of many things to the land of being. The first few steps always feel a little shaky, but then I fall back in love with watching the sky, writing by hand in my journal, read a book with a cat asleep on me or walk with the dog. Of course, I do slip off into my computer and associated work here and there, but over time I’m tilting more toward this slowing down for a few hours or minutes or even part of a day.
Just as I’m about to close this post and drain the pasta, Ken calls: he’s running late and tells us to go ahead and eat. No, I tell him, we’ll wait.
That’s why I’m inside all day and night as much as possible. In Vermont these days, it’s officially wicked cold with a high of zero yesterday, and tomorrow big winds rushing 50mph in to splash the super cold all over us. Unlike my life in Kansas, where heading outside, even staying a while during this crazily mild winter, is a thing of beauty, here’s it’s gorgeous, freezing and deadly. We’ve been told by the college to not walk alone because of wildly low wind chills predicted.
Meanwhile, there is the need to get from Point A to Point B, which required vast planning and exact execution of many layers of clothing, from Cuddle Duds to outer layers of down. Getting dressed is serious business that entails wool socks under other thick socks, and the covering up of as much of the face as possible with hat, scarf and hood.
Then there is the step outside, which usually feels anti-climatic. “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” I think to myself for the first ten steps. Then I take the eleventh step, and I no longer think such thoughts because my legs, even in their layers, are freezing as is my nose, knees and arms. The snow and sky shines or shades itself in its loveliness while I move as fast I can in so many pounds of clothing. Then there’s a distant, then closer, doorway to enter a building and the heavy fogging of eyeglasses ensues. “Oh, it’s you,” people tend to say when I start zipping myself out, but since I can’t see them either, this works out.
From then on, there’s no running back to the dorm for a cat nap because it’s too darn cold (naps must be taken instead on my office floor). I plan my day with minimum exposure to windows or doors and maximum exposure to carbs, grease, meat, and hot tea.
Finally, when it’s time to return, I walk back bundled up and amazed at how cold my eyeballs are and, at the same time, how the new snow pouring down makes such extremes shimmer its old light to guide me home.