November 24, 2015 § 7 Comments
I’ve been a hot dog vendor, a shoe salesperson, a middle-school teacher, and a catholic school principal, but owning a bookstore has given me moments with the most eclectic tribe of humans of all.
There’s the crime scene cleaner who talked to me about the delicate line between detachment and sensitivity while I rang up her pile of fantasy books,
and the human statue who paints himself silver by day and writes poetry by night,
and the teen girl who builds wells in Uganda every summer and keeps a journal in her back pocket.
There’s the molecular gastronomist who began her career as an ice-cream tester (gah!),
the organic farmer who lives in a school bus and donates her harvest to a food kitchen,
the six-year old botany expert who arrives each month to buy the latest plant book,
and the bingo manager who fights for housing equality.
There’s the Iraq soldier without arms who still believes the world is ‘awesome’ and before he goes to college next year he wants to read one book every week,
and the father who resolved in 2015 to read to his children every night and hasn’t missed a night yet.
There’s the 14-year old playwright who had her script about a transgender teen accepted by a local theater,
and the grandfather who brings his six grandchildren into the bookstore each year and gives each one a book bag to fill with books of their choice,
and the locomotive engineer who doesn’t wear a watch.
There’s the eleven-year old who organized a youth empowerment book club,
the soil conservationist who fell in love with a snail farmer,
and a photographer who films sea creatures I’ve never heard of,
and the twenty-two year old man, who chose to communicate only through writing for 365 days and when we met, he was on day 224 and feeling like his entire mind and body had changed—in a sacred way.
There’s the child who sat by me for an entire hour and told me about the rare birds she’d seen in Puerto Rico and how someday she’ll be an ornithologist,
and the clown who struggled to be taken seriously,
and the firefighter who worked at ground-zero for three months and read Emily Dickinson every night she was there…
so many stories…
and I am beyond grateful for every single one of them, and each of you. Your words matter more than you know. Thank you from the depths of my heart for walking into our tiny bookstore and believing in books and making the world we work and play in a little less chaotic and a little more beautiful.
September 25, 2015 § 5 Comments
dear sweet writer who recently dipped your pen back into the word waters and joined a writing group—i know you were nervous because it was your first writing group ever…i know you were worried about your grammar and that your 8th grade English teacher with her BIG FAT RED pen still loomed large on your shoulder, ready to stab your incorrect use of “its” (gasp!) and your overuse of adverbs (double gasp!)—her relentless scrutiny feeding your self-doubt—but let me tell you,
we are not her.
we heard the shooting stars in your story, we felt the sentences that sang a new perspective, we witnessed what mattered to you and we thank you for taking the chance with us. we’ll read your stories as clean or dirty as you bring them to us… and when you are ready, (and there’s no rush) we can help you refine them too…but only you can tell your story and you did it today, beautifully.
July 21, 2015 § 22 Comments
When I first laid bare my personal writing in workshops, I puked before and after each meeting. I’m not talking about exposing my nature poems or opinions on the current state of education—I’m talking about writing with a truth stake driven through its heart.
I puked before the meeting, because I had no idea how the other writers would respond, no idea if they’d appreciate, reject, ridicule or judge. I puked afterward, (even if the critique was good, maybe even more so) because in some weird way, I felt I’d betrayed self, stopped protecting self—I’d allowed the dangerous, naive part of me to dance naked in the streets, arms open, face lit with desire and possibility—I’d unlocked the door of the safe house, knowing she’d run out, knowing she’d get hurt.
And when I signed with an agent to sell my novel?—the story of disrupted identity and power imbalances that might cause people to speculate about who the main character really was, I puked for three days straight.
My therapist told me puking was to be expected. Apparently, I was tearing apart some pretty hard-ass wiring. Apparently, it wasn’t the dangerous, naive part of me dancing naked, it was inner warrior woman, and like pupae ripping from industrial strength thread and bursting through membrane, discomfort was inescapable.
“You’re creating a new person,” he’d say. “You’re acting as if you are worthy. That’s no small thing.” He’d pass me Kleenex, shake his head and say things like, “The dangerous part of you isn’t naked woman or warrior woman. The dangerous part of you is underground veiled woman.”
He encouraged me to continue putting my voice out there—to say what I felt like saying, in the way I felt like saying it. To consider vulnerability as strength. To trust more. To say “fuck it” to anyone who thrived on tearing down, rather than firing up. To tell myself, “Your voice is beautiful.”
And so. With each new page of writing I exposed for review in groups, with each essay and social media post I didn’t delete, each time I said, “Fuck it,” and “Your voice is beautiful,” I felt less susceptible to harm. I began to taste, feel and smell the intoxication of a sturdier more resilient infrastructure. And as corny as it sounds, I felt different, in a sacred kind of way.
There are still plenty of days I worry about what people think, and my sentences crumple to dust and blow away before I can grab them and hide them under the bed. And there are nights I fail to believe I’m more than a story, rating or ‘like’, and lay awake in a hot sweat, cheeks wet with doubt and shame.
I will never again underestimate the power of saying fuck it and your words are beautiful—because it feels like something wrong is slowly being righted.
June 9, 2015 § 19 Comments
My husband and I own a little tugboat, named Annabelle, and no, we didn’t name her, she came that way—which was both swell and uncomfortable at the same time, but there we were. Our idea is to someday live on her, or come the revolution, fly to another world aboard her, but for now she’s an intermission between work, crusades, and expectations—a vessel assist—a way to resuscitate what almost died (or did die) during the week.
Also, for me? She is more than this. Annabelle is my writing space. I am convinced my best writing emerges within her hold. Maybe it’s the rocking cradle of her, the perpetual smell of diesel, the oil lamps flickering gold. Maybe it’s floating in salt water, the dead internet, the cognac—I don’t know, but tucked into her, I achieve a fusing of mind and body, and words rush like blood from a deep cut.
Annabelle’s home moorage is adjacent to a boatyard. The shipwrights begin work roughly at dawn, arriving with coffees and lunchboxes and a camaraderie I envy. As they begin to labor, the reliable vibrations of pound cut drill grind sand pound drill cut grind sand, makes me want to build something too.
And so I write.
I want to mention now, this about the boatyard: a hundred yards away, shipwrights are overhauling the Western Flyer, Steinbeck’s science expedition boat. I’m not going to get into why the Western Flyer is here in this particular boatyard (Google “Port Townsend and Western Flyer”) but shipwrights are transforming her into an educational vessel. When I think about all the kids who will tromp aboard this seventy-six foot ship and disentangle their hypnotized eyes from cell phones, while they interact viscerally, and absorb the stories and ghosts within her timbers, I feel hopeful that at least one of them will disembark trembling with epiphany.
I slip away to Annabelle often, and write until there’s somewhere else I need to be. Sometimes I stay overnight on her, alone, covered in piles of flannel and quilts, watching the stars through the skylight, imagining I’m a long way out to sea, close to the answers, and far away from the fucked up civilization shit. I’ll allow sentimental thoughts and listen to sailboat wires twang against metal masts, each rigging another pulsating tone in the symphony. I’ll hear the man who lives on the boat next to us, as he tramps down the ramp each night—around midnight or so, and greets his cat—always in the same way, “Well Cap, time for a nice glass of gin wouldn’t you say?” Later, I’ll listen to the rattling of ice in his glass as he sits on his aft deck, the cat occasionally meowing.
And now, as I write in Annabelle’s salon, the wind at a stand-still, Annabelle soft-breathing, I look out the small windows to the hushed gray water and whisper all the lover things—thank you, forgive me, I can’t make any promises, I love you.
“Yes,” she whispers back. “I know.”
January 2, 2015 § 7 Comments
Today, a little girl, not more than six years old, came into the bookstore with her mother. While her mother perused the poetry section, the little girl bounced over to me.
“Are you a writer?” she asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“How do you know?” she said, fingering the novels on the shelf next to her.
“Well, because it’s one of my most loved things to do in the whole world.”
She looked me straight on. “Do you think I’m old enough to be a writer?”
“Do you write?”
“Yes. A lot. So much.”
“What do you write?” I asked.
“Beautiful things!” she said, but then her face dropped. “And sometimes sad things.” She climbed up on the red chair next to me, crossed her purple cowboy boots and said, “Once I wrote about a rock named Pebble who lost his mom because someone threw her in a river…to see if she could skip. She couldn’t skip. It was a very sad story.” She shook her head and it looked like she might cry.
“Do you think you’re a writer?” I said.
Her young face opened. Brown eyes full of believing. “Yes!”
“Well then, I’d say you’re a writer.”
She gasped, hopped off the chair and began racing all over the store shouting, “I’m a writer! I’m a writer! Hooray!”
May she repeat that phrase many, many times before she meets her first critic and may it seep so deep into her being, no one can ever take away the truth of it.
December 12, 2014 § 24 Comments
I collect sentences like other people collect action figures, traffic signs or snow globes. The kinds of sentences that knock you out with their cadence and momentum and carry entire worlds on their nouns. The kind that transport you out of body to unlooked-for places and keep you going when things get grim. Sentences like this one from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf:
“It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.”
Or this from Toni Morrison’s, Beloved:
“The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
And most recently this, from Charles D’Ambrosio’s, Loitering:
“At early weekday masses it’s always Eleanor Rigby and her devout sisters, the secret sufferers, the wounded, the inconsolable, women who show up in their hastily tied bonnets and tattered housecoats, each alone, scattered through the nave, and yet that morning their thin muffled voices held so near to the note and so exactly to those rising and falling rhythms I knew by heart that joining in with them was like letting someone else do my breathing for a while.”
Sometimes, on a Sunday, I’ll lie on our worn red sofa with my notebook of found sentences, the slide of jazzy music in the air and read the sentences aloud. I’ll close my eyes and breathe into the acoustical mood and truth of them. It’s how I meditate.
It was Sister Mary, my teacher for second, third and fourth grade, who got me going on this collection. We loved words together. Each day, during silent reading, she’d gather the skirt of her habit up in a swoosh, kneel down by my desk and ask, “What’s your favorite sentence you’ve read so far today?”
The first time she asked this question, oddly, I had an answer and read the sentence aloud to her. “Oh yes,” she said, like I’d just popped a chocolate in her mouth. “That’s quite wonderful.” Her interest in words was not teacherly —she didn’t pinpoint active verbs or precise details; she just seemed to enjoy the sparkle of them in the same way I’d seen other women swoon over pearls and gold bangles. Soon, I was sharing sentences with her before she asked and before long, she suggested I save the sentences in a notebook.
Though I no longer have my early notebooks of loved sentences, I do remember one of the first ones I recorded, because I reveled in it for months. It was from Fox in Sox, a Dr. Seuss classic:
“When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a tweetle beetle battle and when they battle in a puddle, it’s a tweetle beetle puddle battle.
“Learn it by heart,” Sister Mary said. “It will be fun! Fun for your tongue! Joy for your tweetle beetle feet! ”
And I did. I rolled those words around in my mouth like glass marbles, tasted the tumble of them, rattled them off on the bus, the playground (which in retrospect might be why I didn’t have many friends), the dinner table, and while I waited in line for confession.
Next up was Jabberwocky. I. could. not. believe. someone wrote a poem with made-up words and people acted as if the words were real. When Sister Mary first recited it to our class, I fell off my chair laughing. “Who writes a poem about nothing?” I asked when I finally caught my breath.
I read Jabberwocky over and over to myself and copied my favorite stanza, the opening, into my notebook:
“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
“Read it out loud!” Sister Mary said to us. “What about brillig?” she asked. “And slithy and toves? Close your eyes! What do you feel in your fingers, your legs? You’re not robots! Absorb them into your body like a sponge, like a symphony! Feel the words and you’ll know what it’s about!”
I was nervous. This was all so new to me. Also, I wasn’t sure if I was already supposed to know how to do this or not, this feeling language thing, which added greatly to my anxiety. But I loved Sister Mary and closed my eyes. I listened to the words as she read the poem again in her lilting voice. I relaxed. A wild tableau of glittery corkscrew creatures with extended necks trounced across my imagination. And I swear, I felt heat radiating from their beaming faces, felt vibrations from their springy bodies that made my own arms take flight. Around me, other kids were making little beasty sounds and whistling and singing and I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at them. It was like we had all eaten too much sugar. There was Janet, her arms tight at her sides, pretending to slither up a tree or something, while giggling hysterically. There was Bobby, normally shy, spinning his body around the room and making strange guttural noises while shouting gyre! every few seconds. He’d later tell us he’d seen Brillo Pads, like gyroscopes in a tremendous rumble of sorts—and as far as I can remember, Sister Mary never once corrected his use of the soft “g” in “gyre”.
She had us cut the poem apart. Move the pieces around on the veneer of our desks, share our wild sentences aloud with each other. “It’s the way you say it, that makes a picture in your mind, that makes a feeling,” she’d say, moving up and down the aisles between our desks. I’m sure I’m not the only child who peed my pants laughing that day.
And though I would later experience more than one teacher who insisted on Jabberwocky’s meaning, insisted we consider the etymology of every word, required us to read explanations from Lewis Carroll about why he spoofed bad poetry, Sister Mary stayed true to her own opinion and said, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about.” It’s this view—that imagination trumps all, I carried forth into my life.
When I was eight, I read E.B. White’s, Charlotte’s Web and things began to get more serious. In my notebook, I wrote: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” but I wasn’t sure why I did. The words weren’t buoyant or beautiful or funny. I shared the sentence with Sister Mary. “Take it home,” she said. “Go somewhere quiet. Read it out loud. Pretend you are Fern. Draw what your hands look like when you read it out loud.”
Pretend I’m Fern? Draw my hands?
At home, I crawled into my writing closet with my notebook. Sat under the wool coats, near the rubber boots. Whispered aloud, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” over and over again. Closed my eyes and put my hand on my heart. Felt the pound of it. Papa. Axe. Fern inside me. Opened my eyes. Drew a fist in the margin. Under it, a heart in flames.
When I showed Sister Mary, she wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to me— vulnerability. I walked to the huge dictionary by the window and looked it up.
vulnerable |ˈvəln(ə)rəbəl|adjective: susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm: we were in a vulnerable position | small fish are vulnerable to predators.
I looked up susceptible.
susceptible |səˈseptəbəl|adjective: likely or liable to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing: they only do it to tease her—she’s too susceptible.
I wrote both words and their definitions in my notebook. I drew a pig in the margin.
In fourth grade Sister Mary gave each of us a different sentence from the Bible and told us we’d recite them the following week to the class. If there was any context to the sentences she chose for us, I don’t remember. I only remember she gave me this one from Daniel 7:9: “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” I read it to myself and my chest hurt. I said to her, “I don’t understand what this means.”
“Listen to the words,” she said. “Thrones, garment, white, wool, snow, flame—you know those words. Imagine you are the flame, the fire. Imagine you are the garment—white as snow.” Her suggestions eased the stirring of tension in my chest and made me feel instead, curiously powerful, in the way a super hero might feel.
A week later, after hours and hours of imagining myself as fire and snow, I stood in front of the class, navy plaid uniform ironed, saddle shoes polished, and recited my sentence. I could hear a new boldness in my voice, an openness in my throat. Words were changing me.
But I had no sooner finished reciting the last line when Sister Mary said, “But of course, many have spoken of the white of snow—take Hamlet, for example.” She wrote on the board:
“What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?”
Take Hamlet for example? “Who the heck is Hamlet?” I asked, jolted by the confusion of words she’d written. “Is this another kind of jabberwocky or something?”
She smiled and had us recite Hamlet’s lines (again, without any context) and of course, feel each word in our bodies. “Notice the shape of your mouths, your eyebrows,” she said. She pointed to her forehead, her chest, her stomach. “What do you feel here? And here?”
We called out our feelings, some concrete, some abstract, and she wrote them all on the board:
rocks heavy broken red afraid
mean slap guilty sword wrong
blind clean thirsty skin wet
soft milky glad fresh new
And as each voice called out, she’d say, “Yes! That’s it! That’s what it means!”
I’m pretty sure most of my future teachers would not have approved of this glib introduction to Shakespeare, this lack of poetic analysis, but the truth is, the meaning I gleaned from feeling those words? Hearing and seeing them fall into place, the tremor and echo of them side by side? Even out of context? Pretty damn close to the construct of forgiveness.
Soon after our Hamlet experience, Sister Mary told me the term “snow-white” went back much farther than Shakespeare. She handed me a copy of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tales, and pointed out this passage (which of course, I recorded):
Valerian seyde, ‘ Two corones han we, Snow-whyte and rose-reed, that shynen clere, Which that thyne yen han no might to see ; And as thou smellest hem thurgh my preyere, So shaltow seen hem, leve brother dere, If it so be thou wolt, withouten slouthe, Bileve aright and knowen verray trouthe.
And so it went on like this. Books finding their way into my hands, words pouring from pages, sentences accumulating in notebooks—each sentence revealing who I was in the moment and, when read in sequence, unveiling the story of who I was becoming.
And somewhere in-between those found words? I began to fill notebooks with my own sentences and notions and pictures in the margins. Sister Mary had given me a well-lit entrance to the intimate language of self as it reached to join with others.