Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Monday, April 4, 2016

Woodsy Girls

Aspen Matis's GIRL IN THE WOODS (William Morrow), a new memoir about a young female hiking the PCT, appears at first glance to closely follow the parameters of Cheryl Strayed's chronicles of hiking that same route. Yet, in ways both good and bad, GIRL IN THE WOODS is a different animal; it's younger, rougher, less polished, at once more and less raw. It's less careful, more reckless, more boundless. It's more naive.

There are lots of reasons not to like GIRL IN THE WOODS. Skim reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, and you'll see. For this is the story of a white female who has everything: a ritzy Massachusetts upbringing, a life filled with books and clothes and trips, parents who are still together, a college acceptance at one of our nation's tops. The book is also the story of a novice who ventures into the woods unprepared and almost dies. And it's the story of a girl who didn't dress herself until she was sixteen, didn't wash dishes until she was 19, didn't cook, didn't clean, didn't know how to brush her hair. She's a pampered protagonist, and her writing is youthful, borderline sloppy, peppered with comma splices and phrases repeated.

Yet it's also a story of devastation, and of feeling insatiable, and of staying alive. It's about being alone, and not being alone, and being afraid to be alone, and ultimately wanting nothing more than to be alone. At the beginning of the book, I rolled my eyes at the comma splices, and by the end I was rolling my eyes at the love story, how easy it came, how perfect. 

But in the middle, I was crying. I was gripping the book with both hands, reading fast, letting hours slip by, phone calls going unanswered, meals going uneaten. Matis did what all memoirists dream of: she took something horrible - her rape - and she made it into a gift. She made it into something true, and real, and, very frequently, solemnly beautiful. 

I read the book in a day and a night, and then I went outside into the New Mexican night and inhaled deeply: pine, stars, a sprawling sky, the lights of Albuquerque in the distance. 

I thought of the PCT: that rugged, storied trail. Matis wrote of the men there, the prevalence of men hungry for women, the hunger they all felt on the trail. I thought of the "trail angels," who provided food and booze and weed and clothes and baths. I thought of the days Matis ran the trail, wild with thirst, her heart pounding hard, her life on the line. I thought of the comfort she gave up, the suffering she took in exchange. All of those days on the trail. 

GIRL IN THE WOODS, however flawed, remains worthwhile, rare, a fleck in a very dark night.

Friday, March 18, 2016


Happy Spring, dear readers, and a kiss from the sunny plains.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Random Family

I don’t usually like being chucked into a book, and I spent the first few chapters of Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s ambitious, saga-esque work of non-fiction, wondering why LeBlanc hadn’t written an introduction. She doesn’t interpret; she doesn’t try to inform beyond the lives of her characters. She doesn’t examine the system directly; she doesn’t give background information about laws, or neighborhoods, or people, or policies. She just throws you right into it: the daily ups and downs of life in the Bronx for an everyday teen. The story starts with the beautiful Jessica, so young and already months away from getting pregnant with the first of five children. From there, the story skitters and jolts from character to character: the wild, drug-using Lourdes, Jessica's mother, and her crazy brother, twelve and already out on the streets, breaking night. There's no pause, no situating. The narrator is invisible, unknown.

But after a while, I started to get it. This is immersion journalism; these are LeBlanc's characters’ lives. In Random Family, the struggles of half a dozen poor New York City teenagers are chronicled with grace and honesty. These kids – adults, really, because kids in the ghetto grow up at age five – were raised by the street, and they’re rugged and clever. The men deal drugs and the women have babies. A lot of the characters, men and women both, get arrested and go to jail; they get beaten and recover. They get kicked out of their moms’ houses. Their moms become grandmothers at thirty. Their babies get molested as toddlers. The book breaks your heart, and it makes you gasp, exasperated, at all the little mistakes – mistakes the system facilitates. All the little choices that make life harder, and all the little things that compound bad choices: no time or money for birth control, quick and expensive loans, abundant cigarettes, booze, and weed - and worse. A shitty transport system means a shitty life if you don’t have a car. Cheap sugar means rotten teach by three.

I realized an introduction wouldn’t do this book justice. It wouldn’t be fair. I could come to my own conclusions: that this was the story of an America I’d never seen, where girls became moms at twelve, and three-year-olds passed around blunts and bootie danced. Men had multiple wives, and gunned each other down in the streets. This was a story about a system stacked against the people who lived there, a system designed to see them fail. 

Random Family is a chaotic tumble of breakdowns and letdowns, betrayals and grief. It’s pain paired with joy: the beauty of the teenagers, their clothes and jewelry and hair and makeup, and the  beauty of the love in the ghetto: between parents and children, between lovers, between friends. People take care of each other’s kids; people share what little they have. People do their best to keep each other alive.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Halfway through Random Family, I looked up and found myself on a Southwest plane, half-full and on its way back from Atlanta. I’d been at an expensive educational conference, and I was exhausted, though I’d learned a ton: about accelerating students, interpreting data, and the obstacles young men of color face at community colleges today. I was wearing a nice outfit, and my new laptop slept in my bookbag.

I held Random Family in my hands and thought about all that I had, growing up: summer camp, a grassy yard, a dog and cat, a laundry line. A street that I could bike down. Friends I could explore the woods with. Skis and a ski pass; figure skates. Soccer balls; a tennis racket. A subscription to Highlights and a bookshelf of books, all mine. I thought about all the choices, big and small, that brought me to this moment. Some of those choices I made for myself, but most were already set for me, because of who my parents were, my grandparents. Because of the color of my skin, my class, my caste, all of my inheritances, I was one of the lucky ones, and I had had it so good. I hadn't done anything to earn that. I held LeBlanc’s Random Family in my hands, and I cried: it was so late, I was so tired, and there was just so much suffering in this world. I felt so suddenly guilty. Plus, our country is so sharply broken, and it probably won’t ever get fixed. There are so many of us who will go through our lives – on planes to conferences, in our cars to school – never knowing how bad things could be.

Dear readers, if you haven’t already, please go to the library and check out Random Family. I can assure you it will change your life. Don’t let the absence of high-level explanations dissuade you, because those don’t exist in the ghetto, and this book is true to that world. In its title and in its telling, Random Family depicts a realm just up the road, or just downstate - not far from you. Desperation lives around the corner. This is America, Random Family proclaims: severely fucked up, but wretchedly beautiful nevertheless.

Monday, February 8, 2016

THE MURALIST: Art Lovers Everywhere Lap it Up

Need something fast, hot, and downright good? You could hit up the Shake Foundation in Santa Fe...or you could just head on down to the library and pick up anything by B.A. Shapiro. I fell in love at The Art Forger, Ms. Shapiro's 2013 page-turner about fraud, all-nighters, and painting. So when Peg at the SFCC library put The Muralist, Shapiro's latest, into my hands, I dashed home, prepared tea, and began to devour.

The Muralist  doesn't disappoint. It's paced deftly, darting between 2015 New York to the tumult of the city in the 1940s. Shapiro characterizes well the cast of characters at arty bars and crammed, frigid studios: the alcoholic, say-anything Pollock; the supportive, sensible Krasner; the darkly sensual Rothko.

Among them is Alizee, their lesser-known (and wholly imagined) comrade, perhaps the most talented but also, arguably, the most troubled. Fighting to bring her Jewish family from France to New York, Alizee loses herself in her work...and ultimately loses her mind. Her 1940 disappearance anchors the book, providing a quiet mystery that undercuts the narrative, past and present.

Best of all, the book is fast and fun. It's light, the type of narrative you fall into after a long day of grading papers, barking at students, hustling to meetings...all the hours spent NOT reading. This is no Charles Dickens (happy belated, my fellow Aquarian friend!), but Give me something easy, I said to Peg, and she did.

To me, The Muralist's greatest strength lies not in the tense letters Alizee exchanges with her family in Europe, nor in the vivid descriptions of drunken nights with the (soon-to-be-filthy-rich) gang of artists. No, Shapiro's writing grabs ahold of me because of the way she writes work, the artist's work: frantic at times, possessed, as if she's no longer herself but the paint and the brush. The artist is gone from the world; she's left the building. The paint is her food, the hours her caffeine, the energy of the painting her fuel. I love reading about this lustful, crazed work - the same that defined the protagonist in The Art Forger, because when making art is good, it feels this way. You're not you anymore, and yet you've never been more yourself than in that moment.

Shapiro, in sensible, accessible prose, writes on the nature of art, and on the artist's life. It's one of trouble, anxiety, fear, and despair, but the moments of sheer beauty make it worth it.

Friends, hustle on down to your nearest book purveyor, and snap up a copy of The Muralist. Not in yet? Take The Art Forger instead...you'll probably need it for one night only.

Happy reading, my loves! Now carry on.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


Readings in the Library, the latest from the SFCC Creative Writing Program and the SFCC Library!

          Wednesday, 2/17 | 4 PM | SFCC Faculty Reading

          Tuesday, 3/22 | 3 PM | Students read with Natalie Goldberg

          Wednesday, 4/13 | 5 PM | Poets read with Miriam Sagan

All events will be held in the SFCC Library. Open to the public!

...more to come.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Precious Package

‘This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it “to the editor who can appreciate my work” and it has simply come back stamped “Not at this address”. Just keep looking for the right address.

Barbara Kingsolver

Friday, January 1, 2016

Another day...

Another year.

Happy 2016, dear readers, and may all your wildest dreams come true.

Love from New Mexico,

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mary Elvira Stevens....and me

Dear, dear readers:

Guess what! It's been just about five years exactly since I left Boston for a trip down the proverbial  Patagonian Road. Armed with a red backpack (generously "lent" to me by my brother), a copy of Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express (very worn by now but still intact!), and way too many clothes (isn't that always the way?), I boarded a plane for Guatemala City and opened a Blogger account. Patagonian Road was born.

Now, five years later, my life is what it is because of that Latin American year: I moved to New Mexico, a place that reminded me of the countries I'd fallen in love with. I kept up with my Spanish and also became an English teacher, permanently - a path I'd embarked upon during my Latin American year. I wrote a book, and it's being published next year by the Santa Fe Writers Project. 

And for all of this, I have Mary Elvira Stevens and Wellesley College to thank. I couldn't have ever taken this trip without the funding of the MES Fellowship, and if you're a Wellesley alum, I encourage you to apply. A rumor's been circulating for years now that you need to be under 26 and unmarried to get the fellowship - WRONG! You only need be a W alum...and you need to be at LEAST 25, which I think is smart. You're too reckless otherwise.

And if you're not a W alum...fret not! Countless other funding avenues beckon, from World Teach and the Fulbright Fellowships to a Watson and beyond. The point is, the money is there if you're willing to search, apply, wait, interview, wait, and maybe reapply. Same goes for the MES, Wendies - if you don't get it the first time, try, try again! For example, Meredith Sorensen applied twice, and her application - and, ultimately, her trip - improved as a result.

So I'll leave you with this, dear readers: my Mary Elvira Stevens personal statement. Over the years, many have reached out for it, and many more might like to see it. W or not W, dear readers, may you use my humble (but hey! ultimately successful!) stumblings as inspiration for the personal statements YOU write when YOU apply for travel dinero.

A note: I won't share my proposal, because frankly, it's inaccurate now, and anyway, it's tedious to read. And I won't share the budget, because it's outdated and probably, let's face it, not relevant here on my blog. (But my words of wisdom about grant budgeting are these: take your time, do your research, and pad. Pad. They could always give you less - and make it clear that you're okay with that. Individual inquiries related to my budgeting are welcome...visit my website to contact me. )

Without further adieu, my Mary Elvira Stevens Fellowship application's personal statement.


After graduating from Wellesley, I worked as as a front-desk receptionist at a hotel for six months, until I had enough money to purchase a ticket to Asia. I traveled alone there for six months, beginning my journey in Hong Kong and visiting Thailand, Laos, and India. I spent the most time in India, where I worked on organic farms, practiced yoga in ashrams, hiked in the Himalayas, and wrote. I fell in love with India’s crazy beauty, and the mix of exhilaration and fear I constantly felt there has fueled my writing ever since. I found that even the poorest people I met were willing to share what they had and always treated me with kindness, albeit not without some stares. I found it incredible that so many people could exist together in such close quarters, that hundreds of languages were alive in one country, and most of all that the Indian culture is truly an enduring one, whose roots will grow over any imperialist influences that have come along. Indeed, being in India changed my life and gave me something transformative to explore in my writing.

When my visa in India expired, I moved back to Cambridge and have worked full-time for the past year and a half as an associate editor for a small publishing company. I also began to pursue an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. The program requires that I attend twenty days of classes, lectures, and workshops in Montpelier annually. Between my trips to Vermont, I mail forty pages of writing monthly to an advisor, and receive letters and my marked-up work in response. My goal is to teach in a college classroom, since the MFA is considered to be a terminal degree.

Each day I sense that my time in India is slipping further and further away from me. I have to remind myself sometimes to close my eyes and remember being on those noisy streets, or on a beach with loping cows, or in those echoing mountains, where each day contained something I’d never seen, and never would again. My advisor, writer Philip Graham, wrote these words last night on his blog:

“The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered.” 

The trip I’ve outlined in my proposal will not only boost my credibility as a teacher and allow me to learn another language, but will also provide this unsettling sense of immediacy and the unexpected insight that fuels my writing. Because of my experiences in Asia, I know that a new place, a different place, will transform my internal landscape, forever rich in my mind and filling the page.