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

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 And I won't share the budget, because it's outdated and probably, let's face it, not relevant here on my blog.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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Festive Tidings!

I thank you God for this most amazing day, 
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, 
and for the blue dream of sky 
and for everything which is natural, 
which is infinite, 
which is yes. 

e.e. cummings

Wishing you peace, beauty, and joy in 2016.
Love, Kate

Sunday, December 6, 2015


The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty

You are sitting here with us,  
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.

You are yourself the animal we hunt  
when you come with us on the hunt.

You are in your body  
like a plant is solid in the ground,  

yet you are wind.

You are the diver’s clothes  
lying empty on the beach.  

You are the fish.

Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks


Give me something easy, I say to Peg, the head librarian. She juts her chin towards the farthest rack from the reference desk. Vida, she says. At this point in the semester, everyone's gruff, but Peg is always like that - at least at first, when you don't yet know that she's just got a really acute bullshit meter, and - in the beginning - you've got to prove yourself to her.

Anyway, I trust Peg. She thinks I am a good customer of the library, and she gives good advice. Sometimes, head librarians are the only ones you can trust. When all I needed was something lusty and artsy and crimson, Peg gave me Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon. When I looked like I could use a very tall glass of wine and a very easy read, she gave me Misty Copeland's Life in Motion. Once, Peg and I discussed Lily King's Euphoria for half an hour, gushing and gushing and, in the end, laughing snidely. I don't remember why. I think Peg reads at least one book a day.

And so when she says, Vida, I go and figure out what she's talking about. I scan the covers until I see the author's name: Vendela Vida. I haven't heard of her, and I'm sometimes intimidated by writers with exotic names. But it's a smallish book, and the cover pictures a woman walking beneath a Middle-Eastern looking arch. Vendela Vida: The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. I check it out.

As often happens, Vida languishes on the kitchen table until it's due back at the library. Laura from reference calls, as she does once a month or so, to remind me my book is late. I bring it back to Peg, and she checks it out again, and I take it home again and this time I read the jacket, the back cover, and then I turn to the back jacket and look at Vida: pretty, fortyish, vaguely sexy, vaguely foreign. I begin to read.

After about two pages, I close the book. No. Once, an agent told me that no one will ever represent your manuscript if it's in the second person. You, you, you, you, you, Vida's book goes, and I don't read any farther because no, no, it isn't me, it's you, Vida, it's you. I go upstairs and look up Vida's review on the New York Times. Parul Sehgal writes:

Ms. Vida has opted for the second person, hoping, it seems, that its intimacy might invite the reader to plunge more deeply into the story...There’s a temptation to set the book aside immediately, preferably with tongs. Resist the urge.

OK, fine. So she gets to break the rules. She has like three books already, after all.

I go back downstairs; I pick up Vida; I read on.

In the end, there's intrigue and mystery and little echoes of Beautiful Ruins, that fantastical (and fantastically popular, though I couldn't ever quite get into it) book by Jess Walter. There are relationships with "famous American actresses" who look radiant, radiant, but in real-life are predictably bitchy. There are predictable American tourists, and even a storyline I could predict: a baby, a sister, an escape.

Still, I read Vida's book word for word, page by page. Lush, rich detail, as one reviewer praised? I don't know about that - I'm not sure I ever quite saw Casablanca, where the story was set. And Lena Dunham, one of the more prestigious reviewers, claims there's great humor there, but I never laughed aloud. And I mean, the most beautiful part of the whole book is the Rumi quote from which the title - the diver's clothes - is drawn.

Yet there is something about Vida's book that snagged me and held on. I devoured it in basically one sitting (I did get up to pee and feed the cat and cook dinner and sleep and wake up). Still, in the morning I sat down with Vida before I even started the coffee, and by the time I read the final page, I was late for class. My heart was beating hard.

I love a book like that.

Thanks, Peg.

Friday, December 4, 2015

First Fiction

Dear readers:

After a long hiatus (whirlwind semester!) I'm back on Patagonian Road...but only to share my first published piece of fiction, 'Absence.'

Thanks to the Adirondack Review for editing and publishing, and especially to editor Angela Leroux-Lindsey and intern Erin Duffy.

And, thanks to my writing partner, Katharine Beebe, for reading this story more than once.

Happy winter, all! Think snow :)