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

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Mind is its Own Place: In Conversation with Stephen Reed

When I started at Northwood as a ninth grader, I was decidedly a nerd: small, sort of shy, dorky in my fleece and khakis. The friends I had were the ones I’d known in middle school, but they fit in that first year in a way I just couldn’t. While they had adventures on weekends, I stayed home and read. The only place I felt like I belonged, that first bumbling year, was in Mr. Reed’s English classroom, where I’d crack open the textbook, an assemblage of short stories and plays, and we’d pore over The Glass Menagerie, or “The Lottery,” or “The Most Dangerous Game.” With those pages in my hands, I fit. I was empowered to speak up and write fearlessly. Here, we could talk about these texts in a way I understood, a way that related to my own life—the loneliness of that first high school year, the uncertainty of an adult future, the tenuousness of friendship. And beneath every lesson ran an undercurrent of beauty and, closer to the surface, of humor, if not in the subject matter than in the discussions themselves. We could make ourselves vulnerable here in Mr. Reed’s classroom, and it was okay to laugh. Laughing was encouraged! And it’s Mr. Reed’s booming laugh I hear as I write this, a laugh you can hear from all the way down the hall. It’s a laugh that invites you to join in the conversation, to look for the funny, because there’s something in these pages, in his classroom, for everyone to love. 

Mr. Stephen Reed has taught at Northwood for over 40 years. A longtime teacher of English, he has also served as Chair of the English Department, Assistant Headmaster, Director of College Guidance, and Director of Hockey Operations. Currently, he is Director of Alumni Relations. 

It was an honor and a pleasure to interview Mr. Reed this spring. 

KM: What drew you to teaching in the first place – and what made you stick with it? 

SR: The teachers in the small town in which I grew up were outstanding from grade one on. When I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Estabrook saw that I loved American history; she took back the text I had been using and supplied me with the eleventh-grade text and let me read and write about whatever interested me at my own pace -- my first independent study. Her interest was reinforcing in so many ways. 

When I got to high school, another handful of teachers brought their subjects to life, and I joined the Future Teachers Club. I loved learning and the people who helped me learn and who cared enough to let me know when I was falling short or succeeding as a student or person. At Bowdoin, talking about literature in a room full of bright people was a joy. 

I have tried to infuse discussions of The Great Gatsby, King Lear, Heart of Darkness, whatever, with similar enthusiasm and joy. But mostly, I have never forgotten the impact that taking interest in the way Mrs. Estabrook did can have on my students. 

I began my career at a school for kids with special educational issues (most had been tossed from their previous for anti-social or criminal behavior). I learned that I could move some in a better direction by focusing on their strengths, letting them know there was something worthy in them. That was as affirming as job success gets. 

KM: I’m sure lots of alums are curious about the ways Northwood has changed over the years. Can you tell a bit about the ways Northwood has changed over the years? Can you tell a bit about what the school was like when you began teaching – and the ways in which it’s different now. 

SR: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Northwood has always had its share of both remarkably, committed talented students and those who for whom classroom success was not a top priority (that hasn’t stopped many from the latter group from having impressive success in life, by the way). We have always depended on first-rate athletic programs for paying the bills. Most substantial changes were made from economic necessity (the admission of women, reaching out to the Asian population, the recent addition of two high-level soccer programs) but had tremendous benefits beyond the tuition revenue. We are quite proud of the innovative programs we have developed recently (STEM research, independent studies, the LEAP week of travel and special interest programs which conclude the year), but even back in the early seventies we were progressive, accommodating groups of five or more students who lobbied for a particular class (the history of music, for example), and having twelfth graders end the year with an innovative Senior Program, three weeks of college-level lectures in the evenings, small group seminars the next morning, and a twenty page research paper or an equivalent project – a great preparation for college. The most obvious change visiting alumni would notice is the racial diversity of the student body, another positive development. If visitors stayed long enough, they’d notice that today’s students are less likely to challenge authority; the 70s were a more rebellious time, for sure. I will admit that many of my favorites then and now have been those who challenge. 

KM: For some, studying English is a joy – it means you get to read books and talk about them! But for others English class is a source of confusion and dread. How do you engage your students with literature – especially those who struggle to connect with the subject matter? 

SR: I suspect all English teachers’ success varies from student to student, often depending on the work being studied. Choosing works that have universal themes and say something profound about the human condition helps. At the high school level, not getting bogged down in terminology better saved for a college course (e.g. volta or the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor) is important. I believe in focusing upon theme and connecting the issues of the classics with current affairs. Enthusiasm and humor are crucial. To keep students engaged, it helps to reinforce even misguided responses with an acknowledgement of some worth in their answers. 

KM: Tell us about teaching during COVID. What were the challenges and what were the silver linings? Did you ever think about leaving the profession? 

SR: I am no master of things powered by electricity, from toasters on up. Handling classes with students in-person, synchronous and asynchronous was a Kafkaesque, organizational nightmare. About a third of the time, I forgot to record my classes. There was not even a bronze lining, let alone silver. Hence, I am now safely out of the classroom and in charge of alumni relations, a rather “harmless drudge,” as Dr. Johnson said of lexicographers. 

KM: You’ve taught in the heart of the Adirondacks for decades. How does this setting inform your teaching and the content of your course offerings. 

SR: I leave the glories of the Adirondack setting to the science and social studies departments and our splendid outing club. To quote Milton, “The mind is its own place.” One of the best things about literature is that it allows people to be in whatever setting and time they wish: Plato’s Greece, Shakespeare’s London, Achebe’s Africa. The fact that one doesn’t have to hike is a huge bonus. One of Oscar Wilde’s characters pointed out that nature is highly overrated. 

KM: One of the wonderful things about teaching is that as educators, we are empowered to be learners, too. Tell us a bit about what you have gained or learned through your students. 

SR: The one thing I can say for sure is that I had the opportunity to learn far more than I have applied. Were I a more apt pupil, I think that I would be more adventurous and brave. Northwood students are remarkably courageous and resilient (your own adventures chronicled in your book are but one example). I am humbled and pleased that so many of them have truly stretched themselves and achieved remarkable success. A part of me likes to think that the environment here has toughened them by offering real challenges, maximizing their competitiveness, teaching them the value of group effort and trust. 

KM: In a 2017 interview with alum Shane McGrath, he asked you, “What common traits do memorable students at Northwood have?” You replied, “I am a fan of the tough, not needy (although everybody, including me, suffers from that flaw)”. As students, we don’t often think of our teachers as “needy” -- they are givers with experience, after all. I wonder if you might reflect on this idea of “neediness” as something universal, something relatable. What needs does an educator have? If I may, what needs do you as an educator have? And more broadly: as the years go by, does our sense as neediness ever leave us – and can it ultimately serve us? 

SR: So much for heeding my request to make the questions softballs. I have found myself much more desirous of the approval of my students than of the adults I deal with. The reactions of adults are far more calculated and self-serving. Most teenagers’ attempts at guile are rare and fairly transparent; most often, students are genuine. I judge the value of the life I have chosen by their communication, implicit or explicit, of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with my teaching and mentorship. Because I utterly lack ambition and have little in the way of worldly achievements, I have accepted that whatever esteem students might feel for me and whatever worthiness I might have of that esteem must be sufficient. Moreover, the only real evidence of that worth is evident in their success. If that neediness was going to disappear, it probably would have by age seventy-five, I suspect.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Life After the MFA: Teaching, Writing, and Making the Best of It

Originally published at Catherine Campbell's Literary Blog

In a chalk-scented classroom on a September afternoon, I read The Circuit with nine English language learners. The Circuit, a spare book of stories by Francisco Jimenez, is a struggle for these readers, although to me these words are as familiar as my own hands: dripped, kissed, puddles, baby, tree. Walked, felt, spoke, scattered, clattered. I need not read carefully to understand the page, but my students take turns stumbling through the paragraphs, pausing at phrases I feel like I’ve always known: of course, whether or not, awhile. 

When I began applying for MFA programs in 2007, I hadn’t envisioned this as my future. I was twenty-four, and all I knew was that I could write. I’d been a writer all my life. Writers could become lawyers, but the LSAT prep books proved unbearable. I was a waitress by night and an administrative assistant by day, and I decided to follow my heart. I figured that, with an MFA, I could teach English at the college level and also start – and maybe even finish – my first book. The MFA was a terminal degree, and I knew most programs demanded a book-length manuscript of their students by the end. It felt indulgent, especially as my college classmates were thinking of med school or a masters in public health or a teaching certification: practical things that would get them jobs. But I was lucky; my parents encouraged me. I penned a fresh sample, typed up my application, and mailed it out. 

 What do you do with an MFA? It was a popular joke once I started my program – in my case, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Each semester, students from around the world came together for ten days to workshop, lecture, listen, and learn. On one of the last nights, you’d always get a group of rowdy fourth-semesters putting on a skit: “What do you do with an MFA?” to the tune of “What do you do with a Drunken Sailor?” Fueled by Jack Daniels, they’d mime rolling the degree up like a joint: You can smoke your MFA! You can use it to cover the windows! You can fan yourself with it! And so on. 

 But in all honesty, there was nothing sweeter than those two years spent pursuing my MFA. During those ten precious days every five months, I’d stay up with my writer friends, drinking until the sun rose, still waking with enough energy to talk writing all day. Several of my peers even divorced their partners back home for fellow writers they met in the program. Meanwhile, my writing developed by leaps and bounds, expanding with every new “packet” – my monthly, 50-page submission to my advisor. I graduated in 2010 feeling confident and buoyed. My support network spanned the nation. A fellow graduate helped me to get a job as an adjunct professor in New Mexico, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

In some respects, my MFA gave me what I wanted: A job teaching English at the college level, and a book deal. Eventually, I landed a full-time post at a small community college in the third-poorest state in the nation. The bulk of my courses are for students who need remedial work to enter college-level composition. Creative writing classes are highly coveted where I work, and I’m at the bottom of the seniority totem pole. I had to work like a dog – adjuncting and cocktail waitressing for years, or what Santa Feans call “The Santa Fe Shuffle” – to get where I am. Meanwhile, most radiologist technicians, who can get their two-year degrees at our community college, earn more than I do. I’m not referred to as a professor, but as an instructor. I’ve gotten used to students yawning during class, but it still hurts – especially if I’m trying to teach them about something I love. 

Still, I’m grateful for the work that I have. A few years ago, I befriended the head of our creative writing program; a year later, she handed the literary magazine over to me, and I’m the editor now. I started a reading series last year with my best friend on campus, the head librarian. I get work on the side now, editing projects routed to me through word of mouth. Last week, I was even on the radio, talking about writing. 

The best thing about my work schedule is that I can spend my mornings, weekends, and summer breaks writing, although cobbling together the time to work on my own projects during the semester can seem impossible. That’s when I envy friends with PhDs who work at universities, with their 2-1 schedules and the impetus the administration puts on them to produce. I yearn for that – for my employers to nag me about writing more, getting published more. But I work at a community college, and my main job is to teach – not to publish. 

With every passing year, I feel like I become a writer a little bit more. That’s certainly the truest gift of the MFA: at its heart, the degree solidifies your presence as a writer on this earth. Once I left the program, I felt that writing would be with me forever. I knew I wouldn’t survive without it now. Writing became something that was mine, beyond any job or relationship. 

And so, on a warm day in mid-September, five years after graduating from my MFA program, I find myself in a classroom with nine English language learners. The Circuit is recommended for readers grades six and up, although my students are all in their twenties. It isn’t about that, though. The ideas in the book are simple, but our language is not. As a class, we debate the differences between the simple past tense and the past continuous – the same differences I have struggled with alone, at home, before the keyboard. We discuss the varied meanings of the word ‘please.’ We laugh at the confusion surrounding ‘wound’: The bandage was wound around the wound. Wound and wound and wound. We play with words; we tease their meanings out. Sometimes, we let them shake us. 

I’m a writer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Like Love

“Love is the fulcrum on which the teeter-totter rests,” writes Michele Morano in her wry, relatable memoir, LIKE LOVE. Over the course of fourteen linked essays, Morano reveals a lifetime of liaisons and the lessons—dire, laughable, and loveable—that accompany them. On the nature of romantic friendships, Morano recounts the history of her mother’s own reckoning with love: A departure from the nuclear family unit, and an entry into a lesbian relationship. Of the unrequited love that so punctuates adolescence, Morano describes the seductive, hand-scrawled notes a thirteen-year-old left for her—and which her mother found. There’s the unconsummated almost-love between neighbors, and the fizzy, lusty, non-love experienced by high-school girls. Always, the air surrounding the reader seems to “crackle with [the] spell” of these manifestations of almost-love—not quite commitment, not quite friendship, a hungry longing for affection, or acknowledgement, or simply a hand reaching out.

 In one of the collection’s most compelling selections, “Crushed,” our narrator, now a thirty-something teacher, reckons with her crush on a twelve-year-old student. “Innocence doesn’t exist,” Morano admits, and “complexity is everywhere.” She observes the object of her affections from afar while she ponders the sometimes-baffling decisions of the heart: “Sometimes, when I watch him joking with his friends on the quad […] my throat tightens with some emotion I can’t understand. Or maybe it’s a combination of emotions: mournful love, buoyant sorrow, the outline of desire perched between an unknown future and the enigmatic web of the past.” In each layered scene, this teacher’s crush is made manifest, and by the essay’s provocative, tortured close, the reader’s world is abuzz, fingertips tingling, nerve endings alert. 

Morano, ever-observant, writes that as a child, “[…] it occurred to me that I was the only person who could see the whole situation for what it was because of something that must be a personality trait. I watched.” Through this narrator’s eyes, the world becomes “a repository of stories,” a braided web of love’s near-misses. Indeed, as the reader hungrily turns each trembling page, it occurs to us that every life is quilted with these “like loves”—and Morano invites us to fall into them fully, embracing “the ever-presence of romance in all its many forms, most of which are puzzles, mysteries that point us toward deep reflection on who we are and how we live.”

Friday, July 12, 2019

Happy Birthday to Hen

Another year, another July 11, another summer day of sticking my hands into the soil and rooting around with the roses and missing you. I whip butter and sugar to make the mocha icing you used to spread over Angel Food cake. I have people for dinner and the kitchen smells like yours used to: Onions and wine, a faint strain of flowers, chocolate tempering on the stove. You never met my husband, but you'd like him if you did: Today, I wrote out a to-do list, and he did the things on it without a word: Compost, trash, light bulb in hall. He's handsome, he works hard, he's kind, he reads books. I lend out books and remember what you warned: Never lend books or money. I have no money to lend, anyway, but books I can't help it, I'm sorry. I lend them. I think of it this way: When I lend books I know I'm really just giving a gift. It's summer and there's no work and I read fervently, hungrily, a book a day the way you used to. My neck is sore from reading. Outside the rain's about to come and it smells like your house used to in summer, ripe magnolia blooms dropping onto the ground. The years pass without you, and I try to be grateful for every beautiful day I'm alive.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Always a Winter Day

This year on my birthday, the wind gusts while the sun beams through puffy, swift-moving clouds. The air outside is electric, and the cat dashes madly up the stairs and down, unsettled, agitated, racing after the fabric balls I chuck across the living room. Usually, she’s a lazy cat. I study my hands, because someone once told me you can tell a person’s age by looking at their hands. My hands are thirty-five today, nicked in places from playing rough with the cat. My wedding band sparkles on my left hand, originally placed there as an engagement ring by my husband three years ago. It was my birthday, the first day of our engagement, a beautiful biting sun-splintered day like today. 

Some birthdays, I cry – missing my mother, never with me on my birthday now. I feel sad opening gifts alone, presents wrapped and mailed days ago and now smelling only faintly, if I bring my nose close, of my childhood house, my mother’s hands, our mountain town. Some birthdays, years ago, I’d get drunk. Some birthdays, I gazed at a foreign world: A crescent-shaped beach in southern India when I turned twenty-three, my friend Katie on the sand beside me, wiping beer from her mouth and passing me the bottle, laughing as palm trees creaked and swayed overhead. One birthday, a sweltering Nicaraguan town, pineapple juice sticky on my fingers, the rose-colored sky reflected in crooked cobbled streets. One birthday, I held my newly published book in my hands. 

Some birthdays, it’s been too cold to go outside. One birthday, an ice storm. Childhood birthdays: Pool parties on freezing winter days. Floppy pieces of pizza on paper plates, and opening presents in front of other people. 

I take my birthday too seriously, I think. I get all existential and dread the day. My cat doesn’t know her birthday at all. My husband guesses it’s Halloween, because of her calico coloring, and so we give her extra little treats every year on that holiday. On my husband’s birthday, he prefers to go into the woods with water and food and walk for hours and hours, miles and miles, speaking to no one. I haven’t seen my brother on his birthday for many, many years. For my dad’s birthday every September, my mom bakes a mocha-chocolate cake. Once, for her birthday when I was just a little girl, my dad bought my mom red roses, more roses than I’d ever seen at once, and he had me carry them out to her while she worked in the garden. He  followed behind and presented her with a slim black box, a gold necklace inside, the same necklace she’s worn every day since. That birthday, my mom was the one to cry, wiping tears from her eyes with dirt-stained gloves. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Little Life

You think A LITTLE LIFE is going to be something it’s not: one of those post-college coming-of-age-in-Manhattan books that takes you along through drug-addled friendships, boozy conversations, new babies, failed marriages, and the like. The start of Hanya Yanagihara’s 813-page novel certainly smacks of books like A FORTUNATE AGE, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, and even Mary McCarthy’s THE GROUP – complex, layered stories that chronicle that path of a group of friends as they navigate the adult world.

But A LITTLE LIFE isn’t A FORTUNATE AGE. It’s not THE GROUP. In fact, I suspect many would be hard-pressed to find an easy contemporary for this complex, tragic story. It’s a singular, unforgettable, searing work, one that navigates the realms of trauma, physical pain, and grief by means of expert language and gorgeous, visceral scene. For the last third of A LITTLE LIFE, I wept, turning the pages and wiping my eyes as the story unfolded, gruesome and true. 

The central figure in A LITTLE LIFE is Jude, the one who holds his group of male friends together.  He’s the victim of a childhood trauma, one that is revealed to the reader in fits and starts, snippets and scenes, until we finally grasp the horror, the breadth of such abuse, in the book’s closing pages. Jude holds his secret tightly, and his friends come to accept this. When he’s crippled with pain, paralyzed on the floor, they hold him close; they take him to the doctor; they don’t ask questions about the cuts on his arms. His friends are his saviors, and he, with his understated beauty, his generosity, his humility, is also theirs. 

At the end of the book’s second chapter (there are just seven), Jude remarks, “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are – not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself.” Jude’s best friend, the attractive and compelling Willem, is this friend: kind, generous, forgiving. He’s Jude’s foil, the picture of health and good fortune, and the relationship between the two is what carries the book forward, propels it through the decades to its final agonizing close. 

In A LITTLE LIFE, “Friendship [means] witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs.” At one point, Willem wonders, “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going.” Willem and Jude’s friendship is like this: the most important relationship in each of their lives, and one that remains sexless, but not without love. 

As handsome and charming as Willem is, it’s Jude who steals the reader’s heart. Jude, who keeps his pain knotted tight inside himself, who never complains aloud, who feels, all the time, like his legs will give out—it’s Jude who’s the true hero in A LITTLE LIFE, the one who survives, who even thrives, despite the obstacles he’s faced. Jude hates himself, hates his failing body, his terrible past. He can’t enjoy sex, can’t enjoy his physical body: He sees himself as flawed, “a piece of junk.”

For this reader, Jude’s pain was the most compelling part of the book. I’ve taken my body for granted my whole life, and yet it’s brought me to countries near and far, to the tops of frozen peaks and to the shores of vast oceans. It’s folded itself into cramped buses, cabs, rickshaws, boats—all so that I could see the world. Swimming, walking, skating, climbing, hiking, skiing, rowing, biking, running: verbs have always been the vocabulary that’s defined my life, punctuated the other, more literary life I’ve also led. It took A LITTLE LIFE to teach me to treasure these things, hold them close, thank my legs and arms for taking me through another pain-free day, another day when I could forget about my body and get down to the business of living. 

A LITTLE LIFE is about enduring pain. Jude’s pain was never a friend, but it was always a companion, something he could count on, something he spent his life managing. And yet even in pain, Jude eked out success: As a prominent lawyer, he spent his final years with the man he always loved. The two gardened together, created beautiful spaces for themselves, those final years together all cool, shimmery pools and frosted cocktails in the afternoons. The book ends in tragedy, but it’s so imbued with beauty that you almost don’t even notice. It’s only when you finish reading do you realize you’ve been weeping for hours, and your face and hands are stained with tears. You’ll stand, aware of how your body hurts or doesn’t hurt, and you’ll see the world anew, pain-infused and beauty-bound, a brand new place each day. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

There There

When I Googled Tommy Orange, I found photos of a guy around my age. He’s wearing a baseball cap and a black sweatshirt, and he’s unsmiling, staring straight into the camera. Sherman Alexie comes up on the same Google search, and Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo – the handful of Native voices our nation’s publishers have chosen to elevate. Scroll farther down the Google Image results, and photos of Tommy Orange disappear. Now, the feed fills with pictures of white guys in puffy orange vests, pictures of orange sweatshirts that say “Tommy Jeans,” even a picture of a fuzzy felt orange fruit, complete with a felt leaf hat. Tommy Orange is new to the scene, and his Google results prove it. 

Still, his is the new voice of an old soul, the voice of someone who’s bound to stick around, make a splash, put new ideas about what it means to be Native into our collective head. His can be a weary voice, or a joking voice, or a voice imbued with an unnamable grief. It’s a voice saturated in new turns of phrase, a voice simultaneously youthful and wise. THERE THERE tells the story of urban Natives, and the prologue begins with a reflection on a bloodied past—“They did more than kill us. They tore us up.” Orange remarks that “getting us to the cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure.” But “we did not move to cities to die,” he explains. Instead, “the city made us new, and we made it ours.” For anyone still imagining each Native with a wolf at his shoulder and a feather in his hair, THERE THERE will upend that perception – one that’s sometimes true, but increasingly not.  

In the city, Orange’s characters reinvent what it means to be of the earth. The city became home, because “the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been.” In the city, “Everything here is formed in relation to every other living and nonliving thing from the earth...Buildings, freeways, cars—are these not of the earth? Were they shipped from Mars, or the moon?” In Orange’s world, “Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building.” The city’s become home, where “the land is everywhere or nowhere.”

THERE THERE tells the stories of twelve different Natives, roaming the West Coast as they make their plodding way towards a long-awaited Oakland, California powwow. Some are going to make money; others to perform, to dance, to don the regalia that’s been gathering dust in their closets. Some are going to find the parents who long ago left them behind, and who now are feeling sorry, feeling guilty. As the story progresses, the connections between each of the twelve characters reveal themselves; they are interconnected, and their journeys have crosses many times, without their even knowing. 

In one of the book’s final chapters, Tony Loneman, one of the twelve, puts on his regalia, then takes a train to the powwow. “No one on the train knows about the powwow,” Orange writes. “Tony’s just an Indian dressed like an Indian on the train for no apparent reason. But people love to see the pretty history. Tony’s regalia is blue, red, orange, yellow, and black. The colors of a fire at night. Another image people love to think about. Indians around a fire. But this isn’t that. Tony is the fire and the dance and the night.” An older white woman asks Tony about his regalia, but when he invites her to the powwow, she demurs. “People don’t want any more than a little story they can bring back home with them…to talk about how they saw a real Native American boy on a train, that they still exist.”

THERE THERE is often searing, frequently beautiful, and ultimately tragic. That’s how so many Native lives look today: Conflicted, complex, and sometimes brimming over with love. There’s a grief beneath the surface, and there’s hope. There’s fear, doubt, and shame. There’s an unnamable legacy, ugly and beautiful both. To be a Native today means so many things, so many different things: It means to be alive, to smell the air, to put both feet on the ground and keep moving. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

We write to nurture our inner lives, to challenge ourselves with ourselves.

"The writing life isn’t always easy, but once you’ve chosen, well, there indeed is no turning back. As someone filled with old numbers, I can look back at my life and see the various crests and valleys of my imagination and career, how sometimes they’re in synch and sometimes not. The most important path, though, is the one of imagination. In the end, the public journey of career means very little. We write to nurture our inner lives, to challenge ourselves with ourselves."

- the incomparable, ever inspired Philip Graham

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I saw Roxane Gay last February at the American Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. It was cold and gray that weekend, and I wore wool the whole time. I was walking with my friend Austin, making our way out of the conference hotel and into downtown D.C., and all of a sudden, Austin whispered, “Roxane Gay,” and he pointed with his gaze.
I knew what Roxane Gay looked like, of course—I’d seen the pictures online and in her books’ jackets. But nothing prepared me for Roxane Gay in the flesh, just a few feet away from us, leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette. She was dressed in dark colors, denim and black, and though I’d sensed nothing a moment before, I now felt her presence like a spirit in the room with you when you’re sleeping. I gasped. She was the woman who’d written the stories that broke me down, made me weep, made me remember for years afterwards. She was a legend, a literary goddess, and here she stood, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a wall, just a few steps away from where we walked. We hurried past, not the type of fans to gush or hug or be a bother, but I was chilled for the rest of the night, stunned by what I dared to feel coming off of her: this latent power, warm like the sun.


I couldn’t believe it: Roxane Gay’s Hunger was on the shelf, and no one had snapped it up yet. I love our library, especially when it feels like no one goes. I checked it out, tucked it into my bag, and had it open by lunchtime, sandwich and lemonade forgotten. “We should not take up space,” Gay writes on page thirteen. “We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but its something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is Gay’s courageous, beautiful, terrible story of her coming-of-age, her sexuality, her roaring twenties and fumbling thirties, her rise to fame, and always her body, her body, and her hunger. The book feels like you’re reading someone’s diary. It feels, uncomfortably and blessedly, like an invasion. This is the best, rawest, most troubling, most healing kind of memoir there is, and it’s the kind I can’t yet make—she tells us everything, she lays her life bare, she opens her heart and dares to let us take it. The intimacy of this book is a revolution, and should be required reading for all women and men, all mothers and fathers, all teachers and civil servants. Everyone who resides in a body in this world owes it to herself to read Hunger.

In her memoir, Gay divides her experience into the before and the after – the innocence and then the fall from grace that followed a trauma I won’t describe – read the book, Bad Feminist, or other reviews if you really want to know. Or, just take a guess. You’re probably right. Anyway, Gay swallows the worst day of her life like an edible secret, and everything falls apart – her confidence, her blossoming physical beauty, her open trust in her family. Food becomes a way to hide, the weight a disguise that renders the body invisible, genderless. Gay’s short chapters span the topics of cooking and food preparation, breakfast and binging, flying on planes and sitting in too-small chairs, and, of course, the weight-loss reality-TV shows that populate most networks. In one of the book’s most poignant passages, Gay describes Rachel Frederickson, the Season 15 Biggest Loser winner who weighed in at 105 pounds on live television. “In the two months after her big reveal,” Gay writes, “Frederickson gained twenty pounds and reached, apparently, a more acceptable but still appropriately disciplined size….those of us who deny ourselves and discipline our bodies know better. Rachel Frederickson was doing exactly what we asked of her, and what too many of us would, if we could, ask of ourselves.”

Reading Hunger was a little bit like reading Americanah, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie—the reading process was also a process of learning how it is to be black in America, or, in Gay’s case, to be too big in America—for armchairs, for planes, for the public’s comfort. The stories she tells break my heart and smack me in the face, because of how little I’ve seen, and what I’ve been willing to ignore—in airports, in college, and even in my own classroom. Chairs that don’t fit, clothes that are always too small, doorways that are always too narrow. Strangers who take food from your grocery cart and put it back on the shelves. Nurses who wince when they weigh you. After a while, it all gets internalized, “and then I start to hate myself for my unruly body that I seem incapable of disciplining, for my cowardice in the face of what other people might think.”

In the end, Hunger is a story of triumph, even if the book isn’t framed that way. “I often wonder,” Gay writes at the close of her memoir, “who I would have been if this terrible thing had not happened to me, if I hadn’t spend so much of my life hungering so much.” And by the very end, she’s asking her reader to look within: “Does anyone feel comfortable in their bodies?”

I closed the book this morning, tears in my eyes, and I thought about the day I’d seen Roxane Gay standing outside the Marriott Hotel in downtown D.C. I thought about the experience I had at that conference—all the walking, the standing, the waiting, the sitting, and how easy it was for me to fit. I thought about my own body and the times I’ve hated on it, run it ragged, dragged it too far, pushed it to make it thinner, starved it. Beat on it. All the ways I’ve hated my body over the years.

I can still feel the way the writer’s strength hit me like a warm gust of wind, though she hadn’t looked at us, hadn’t moved at all. In fact, if Austin hadn’t said her name, I might have walked right past without noticing the tall, denim-clad woman smoking a cigarette by herself.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Ranch Bordering the Salty River

Stephen Page’s twenty-poem collection, “A Ranch Bordering the Salty River,” explores the second half of a life, as Page’s narrator navigates the transitions from city to country, from intellectual toil to physical labor, and from youth to middle age. 

In language rich with natural imagery and tense with the poles of joy and disillusionment, Page has written a collection that leaves an indelible imprint. These layered stories-in-poems render birth extraordinary, death ordinary, and the natural world a disappearing muse, a forested siren the narrator yearns to know. Ever relevant and always beautiful, “A Ranch Bordering the Salty River” contemplates the possession of land alongside the inscrutable mystery of the natural world.