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

Friday, March 24, 2023

On Writing In the Moment, for the Moment: Episode 4—The Meditative Essay

When it comes to written meditations, I love this one, "Somewhere a Siren," by Robert Vivian—available for your reading pleasure at the one and only Guernica. "Somewhere a siren already announces its formal edict," Vivian writes, "and I hear it as the underpinnings of a mysterious truth rising and falling on waves riding the late night air, for here is a way to be carried from this world to the next."

This week, I'd like to talk a bit about the concept of the "meditative essay." I learned about this essay form in grad school at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I met Vivian himself. A quiet, soft-spoken, pensive man, Vivian personifies his chosen form. For decades, he's written meditations on the natural world, his family, his work, and our society at large. His excellent "Thoughts on the Meditative Essay" is here at Doug Glover's writing website, Numéro Cinq.

In his craft essay, Vivian writes, "The meditative essay hinges on stillness, on a moment delicately teased out of the cogs of time to live in the timeless present: it is not interested much in opinions or even ideas, preferring instead to live in the realm of pondering and contemplation." To Vivian, the meditation isn't about motion, or a linear progression through time, or a "first this, then this" approach to telling a story. In fact, perhaps his "meditations" aren't stories at all - after all, they "hinge on stillness," evading the arc that traditional stories, especially in the West, typically follow. 

And Sue William Silverman, author of the wonderful CNF genre overview essay "Meandering River," explains the meditative essay like this: "A meditative essay, as the name suggests, explores or meditates upon an emotion or idea by drawing upon a range of experience. It’s a contemplation." 

Vivian admits that "the meditative essay is also a very elusive creature, as elusive as anything, perhaps, in any genre." It can be tough to pin down, to identify. "More than anything," Vivian writes, "the meditative essay is like a shy wild animal that will bolt at the slightest sign of undue ego or aggression, though it may occasionally use tiny bits of these to furnish its lair." 

Yet in the end, explains Vivian, "[the meditation] is a consummately intimate form of exchange, as tender as a confiding lover propped up on his or her elbow in bed after lovemaking. Fear is not in its nature, nor is blame or accusation; indeed, intimacy may be its single-most distinguishing characteristic, the way it takes us into the heart, mind and soul of its author."

Reader, what are your thoughts on the concept of meditation—in general, or as a writer? Some of you meditate as a practice—how does your practice inform this topic? Or, how would you describe your experience reading "Somewhere a Siren"? Did you enjoy? Dislike? Were you disoriented, annoyed, or made jubilant? Did the essay lead you towards meditative feelings or emotions of your own? How closely did the essay's intention align with YOUR understanding of meditation?

Helpful hint: In general, Guernica is a great place to read terrific writing by new writers and seasoned pros alike. Many great writers got their starts at Guernica - so add this to your list of places to submit work, whenever you decide that the time has come.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Embracing the Lyric: Episode 3—Writing the Ineffable


In her excellent essay on creative non-fiction subgenres, "Meandering River," Sue William Silverman writes: 

"In the lyric essay, as in the meditative essay, the writer is not constrained by a narrative of action; the movement is from image to image, not from event to event. Here, the psyche works more in the mode of poets who 'let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields,' to quote Robert Frost."

For those who feel compelled by the concept or act of meditation, the lyric essay form might also appeal. Driven, as it is, not "by a narrative of action" but by a focus on imagery, emotion, and an effort to capture "the ineffable," the lyric essay allows the writer to spend time focusing on a moment, a feeling, or a fleeting sensation rather than on fleshing out a scene or creating a narrative arc. GD Dess, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, characterizes the lyric essay form in this way: 

"The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form."

As such, poets reading this post might especially appreciate the lyric style—Silverman adds that "one reason writers use this form is to explore the boundary between essay and lyric poetry." For examples of the lyric form, visit the Eastern Iowa Review's list, here. Or, find two lyric essays in Asymptote Journal by Chen Li that might inspire or appeal. Finally, here are a couple of samples at Brevity Magazine, Dinty Moore's beloved publication of brief creative non-fiction. 

When it comes to the "lyric," the writer gives herself permission to focus not on a story, a narrative, or a linear scene, but on something she deems to be "ineffable." You may be asking yourself: What the heck is Kate talking about now? Fair enough. The lyric form, after all, is asking you to take a creative risk here, since the word "ineffable" is, inherently, defined by that which cannot easily be named. So, you can't name the ineffable, but you can write around it, towards it, shaping it with your words as you get closer and closer to its center. 

Consider these remarks about the word "ineffable," from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: 

'Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness," wrote Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. Reading Douglass's words, it's easy to see that ineffable means "indescribable" or "unspeakable." And when we break down the word to its Latin roots, it's easy to see how those meanings came about. "Ineffable" comes from "ineffabilis," which joins the prefix in-, meaning "not," with the adjective effabilis, meaning "capable of being expressed." "Effabilis" comes from "effari" ("to speak out"), which in turn comes from ex- and fari ("to speak").' 

To embrace the lyric, I recommend you begin by taking a few deep and calming breaths. Shake your body out and allow your mind to loosen. Then, spend about one minute coming up with a theme for your lyric practice - something "ineffable." For example, perhaps you'd like to examine a moment that left you feeling a certain powerful—but ineffable—way. Perhaps you'd like to describe a snippet of a relationship that contains something ineffable. Maybe the politics of the day have an ineffable but pronounced effect on you - something you can't name, but are certain you can feel. Don't think too much about the focus of your lyric approach; this is a low-stakes introduction to the form, and no one has to read the end product but you.  This is your chance to practice, let yourself ease into a form that, for writers past, present, and future, is characteristically difficult to define.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Taking Risks In Creative Non-Fiction: Episode 2—What Do We Put On The Line When We Write?

This week, I want to explore the idea of taking "risks" in creative non-fiction - and this post is dedicated to my friend and fellow writer, Marylou Butler. Marylou passed on, but her writing is something I think about all the time - that and her risk-taking spirit. Marylou, a former SFCC student of mine - and a friend to some of us here - went courageous places with her writing, never feeling afraid to look silly, get lost, try something that wouldn't work out, or over-revise. 

Her writing has been published (here's one selection for you to peruse!), but that's not why she wrote - she did it for the love of the process, and into the final days of her life, writing was an adventure for Marylou, a wild ride that she knew could take her anywhere. 

It pays to spend some time thinking about the risks you've taken in your own writing. Ask yourself: What does it mean to take a risk? Creative non-fiction is a risky genre for many reasons. We make ourselves vulnerable, for one, in a way, some might say, that other writers, like novelists and poets, don't. Their material isn't explicitly about their own lives, after all - although I believe all writing is deeply informed by our own experiences. 

Good writing, as most of us know, is often that in which narrators makes themselves vulnerable - they share, they probe, they dig deep, they proffer up what they've held back, hidden, kept down. And this is risky. Creative non-fiction writers also harvest their own experiences in ways that could hurt other people. The fact is, all writers hold within them the ability to offend, to do unintentional harm, to say the wrong thing. My writing mentor, Philip Graham, wrote about his parents - their characters thinly veiled in a novel - and his relationship with his folks was irrevocably damaged afterwards. We risk injuring our friends, our family members, and our loved ones when they read what we've written and don't like it, or don't like the way we've portrayed them, or don't realize we thought the way we did about something important to them. Writing is risky in this way, too, and many writers simply avoid loaded topics altogether - their parents, their siblings, their childhood, their broken relationships - because of this very reason. 

 But to me, the riskiest part of writing is where we can take ourselves. Sometimes, we don't want to travel down certain roads. We're afraid of "going back," of being forced to remember and reflect. Writing about something you fear can be risky. Writing has this funny way of teaching things us we didn't know we knew about ourselves - sometimes unflattering things - and of showing us the past - and the present - through lenses we hadn't considered or examined before. It can hurt to revisit a painful relationship or a loss, for example - and sometimes, it's hard to shake those old feelings, those memories and triggers once we let them back in. "Risk" means something different, I suspect, to every writer. For some writers, the act of writing means risking one's life - quite literally. For others, risk means trying a new form, something that's never worked before. It means revising something with gusto, and "killing your darlings" as you go - cutting that which you love for the sake of the work. 

The question today is this: What does risk in writing mean to you?

Thursday, March 2, 2023

What Is Creative Non-Fiction, Exactly? Episode 1: Defining Our Terms

This month, I’m posting a series of mini-lectures on creative non-fiction—today, an overview of the genre, for anyone who’s ever asked: What is CNF, exactly? I'm a creative non-fiction writer myself—a label that can include the creation of "memoir" and the "personal essay"—but really, it all falls under the umbrella of creative non-fiction (CNF): taking the material in our real lives and in our physical world, and examining them through the lens of a creative writer. Though we CNF writers are describing what's "real" and "true," what "actually happened" and what "we know," we also harness the tools of fiction and poetry - including character, scene, dialogue, imagery, and metaphor, to name a few - to explore the tangible, visceral, "real" world we inhabit right now. 

What’s In a Name? 

When it comes to labels, I'm pretty flexible. To me, what matters most is that we feel free to write about the world we live in - from almost any angle we choose. That can mean a lot of things: Perhaps you want to explore one facet of your life more deeply - you want to examine your connection to a particular religion, maybe, or your relationship to the natural world, or your career, or a member of your family. Maybe you want to trace a certain story - a story you've been told, one that's been passed down, maybe one that you've only heard parts of, but always wondered about. It's easy to go down a rabbit hole of terms, labels, and arguments for or against every conceivable name, but the point is, you're writing from life, and you're acknowledging that it's not "made up"—not fiction.

Maybe you've travelled before - to another country, another state, another town, and you want to write about that. Heck, maybe you've travelled the rocky road of adolescence, and you want to explore those memories in your writing. Perhaps there's a relationship - past or present - that you've been wanting to write about - or maybe there's someone you've been wanting to write to, in letter form - someone you've known, someone you've never met, someone you've heard about all your life. Ta-Nehisi Coates does this in his 2017 book, "Between the World and Me," published as a letter to his young son. That's CNF. It's memoir, in my opinion, and it's personal essay, too - Coates writes from his own life out. 

The point is, so many topics are valid where CNF is concerned, and any experience, large or small, can take a unique form and still be memoir, or an essay, or CNF. What's been catching your eye these days? What's been caught up in your mind? What have you been dreaming about at night? What stories did you file ago years ago, swearing to yourself you'd write them down someday? Why are you here? 
Maybe you've got a specific goal where your writing is concerned: You want to work on essays for a collection you envision. You've got a subject you're dying to flesh out in writing. You've got a style that you've honed and evolved, and you want to take it to the next level - all fine! And, maybe you haven't written in years. Maybe you have no idea how the heck you got here, to this page, to this blog tucked away at the corner of the Internet. Maybe you're just curious, and you're thinking, "Eh, why not." 

Or, maybe you're extremely skeptical, because the term "memoir" has gotten a bad reputation over the years - some critics say it's a way to self-glorify an experience, or extort personal trauma for the sake of a story. As Timothy Goodman writes in the New York Times, "There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience...But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose." 

Of course, I wholeheartedly disagree with these comments, but they're pervasive. I believe you stumbled onto this page because deep down, you know you've got a story to tell - at least one. You somehow understand the value of the personal experience. Zachary Watterson writes personal essays "to capture a brief period of time in my life that haunts me even now." When Tova Stulman published an essay which discussed covering and then uncovering her hair during her marriage, she "discovered the value of the personal essay. I gave voice to [my readers'] experience and, subsequently, lessened the loneliness they felt. The experience confirmed for me that all of us have doubts, secrets, and inner turmoil about things most frequently left unsaid." And the poet and essayist Robert Vivian writes, "Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem." There's plenty of reason to write from the first-person "I" - to educate and inform, to celebrate and acknowledge, to learn, to teach, to heal. I fully believe that writing has deep value even if it's never published, because the process is often the most important part. 

Wherever you are as a writer, you're here now.

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.”

Monday, March 2, 2020

Remembering Marylou Butler

Marylou Butler was a writer, an activist, a partner, and a friend. She died on February 6, 2020. 

When I think of Marylou, I see her in the classroom, sitting with her coat on and her books stacked in front of her, notebook open and pen in hand, eyes bright. Marylou, leaning forward so as not to miss a single word of the discussion, raising her hand to ask smart and concise questions, furiously scratching down notes as someone replies. Marylou on the very first day I met her, sitting beside Judy in an otherwise empty classroom, portable coffee mugs on the desk and their faces expectant. 

 Before I met Marylou, I spent years bumbling around, trying to figure out who I was. When I moved to Santa Fe just over eight years ago, I had two adjunct classes at the community college and a cocktail waitressing job at night. Scrambling to make ends meet, I pitched a travel writing class to Continuing Ed at SFCC, and it was accepted. On that first Saturday, my heart beating hard, I woke up early and spent hours prepping, then drove to campus, found the right classroom, and went in. Marylou and Judy, the first students to arrive, were waiting there for me, already seated in the same chairs they’d occupy for the rest of the course. I must have looked terrified and probably unqualified, but Marylou and Judy just smiled and told me they’d read my bio online, and they couldn’t wait to get to know me. I still remember the way they made me feel that morning: Like I’d arrived somewhere safe, somewhere I finally belonged. I mattered here, and we had work to do. 

Since that first section of travel writing, I’ve taught dozens of courses, some pleasurable, some a strain, all learning experiences for me. Still, that first travel writing section shines brightest in my mind. I taught travel writing three more times, and each time, Marylou and Judy signed on. Judy had a poet’s background, but Marylou was all academia, and at first, her writing style was so formal, analytical, factual, hyper-linear. A little daunted, I gave Marylou what feedback I could – take risks, I urged her. Make a mess. Show, don’t tell. 

Of all the students I’ve ever had, Marylou turned out to be the bravest. From her first essays in travel writing, which recounted, day by day, recent vacations through the American West, Marylou’s writing evolved into something much more artful, more emotional, and profoundly more complex. A woman with an exceptional career behind her, Marylou never once got defensive about my twenty-six-year-old’s critique of her work. She never, ever boasted about her rich and varied professional experience, and she always came to the table with a mind open to progress and growth. 

When asked to give more, Marylou gave. She wandered down paths in her writing that I haven’t dared visit: Her parents’ deaths, her family’s secrets, her own nighttime dreams, subliminal visits from the departed. With every assignment, Marylou’s writing loosened its hold on itself, like she was becoming someone else on those pages—someone new. 

I’ve heard that the more life experience someone has, the harder it is to change them. People warned me of this when I got married – you get what you get, and you shouldn’t try to alter anything. People can’t change. 

But from the very start, Marylou proved that old adage wrong. Every semester, every class meeting, and every single day, Marylou worked to become a better, wiser, more compassionate version of herself. Over the course of the past eight years, I watched her linear, academic writing transform into something daring, vivid, and profound. She made herself vulnerable on the page. Marylou treasured feedback from everyone willing to share it, including eighteen-year-olds just out of high school. With her ego safely on the back burner, Marylou lived each day like the gift that it was: mindfully, with passion and gratitude. She loved words, admired what they could do, and made the most of every literary opportunity, including the day we sneaked in with the high-school class to hear novelist Colum McCann speak. In every classroom I enter for the rest of my life, I know I’ll find Marylou somewhere in there, waiting for me, listening hard, pen poised ready over the page. 

The following passage is excerpted from Marylou’s essay, “Breaking Ground,” which was published in the 2017 issue of the Santa Fe Literary Review at the Santa Fe Community College. Of her life’s accomplishments – and her willingness to live outside the box according to her own values – Marylou wrote: 

…I know I am different. My life of advocacy has meant fostering equality and self-determination in support of all life. As ordinary citizen, I work for change – a member of CodePink Women for Peace, a voter registrar, a promoter of environmental and social justice. The call to activism, to bear witness, even to engage in civil disobedience is more urgent as threats to life become more dire. My hope is that our collective seeds of activism will break ground in time to make a difference. The responsibility to protect the vulnerable and underrepresented, wherever they show up, is greater than I imagined when I first proclaimed my values in our Philadelphia row home with the faded beige wallpaper.

Marylou Butler, Ph.D. was a psychologist and President Emerita of Southwestern College in Santa Fe. Born in Philadelphia, she was a founding mother of the Feminist Therapy Collective, one of the first in the nation. She was a lifelong advocate for women, for peace, and a practicing Buddhist in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Her professional publications were numerous before embarking upon creative writing (Santa Fe Literary Review, Trickster, Orion).

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.