Thursday, June 19, 2008

Talk about fruitflesh! Here, artist Sigalit Landau floats naked with watermelons in the Dead Sea. Imagine how it would feel to be bobbing in salt water, surrounded by cool round fruit. A good feeling to access in the middle of all this heat!
I have been moved to tears by all the beautiful photos of same sex weddings in the media this week--it's humbling to see such pure joy. I was delighted to learn today that one of my lovely Palm Desert MFA students, Bryan Burch, and his partner Mark, were the first same sex couple to get married in San Bernardino County. Mazel tov, Bryan and Mark, and all other couples who can finally tie the legal knot that should have been yours all along.

This is a much much less historic occasion, but still a landmark in my little world--tomorrow (well, today, to be technical about it) I begin my stint as a faculty member at the Antioch MFA residency. I graduated from the program in 2001; it is awfully cool to be able to step through the looking glass and join the program now as a mentor; I'm sure I'll learn just as much in this role as I did as a mentee!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Today, I took part in the UCR graduation--my first graduation as a faculty member. I felt like a little kid playing dress up--the only robes they could find for me were huge; they swept the floor as I walked, and my hands got lost inside the enormous sleeves. I sat on the stage with other faculty members and watched my wonderful students--some of whom I've had every quarter since I started teaching at UCR last summer--get their diplomas. I think back to when my husband graduated from UCR 13 years ago and I was a shy young mother, just starting to write fiction, sitting in the bleachers under the hot sun. I never could have imagined that 13 years later, I'd be on the stage among the faculty. I never could have imagined that 13 years later, I'd be in the middle of a divorce. Life is full of so many surprises.

My son graduated from high school on Tuesday. He'll be starting UCR in the fall. I can barely wrap my mind around the fact that we will be able to have lunch together--him as a college student, me as faculty--on the same campus where I used to push him around in a stroller when we lived in student family housing.

At his graduation, I sat on the "Visitor" side of the field while his dad sat on the "Home" side--this wasn't intentional; the crowd was utter chaos, and my parents and I took seats where we could find them. It was fitting, though--my son is living with his dad, while our daughter is living with me, so I am very much a visitor in his life right now. It is hard to not see him every day, but thankfully we're still close; I suppose when kids reach this age, we're all just visitors in their lives. It's such a time of letting go. I am grateful for any amount of time I can spend with my beautiful boy (who has grown into a beautiful man).

Congratulations to Arin and to my graduating students. I am so proud of all of you.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Liz Bradfield's fantastic workshop, "Rough Music: Incorporating Other Voices into Poems", she had us do a very cool exercise. She asked us to quickly write lyrics from songs we knew in high school, then she had us write down as many facts as we could about Alaska, then a list of words or rules from a trade, then phrases we knew in foreign languages, with translations, then mathematical or scientific formulas, then phrases we had overheard recently. She had also given us a sheet full of information about glaciers and the natural history of the area and asked us to circle the words and phrases that jumped out at us. After we did this, she had us pass the resulting pages to the person on our left, and she asked us to write a poem using their words.

This is what I came up with--all the words are from my neighbor, none are my own, yet in stringing them together, and choosing a line of her lyrics as a refrain, I found they spoke to me in an unexpected and profound way:

I have more memories than if I were a hundred years old
But you don't know me.
Saws, hammers, nails, vises, levels, drills, planes, screwdrivers, screws, chisels
But you don't know me.
But you don't know me.
Four or five ducks rose out of the sedge
But you don't know me.
The sky is above the roof
But you don't know me.
Plumb lines, trucks, lifts, siding, sheetrock, tiles, concrete
But you don't know me.
Magpies were in the balsalms
But you don't know me.
Cirque, corrie, cwm
But you don't know me.
They disappeared with a magic velocity
But you don't know me.
Je vous en pris (You're welcome)
But you don't know me.
During one of his wonderful talks at the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, Alaska State Writer Laureate John Straley talked about how as a child, he would take pictures with his mind. He'd look at something he wanted to remember, click his eyes like a camera shutter, and burn the image into his brain. Because I couldn't take many pictures with my camera, here are some mental snapshots from Homer, Alaska:

--Watching otters roll through the water, their hands clasped together as if in prayer, their bodies obviously loving the slow sinuous turning. Seeing some mother otters swimming on their backs, their babies perched on their bellies. Learning that otters have over a million hairs per square inch of their bodies to keep them warm in the cold water.

--Glancing out my window as a bald eagle soared by (this happened several times, but never grew old!)

--Hearing Nora Dauenhauer, Tlingit elder, read her classic poem, "How to Make Good Baked Salmon" (which we were told is read at barbeques all over Alaska.)

--Meeting the most wonderful group of people (I wish there were pictures of all the participants as well as all the faculty!)

--Seeing Anne Lamott pick up one of my books during one of her talks, and say "This is why we love books", then ruffling through the pages to show people the sound of a book, raising the book to her rose to show people how delicious books smell. So cool to see The Book of Dead Birds in her hands! So cool to get to know Anne, too, and to soak in her inspiration (I have many mental snapshots of her sweet face).

--Watching John Straley and David Gessner emerge, stunned and triumphant, from the frigid bay after their post-reading dip (it wasn't surprising to learn that David can be quite the wild man!)

--Watching the light change over the course of the day, gathering in luminous pools on the tops of certain mountains, turning thin and silvery at times, pink and golden at others. Coalescing into the most brilliant rainbow I've ever seen the first night I was there.

--Not seeing whales (sadly), but meeting several people who study whales and who will be great resources if I need to pick brains as I write the whale scenes of my novel-in-progress. Eve Saulitis has studied killer whales for 20 years, recounted in her amazing essay collection, Leaving Resurrection; Nancy Lord has written a wonderful book, Beluga Days, about her work with white whales; Liz Bradfield has studied humpbacks--the whales in my novel--with her partner, and has several whale poems in her gorgeous collection, Interpretive Work; John Straley's wife happens to be a humpback expert, as well. I was deeply moved and inspired by the number of writers at the conference who are also naturalists (it was a boon when we were on the boat tour and Liz was able to name all the birds we saw and give us great information about their behavior; her binoculars, which she let me look through a couple of times, were not too shabby, either). It made me want to spend more time in the wild, observing, learning.

--Marveling at the dandelions. Alaskan dandelions are the most beautiful, robust dandelions I've ever seen. They're dandelions on steriods--big and bright and healthy, their stems succulent and strong. I'm sure 20 hours of light a day helps contribute to their vigor. Of all the wildlife I saw in Homer, it's strangely the dandelions that burn most vividly in my mind now.

--Listening to the amazing, generous work the participants produced in my workshops. I taught three classes--"Finding Your Authentic Voice", "Writing from the Senses" and "Embodying Our Characters"--and the writing that sprang from them blew me away.

--Finding a moose! My last hour in Homer, I told Jo-Ann Mapson (with whom I've shared both professors and editors over the years--so wonderful to connect with her) that I hadn't seen a moose yet, and I asked if we could go in search of one. Everyone else at the conference had seen a moose, it seemed, but I had not been so lucky. So we set out in her car and drove around Homer to no avail; as we were headed back, though, Jo-Ann said "There's one!" I wouldn't have seen it--a pale moose in a little dip of grass by the road--if she hadn't said anything. She pulled over and I ran across the street with her camera to get closer (she's going to send me pictures later); it turned out the moose was a mother, and her baby, a darker caramel color, stood right behind her. The mother turned her head and stared at me, the hair on her back raised and bristled. Jo-Ann later told me that I had gotten a bit too close. But I'm grateful that I was able to get a good close look, that my moose quest was successful. It was a wonderful way to end my time in Homer.

Flying into the Ontario airport was a bit depressing--everything looked so brown and smoggy and industrial. It made me miss the pristine, wide open space of Alaska, the fresh air, the wildness. I hope to return someday and spend even more time exploring the area. For now, I have my mental snapshots to take me back!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I hope to have some time soon to write in depth about my trip to Alaska. Until then, I'll leave you with this picture (one of the few I had a chance to snap before my camera bit the dust.) I took this on a boat tour as we neared Gull Island. When we got closer to the rocks, a bald eagle approached and hundreds of birds took to the air. The captain warned all of us to keep our mouths closed--bird droppings were showering everywhere--but it's hard to keep one's mouth closed in the face of total awe.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Here are some changes to the June schedule I posted a while back:

--On Wednesday, June 11th at 7pm, I'll be reading at the UCLA Extension Writers Program Publication Party (I'm not listed on the roster yet--I had been on the waiting list and space just opened up for me.)

--My event at the Long Beach Library has been moved from Thursday, June 19th to Saturday, June 28th at 2pm. I will also be reading from The Maternal is Political at Vroman's in Pasadena on the 28th at 5pm.

--My reading at Antioch University will be on Sunday, June 22, not the 21st as I originally mentioned. The reading starts at 5:15. I'll be sharing the stage with my friend Alistair McCartney, whose new novel, The End of the World Book, is utterly mind-blowing, and deserves a blog-post of its own some time soon. Alistair and I will both be teaching at the Antioch MFA residency from June 19-28th. I'll also be teaching at UCR during that time; it's going to be a bit hectic--lots of driving--but should be a lot of fun.)

In case I don't have a chance to check in while I'm in Alaska, see you after I return!