Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I lived three years in Iowa, finishing my Bachelor's degree and getting my Master's. For much of that time I thought I was caught up in being young and not really paying attention--and yet, thinking back, walking into the delicate web of my memory, I can turn over an extraordinary amount of detail about Iowa and my time there, bits and pieces of a mosaic gleaming full and complete and in the background of my life, a richness of knowledge and habit permeating every moment I'm awake.

An oracle sent me to Iowa. Unhappy and wanting to write, I told a friend who said, "If you want to write, go to Iowa." Iowa? I didn't really even know where it was, or what connection an entire state could have to writing. Perhaps because of my complete lack of any other plan, I recognized my friend's advice for the divine intervention it was and so followed it—blindly, without a second thought. I simply applied and got accepted and packed my bags and showed up. Blind faith in a dream drove me there—it never occurred to me that I might not get in. When a TA suggested I apply for the Nonfiction Writing Program, I heard the voice of the oracle again—by then I'd learned creative nonfiction was the writing I'd always wanted to write, without ever even knowing it had a name.

In Iowa, I learned the universe supports my dreams if I have faith in it and them. I sent in my one essay and got accepted—and got an award, a scholarship, and an instructor's position. I learned I could be happy spending eight hours a day writing and researching. I learned, if I knew my subject well enough, it became magically transparent, giving me complete power over my writing—a miraculous occurrence. I learned when the lilacs bloomed all over Iowa City. I learned I did not like to do taxidermy. I learned what fairy rings are and where to find them, and where the beavers built their dams. I collected beaver sticks and found that, yes, pine trees on a windy day  do sound exactly like the sea.

In Iowa, from the window of my third floor apartment, I was amazed to find I could watch, day by day, the slow transformation from winter to spring to summer through the hazy pink and red and yellow and green dappled cloud of flowering and leafing and light in the treetops. I watched the groundhog gorge himself on overripe mulberries fallen to the hot sidewalk, and the elderly Chinese man come every afternoon to pick ripe ones off the tree. I learned to love gin and tonic, learned the best thesis advisory sessions came with KFC and Coors at the Coralville Reservoir. I saw a rare and shy mink in the wild and I wrote more poetry than before or since. I spent hours driving home and back through the lion-yellow fields, windows open, warm summer air on my face—and swooped down empty streets in foggy fall sunrises, biking to my job cooking in the dorm kitchen. I read Confederacy of Dunces aloud to my long-suffering office mate and we laughed and laughed—I'm surprised he managed to get his PhD, sharing an office with me. But he was my companion for mushroom hunts and nature walks and long days of serene memories, my support as I tried to teach for the first time, my inspiration for working hard.

Lovesick boys wrote me songs in Iowa, I bought my first pottery there at an art show by the river, I ate the best cheesecake of my life, learned to poach a hundred eggs in one big pot of boiling water, to open champagne bottles, fast, one after the other, that bushes (full of a hundred sparrows) sang in the summer nights, that Alfred Hitchcock had a thing for blonds. I made my own butter, drank raw milk, got to know a herd of cows. I struggled with migraines, I delighted in hearing Galway Kinnell, I agonized over words, and reveled in the time I was given to write.

One day during my last month in Iowa I was walking to class as usual, down a pretty residential street lined with oak trees, headed towards the University Hospital where I always turned right to walk down the hill and across the river. Lilacs were blooming, I think, and all the late spring flowers. The air held the balmy clear warmth of May and the sky was blue and the entire town smelled like spring, all grass and lilacs and daffodils. I was thinking about leaving, about what I had to do before I left, when suddenly I felt an enormous sadness—a piercing sense I was leaving home. Home? I'd never felt this before. I'd never had to leave a place behind, without family to keep it anchored in my life—and I'd never before been in a place that felt like my home because I'd made it that way, because I myself had built a life there, because I knew it and loved all its familiar folds and scars and surprises and moods.

In Iowa, I learned I could write if I wanted to write. Years after I left that first time I went back, and took a workshop where I wrote more poetry and wrote more essays and learned, again, I could write if I wanted to write. Today, I sit with the hope of a way back to Iowa, to the physical place—but what I also learned in Iowa, in my memories of Iowa, is the lessons stay, the knowledge is mine, no matter where I am. I can go back any time and anywhere to the place that feels like home, where the lilacs bloom, where I know how to watch the subtle change of the seasons, where I know I can write, where I have faith in the universe and in my dreams.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

-Mary Oliver

I got back to the condo mid-afternoon and took the dog for a walk. Sultry and limp and damp, only the usual rag tag band of wildlife was braving the heat: the mourning dove cooing and hooing its misery in the far trees, the forest shrieking with cicadas, a horrid and surely errant slug sliming across the sidewalk, a muddy turtle in the road, and two frogs twanging for all the world like banjos in the mud of the sometimes-marsh.

Nighttime I went out again, still hot, the only sound distant fireworks. Nine o'clock and the light was hanging on—sky not black but a deep, shuttered blue. No stars yet but looking for them I caught movement and so caught the bats. I watched, head thrown back, neck swiveling to follow the flight, fast and chaotic—rags of brown velvet hurtling and tumbling through twilight, lapping up insects, crying into the night. Dizzy, I followed the oddly exotic scent of petunias home, Tessa herding a tiny toad around the breezeway.

I make a list of creatures in my immediate world: doves, blue jays, red shouldered hawks, ospreys, blue-tailed skinks, slugs, bats, tiny toads, spiders, box turtles, blue herons, beavers, woodpeckers, various and sundry butterflies, moths, and scuttling beetles.

Sunday morning I walk Tessa in the woods behind the high school. It's months since we've done this, too long since she (or I) has had a good run in the trees. I know we are first on the trail because I'm the one catching all the dawn spiderwebs. Mostly these are fragile, cobwebby affairs but I walk face-first into an orb spider's net that pastes its tough, sticky self across my face and hair. The web crackles as I pull it off me, and I wait for the feeling of spider legs scrambling down my neck or along my arm. As I untangle, I hear the sharp wail of a hawk in the tree above me and watch as he flies, startled, down to the creek, startling in turn two great blue herons who fumble their way upstream. I feel badly about destroying the web—its only sustenance we're all after this early morning—fish for the herons, mice for the hawk, bugs for the spider, a taste of wildness for Tessa, distance and solitude for me.

The creek is lovely, all blue ripples and green reeds and water plants. A woodpecker blunders through the branches then continues his loud breakfast excavations. A beaver makes a great splash in the shallows and a striking black and yellow box turtle scoots to one side to let my running dog pass by. Tiny pure white mushrooms looking dipped in confectioner's sugar cling to the clay banks. Here there is nothing, and here there is everything. Nothing of the burdens and laments and chores and people of everyday life, and everything of the miraculous we so rarely notice. That astonishing life rumbles on, regardless—the importance of finding food, of surviving flood and heat, of flying and eating and singing and weaving. To dive into it—to allow the dog and I each the freedom from our daily restrictions—seems imperative. I remember a few years ago I was working on a book and found, surprisingly, I required miles of long walking to allow my ordinary thoughts to subside and my writing thoughts, sometimes as fragile as morning cobwebs, to show up.

Perhaps, I tell myself, I need to begin again—to walk, often, in the hot and empty woods, to walk into this wild life, to let it paste itself across my face and insinuate itself into my heart and soul. Perhaps this is what, in the end, sustains us.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Back to Basics: Living from the Heart

My accountant says he is trying to "live more from the heart." My therapist, just last night, encouraged me to drop my awareness, and my breath, from my intellect down to my heart. "You'll feel a physical shift," he told me.

I live so exclusively in the confused and hectic world of my head that I'm not sure I can find my way out. The same folks who built Caesar's Palace designed my brain--it's easy to find the slot machines but the exit? Sit back, relax, gamble some more. You'll never get out of here.

My external life right now contains ONLY uncertainty. Oh I suppose I do know the sun will rise tomorrow, but that really is the extent of it. Where I'll be, where Josh will be, where we'll be working, where we'll live--none of that can be answered. And may not be, until the very last possible moment before it all starts to happen. My brain, poor literal creature that it is, tries to handle all this chaos by taking control of anything it can get its grubby little grip on. When this doesn't work, it commands me to stop doing everything and sit and wait and re-read old mystery novels until clarity arrives. When this doesn't happen, it amuses itself by making elaborate plans that attempt to cover every possible contingency--and then tries to force others to agree to them.

My heart is silent.

It occurs to me that "living from the heart" has to be more basic than living from the brain. The heart feels things, mostly--it doesn't think them to death. The heart opens, the heart responds, the heart cares.

Josh is applying for jobs in other places and I'm trying to evaluate and analyze each new place that comes up, trying to figure out if I can be happy there. This is a purely intellectual exercise based on a few chat rooms about a particular town and some cryptic charts and graphs and Google maps. It's all the input I've got right now. Yet, the spirit of a place is what matters--but how do you know what that is? How do you get at that, tease it out, look it over, turn it over in your hands?

So I made a list. My list won't be your list. It won't be anybody's list. It's my list of basic, heart-felt life necessities that I think any place I live must have: owls, trees, trails through the woods, independent bookstores, funky coffee shops, a good farmer's market, a source of great cupcakes, a house we can afford, water, wildlife, a place to write, some other people who also write, seasons, places to kayak, the possibility of work, a yard for Tessa, a room with a view, somewhere to get good beer.


Now it's tomorrow. The sun has risen again, life has gone on, and I've re-read what I've written. How ridiculous I am! Once again, I've really only completed an intellectual exercise. My list is meaningless--does it matter to my heart if there are flamingos rather than owls? Not really. And as for wanting some certainty in my life, well, no one in this world has external certainty, not really, not with the proverbial bus idling just around the corner waiting to run us down.

I see that I must throw out my list and let go, somehow and finally, of the intellectual craving for certainty in my life, the sort involving stuff and plans and dates and moving boxes and owls. At least, I need to take as many small steps as I can towards realizing that ALL the certainty I will ever have in my life I have right at this moment, because the only certainty we do have does come from the heart--and that is the certainty of our connections with one another. This is the certainty I have right now: the love of my family, my friends, my dog, and the incredible love and support Josh gives me. Living from the heart--it seems the beauty of it is portable, independent of place and time and circumstance. What does it matter where I am? What sort of birds call outside my window? I wake up in the morning, I see the sun has come up once again, and I fall into my place in the world surrounded by those who love me, and by those whom I love.

Monday, April 28, 2008

for Josh

I live now on even bigger water--the Chesapeake Bay itself--and from our back deck I can watch all manner of things on and around it: islands and ospreys, motorboats and sailboats, shorebirds and common blackbirds, the water itself. Improbably smooth this particular sunset, calm as a salt flat but with the lovely muted pastels of a winter Monet--soft pinks, whites, creams, mint greens--a bride's colors. Stark contrast to the bare rough wood of docks and piers, the shouts from the bar just up the road, the dingy grackle nest-building on the roof next door, the high pitched call of an osprey on its nest, nervous about me and my dog.

Sunset--the sun leaves from behind me, away from the bay, the dwindling light dulling the eastern sky to a wooly pinkish gray. This was the first real day of sun warm enough for basking, and I did--trying to bake sickness and stress out of body and soul. "You're detoxifying your soul" is how it was put to me recently, what I am going through--the "what" being almost every change you can imagine.

Change is of course inevitable--the fish happily and dumbly swimming in its fishy life until the very moment it becomes the osprey's lunch. A woman living a solitary and unheedingly lonely life until, all of an afternoon, she meets the man she'll be living with four months later--and knows she'll still be with thirty years after that. It happens. If we're lucky, we're given, unlike the fish, time to adjust.

So this deck is now "our" deck, this view of the water "our" view. My conviction that relationships do, indeed, happen this way had faded over the years but never really vanished--vanquished, I am still astounded by the conviction that this particular partnership is so deeply and profoundly the right one. Conviction isn't quite the word--there was no sudden revelation, no fall down the rabbit hole--what began as, we both thought, a promising friendship turned within days into the sense of something larger and, after a first meeting, slipped comfortably into forever. "Do you know what this feels like to me?" he asked as he hugged me that first time, that first afternoon. "This feels like the future." I have never been held so gently and yet so tenaciously. He's not let go yet.

The sun is gone now, dipped below the marsh to the back of me, where the frogs call on warmer evenings. The pink cottony haze in the east has slipped into the water, staining it a slippery mother-of-pearl. The eastern shore is a smudged gray pencil line that may really be the edge of the world. The moon brightens, the redwings sing for their mates, the motorcycles thunder down route 261 to the bars. I sit on my new deck with my dog, adjusting my view of the world, and looking east into all the mornings of my future.