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.