Looking out the kitchen window

Have you been forgetting to look at the leaves changing? I have. We’re supposed to eagerly await the shift, to watch it happen, but I feel like I never do. Instead, I look up and see flashes of red, orange, and gold. I am taken aback. 

I think I’d rather not berate myself for being too preoccupied with life. I think I’ll let myself live. Anyway, if autumn isn’t a surprise at every turn, doesn’t it become just another item on the checklist? 

Poetry surprises me pretty often. Even my own. Words just tend to connect in strange ways when we practice association. I love gasping out loud when I’m reading poems. Like a color is waiting for me around the corner. 

I currently teach adult students in an ABE (Adult Basic Education) English class. Many of my students are English language learners and immigrants. We’re working on building their vocabulary, putting clear sentences together, learning grammatical distinctions between singular and plural, present and past, commas and dashes and parentheses. They are not experienced or confident writers, but they are eager to write. Each class when I set them up with a writing prompt, they grow progressively more intent on writing something they will be happy sharing. There is an interesting difference from my high school students, who are in the habit of writing almost every day, but have trouble thinking big, independent thoughts. My adult students have such a wealth of experience, such a diversity of age and background and beliefs, but they are not accustomed to putting their thoughts into writing.

Which is why it is so remarkable and exciting when they do find exactly the right words to capture their thinking. Their last assignment was to write about a special place, a place they knew well, and to try to describe it so it came alive. My student Ann, from Hong Kong, wrote about her kitchen window, looking out at the sunlight. I complimented her on the lightness and delicacy of her prose. It sounded gentle to me. She surprised me by saying it wasn’t a real place. She said, said: “I am writing my dream environment. And then — I hope — I can match it in life.” 

I want her to be a poet, and to find writing as a blessing throughout her life. I consider myself lucky to have writing as my companion, as a space where I can meet myself as I am in this moment, flawed, limited, with fears and doubts. 

But I love the idea of manifesting the world we want in our writing. Make the words and images on the page beautiful, and maybe life will be beautiful, too. At least for a minute, for the time you’re reading what you wrote. We can write ourselves better, too — set intentions, write out goals, put our dreams on paper and fold it into origami cranes to keep it safe and mostly hidden. 

The poet Maggie Smith’s book comes out soon, and on Twitter she said the title was from a note she wrote herself: “Keep Moving.” 

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She started in this small way, and now offers almost daily messages on Twitter that inspire hope and perseverance. I know, I know, Twitter is a time suck, an empty hole of call-out culture and snarky subtweets and constant self-promotion. But the poets I follow offer little snippets of golden light on dreary days. They encourage me to believe in myself and be confident: in my body image, in my efforts to better my mental health, in my relationships. 

I am not optimistic enough to believe that the universe will manifest whatever we intend and attract. I’m a little skeptical of affirmations and positive psychology, because I think you can be the best person in the world and horrible trouble can still fall upon you. It is too much to ask, in the face of injustice and depression and trauma, to just “cheer up.”  

But in the things I do have some control over — my approach to problems, my energy, the way I talk to myself — I could be so sweet, hopeful, and kind. I could use my words as a dream. 

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You can pre-order Maggie Smith’s book on Indiebound

Aspiring Author June Blog Post: A Bowl of Peanuts: What to Write About

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

 

My dad just told me a story in which he, returned from a late-night gig, wanted to wind down with a snack before bed. He took a bowl of peanuts and a glass of wine to the recliner and started to watch TV, only to wake four hours later, the bowl of peanuts on his chest, the TV blaring.

I laugh at this, because my dad loves portraying himself as a silly old coot and telling me the goofy things he forgets. My favorite was the story about thinking a guy forgot his bag on the bus and readying himself to leap off the bus and heroically restore it to its rightful owner, only to see it claimed by… a totally different guy.

When my dad tells my these stories, I can see him playing out the action in my mind. I can summon a vision of him in his fluffy maroon bathrobe, an updated version of the original “Big Red” I was comforted by as a kid. His slippered feet are kicked up in the recliner, and a dumb old cowboy movie is playing on the TV. I can see him drifting to sleep while the bowl of peanuts is perched precariously in that little divet between his chest and belly, which he jokingly calls a built-in cupholder. I can craft the time passing in my head, shape it into a story where something changes when he wakes up, drawing a picture of his character as he realizes his folly and immediately begins to laugh at himself.

I used to think that to write creative nonfiction or memoir, I had to tell my whole story each time. Or that I would have to deliver pieces of my childhood trauma or the problems of my family. I do write about those things, but usually for myself, not to be shared. Often, the things I write bear some truth of my life or reveal something about who I am. But no one thing I write is going to perfectly represent my entire identity. Throwing out that pressure has been helpful- it has freed me from the unfair expectation that everything I write must be significant in a grave way.

But I still need things to write about. Especially if I am writing every day (which I actually live up to for about a month at a time). I draw from memory, things I notice about people, things I see on walks through my neighborhood. Things happen – ordinary things – and if I can draw a conclusion or make a connection to something else, this might be fruit for writing.

One of the people who encouraged me to do this was Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, which remains one of my favorite books about writing. She emphasizes that in order to be a writer, you have to write. What should you write about? Anything you can write about. One of the exercises she suggests is: tell me everything you know about school lunches. So I’ll try that now, in my notebook, and share whatever comes out as (Lamott’s term) a “shitty first draft.”

I never bought school lunch in elementary school. Our school didn’t have it except one Friday a month when there was HOT LUNCH, which was to delineate freshly prepared food rather than bags that had been sitting in lockers all day, but which to me always seemed literally piping HOT! LUNCH!

Usually it was pizzaSo we were all brown bag kids on all the other days, but when your parents forgot to pay for HOT! LUNCH! you were especially noticeable on that day. That was me. I was also especially noticeable for the amount of mustard I put on things. The Catholics were suspicious of mustard; it had too much flavor to be virgin-Mary approved. I was dark German (baked potatoes and brown mustard among my favorite foods) and they were almost all Irish with a few Italians thrown in for excitement. I don’t know why this was so significant but at some point it dawned on me that this might be the reason I was so very different from all of them.

You were also especially noticeable if your Dad made your lunch instead of your Mom. I thought at the time I was the only one in this situation, but now I think I should have looked for the signs. It was immediately detectable from the handwriting on the brown bag, which also told if you were an only child (no name written). Most kids with siblings had full names written out in Mom handwriting. I had my first initial in black sharpie. And if I’d had a particularly bad day with the Catholics the day before, a funky angular heart went with it. ❤ Moms also write cute little notes on napkins. Dads did not. No Dad would cut crust off of bread, but Moms did it all the time.

But I never would have stopped dumping three or four packets of deli mustard on my ham and cheese when HOT! LUNCH! was sandwiches. And I never asked my dad to write out my full name or put a note on my napkin. I liked that he knew what kind of sandwich I wanted and wrote N to show me my lunch was distinguishable from my sisters. I loved that he absorbed the habit of initials in black sharpie and signed everything from then on: <3, D.

See? You can write about anything. I know, I know. Now it seems I’ve taken this problem and whipped it around to the opposite side. If I don’t have to write about everything that’s ever happened to me, but I also can write about anything at all that ever happens, what the heck do I write about?

I face this problem every time I write, it seems, which right now (thankfully) is every day. What’s interesting to me varies, so I might write about how there is so much pollen around Providence right now, which would probably lead me to compare it to the pollen in Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the most aggressive Spring ever. Sometimes I write about a topic just long enough to know I don’t want to write about it. This just happened for me with an essay about yoga and learning. I might write about my houseplants, or a little kid’s funny comment on the street, or about ice cream shops or block parties.

If you’ve read this whole post, you probably think I need to write about my Dad. Maybe. I certainly want him to know how important he is to me (if you’re reading this, Dad, ahoy!). But right now I’m more interested in investigating news stories about how trees around the White House are dying (I know of at least two). The thing is, once you open your eyes and start noticing, like writers do, there is no end to the things you can write about.

 

Your assignments this week are all inspired by Anne Lamott. (You really should read her book).

1. Write about your school lunches.

2. Choose a topic to examine through a 1-inch picture frame. How can you describe that moment, that memory, that sight?

3. Practice remembering. Choose a holiday or birthday party from when you were a kid and write everything you can see, smell, and hear.

 

A final word of advice: sometimes (maybe most of the time!) the value is in doing the writing, not in what comes out. Translating my memories and the view from my little frame of reference into words gives me hope that I’ll keep finding things to write about for the rest of my life.

 

Thanks for reading! My next post on The Aspiring Author Blog will be on October 24th. 

As a child, I was overly astute.

I think of how, in the doctor’s office getting a check-up, I followed directions too well.

The doctor told me to bend down and touch my toes while keeping my legs straight. He must have told me to stand back up. And then he said to walk to the door. I did so, keeping my legs as straight as I could.

I didn’t find this odd or difficult, because my sisters and I had been playing a game called Robots where one girl was the robot and the others gave commands. The robot had to turn left or right, stop, go, and back up on a dime while emulating a robot’s stiff-limbed walk. The game was funny because if the robot ran into something (like a parking meter) she had to keep trying to walk in that direction while saying SYSTEM BLOCKAGE repeatedly in a tinny, nasally voice. The other players had to suppress giggles while grabbing her by both shoulders and resetting her path.

So anyway, there I am, participating in some twisted version of Simon Says in which my doctor has not said to not keep my legs straight, and the doctor turns to my mom, very concerned, and says, “does she always walk like that?”

My mom laughs and says, “you can bend your legs again, sweetie.”

I walk normally again, reassuring my doctor that I don’t have a horrible disease of the spine.

I am embarrassed enough to think about this story for years, but I am also curious enough about communication and language to think this is an interesting breakdown. Now I wonder what vested authority allows a doctor’s command to outlast time? Do we grant the words of some people undue authority, so that they never expire? How was I to know that the new command, the new task, was to supercede the previous instructions? Furthermore, how did a pediatrician not understand what was happening to me?

I’m glad that my mom understood the rules of Simon Says and knew enough about my tiny brain to see what ws happening and think it was funny. I’m just so glad she was there.

 

Nora Pace writes poetry, essays, and fiction. Her flash fiction and poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Juniper, Kansas City Voices, Barren Magazine, borrowed solace, and Riggwelter Press. She recently attended the Kettle Pond Writers’ Conference. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches adult education classes.

Aspiring Author April Blog Post: Contradictions

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

 

Sight isn’t a blessing unless you’ve lost it. Or unless you’ve forgotten how to see. Or unless you’re seeing anew. Do you wake up each day and thank your body for its ability to see?

When we say, “I once was blind, but now I see,” we need the first condition to be true for the second to be miraculous. We need the darkness in order to welcome the light. And that linking word, “but,” is so dreadfully important, yet we never notice it. Essential, but unremarkable.

It’s my belief in both creative nonfiction and in poetry that the most interesting things to explore are often found in contradictions and juxtapositions. This is where poems bloom and often where essays start. Why is it that life can be one way and also another? How can I feel ice in my fingers and toes but simultaneously know a warming in my heart? How can I believe both things to be true?

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith these days, for a few reasons. I just sang several masses for Holy Week and Easter at a Catholic Church, which brought up memories and emotions about my childhood in the Church and my choice to leave it. Easter is also a season when I think about my mother, who died shortly before that holiday many years ago. And right now in my letters with a mentor, we have a running dialogue about prayer. Clearly, I have a complicated relationship with faith and religion, and that might be enough to write about for years!

When I think about belief, I think in opposites. I don’t find the opposite of religious faith to be distrust or emptiness, but rather, a turning inward. In some ways, my loss of traditional faith allowed me to find other things to believe in. This is possibly the antithesis of the blind man who is healed, who finds a new fact of his existence — “now I see!”– to be cause to believe in invisible power. I found the intuitive way that I saw the world to be contradictory to the existence of that same power.

But on the other hand, the blind man believes he was blind, and it is only when that belief is shaken (by suddenly seeing), that he finds a new faith. When my faith was shaken (in part by the death of my mom), I had to look for new things to believe in: love, my own strength, truthfulness in emotion, grief, and the power of being in the present world. It was only because I knew that I once could not see these things that the new sight of them was so miraculous.

Some of these thoughts might make it into my current essay project, which is about promises, my mother, belief, and growing up. I’m interested in the ways that one thing replaces another — that whole thing about how when a door closes, a window opens. I’m also aware that not all of these contradictions can be resolved, and that it’s okay to leave questions unanswered in my writing.

 

With the beauty and difficulty of contradictions in mind, here are a couple of writing ideas for you to try.

1. Make two lists: one of things you love, and one of things you hate. Line them up next to each other. Do you notice any commonalities or resonances across the lists? Do you love one thing because you hate its opposite? Write about what you find.

2. Play a sentence structure game by doing “not this, but that.” I find this is a great way to start a poem. Here’s me trying it:

not the window, but the breeze
not the late nights, but the way sleep settles more heavily after midnight

not the ocean, but the tide
not the cracks, but the edges

not the neighborhood, but the home
not the teaching of children in front of me, but the learning of the child within.

 

I hope you find ways to explore the tough contradictions in your life and in your writing. Give yourself permission this month to be unsure, to notice things changing, and to ask questions.

 

Thanks for reading! My next post on The Aspiring Author Blog will be October  24th. 

Aspiring Author March Blog Post: Practicing Poetry: Walking and Noticing

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

 

“You’re a poet now!” cries my friend upon hearing of only my second poetry acceptance, and I cringe. I shirk this phrase for two opposite reasons: first, because introducing myself as a poet somehow feels pretentious, as if I am putting on airs of laureates and Keats and the Brownings. How can I claim such a title in a field that demands more learning from me every day, that has many hills but no apex?

My students and I joke that I’m not quite a poet yet, but I am a “poetry professional.” I teach a poetry class at our high school and I tell students they can always come to me with their questions because in this room, in this cafeteria, I am the poetry expert. But it’s all relative.

The other reason I don’t like that phrase is the word “now.” Publication hasn’t suddenly made me a poet, my soul has. There’s something inherent to me that makes me see the world a different way, a way that is sometimes more painful and more sensitive. My emotionality has led me to choose to live my life awake to beauty and open to receiving. Words come easy to me, phrases like “the consolation of friendship” and “a lover of peonies” float around in the air around me and become poem titles. And then I choose to fill those poems with things I see and touch, and write them down.

And what’s actually incredible about this is that I’m not special. I make no pretense that these qualities are unique to me; I think that all of us are capable of great emotional depth, specific visions, or perfectly curated words. I tell my students that each one of them can and will write poetry in my class. And I believe it! But to be “poets” in how we see the world, we have to make the choice to walk through the world a certain way, and most people don’t. Most people, most of the time, hurry. Most people graze the surface.
It takes practice, I have learned, to develop the habit of slowing down and noticing the particulars of the world. You can do this sitting at your desk and looking out the window, or closing your eyes as you sip your tea. You can notice snippets of conversation or the way a storm billows. Or, as I find it particularly fruitful, you can walk.

I am lucky enough to live in a particularly beautiful neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. These days I can’t get enough of the idea that spring is coming. It hasn’t been a harsh winter, but it’s been long, and I’m so ready to move on to the next thing. I find myself walking more often in the afternoons after school, since the sun is out longer and the weather, while still chilly, is refreshing instead of achingly cold. I’m looking eagerly for signs of spring, searching for the buds on the trees, the first brave purple crocuses, the fat robins perching everywhere.

No matter what images or ideas I find, I collect them and use them to populate my writing. I’ve heard this concept called a “magpie essay” in various places, and I like the name though I didn’t create it. We are collectors of shiny, pretty things, aren’t we? Things we like to fiddle with or remember.

I’ve now written a couple of magpie poems, in which I catalogue things I have noticed and try to draw some connections between them. Here’s a list of things I’ve noticed that fit into one poem:

the twisting of a sprouting weed
the thorns on a tree
eggshells
blue flowers
snails
February buds
oval leaves of an ash
butterflies
fences with gaps
telephone poles covered in staples from flyers
a coy baby rabbit
a spider weaving her web
a garden

How do the things we notice come together into a poem?

As I write these posts on poetry and nonfiction writing each month, I hope to include a practical exercise or idea for you to try. One of the first lessons I taught to my poetry class this year was the “I saw” poem. Write down “I saw” on 3 lines in a notebook. Then fill them in with whatever you can gather.

“I saw” is different than “I see” because you can’t just look around for the answers. You have to remember what you saw, which means you must choose, somewhere in your brain what you want to include in the record of your sight. Then you may ask yourself, “why did I remember this?” and as you start to choose how all the shiny things collide, you begin to make a poem.

Here’s the latest one I’ve written:

I saw a tree tied with a bandage
I saw a tumult of bricks around it.

I saw a broken sidewalk that urges slower walking, no tripping,
a forgiveness for imperfection

 

Poetry is the art of noticing. Isn’t that the thing we most desire sometimes? To be noticed and known. To feel the eyes on us that value and adorn, rather than strip and smirk. Could we not grant this gift to the people around us and to the world?

 

Thanks for reading! My next post on The Aspiring Author Blog will be September 26th.