Thoughtful reading

One of the things I love most about the MFA program that I’m in is that it requires of me a tremendous amount of reading.  Every month I have to read and write a response to three books.  This requirement forces me to focus closely on how a book is written, how its essence impacts its readers and how I might learn to do the same sort of thing in my own writing.

When I applied to UAA’s low-residency MFA program I had to choose between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  I ended up choosing fiction; for me personally it is the most challenging.  But I want to study all three.  So in order to appease myself I have not excluded poetry or non-fiction from my reading lists.

Right now I’m working on writing a story that is about a place as much as it is about the people in it and I’ve tried to choose books to read that will aid me in this process.  This month I was lucky to have stumbled upon a new book written by an Alaskan author who does this so eloquently that I feel I could read it over and over again and each time glean a new angle in my approach to writing about the way a place can influence and shape the people who reside there.

I was initially drawn to the memoir, Faith of Cranes:  Finding Hope and Family in Alaska by Hank Lentfer, because of its title.  Sandhill cranes return to my neighborhood outside of Homer every summer and I’ve always felt honored to share space with them.  Their return every spring is one of the most hopeful things I know of.  My own teenaged children, who don’t always seem terribly observant of the natural world, take notice of the cranes and are always thrilled when they first see them flying overhead at the end of every long winter.  When the cranes leave each September, almost always on the 16th day of the month, it’s with mixed emotions; we’re in awe of the magic of migration and already nostalgic for the summer days that went by so quickly.

I was also drawn to the book because of the author’s name.  It turns out that the author’s parents live here in Homer and are huge supporters and users of the library where I work.  The nosey side of me that is always trying to make connections was eager to read the writing of Jack and Mary Lentfer’s son.

Hank Lentfer’s story is a story of coming of age, a story of finding himself trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense but most importantly it’s a story of love.  Hank heartbreakingly loves the place where he lives and the wild places where he hunts deer and picks berries and harvests salmon.  His story is of coming to terms with his fear of losing the land where he finds spiritual and physical sustenance.  It’s also a story of love for the people who share in his connection to a place and the realization that the loss that ultimately goes hand in hand with love is beautiful and hopeful in its own right.

So many of the books that I read, even some of the great ones, are enjoyable and thought provoking in the moment of the reading.  But not all of them stay with me.  Faith of Cranes stands out because since I’ve read it I find myself mulling it over, considering the choices I’ve made, thinking about the ways I’d like for my own life to be more thoughtful and more closely tied to nature.  And it leaves me asking important questions, a few of which are below:

  • How different would the world be if all parents, before conception, considered the responsibility, the joy, the loss and the beauty of bringing a child into existence?  The chapter in Lentfer’s book entitled, “Letter to an Unborn Child” was striking in its honesty and its raw expression of his fears about becoming a father in a world that is filled with war, environmental degradation and disconnection.
  • How much living are we, as a culture, missing out on by buying into a consumer-driven mentality?  By choosing to slow down and live with less we would be giving ourselves more opportunities to develop friendships, deepen the bonds we share with our families and have more time for self-reliance and art.  We know this, and yet it is difficult to extricate our lives from the cycle of filling our days with jobs and tasks we don’t find meaningful.  Why is it so hard?
  • As a person who is concerned about things like climate change, wilderness preservation, clean air, clean water and the protection of habitat how do I not lose hope when the news is overwhelmingly bad on all those fronts?  And along those same lines how can creativity, love and hopefulness make a difference?

If you are interested in an intimate portrayal of a life in coastal Alaska, if you love a place on this earth, if you feel a connection to cranes or any other kind of wildlife, if you appreciate a well-crafted story or if you simply would like to escape for a while into a sensual, thoughtful world, I highly recommend Faith of Cranes.  And if you end up reading it, I’d love to know the questions it summoned for you.  I’d also love to know what books you’ve read recently that have stuck with you, caused you to consider changes you’d maybe like to make in your own life.  

A Simple Notion

Back in July I was sitting in a room full of fellow MFA students I’d just barely met when Richard Rodriguez was introduced to us.  He walked slowly to the front of the room to deliver his keynote address.   His appearance alone commanded my attention.  He’s a small man, with dark skin and Native American looking features.  He wore a perfectly ironed, white shirt—something already out of the ordinary in Alaska, and black trousers.   His brown skin against the white was striking.

Before the residency we were required to read Rodriguez’s book, Brown, and discuss it online.  I have to admit, much of his book was lost on me.  I had to look up lots of his references in Wikipedia.  Sometimes I found his prose hard to follow.  Because of my experience with his book I wasn’t sure what to expect from him as a keynote speaker.  When he opened his mouth though, and started talking to us, any preconceived notion I’d had about the man was gone.  In a matter of minutes I was fighting the tears and by the end of his talk I’d long since given up on trying to hold them back.  I was a little embarrassed that I’d lost it that way, in front of these people I’d just met, but when I looked around the room I found I wasn’t alone.   Any devices we’d summoned in order to protect our egos before the residency, any doubts about the validity of our decision to pursue writing, any worries about entering into a career path that comes with absolutely no guarantees—they all were gone, at least for a while.  Richard Rodriguez had gotten to the heart of why we were all there.  He reminded us that “there is only one thing that should interest you as a writer:  What it means to be alive.”

Why did that simple notion cause me to have such a strong emotional reaction?  Well part of it was in his delivery.  He’s an amazing public speaker.  But part of it was how he made the average life out to be a thing of beauty.  So much writing is filled with ostentatious jargon, or it’s sarcastic or it’s shallow.  Richard Rodriguez challenged us as students to write about what is real.  It’s harder than you might imagine.

So then, what does it mean to be alive?

Obviously it means different things to different people.  All I can speak with authority on though, is what it means for me to be alive.  What do I spend my time doing and thinking about?  What consumes me?  What inspires me?  What makes me want to carry on?

There is no doubt that sometimes life is hard.  For example, right now we are going on three weeks without running water.  The inconvenience of not having water is one thing, but the stress of how we’re going to pay for the repair of our well is something altogether different and more daunting.  There’s more.  Sometimes in my family there are hurt feelings and disagreements.  People don’t always behave the way I think they ought to.  The house is never clean enough.  Time is constantly scarce.  There are always chores that nobody else will do.   Recently a close friend was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes my kids are hurting.  Sometimes I’m hurting.  And the news, it’s full of terrible, hopeless stories of people going through things a thousand times worse than anything in my life.

Is this what it means to be alive?

The answer is yes, and yet there is always another side.  Right now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying to think about that other side.  I’m reminding myself of the unconditional love I get from my friends and family.  I’m thinking about my husband’s job and how it allows my son and I to get an affordable education.  I’m thinking about my house—it’s modest and it doesn’t insulate very well, but when the woodstove is thumping and it’s cold outside, there’s no place cozier.  I’m thinking about the freedom I feel to express myself.  I know that some of the things I write are hard for my family to read, but the fact that they love me in spite of our religious and political differences gives me courage.  I’m thinking of the view out my window—the very existence of the mountains and glaciers helps put my problems in perspective and the bay reminds me that life is a changing thing.  Mostly though, I’m thinking about how lucky I am just to be here at all.  I get to watch my children grow.  I get to live with the man that I love.  I get to laugh at the funny things and cry a cleansing cry now and again.  It’s worth a lot just to be able to think and breathe and feel.

 

Reveling in the mess

view from home
Moon above the pushki meadow by Dean Sundmark

I rolled into town last night after attending a twelve day creative writing residency. Today I’m wandering around my home taking note of what has changed and what has stayed the same while I’ve been away.

My nemesis plant, locally known as cow parsnip or pushki, the one that left me with burns all over my arms a few days before I left, has grown nearly three feet taller in my absence and is now in its full flowering stage. Looking out my window and seeing how it’s taken over the paths that lead to the chicken coop, the yurt and the garden, overwhelms me. I wish I could take a machete and start hacking away at it, make everything orderly again, but since I have such a strong reaction to the plant’s juices it’s best if I just leave it alone, surrender to its tenacity, maybe even find a way to admire its steadfast ability to reclaim more of the yard each year.

Trying to process all of the conversations, classes, insights and emotions from the residency has me feeling a bit overwhelmed as well. So much happened in such a short amount of time that making sense of it all isn’t an option. Yet I find myself wanting to write something that sums it all up, lines it all out and puts it in tidy, manageable rows.

When I look back on my experience of the residency and the notes that I took over the course of the twelve days, I can see that I was all over the place. I had moments of feeling confident in my writing, followed by languishing self-doubt. The sense of community that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people was palpable at times; so was the stabbing loneliness that I felt at night in my dorm room. At times I was moved to tears. On one occasion I struggled to contain my anger and ultimately ended up leaving part way through a reading.

I’ve always been of the mind that writing is a means for making order out of chaos and I still believe that to be true. But now I’m questioning that tendency within myself to always be looking for a straight way out of a jumbled up world. As a writer I might need to spend more time reveling in the mess. I might need to write all over the place, let the words and ideas take me places that feel overgrown and too big to manage.

It takes courage to dig into questions for which there may be no answers. I might emerge with nothing more than a bunch of burns and bruises. But I feel like being a part of this MFA program is giving me the freedom to go there for a little while. I might not have anything marketable at the end of my three years, but along the way I’ll learn to push myself further than I thought possible.

Creativity seems impossible without a certain amount of surrender. I’m wanting to use these few years to let my writing grow into something bigger than I’ve allowed it to be thus far. I’m wanting to resist the urge to hack it down into tidy little cubes. I’m wanting to get lost in the dishevel. Hopefully in my digging I’ll find what needs to be found. Hopefully it will be good.

Summer so far

Here it is the end of June already and as is common for this time of year, I’m feeling like summer is going by too fast. I haven’t gone camping. I haven’t been in our skiff and worst of all, I haven’t gone to a music festival. It’s been tricky to fit it all in, and although it sounds like I’m complaining I should mention that I’m in week seven of my first fiction workshop class in UAA’s low-residency MFA program and although it’s a lot of work, I’m having a blast. In less than two weeks I’ll go to Anchorage for a 12 day residency and I’m getting giddy with excitement.

I’m looking forward to meeting my cohorts. I’m looking forward to all the reading, discussing and critiquing. I’m looking forward to taking my librarian hat off for two weeks. I’m even looking forward to living in a dorm again for a little while. The last time I lived in one was at the University of Montana in 1988. I was almost twenty then, a couple of years older than everyone else on my floor, so I was the one that everyone turned to when they wanted beer. It will be nice to have hall-mates that are old enough to buy their own alcohol.

So far I’ve enjoyed most aspects of my class. BlackBoard, UAA’s course management system, has taken a while to figure out, but I’m getting it. Our class communicates mostly through a discussion board. It’s tricky though, for me to respond to readings and other peoples’ comments without feeling a little self-conscious. I think of all of these great ways to reply, (at least I think they’re great) but when I end up typing them down they don’t quite match my intentions, so I cut a bunch and end up posting these very shortened versions that just aren’t quite right. Sometimes I wonder if there is a secret discussion board, one that everyone but me can access, and its sole purpose is to respond to my ridiculous posts. I’m not normally a paranoid person, but this could really be going on. Really.

Even in my sleep-deprived, over-stimulated state that seems to come with summer in Alaska, I’m feeling happy and strangely energized. I know it’s because I’m doing what I love. By being an official student I have the perfect excuse to read and write all the time.  Well not quite all the time, but a lot more often than I had been before I started the program.

And I’m managing to fit in a few summery things here and there between working full time and graduate school. Today I sat on my deck and got a little sun-burned while I read my classmates’ manuscripts. I also spent an hour or so weeding my garden and while doing so discovered a gardening oxymoron: invasive strawberry plants. It turns out that while I’ve been neglecting my onion sets, the strawberries have taken over.

Speaking of taking over… We have a lot of chickens right now. Although I’ve had laying hens for several years now, we decided to try raising meat chickens. Dean built a chicken tractor and we moved the month old chicks in a few days ago. The idea behind the chicken tractor is that it can be moved around so the chickens always have fresh grass to scratch around in. Chicken watching is a great form of simple entertainment. I highly recommend it.

And since Dean only works part time in the summer, he’s been able to keep things in order at home while I’ve been so busy. Last night I came home to a meal that Dean prepared in his new Dutch oven. (Did I mention that with Adella gone to Sitka Fine Arts Camp it’s just the two of us here for two weeks and the last time that happened was nineteen years ago?) He watched a few Youtube videos to figure out how it’s done and voila, roast chicken to die for. He also learned that contrary to the Youtube videos regarding Dutch Oven cooking, it is possible to prepare and cook a delicious meal without wearing cammo or drinking PBR. He found that it’s alright to substitute tie-dye and red wine. Too much red wine though, can result in a burned picnic table. It’s good that he’s cooking outdoors.

Overall, month one of summer has been pretty great. If I can just add a little bit of old-time music, then I’ll be all set.

What’s it all about?

For the past several weeks I’ve been working diligently on my application for graduate school, and just yesterday I delivered it to the post office.  I decided quite a long time ago that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing but I needed to take care of a few things before I could go through with applying.  Most importantly, I needed to wait until the timing was right for my family.  And on the more technical side, I needed to finish my bachelor’s degree, which was unfortunately a little more complicated than it should have been.

Now I have earned the elusive psychology degree (they tell me the actual diploma is in the mail) and I can pursue the MFA.  Although I’ve been writing for quite a while, I believe this next step, assuming I get accepted, will allow me to really immerse myself into a writing community and grow, something I’ve been craving for a long time.  And as far as my family goes, well to them I feel infinitely grateful.  They have supported me in every possible way, from listening to me fret over having to take statistics to not taking it personally when I’ve had to lock myself away for several hours at a time.

One of the requirements for the application was to write an essay with an explanation of why I write.  Since I’m about to invest a tremendous amount of time and my family’s resources into writing over the next few years it’s good to consider just why I’m doing it.  Every time I ponder that difficult question though, I seem to come up with a different answer, and each answer feels a little vague.

Sometimes writing feels like a very selfish act.  After all, it’s time consuming.   And time spent with my notebook or computer is time that’s not spent on tasks that are also important, like working at my job that helps pay the bills, or cleaning the house, or sometimes spending time with my family.  In fact there are times when there are about a million things I feel like I should be doing instead of writing.  And what makes me think I could possibly contribute anything of importance in a world where there is so much information out there, in a time when we already have to filter through so much junk in order to find something meaningful?

Answering the question of why I write could easily make me lose heart.  But last June, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Nancy Lord in her closing talk gave some advice that has helped me when I start feeling guilty for spending so much time on writing.   She said to think of writing not as something selfish but as a gift to give.  She said, “The time you put into writing is not self-indulgence, not navel-gazing; you will write something to share with others, even a small number of others, even one other person, that will present a fresh idea, brighten someone’s day, help create empathy, be simply beautiful.  The time needed to create such a gift needs no defense.”

I’m not using Nancy’s words of wisdom as an excuse to neglect my family or all of my responsibilities, but I am using them to give myself permission to prioritize writing.  I can only hope the things I write, or the gifts I give, reach people in some way.  Each piece of writing has the potential to connect me with someone else, and ultimately, at least for me, that’s what it’s all about.

An elusive Psych degree

I recently discovered that the bachelor’s degree I thought I had earned back in 1999 is incomplete.  You see, eleven years ago I was under the influence of raising small children; I was just trying to stay afloat in a world filled with diapers, play-dates and sibling squabbles.  It’s not surprising that  somewhere during that time frame I missed some important paperwork.

After I finished all of the coursework I needed to complete my BA in Psychology I took my exit exam and never looked back.  I went about my life.  Besides being a mother, I worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and as a skills trainer for the community mental health center before I landed my current position at the Homer Public Library.  On each of the resumes I submitted for those jobs I proudly added that I had my bachelor’s degree.  But it turns out I was wrong.   A certain detail kept it from being official.

I had failed  to submit the proper paperwork to the Psychology department when I changed my major from pre-nursing; a little thing, but big enough to throw my bachelor’s degree into a state of limbo for many years.  Since I thought I was done it never occurred to me that there was a problem and since I didn’t go through the graduation  ceremony I never really thought about the fact that I had never been given a diploma.

I could have blissfully gone through my life never knowing of this problem but about a year ago I decided that I would apply to the University of Alaska MFA program.  The advisor at the college, who also happens to be my husband, went through my transcripts and discovered the discrepancy.   Enough years have gone by that the Psychology department has different requirements than it used to and in order to actually get my degree I found out I was going to have to enroll again as a student, this time in the correct program, take a couple of classes and reapply for graduation.

At first I was in denial, “Surely they will make an exception for me,” I thought.  Much time was spent whining and exchanging emails with registrars and department heads but soon enough I realized that although my case was unique, it didn’t warrant any special treatment.  If I wanted to officially graduate then I had to go through the motions.  That’s when I got angry.  I didn’t want to go back to school and take classes that are irrelevant to where I want to be in my life.  For a while I thought about just giving up on the whole MFA idea.

My obstinate attitude started to subside though when I attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference last summer and went to a discussion about the pros and cons of getting an MFA.  It turns out that there aren’t many cons.  If I want to improve as a writer, if I want people to take my writing seriously, then the MFA will only help me.   The low-residency program makes it possible for me to work towards the degree and stay at my job.  And the real clincher is that my husband (remember him, the academic advisor) works for the UAA system which offers tuition waivers for family members of employees, thus making the whole thing affordable.  Really, it’s a no-brainer.

So once again I’m working on my bachelor’s degree.  This time though, I’m making sure to follow all the rules.   Tomorrow I’m off to my Psychological Statistics class and next week I’ll start Systems and History of Psychology.   No, I’m not thrilled about the fact that for the next few months I have to spend so many hours working on courses that are essentially meaningless to me, but I’ve come to a place of acceptance about the whole matter. Really, I have.   And who knows, maybe the statistics class will give me lots of new, interesting things to write about.  I’ll be sure to let you know if it does.