Reading and Writing

20160911_085954Recently I was asked about my reading life.  That made me pause.

When asked to describe my “reading life,” one might as well ask me to describe my life.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read, and I wouldn’t know my life without a stack of books on my nightstand informing my dreams and challenging my thoughts.  Eudora Welty describes exactly how I’ve always felt about books: “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them” (5). For me, at least, that love has always extended to writing books of my own as well.  My first book, Freedom, the Spirit of Horses, won my school’s young writers’ contest and I spent one entire fifth-grade day at the Pacific Lutheran University Young Writer’s conference.  I walked away from that day with the childish certainty that this was the first day of the rest of my author’s life. Even after I attempted to major in engineering because I was an undergraduate at the U.S. Air Force Academy, one class lesson in differential equations sent me upstairs to switch my major to English. Words with their sexy rhythms, irresistible shapes, and sultry sounds, will always be the pivot point of my life.

I read everything: the backs of cereal boxes, the labels on pill bottles, the small print in advertisements, New York Times notable fiction, war literature, and the in-between books that family and friends give me. I frantically shovel in the book before a movie, add the suggested reading from memoirist Donald Anderson to my stack, and follow rabbit trails down links while waiting for medical appointments.  I listen to books in my car.  I’ve been known to bring my iPod with me to finish the book while cleaning my house. In fact, I hold only two times sacred from the stimulation of stories: when I muck horse stalls every morning and when I go for runs.  Even then, I find myself narrating my own life.  I notice stegosaurus clouds stomping on sunrises as I scoop manure, and, on an early morning run, the women cupping their mouths to call ancient gods out of the South Korean Han river. I’m always sorting through word choices, seeking out rhythms, and contemplating the malleable nature of memory as I form a record of my own past.

A dear friend shares a joke with me that I’m a strict rule follower, except for when I’m not.  My mother insists that I am the only person who could become a military officer, then figure out how to have the bureaucracy pay for advanced degrees in English literature and hire me to be a professor.  I’m enamored with the idea that I’m a rogue, and I take that identity to heart in my reading and writing.  Yet, somehow, I followed the rules when it came to my unusual military career path. Why didn’t I pursue a writing career in 2002?  I was afraid I would never teach again if I asked the bureaucracy to fund me in studying my greatest passion: creative writing. Instead, I took the only path I thought I had available to me: academic literary study.  To serve in the military and live in the world of words and ideas was the perfect dissonance. And while I’ve successfully published critical work for the last 10 years, my heart isn’t in criticism. I’m much more interested in the craft that produces the big ideas than in analyzing those ideas in the context of literary theories. Instead, I appreciate the way the writing stands on its own.  In the end, I’ve always read as a writer.

Yet, as a writer, I don’t regret following “the rules” into the world of literary criticism.  Admiring Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Mary Hunter Austin, and Ellen Glasgow enough to write about them in my dissertation has only improved my own imaginative literary world. I studied the pliable boundary between fiction and autobiography in my doctoral work, learning the value of memory as a fictional tool and the value of creativity as a memoirist’s right in nonfiction. Joan Didion’s grief-stricken, abrupt sentences in “After Life,” and JoAnn Beard’s gear-shift collie under the plasma of the night sky in “The Fourth State of Matter,” are the ultimate examples of the type of writing I would like to achieve. Teaching war literature from Sophocles to Diane Ackerman to Brian Turner gave me context and a lexicon for my own military experiences. Discovering the genre “food literature,” and teaching several iterations of a topics course, shaped my positioning within our larger social, cultural, and economic world.  I have grown to appreciate a greater breadth of nonfiction writing, including research-based books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. I’m still charmed by stories, though, and I prefer Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle over the more politically charged books, and I prefer M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me over Kingsolver.

My favorite authors interpret the world around them, not only in the context of their own lives, but also in an effort to wrestle with the human condition. Well-written nonfiction lets us slip into someone else’s skin and Jill Ker Conway insists that this experience enlarges and instructs our lives. If we humans supposedly suffer from an existential loneliness sourced from the subjectivity of our own experience, then at least memoir is an attempt to inhabit other perspectives, realize the shared points in our human existence, and perhaps, in the end, feel less lonely.

M.F.K. Fisher has a famous passage from The Gastronomical Me that begins with people asking why she doesn’t write about “power and security and about love.” She explains, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one (353). Fisher’s approach to writing about food as a metaphor for life, the subject that holds her greatest passion, is the same as my approach to writing about my own life, even if I find that this writing, in the end, is always a hunger that cannot be satisfied.  Let others slip under my skin; I’m eager to have them recognize their own world in my words: both familiar and yet fresh.

In the end, it comes back to words, whether we are writing them or reading them. They sashay before us on the page, inviting us into their secret chambers, and enchanting us into a better world than our own.

Afternoon Storm

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Rolling thunder symphony
Electric scenting raw nostrils
The caress of cascading water
Another cymbal’s lighted crash

Something primal in me squats
Taking in my tight, warm shelter
Ticking off my food supplies
Tasting the sugar in my hot tea

Out back, the horses hunker
Under a spreading Ponderosa Pine
Something primal in them, too,
Tails turned to the lashing sheets of rain

The hummingbird perches on the feeder
Wings from 70 beats to zero
Heartrate still above 1000
Furiously in motion within iridescent pause

The sky sheds gray for a sickly green
Blurred in pouring fury
Then it, too, lightens to dishwater,
Next a towel wiped with dirty hands.

Betrayed by rays of sun,
Twisting soft water back up to the sky,
Earth scents perfumed with pine
The storm forages on for new prey

Complete and Great

Everything that’s worth anything is about love and memory.

Memories are malleable in all the best ways.  To live a satisfying life, I only have to turn to my past and find myself draping rosy haze that disguises the worst of what I’ve been and morphing myself into a heroine.  After all, that’s what we humans do.

Edmund Blair Bolles, himself a humanist, insists that “Remembering is an act of imagination,” and notes that we constantly interpret our past as opposed to producing an objective account of it.  In light of our continually updated world views, I find myself trying to build some form of consistency that forms a bridge between who I was and who I think I am—someone I’ll find a way to make consistent with the person I will become.

Having just hung up my combat boots after 26 years and two days in the Air Force, I’m persistently readjusting what I’ve done across that career to match with the young woman I was, whose motivation to serve in the military fell somewhere between seeing how cool my brother was (and thinking I could be that cool myself) and the paralyzing realization that, if I left the all-expenses-paid Air Force Academy, I would need a plan.

Psychologist Daniel Schacter writes about how we “cannot hope to understand memory’s fragile power without examining what happens to memory as time passes, and considering how we translate the residues of experiences that persist across time into tales of who we are.” Today, I am that young woman who served, with pride, and still was planning to get out when my five-year commitment is up, even if I waited an extra 21 years.

After a full career of deployments where I skirted my way around the edge of danger, never intersecting the violence around me, I find myself reaching to a plane of greater experience to sort out this sense of identity.  I’m still determining if this life I’ve lived and the life I am living has been, after all, worthwhile.

In 2013, Joseph Urgo handed me an Armed Forces Edition of My Ántonia. The Cather scholar and now Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, thought I might enjoy reading it while deployed to Kyrgyzstan over the next year.  I still recall the windowless cave, my home for nearly 14 months, where I reread my favorite lines from the novel. Cather describes sun-soaked young Jim Burden as thinking that he was “entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” I find myself, often, in that glow, perfectly content in the sense that I’m merely a microbe in the cosmos, serving a purpose.

As Willa Cather’s WWI soldier from her novel One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, gazes at the stained glass of a cathedral window while playing tourist on his way to the frontlines of war, he notes how the “purple and crimson and peacock-green [. . .] had been shining hundreds of years” in light that traveled from a distant star. He’s contemplating his role in the Great War, and how he, as a person who always believed there would be “something splendid” in his life, is finding out that even a farm boy from Nebraska is part of everything.

As for myself, I can see that I am merely stardust—a speck in the light ray of stained-glass human experience. But I still believe that I’m a viable part of that universe and a particle of light that produces color.  I am light.  I am color. Maybe that is happiness.

Light Through Stained Glass

In the a.m.

 “And yet day and night meet fleetingly at twilight and dawn”
—Mary Balogh, A Summer to Remember 

Bare feet jammed in gritty Danskos
Pink legs clad in “Fight Like a Girl”
Sleep sticking eyes, morning pine scents
Brewing coffee recedes behind slammed door.

51 steps—nickers, sharp ears
Doe eyes trace my stumbling steps
Treats: “Horse on the left.
Horse on the right.”

Slinking strides eat dirt
Urge the gate back
Crop grass crop grass crop grass
My gritty pink foot rests on a rock

Now muck bucket and fork,
Digested grass buzzes with flies before me
I look to the horizon, black horse silhouettes
Above them I spy

A rosy stegosaurus stomping over
The rising sun
Dissipating more quickly than his
Earth-bound predecessors

Pitched fork strokes, bucket dumped
Dust there, dust under the broom
Garden with earthy moist scent
Lethargic grasshoppers doze in parsley

Patty pan squash yellow flying saucers
Balance in one hand, twisting open stuck door
Coffee wafts down the stairs
Morning chores done, amen.

Blog image Horse Sunrise