She Wore Armor

She Wore Armor

(inspired by Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”)

She wore armor

She wore armor over her beating heart
She wore armor over her pendulous breasts
She wore armor over her curving hips
She wore armor over her mound of flesh.

She wore armor

She wore armor over her good ideas
She wore armor over her strong hands.
She wore armor over her written words
She wore armor over her selfless service

She wore armor.

She wore armor over the cold space in their bed
She wore armor over the spoken wounds
She wore armor over the indifference
She wore armor over the goodbye

She wore armor.

She wore armor when her husband left
She wore armor on the morning metro
She wore armor at her Pentagon desk
She wore armor in her smile.

She wore armor

Her armor shifted under his gaze.
Her armor protested under his hands
Her armor groaned under his kiss
Her armor cracked under his weight

She took off her armor.

History in the Making

Apocaplyptic Lady Liberty
Photo from Doug Cunningham’s Facebook Page

I’ve been grading student work. In fact, most people who teach on a traditional schedule have been working like crazy to finish up first-semester grades. I’m on terms for my institution, so we simply start over every 10 weeks, and I’m only grading milestone projects. They’re not memorable.

I think most of my teacher friends would agree that the majority of our grading isn’t memorable. Occasionally one person out of 81 students will write something that rings true. A bell chime from a Buddhist monastery. An angel receiving its wings.

One student paper that wouldn’t have been memorable took on significance in a changing context. Nearly more than a decade ago, a talented young man had just beautifully argued that terrorism would become the warfare of the future. As I was marking the A- on the top of his paper, my phone rang. “Turn on the TV.”

Click and I find the first tower billowing smoke. Within a few seconds, a massive object sweeps across the screen and explodes into the second tower. I’ve never forgotten that paper and, much the same as any cognizant American on September 11, 2011, I’ve never forgotten the images searing that moment into my identity. That was history, happening in front of my eyes.

Sometimes we know when history is being made. Sometimes we know events unfolding before us will become lore and eventually the content of student textbooks and the basis for more immemorable grading.

A factor that makes the American 9/11 stand apart from some other historical moments is the ubiquity of the images. With a limited number of channels and a 24-hour news cycle, we saw the same images repeating themselves: images that are iconic today. We all share memories of the same image, even if our contexts were different. I was standing in my living room. Recently, my students described how they were in elementary school classrooms watching TV. But we all know what that second explosion looked like.  And we cannot erase the haunting image of the man falling. We know the dust cloud chasing the people up the street.

As early as 1925, Maurice Halbwachs was writing, in French, about the idea of collective memory and the way that the images we see in the present influence our memory of the past. We find an effect from the group experience of these touchpoints in history, and they shape our memory of how we arrived at this moment.

Only a few years after 9/11, Alison Landsberg wrote a book about “prosthetic memories:” images, broadcast to us, that seem tangible to our minds and yet, in many ways, they are “inauthentic” because we don’t experience the events firsthand.  All of these images are mediated in some way for us. In the case of 9/11, the TV channels decided the angle, the duration, the commentary.

One of my favorite people to work with at the Air Force Academy, Professor Tom Vargish, taught me about contingent reality, that our present-day moment or personal reality is contingent upon the sum of personal experiences that brought us to this point. So many of us have shared experiences because of the nature of our increasingly connected, media-centric world where we personally witness a communal media event, and yet we never have identical experiences. Still, we can speak about this moment, the first day after the winter solstice of 2017, with a collective memory.

We knew history was happening on 9/11. How do we know when history is happening in more subtle ways? So many of my friends have felt the unrest of our present moment. We share the memory of hearing our nation’s leader say he assaults women as a regular practice: (“Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”). We witnessed neo-Nazi protests end the life of a peaceful counter protestor in Charlottesville. We share the #metoo movement hanging out of balance with wave after wave of evidence that a systemic culture of assault and oppression exists in our country. Not just assault against women, but assault on most forms of decency. The tax bill moving out of Congress promises to increase the gap between the most wealthy and the most impoverished. Our supposed leaders cower before the threat of retaliation.

All of these “memories” belong to us, collectively, are being mediated for us through multiple sources, and are becoming the fabric of who we are. How do we know when history is being made?

Sometimes I fight this history, spooling out before me into an apocalyptic nightmare that is actually coming into existence, by creating my own memories, mediated through my own, tangible experience.  When I glide through a pine-beetle-devastated forest on too-little snow, sometimes I can set aside my fears about global warming and our future. Sometimes I strengthen the foundation of my contingent reality with crunchy snow steps, bounding dogs, and the tracks of rabbits disappearing into wood piles under the watchful eye of snow-capped mountains.

If only for a moment, I make my own history.

Seattle Dog

Baby Seattle Toy

Today you were there, just a glimpse.
The humanness in Matilda’s eyes,
The pause in Drover’s step at my command,
Reminded me. And I missed you.

M&D

Your little six-month paws at
Double-time to keep up for our slow jog.
Your tilted head when I left.
Your 9-month-year-old joy at my return.

Baby Seattle Dog crop

You were my relentless alarm clock of love.
My focus and my feeling.
You flew in the cargo hold to new lands.
Scaled castles near Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

Seattle Castles

You jogged with me
In Korea and Colorado,
In Turkey and on Turkey Trots
In Washington State and Washington D.C.

Seattle Gila Wilderness

You were there in my first year of the military
And in my fifteenth.
You watched me leave on each deployment.
You were the best part about coming home.

Seattle Dog

When the vet said “cancer,”
And the x-ray was dotted like pox.
You slept at my feet as I wrote my last dissertation chapter.
I guess I could only cry so much.

Hol Seattle and Me

You missed the conclusion.
Yours was at our dining room table.
The needle slipped in. Your feet
Paddled furiously, then infinite stillness.

Every morning a habitual side-step
To miss your sleeping form
Until we moved to a new house.
You, ashes in a wooden box.

Seattle Snow

Nearly a decade now, and there are two more
Kur-aaaay-zee blue heelers.
I know you would set them straight.
Remind them of the rules.

Matilda and Snowman

I wish you could meet Matilda,
She shares your intensity.
I wish you could meet Drover,
He tries his hardest to be a good dog too.

Drover and his monkey.jpg

I wish you could swim these mountain lakes,
Run the forested trails,
Bark at elk and deer and chipmunks,
Sleep pressed against me.

Seattle Regal

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.

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