Open Letter to My Friends With Kids

I’m glad you had your babies. I’m glad good people are raising the next generation. Your children are beautiful and special and I enjoy watching them play with you and take their first steps and say profound things at bedtime.

Sometimes I’m annoyed because it seems like some of you have lost your identity and spend all your time posting photos of your children, but then again I’m sure I annoy a lot of people with my endless photos of our cats and our garden — not to mention my #365feministselfie project. Continue reading “Open Letter to My Friends With Kids”

Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet

Creating my very first packet for the Lesley low-residency MFA program was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s difficult to get over that voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that says both “your work must be perfect” and “your work will never be perfect.” In one of her seminars, Erin Belieu observed that the voice of self-doubt is just as much ego as the voice of complacency and overconfidence. And it’s impossible to get into the flow state so necessary for writing when the ego is up.

Listening to the program’s professors reflect on their own practices as writers was a tremendous help to me. In a getting-to-know-you session with our mentors, I asked “what was the most difficult poem you wrote?” Their thoughtful answers led to some wonderfully deep discussions about the very reasons for writing. My mentor Sharon Bryan made a comment about a poem’s emotional truth that resonated with me. Even though poetry is a powerful tool that uses words in semi-rational ways to appeal to that emotional mind, it’s not something I’d ever heard talked about in previous workshops.

I came to Lesley with a certain amount of emotional baggage.  Continue reading “Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet”

The Indian Family in the Hospital Lobby

Rushing between off-site meetings, I carve out some time to sit and eat lunch in the lobby of one of the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. There’s a huge family at the table next to mine that has an entire catering setup — I guess to feed everyone who’s come down to support their loved one. They take up four tables and are eating delicious-looking Indian cuisine, speaking in what may be Hindi or one of India’s many other languages.

Seeing them makes me think about frugality, and how it requires you to stop worrying about what other people think of you, and about what it means to live in a multicultural society, and about how diversity is hard because humans are hard-wired to fear the Other, and also about what it means for me to live so far away from the support system of an extended family. I’m lucky to have a huge constellation of family-by-choice, and friends, and kindred spirits — I know more wonderful people than I can possibly have deep friendships with. But the bond of shared DNA runs deep, even with the low-level irritation that can develop among grown-up relatives. When I’m in the hospital, it’s my family that comes to visit me. And if they’re not related to me, I begin to understand who truly is my family of choice.

For better or for worse, that’s my life: to be a stranger in a strange land, even when it’s one I’ve lived in for years. Writers and artists often live at the edge of society. It’s what gives us the perspective and the fearlessness to speak our own truths about what we see. I’m most comfortable on the edges of things, observing the swirl and color of human existence — I see things that I wouldn’t if I were at the center of my own drama.

And perhaps it’s why I need the company of plants and animals to recharge myself. They speak a quieter language free of the body-mind duality that plagues humanity.

Update: Five Things

  • My father-in-law is dying of cancer. He is dying at home with round-the-clock care, surrounded by his extended family. My father died in a public men’s room of an overdose. The contrast in details is pretty stark, but the feelings are much the same. And in the end, they’ll both pass through that gateway alone. Grief doesn’t live in a line, but a labyrinth. I’m surprised every time I turn a corner to find it there.
  • I have a pile of review copies in my office. Interviews with a couple of poets are in process, but none are ready for publication yet.
  • I’ve completed applications to three low-residency MFA programs. Yes, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen didn’t need MFAs to become successful writers. But I’m not living in the 19th century. Who knows what will happen during or after my course of study? It still seems important to try.
  • I’ve spent three days out of the past two weeks in bed. Having an “invisible” chronic illness is especially frustrating at times like these. Yes, it’s exacerbated by stress, but it’s not exactly like I can keep my life from being stressful. And it’s true that certain preventative measures can keep the symptoms down, but it’s not very helpful to beat myself up about not taking them (or being able to take them) after the fact.
  • We have a brief respite from February’s slings and arrows. I’m going to take advantage of it right now and go for a walk before the winter weather returns with a vengeance.

Photo courtesy of Akif Mert via Flickr, CC2.0

(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving

All the FeelingsI recently heard a historian giving an interview about the original Thanksgiving. She pointed out that what made the English colonists so thankful was the awful year that had come before. The Pilgrims hadn’t meant to settle on a rocky coastline with poor soil and long, frigid winters. They’d been heading to Virginia but got blown off course and landed on Cape Cod in desperation. That first winter, they lost a huge chunk of their numbers to famine and illness. Native Americans in the area had also been decimated by a smallpox epidemic. If it weren’t for assistance from Squanto and treaties with other members of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims would have been no more than a footnote in the history books.

Continue reading “(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving”

On Samhain and Being a Bad Witch

Think of the year as a wheel. Then divide that wheel at the Solstices and Equinoxes. Then divide it again between each of those days. That is the wheel of the year, and those eight holidays are the days when Wiccans mark the turning of the wheel. We call those days Sabbats, or the Sun Holidays. Samhain and Beltane are the two biggest deals in the Wiccan calendar. Many witches also observe the phases of the moons, or the Esbats. They’re important too, but I’m not going to talk about them right now. I’m going to talk about Samhain and why I am a bad witch.

Continue reading “On Samhain and Being a Bad Witch”

Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope

Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”

Literary Pursuits or Lack Thereof

I try to cut myself a break in the summer. It’s natural to slow down a little when the weather is hot and the sun is plentiful. And while I’ve spent plenty of time sitting in the garden and bobbing in the ocean, I’ve also been keeping my hand in the game. Here’s what I’ve accomplished so far this summer:

  • Started a poetry workshop that ran from late June to early August. The next term starts in September. I’m in the early stages of publicizing it.
  • Submitted individual poems to an average of five publications or contests a week and had five pieces accepted. I expect a 20:1 ratio of rejections to acceptances, so this is better than expected. Twenty-one other journals are still reviewing my submissions on Submittable.
  • Sent my manuscript Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore to a few different small presses, some of which were running contests.
  • Published two articles over at Gender Focus. The most recent is an essay about Princess Leia, my first feminist role model. Yes, I like science fiction. Don’t judge me. I’ll repost it here once it’s been up on Gender Focus for a while.
  • Typed and revised at least a few poems.
  • Started the MFA application process. Even though I don’t plan to start a program until summer of 2016, one of the programs I visited asked me to start a file with them now. In spite of my chops, I found filling out the initial application form incredibly daunting. It took me about three weeks to send it in.
  • Finished a review copy of Tawnysha Greene’s gorgeous and devastating new novel A House Made of Stars. I’m in the process of conducting an author interview.

Maybe that’s enough.

 

About Okelle

Self-portrait photograph of Frances Johnston, 1889-1910
A portrait of the artist as a young bohemian
Photo credit: Frances Johnston, on exhibit at Clio

Miss Ophelia Karen Elizabeth Laurel Lucia Emmett (commonly known as Okelle) was born into a prestigious Denver family fallen on hard times during the Great Depression of the 1970s. Due to the family’s lessened circumstances, Okelle was forced to sell matches and flowers on the streets of Denver after school during most of her formative years. She refers to this period of her life in her memoirs as the “burning flower” years.

After her mother attempted to sell her to a local brothel to pay off her mah-jong debts, Okelle absconded to San Franscisco with the family silver. There she made a name for herself among the buskers and street performers as Little Nell, the Singing Match Girl. Eventually she attracted the attention of a sociology professor from UC Berkeley, who recognized Miss Okelle’s as-yet-untapped intellectual prowess and groomed her for a scholarship position at the University. Okelle took advantage of the professor’s kindness and eventually earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from UC Berkeley before going on to study at Cambridge as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Cambridge, she met and married one of the descendants of the notorious Bloomsbury group and bore him a child whom they named Buttercup.

Poor little Buttercup met a terrible fate Continue reading “About Okelle”

Ebb and Flow, Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth

Since I stopped posting drafts of poems to this blog, I find myself writing fewer drafts of poems. The instant gratification of a blog can become addictive, but without a workshop or some other audience — some other incubator of the work– my poetry becomes like a tree falling in a forest. Of course, the squirrels and sparrows and voles are there to hear the tree falling, but they don’t really give very productive feedback. Neither do the random strangers who click “like” when I post an unformed draft.

Going back to Barbara’s workshop would help, and I’ve been taking some baby steps in that direction. I rearranged my schedule so that I might go, but I still need to take the plunge, make the call, set the date that I will return. And figure out how to pay for it.

Photograph of a turf labyrinth
Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth

Poetry seems like such a slow crawl right now — like that point in a labyrinth when you see the goal in sight, but turn away from it on your journey toward it. It’s not that I’ve been stagnant, it’s just that generating new work has taken a back seat to polishing old work and sending finished work out to journals. Submitting work is strangely exhausting. It gets easier with time, and then again it doesn’t. But I need to trust that there’s no wrong turning, that there’s only the inexorable journey toward the center.

Continue reading “Ebb and Flow, Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth”