19 April 2013

a thought on a poem by Deborah Poe

When things* are broken, I turn to poetry. Suffice it to say, this is a broken week in the world. But it is a week in which I am still trying to impose order on at least my world, and part of that ordering is preparation for teaching some literature and writing in Romania in less than a month.

This morning, as part of the class preparation, I was considering Deborah Poe's extraordinary collection Elements, which is a book inspired by and arranged according to the Periodic Table of the Elements. The poems are scientifically acute and lyrically imagistic by turns, and this morning, "Manganese (Mn)" caught me.

The poem opens with the lines,
this is not the chemistry of hibiscus blossoms
or the color of lithium steam coming off spring
and continues, a few lines later, saying,
these shivery nodules, like ancestors,
are immortalized--i mean in ways
loneliness is related to time
Loneliness, indeed, must be related to time. There are equations in my head: velocity & time & distance, and so many people think of loneliness as it pertains to distance—to be so far from x—and that distance is only time that’s been thrown, fast and away. And by this math of words, then, where there is no time, where time is suspended and held, there can be no loneliness because time and distance never meet and nothing speeds past.

I read this poem, and the morning—how much waiting we are doing and have done and how we are watching seconds tick while someone bleeds out in a street or a building collapses or the ashes won’t stop their hot glowing and we wait longer and watch the hours and tragedy spin us further and further from that which weaves together home and here—the morning stopped. Time paused in washes of color and mist and everything was whole and connected, just for a moment.

In less than a month, I will be in Romania, which is the farthest from home, as Samwise Gamgee says, I’ve ever been. I will spend twenty-two hours flinging myself fast and away in the bodies of airplanes, walking fast through doors and gates that permit no reverse, but I will be taking this poem with me, and I will never be lonely.

*productivity, sentences, peace, silence, noise

17 April 2013

snow day

The second winter storm in a week has dropped another foot (and more) of snow on Casper, and I am (mostly) done whining uncontrollably about it. We are three weeks shy of the semester's end, and the only word on my lips is acceptance. Things will be as they will be, and everything will get done because everything always gets done. And this is Wyoming: nothing meteorological has permanence. Despite near whiteout conditions here and there last Monday-Wednesday, despite the fact that my Serious Business Snow Boots were not high enough to keep the snow from winnowing down and melting, plastering cold denim against my shins, by Thursday, the roads had mostly melted clean and the sidewalks (where the sun struck them) were nearly dry. The snow here is powder-light, and the wind will whisk away what sun and dry, dry air doesn't sublimate.There are no high, gray banks of snow that last and last here.

But for today, it feels quite constant--quite deeply, silently constant--because it's supposed to continue snowing until last tonight, and all of the schools are closed, even Casper College. This is my fourth year here, and it is my first snow day, and yesterday, when it snowed all day again, there was the soft, hopeful buzz of snow day? flickering all over campus. Last night, my brain had already committed to it--I stayed up far, far too late, and I set my alarm an hour later than I usually do, for 6:01 a.m., because we were told that if there was a decision to close campus for the day, it would come by six a.m. At three I woke up, again at five, at five-fifteen, and then when the beeping started, the message was there: all classes and activities for the day canceled.

I tried to go back to sleep. It is the first rule of Snow Day: go back to bed. But it's the middle of April and the small window in the bedroom had let in enough snow-filtered light to say morning. And it's a snow day: assignments cannot be collected, meetings do not meet. It is the kind of quintessential freedom that rarely happens--a full gift of a day.

I'm trying to use mine wisely. I did clean. I have writing to do. I have course-planning to do. But mostly, I keep looking outside, thinking about James Joyce, specifically the last paragraph of his short story, "The Dead" (the last story in Dubliners). I read this paragraph to my Composition II students yesterday. I always introduce it as "the most beautiful paragraph written in English," and I have yet to find anything that convinces me otherwise.

Read it out loud.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. he watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Fifteen minutes after I read this to my students, I saw the first news of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. I didn't tell them about it. I didn't interrupt. They were working and so many of them have that haggard, purple-circled smudge around the eyes that says, right now, they're always working and they need to be working to get everything done because it's the end of the semester and the only word that we have for it is acceptance. We accept that the next three weeks are going to be hard. We accept that this part of the semester always sucks. I accept that I probably should have told my students what was happening and I accept that I did not because if they could have seventy-five minutes of calm, computer-lab quiet that added up to having free the same amount of time last night when they were with family or friends to process the news or ignore it and keep working or play video games or throw snowballs, I could give them that.

Today, the weather gave me time, gave my students time (even if I don't think they'll use it any more wisely than I probably will because I keep looking outside and simply staring). Today, the weather gave this state more snow, and this state needs snow to feed its spindly streams and rivers, to melt slow from the tops of mountains. Today, the weather gave slowness and quiet to Casper, and in the face of all of this fast noise from the news--suspects, arrests, fear, speculation, inaccuracy inaccuracy inaccuracy--I am glad that I can hear the snow falling faintly and faintly falling, these dry, ice-fine flakes.

10 April 2013

Spring Training: The Point is to Learn Things (and Maybe I Did)

The baseball season has officially started. Amen.

This post has been a long time brewing, and it's only a little about baseball, but baseball is in the margins. At this time of year, baseball is always in the margins.

When I was in Scottsdale, I had the privilege of having four really extraordinary meals, and one of those was extraordinary for several reasons not only related to the food. Thanks to Keith Law's excellent dining guides for the greater Phoenix area, I happily, happily recommend you visit Barrio Queen and Hillside Spot immediately if you find yourself there. I also had great food at Nourish, which I hunted down on my own.

The famed pulled pork sandwich at Hillside Spot. What a bloody perfect sandwich.
But at Il Bosco, I had a fig and goat cheese pizza that was easily one of the best things I've ever eaten, and I liked their house-brined olives so much I bought a jar to take home.
Olives. Man. These olives.

(I didn't think I even liked olives, generally, before. In the gamut of delicious food-stuffs often served with olives, I'd never turn down bread or cheese in order to pursue the eating of olives. Clearly, I had not had the right olives.)

Still, I'd been prepared for the food to be superlative (and I planned for that--I definitely ate an entire pizza by myself that night). The more unexpected thing, though, was how marvelous the staff (and the proprietor, I think) were. I'm not talking about quality service (though that was certainly part of my experience): I'm talking about how welcome I felt, as cliche as that sounds.

I'm not someone who often feels welcome because I don't necessarily desire it. There's a clean, crisp impersonal hospitality that I tend to seek out both at home and abroad (which sometimes makes going out in Casper difficult because I have students who work everywhere and they generally rock but it's hard to go anywhere and disappear). Usually, if I'm alone, I've brought work of some kind with me--there's always writing to do, and if there's writing to do, I admit to being that jackass mostly buried in pages. It's also a way to say I'm fine--you don't need to entertain me. I'm not particularly social, and I have a loathing of rote small-talk that I can't explain and feel horribly guilty about.

But that week was a suspended paradise, a whole collection of Things I (Have) Never Do(ne), and when I arrived at the restaurant (nothing fancy--wood-oven pizza in a small dining room and a slightly larger patio) at four, too early for the actual dinner crowd, I was the only patron there. I felt obtrusive, but at least I wouldn't have to rush out on my dinner to catch the Team USA vs. Colorado exhibition game I was heading to. I could eat my whole pizza in leisure while editing: perfect.

When the server seated me, her demeanor was friendly and maybe glad at having something to do--even though I was there for more than an hour, only one other family came in, and even then, very near to five. After she left me with the menu, after she came back with water and olives, after she came back in yet another trip with my drink, she fiddled with the already wrapped silverware bundles, straightened menus just at the edge of the empty bar. With every trip, I received a little burst of language: about the water, about the olives, about how the pizza I ordered was her favorite thing on the menu. Though pleasant, none of these things are strange or surprising or special, or even particularly reaching for connection. But I'd spent the previous four days nearly mute. I'd had some short and enthusiastic exchanges with ballpark volunteers (God love you, Peoria volunteers, and the Jobing.com arena usher who commented on my Malkin jersey and got my I'm visiting former Penguins speech), but even my communications with friends and family were via text message. Maybe it was a cumulative effect--I usually spend fifty percent of my days doing public speaking in a classroom, after all--and maybe it was because the server seemed interested and I wasn't keeping her from anyone else and maybe it was because she asked questions she didn't have to ask.

She didn't have to ask any questions, of course, but I had some of the usual markers of being a traveler: a Phillies hat on my head (no denizens of the Cactus League they); a backpack full of books and notebooks and camera (and the bag-searcher at Peoria cheerfully forbade me to do work while I was there); aloneness. The conversation is already created: what are you doing here?

I had a three-fold answer. I could say that I was there (at the restaurant) because of Keith Law's recommendation, and that did later lead to the proprietor coming out and telling me more about the restaurant, which was really lovely. I could say that I was there to watch baseball and enjoy my spring break. I said both of these things, and both of these things were true. The last answer--that I was there to write--was the most important to me, and it is the one that I hadn't really mentioned to anyone in my admittedly few casual conversations of the week. (I did blog about it, but people choose to read that and I don't have to look them in the eye while they read it.) I made myself say it. She asked about everything.

As I was talking to her--about many things, including her trips to visit her sister in Colorado Springs, her late husband--I saw myself coming to the understanding that I didn't particularly feel like a fraud. For the first time, claiming myself as a writer, I didn't feel like an imposter. For all that I write about writing constantly, for the three degrees I have, for all the time I spend writing and teaching writing, I have never really convinced myself that I qualified for the monikker. At that moment, it felt like it applied, all at once, even though it's been a slow and gradual sojourn towards it over the last six months, and it's fitting that the understanding settled on me there, during Spring Training. Baseball has been one of the primary ways I've made meaning in my life, and in that place, at that time, I felt justified in saying that writing was the thing I was doing there, that writing was the reason I'd made the trip. A fair bit of that courage came from the fact that I had an actual writing task while I was there, a task that turned into this piece at The Classical, not just that I was revising.

The server asked, too, for a link to my blog, and there was a hit on it a few days later from Phoenix. I surely don't know if that was her. There are a lot of people in the greater Phoenix area. But if it was--if she visits again or visits ever--I thank her, for being there, for having a conversation because she wanted to, because it was possible. 

I am choosing to read this incident in the most positive and generous light because I have no reason to believe otherwise. I am choosing to read interest and kindness into that server's speech because this is about believing. Spring Training, I saw, is the very essence of believing. Opening Day, not two weeks ago, is the culmination of this. David Roth wrote about that at the Wall Street Journal, and Diana Moscovitz wrote a Pirates-specific paean on the hope against hope. The start of the baseball season is about thinking that this could, in fact, be the year.

Fingers crossed. It might.

This is the fig & goat cheese (and prosciutto & arugula) pizza from Il Bosco. It was life-changingly good. Maybe life-changing is a thing they specialize in. You should give it a shot. Worst-case scenario is that you get damn fine pizza.