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It takes guts to say, I am an artist.

I read to my daughter: I am an artist and I paint a blue horse and... a red crocodile and... a yellow cow and... a pink rabbit...

Jonathan juggles to distract her while I clip her nails. How did they get so long so fast? Her fine motor skills are developing quickly. I have the pinch marks on my throat to prove it.

Then I sit in class and sip my coffee. The coffee is new. It makes me shiver with energy, at least for a while.

We are reading Joyce. Easy Joyce. Dubliners. When the teacher asks if anyone has read Ulysses, no hands go up. I volunteer, "I've tried and failed to read Ulysses," which gets a laugh and murmurs of agreement from the class.

I think of Ireland. We visited two years ago and traveled from Dublin to Killarney by train. I wrote and enjoyed both the flicker of emerald fields through the windows and my own reflection in the glass. It was a simpler, vainer time. There was a stop called Mallow. I ate butterscotch ice cream. We tramped the Dunloe Gap.

Back to Joyce. "Araby." I wonder what a rusted bicycle pump is doing in the Garden of Eden.

There are people who are compelled to write what they see, what they know, what they think, even if it isn't popular. Even if it is ridiculed. Even if it earns no money. Glimmers are all they need.

I listen to a podcast. The host says she has decided not to use the word "should" anymore. There is no need to obligate herself to the whims of life. When she does that, she saps her energy and emotional health, leaving only a depleted version of herself for her husband, daughter, friends. The people who ought to receive the best of what she can offer.

Ticket controllers move through the tram car. This happens frequently now. A change since we moved to Oslo five years ago. The boy across from me shrugs and gestures to his dead iPhone. He can't pull up his ticket. He waits for the control officer to give him a receipt for his fine. Instead, the officer reaches into his pocket and presents a portable iPhone charger, a small purple cylinder, and the boy is able to show his ticket. I can feel his relief.

A bitter wind fights the static electricity for control over my unwashed hair. The next bus is eight minutes away. I stomp my feet to warm them.

When I'm acting in my role as mother, I am keenly aware that I'm not reading enough, that I'm falling behind on my schoolwork, that my writing life is disintegrating in my absence. When I'm acting in my role as student, I am painfully aware that I am not holding my daughter in my arms, teaching her, protecting her, enjoying her. When I'm writing, which is almost never, I know I'm neglecting my home, as well as the work I would get paid to do. I am divided against myself.

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Journal entry from 20 July 2014:

This morning the wrinkles of our sweatshirts smell like pipe smoke and DEET. We left the hytte at 20:30, slathered in bug spray so that our cheeks shone in the late sunlight. Stopping to watch fish rise in the river--just a slip of dark, shiny head above the sparkling surface, then rings expanding to the shore--we found ourselves surrounded by a cloud of insects.

They hovered and glowed in the light, whirring and bobbing. It took me a moment to realize they were mosquitos. Enormous mosquitos. Their terrifying blood-sucking apparatus long and curved and visible. They appeared more like hummingbirds than insects. Thankfully, the spray kept them at bay.

We walked on up the road to the turnoff just before Rundvatnet, then up another steep fire road to its end. There we found no trail, but our object was the North-facing ride of Ostre Omasvarri (654 m), an understated hunch of a hill in this region of sharp-peaked giants. We turned and wandered in to the forest of birch--widely set from one another and branchlessly white down low, a departure from the forests of our Sierra home--which happens to be excellent for off-trail tramping and bushwhacking. 

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Yesterday, we lost Mickey Rooney, the man a few of us still remember as that sweet-faced ball of energy who danced and sang alongside Judy Garland. He was Andy Hardy and Mi Taylor. (And, unfortunately, Mr. Yunioshi.) Because I was raised on the classics, I hate saying goodbye to these legends of Hollywood's Golden Age, and recently it feels as if that's all I've been doing. Already this year we've bid farewell to Shirley Temple, Russell Johnson, and Sid Caesar. Last year it was Peter O'Toole, Annette Funicello, Joan Fontaine, Esther Williams, and Deanna Durbin, among many more. And it's been years since Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Hope, William Powell, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, and so many of the rest took their final bows. 

So, who's left? I'm happy to report... many!

Maureen O'Hara (1920)

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One of the few who never made a movie I didn't like, here she is with Tyrone Power (1914-1958) in The Black Swan. 

Kirk Douglas (1916)

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Rocking the chin cleft. I loved his small role as an easy-going English teacher in Letter to Three Wives.

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I'm thirty-one. It's not one of those big ticket ages that everyone looks forward to. Thirteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five... I enjoyed them all. Thirty should have been a big year for celebrations, but as those who are close to me might recall, turning thirty knocked the wind out of me. I wasn't ready to be in my thirties. Not really. I felt like a huge faker. In the same way that it took me a year or two to realize that getting married didn't automatically qualify one for adulthood (that it should be the other way around, if anything), I needed roughly 11 months to adjust to the idea that thirty-year-old me wasn't different from twenty-nine-year-old me, and didn't need to be. Age is just a number. And birthdays are just an excuse to throw a party.

So, this year, we did. Thirty-one-year-old me and thirty-seven-year-old Zoë, my writing buddy and movie soul mate. We had a kostyme fest (costume party) with a Hollywood theme. After all, if there's any activity which disproves the myth of an age/maturity congruence, it's playing dress-up. My costume (and my honey's costume) were inspired by one of my favorite movies of all time.

How to Steal a Million (1966) Nailed it.

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When I moved to Oslo three years ago, I hoped to plug into a ready-made writing group. I thought it would be the best way to meet people and nurture my writing career. My first weekend in town, I met a woman (a fellow American) who, when I mentioned that I was pursuing my master's in creative writing, responded enthusiastically. "I've always wanted to start a writing group here! Let's do it together!" It's good to happen upon these types of people... little bits of flint to our steel. It hadn't occurred to me that I might have to start a group of my own. As a first time expat, I was already overwhelmed by the impossibilities of giving up my career to focus on writing full time, living in a world capital, making all new friends, learning a new language, etc. And there was self-doubt:

Who am I to stand at the helm of a writing group?
What right do I have to pass myself off as the owner of some kind of wisdom?

But Oslo had no active writing group at the time (at least for English-speakers). On the strength of a promise of friendship, I agreed to attempt to launch a writing group with Anna. I would supply some writing knowledge and a space in which to meet; she would put the word out and bring in the bodies.

The night of our first meeting, a Monday in late September, was dark and wet and cold. Anna had tapped the shoulders of four different women, and all of them responded with interest. I sat in my clean apartment, a book held open before my face, unseeing. I was waiting for my doorbell to ring. My mouth was dry. My palms were damp. Strangers were coming, and we only had one thing in common: a desire to write. How could this possibly succeed?

Three years later, our little group has a name (The Rookery) and nine members (six who are more regularly involved, and three who have had children since our beginning and, therefore, find it tough to keep up with our bi-weekly schedule). We are extremely close, trust one another implicitly, support one another unceasingly, and look forward to our meetings every other Monday. What would I do without these women? My dearest friends. My Oslo family. I die a little inside when I remember how close I came to shrugging it off and waiting for someone else to take the initiative to begin such a group. No, it had to be me, it had to be Anna. It had to be Gisèle and Gaëlle and Sara and Kristina and Patience and Greta and Laura.

So, in case you, beloved reader, are at this same crossroads, weighing the possibilities, allow me to pass along some of that wisdom I didn't before believe I had within me. 
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Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I love it when life looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like fiction. When I stumble upon something (or someone) so perfectly proportioned, so quizzical and memorable, that it couldn't be coincidence. Or fate. Or chance. Or anything true. No. When the hair rises on the back of my neck due to the poetry of a place, a name, or even a set of meteorological elements, it's because, had I found the same stuff between the pages of a book, I would be in awe of the craft of it. The intention of a creator. At random, these perfections in an imperfect world make me look up and say thank you.

I'm not making any sense, huh? Here's an example:

Yesterday, I was doing some research. My serendipitous journey began with an essay titled The Lives of Girls and Women: The Writing of Alice Munro. This essay, originally published by The Center for Fiction had been reprinted by the VIDA blog. It caught my eye because Alice Munro won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, and while I have read and enjoyed one of her short story collections (Runaway), I'm curious to read more from and about this literary heavyweight. 

The essay entertained and educated, as good essays are supposed to do. It also forced me to recalibrate my own thinking in a matter of just a few sentences:

"[Munro] is making a political point, one that's radical because it's so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that the lives of girls and women, even of those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as the lives of boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river or hunt whales."

This recalibration is what prompted me to look up the essay's author, Roxana Robinson. She's a successful novelist, and her most recent book, Sparta, is about a young American veteran returning from war in the Middle East. She is also the author of a Georgia O'Keefe biography. All this made me want to contact Ms. Robinson to request an interview with her for The Postmasters Podcast. Unfortunately, she didn't have any personal contact information listed on her website. What she did have was a small regiment of people set up between herself and me. A publicist, an agent, and someone who coordinates speaking events. I decided the publicist was most relevant to my goal, and that's when the magic happened.

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I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Tom McClintock titled Yosemite National Park: Closed for Preservation, a rant instigated by the following legal action against the National Park Service:

Environmentalist groups such as Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government challenged the National Park Service's 2000 and 2005 plans to manage the Merced River, which runs through the park, claiming that the Park Service was insufficiently preserving the river's "wild and scenic" character. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs and invalidated the Park Service's plans in 2008. A settlement, agreed to in September 2009, required the Park Service to draft a new plan for the Merced River--and also paid these professional environmental litigants more than $1 million, courtesy of American taxpayers.

As a true Yosemite girl, having climbed the domes and hiked the backcountry, having read Muir's musings on a flat rock in the Merced at dusk, and having married into the surname Camp, I felt the need to respond:

California Democratic Rep. Tony Coelho wrote a letter to the director of the National Park Service, vowing to fight any measure which removed current recreational facilities from Yosemite Valley, stating: "The Merced River in Yosemite Valley has been recreational for almost 150 years. Yosemite Valley has never been wilderness."

That's idiocy. And it's also the difference between someone who wants national parks to be preserved for generations to come and someone who actually understands what that will take to achieve.

When President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant in 1864, he designated Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove as a protected area "upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation". But in 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who served on the Yosemite board of commissioners, warned that "the slight harm which the few hundred visitors of this year might do, if no care were taken to prevent it, would not be slight, if it should be repeated by millions." This classic conflict between the desire to keep our parks pure and to attract tourists is what pressed President Theordore Roosevelt, after camping in the Yosemite wilderness with John Muir in 1903, to remove control of the valley and grove from California and return it to the federal government. President Lincoln's mid-Civil War desire to set aside a national treasure had been absolutely essential to the process, but it was an incomplete one, and Olmsted's words continue to ring true.

California's population density breaks down to roughly 283 people per square mile. That's pretty crowded. (For the sake of comparison, Norway's population density breaks down to only 35 people per square mile.) The wear and tear of people and their vehicles, not only on the ground, but to the air, the water, the amount of trash and sewage generated and accumulating in the parks, is astonishing, and must be slowed. The most militant environmentalists want it to be stopped altogether. And I don't blame them for that, but I pity them their shortsightedness on another hand. What good is a beautiful thing if no one gets to see it? If it languishes in a secret spot, we run the risk of forgetting it's even there.

Yosemite and Yellowstone and the like are some of my favorite places in the world. I have great childhood memories there, and sharing Yellowstone and Teton with Jonathan for the first time in 2007 ranks up there with the truest pleasures of my adult life. But there's a line we must make and be willing to hold, those of us who claim to admire and uphold Muir's legacy. He wanted Yosemite preserved for the generations to come, but he couldn't have known how large those generations would be, or how much strain we would put on the environment. He couldn't fathom families arriving in enormous gas-guzzling SUVs, using diapers that don't biodegrade, with seven different electronic gadgets, each with its own charger. At sixty, John Muir was still climbing to the tops of 80-foot trees to sit and consider the music of the wind. He couldn't guess that obesity would become an American epidemic, and that his favorite valley trails would be paved over to allow, not just foot and bike traffic, but scooters and electric wheelchairs. He wrote in his journal every day; sang songs robustly as he stomped off into the trees; camped so he could rise and walk directly into the mist of the waterfalls. He never imagined whole families would spend their evenings ensconced in deluxe rooms watching television and checking Facebook.

So, where is the line?

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Opening with one of the eternal sunsets for which Scandinavia is so well known, just behind Gustav Vigeland's infamously Angry Baby, this video from Kristian Larsen captures the true, modern personality of Oslo. 

Oslo in Motion from Kristian Larsen on Vimeo.

All the city's landmarks are here, from the Opera House to the Royal Palace to the City Hall. And there are some finer points, too, like the dandelion fountain at National Theater (my favorite) and the spinning iceberg sculpture in the water near Operahuset. These photos were captured over a two-week period in May of this year. When you see the city erupt in a flurry of flags and native costumes, you're seeing this year's 17 May celebration and parade. Jonathan and I are somewhere in that crowd, along with Madolyn Yuen, our guest that weekend.

Someday, when I leave this place, I will be glad to have this video as a souvenir. It bottles up some of Oslo's magic: colorful, clean, full of light, speed, and efficiency, but with time and space enough to stretch out and consider the ever-and-quickly-changing sky.

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Photo: Jonathan and I had our best California buds in town with us this week, so they got to attend the launch party on Friday. A huge treat for me! See more photos from the party at the end of this post.

North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway is the first anthology published by the Oslo International Writers' Group, and now you can own it in paperback! The following is the introduction to the book, which I was honored to co-author with OIWG's founder, Zoë Harris

At sixty-six degrees north, there is an invisible line drawn around the globe. The line passes through only eight countries: Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the United States (Alaska), Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. This is the Arctic Circle, a perforation between the Land of the Midnight Sun and everything below it, places where the sun will always set, at least for a breath. Such is the mysticism of the Far North. Polar bears lumber across the icescapes of Svalbard under endless daylight from April to August. More populated areas above the Arctic Circle also enjoy these "white nights", where a girl with a book can read the fine print from dusk to dawn without ever flipping a light switch. 

It is an exotic concept. But, as always, there's a dark side.

The Land of the Midnight Sun cannot escape the inevitable Noon Moon. Twenty-four hours of daylight in the summertime; twenty-four hours of darkness in the wintertime. To cope, residents of Norway put up black-out curtains just to fall asleep in July. In January, light box therapy helps some fend of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). We know two seasons: summer and winter; celebration and survival. These are things to which only people who have lived in-country year-round can attest, an invisible line which binds us together.

When the Oslo International Writers' Group (OIWG) formed in early 2012, the initial aim was camaraderie: to create a network of writers who could share and critique work, discuss writing as only writers can, and support one another in what can often be a rather lonely pursuit. Soon it became evident that the talent and ambition of this set of writers warranted a project, some kind of collective effort to showcase our work to the outside world.

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Photo: St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. Photo via RussianTourism.com.

Sometimes I'm such a girl. When Jonathan asked me what I wanted to do for my 30th birthday, I told him the truth, even though it felt like a pipe dream. I wanted to attend a ballet at St. Petersburg's legendary Mariinsky Theatre. In my imagination, nothing could be more romantic. So, we made plane reservations (Norwegian Airlines flies directly from Oslo to St. Petersburg in two hours), obtained the necessary visas, and purchased tickets to the ballet. And I held my breath.

You know how it's totally possible to look forward to something so much, to put such a great deal of pressure on a single moment, that the reality can't help but fall short of your expectation? 

Yeah, that didn't happen here.

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The following is a cross-post from my second blog (Feeding the Trolls). I feel strongly about this issue, and I hope that, upon reading my remarks, you will, too.

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The United States of America, my home country, is stepping into a new era regarding the availability of health care. Because health care is such an enormous issue, people are bound to have trouble with individual provisions within the larger bills and debates. One of those provisions has to do with Birth Control. I capitalize Birth Control because it is, in my mind, after certain vaccines and quality-of-life-enhancing medications, THE most important health care advancement in history. But even in the U.S., where women are liberated to the point of achieving the majority of advanced degrees offered each year, there is something scary looming large around the availability of contraception: Religion.

Now, I understand that there are countries where women are still considered property, and in those places I wouldn't be at all surprised to see religious leaders refusing to allow contraception to their chattels. But when the Legislative Branch of the United States' government convenes a panel of male religious leaders to weigh in on the availability of Birth Control to American women, I am blown away. And pissed off.

So, I thought I'd write a letter to the eight male witnesses (dominating two panels of ten total witnesses) called by last Thursday:

  • The Most Reverend William E. Lori (Roman Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport, CT)
  • The Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison (President, The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod)
  • C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D. (Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University)
  • Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, Yeshiva University)
  • Craig Mitchell, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Ethics, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary)
  • John H. Garvey (President, The Catholic University of America)
  • Dr. William K. Thierfelder (President, Belmont Abbey College)
  • Dr. Samuel W. "Dub" Oliver (President, East Texas Baptist University)
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openreddoor.jpgExactly four years ago, Jonathan and I were wrapping up our eighth month of marriage.  We were newlyweds. Our kitchen appliances still had that just-unwrapped, straight-from-the-registry shine.  Without enough furniture to fill our three-bedroom rental house, we could do occasional cartwheels in the hallways, sommersaults in the living room. 

Once, we set up a badminton net downstairs and bopped the birdie back and forth. The cats sat sentinel on the kitchen counter, their twin tails twitching, their heads bobbing in time with each volley. 

I was still attending school, making the mind-numbing commute to and from UC Davis twice a week.  We owned only one car, the Audi, and had to shuttle one another to and from work... Jon at the lab, me at Banana Republic in Stoneridge Mall.  In the evenings, we played board games, played video games, played with our cats.  Every day brought something new, an insight about eternity and sharing four walls, a shower, and a car with only one other person.

Hours in the car, hours of folding sweaters and stacking them in perfect, fluffy towers on tables, hours of homework, hours of life... the time would snake by me, so fast I couldn't always keep up. We traveled and camped and attended church and spent time with our families. Somewhere in the midst of all of that, I was overwhelmed. Where were my pretty words?  Where were my imaginings?  I was numb, unable to create something poetic for my own sake, and it scared me. I was like an amputee staring at the void where my long lost limb ought to have been. Had I missed my chance to be the author I'd long dreamed I would be?

Exactly four years ago, Jonathan built a blog for me. 

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coconutsplit.jpgJonathan took careful aim and leveled a firm blow with his hammer at the circumference of the hairy, brown coconut in his hand.

The crack resounded in our kitchen and made Cindy and I giggle with wonder. Jon gave the coconut a quarter turn and whacked it again.  This time, we could hear the beginnings of accomplishment in the echo. With a twinkle in his eye, Jon hoisted the coconut up to our eye level so that we could see the crack that was crawling around the equator. He set his jaw and raised the hammer one last time.

As hammer connected with shell, thin streams of clear coconut milk began to drain into the pan we'd set on the counter. Finally, the coconut split... revealing two pristine, white, concave faces.

Cindy and I had decided that a Saturday evening would the perfect time to bake a cake, and fortunately, two dear friends had gifted Jon and me with a cake-specific cookbook at Christmastime to aid in this endeavor.  But it was Jon, eager to indulge his inner Survivalist, who chose the Coconut Cake. Never mind that it was the cake on the cover of the book, enticing in its pure, fluffy white glory. Never mind that we'd not baked a thing (besides biscuits) from scratch in our lives. The chance to split open a coconut was too exciting for Jon to pass up.

So, the four of us gathered in my recently-more-frequently-cooked-in kitchen to conquer the Great White Cake. The task before us was daunting. Cindy poured the wine.

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8ball_0.jpgLast Sunday, my friends, my husband, and I attended our home church. We arrived in time for the lesson being taught in our Sunday School class about Old Testament prophesy. Questions arose, but went unanswered. Problems were acknowledged, but went unresolved. Then, out of nowhere, the topic of gay marriage was introduced to the room of college-age students. This could have been an uncomfortable moment for some folks anyway, but the instructor then proceeded to call for a vote... "This is a safe place to give your opinion. How many of you do not consider homosexuality to be a sin?"
 
I found the teacher's lack of foresight in initiating that conversation to be appalling.  You don't just jump into a debate on gay marriage in a room where the average age is 19, and all are assumed to be Christians, without some preparation.  And you definitely don't put people on the spot the way the teacher did to my friend, Eric and, in a secondary capacity, to my husband, Jonathan.  Jon was outraged by the whole thing and raised his hand to support Eric on that issue. Whether Jon has his own doubts about the sinfulness of homosexuality is beside the point; he would have raised his hand at that moment in support of our friend, one who had just been publically isolated, regardless.  I was proud of both of them for sticking their necks out.
 
From there, the best case scenario would have been to launch an even-handed debate on the topic, complete with prepared remarks from Eric and Jonathan and their opponents, and rounded out by the instructor's Biblical insights on the topic. Unfortunately, no one was prepared for that scenario, and so the matter was tossed haphazard into the Sunday School ring to be kicked around by the students. Those who were brave enough to state their opinions did so half-heartedly. Nothing was resolved.  What's worse, the instructor continuously referred to homosexual persons as "them," including the air quotes. He may have been kidding, but that doesn't matter. More than 20 young people left the room after that lesson confused and irritated.
 
So, I'd like to take this chance to postulate on the sensitive issue of gay marriage. If I'd had any clue that the Sunday School instructor was planning to light this match last weekend, I would have come with all of this prepared.

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twin_towers1.jpgSeven years ago, two black boxes of souls standing sentinel over New York City were felled by cowards in commandeered planes, and America staggered.

Go ahead and scream and holler for an end to this war... 

Please, run out in the streets and chant and pump your fists in the air.... 

It's your right! 

I'll not stop you. 

Even when you ignite my country's flag in protest, something I find to be heinous and absolutely offensive, I'll step aside. 

But keep in mind that in your protest you are living proof that our guaranteed American freedoms are necessary and valuable and should be held up as a standard, nay a beacon, for the oppressed peoples of the world. 

The rabble who hijacked airliners full of men and women and children on September 11, 2001 hated me and they hated you... but more than that, they hated us.  You and me.  Your viewpoint and mine, side by side, different perhaps, but operating in parallel and out of respect.

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All the mechanical noises,
the thrum of electricity in the veins of my cubicle,
the brief beeps of protest
   elicited by a misplaced cursor,
the buzz of my monitor,
printer,
even the flicker of my digital picture frame,
conspire against my creativity,
damming the imaginative river in my mind,
my soul,
until I am little more than a puddle
   of routines and habits and patterns,
dependent on these incessantly sighing machines,
a zombie of clicks and taps,
with one eye on the clock,
  one hand on the black dome of the mouse,
dazzled by by manipulation of the technological world,
and oblivious to that world's manipulation
   of me.
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redbird.pngWhat is this tightness at my throat?  If I was a man in a gray flannel suit, I'd wait for a particularly intense boardroom meeting and then grasp the knot of the tie at my throat and yank down, wrenching it away from me. 

But I'm no man, there's no tie, no noose.  And life, really, is grand.

Rick Bragg, Pulitzer Prize winner, penned a memoir entitled All Over But The Shoutin'.  Man, I loved that book.  Read it to pieces.  Cover to cover until the covers came off, tattered the way teenagers believe real love should leave you.

The stories he weaves are imperfect but impeccable.  They are songs of the South, throaty odes to football, fried chicken, even poverty.  My favorite part though, is the crimson undercurrent.  Bitterness, pride, valor, blood.  And the red bird.

As a boy, Bragg watched a red bird fling itself at the rearview mirror of a car.  Again and again, smashing its face and body into the glass until a spiderweb of cracks bloomed from the center of the mirror.  I can hear the strained sound of splitting glass, feel the heat pulsing above the blacktop like waves of water.   

Bragg turned to an old man and asked why the bird acted that way.  The old man replied, "I guess it's just its nature."

Nature is a powerful force, heavy handed.  Is there any arguing with Nature, her hands on her hips and stomping straight at you? 

I imagine the bird finally fell to the asphault, exhausted by the mission it felt was inevitable, bent on its own destruction because it knew no other way.  I hope that, after it could no longer see its reflection, it spread its bloody wings and flew away.

Sometimes I dream that bird.  I dream it, scarlet feathers and all.  I dream its passion and its fury.  And I wake from those dreams ready to sprint as far and as fast as possible from any mirror in the world. 

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skull.JPGAt first you may recoil at the sight, succumbing to the childlike fear of ghosts and ghouls and zombies, a reluctant-to-depart spirit haunting the blank, dark pockets which once housed eyes. Then you give yourself a shake. There is nothing to fear, you think, and the thought whirls in your brain, setting the synapses firing and triggering memory and emotion.

It's hard not to remember that the cranium of the object on the table once shielded a brain, too.

This is ridiculous! The thing in front of you is white, lifeless.  Ruthless and sharp, perhaps. But dead.  Very much dead. And available for study.

So, you move around the skull, taking calculated steps and copious notes. You are overwhelmed by the bones, the sheer number and intricacy of them. Parietal, Occipital, Temporal, Zygomatic.  (Zygomatic, you think, is a funny, hardcore word for "cheeks.") Or perhaps the erratic sutures that fuse the back of the skull, winding canyons in the bone, like miniature Amazons and Niles, give you a thrill.  Lamdoidal, Saggital. 

There is poetry in the orb of the skull. It is the moon rising, the round howl of the Werewolf, simplicity, the egg of conception and birth.

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white snake.jpgIt's amazing what I cannot think of when my head is filled with the noise of the modern world.  Names and places and dates and descriptions which would come so easily to me on an ordinary day, cannot be coaxed or conjured between sirens and loud voices... they cower in the corners, shaking. 

It's the technology they fear.  The brightness of my LCD laptop screen, the forensic science, the elegant blood spatter, the alcohol, the senseless banter of an afternoon sitcom.  Can you blame my thoughts for curling up in the fetal position on the damp, gray floor of my brain?  The world is too much with us these days.

Edward Abbey escaped to the desert.  He watched cloud formations for days, let himself melt into the sand and the slabs of red rock until he was one of the crows, the lizards, the cacti.  When he sat down to write himself a letter (in preparation for writing his elegy to the Arches of Utah, Desert Solitaire), the simple hum of the generator was enough to disturb his thoughts.  Silence was his most effective fuel.

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pond.jpgIn a cluster of doubtful cedars, branches laden with despair, is an ink-black pool of water surrounded by obsidian stones.  When a girl on a journey stops to rest, wandering into the woods, she thanks her god for shelter and moves to take a seat.  She pauses at the poolside, the loneliest spot in the land, and looks for her reflection. 

There it is, her face, the one she hasn't seen in so long.  After all, she hasn't stopped for rest in days. 

Ground has been covered, battles have been fought and won, mysteries have been solved, questions have been answered... but her face has been left unattended, unvisited.

Leaning over the pool, she is astonished to see that her hair is knotted and tangled, has become a thicket of burs and grease.  Dirt is caked in the crevasses at the base of her neck and, yes, there behind her ears.  Her nose is sunburned and her lips are chapped.  She raises her hands to poke and prod at the sallow cheeks and thick eyebrows, grimacing at herself, but drops her arms in defeat when she sees the black residue beneath her ragged fingernails.

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rock.jpgOn days like this one, the River of Constant Thought that cuts a reliable, refreshing swathe through the heavy jungles of my brain... shuts off.  I can't remember things.  I can't think of a better word for "things" than "things."  And it irritates me.  Thus begins the derision of my personality, the degeneration of my spirit.  It's a painful spiral, and it requires a revolution (and all the fear, guts, blood and near-calamity that a revolution must entail) in order to prevail.
 
The River stops.  The sound of it, clear and inevitable, is gone from the air.  The water remaining between the banks is stagnant.  
 
My Creative Soul stands at the water's edge.  Yesterday, this spot was beautiful.  Of all the countryside in my head, it was the place most worthy of her setting up camp.  She had planned to commune with the sprites, exhale epic poetry, and skinny dip in the evening with fireflies glowing around her.  She had decided to swim the width of it every morning, drinking in huge, nourishing gulps with each stroke.
 
Those plans are in vain.  The sun permeates my eyes and beats on Her head.  With no clean, cool place to strip and bathe, She hides.  From Her hovel she watches the still water darken, murky with mud, warming.  Mosquitoes spawn and swirl above the water, humming as they search their blood radar for my Soul.  For a moment she contemplates slathering herself with mud, an ancient insect repellent... isn't it?  But she can't remember.  That fact, or the proof against it, is downstream and dying. 
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lunar_eclipse03-a.jpgA friend of mine, intrigued by a minor glimpse into my complicated system of religious beliefs, recently posed some questions for me via email.  He called his questions both "quick" and "rhetorical."  They turned out to be neither.

So, I thought it would be more efficient to post my response here (rather than sending my friend a perilously long response via email and potentially having to explain all of this again someday to other interested parties).

Context:

Last night, I mentioned that I had all but blasphemed at a recent meeting of my bible study group, by saying I choose to read the Old Testament (OT) of the Christian Bible as a metaphor.  I also cited a few of my specific issues with the OT.  My friend challenged my statements in a variety of ways... and this is the response I came up with:

I do not doubt history insofar as I recognize that it has long been transcribed by the winners. The underbelly of past politics, past wars, past revolutions, ugly or not, is often exposed despite historical accounts once taken as absolute truth. That being said, I do not doubt the historical context of the Bible. Slavery, oppression, famine, and ethnic cleansing... it all happened. And it continues to happen.

What is important to remember is that the Bible is not a complete history. The focus of its content is centered on a very narrow portion of the world. While we have archeological evidence that human beings existed all over the globe during Biblical times, there are no stories outside of the Middle Eastern zone. Our culture today is global, and the well educated have no choice but to view Life through a much wider lens.

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curve of tongue around the ell
dipping tone beneath the oh
sultry vibration of lips on vee
faith in the silence of invisible ee

-Audrey Camp, 2008-
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There is something about school children running through dead leaves, weaving circles between trees and each other.  So much growing and so much leaving things behind.  They have no idea how quickly it will be gone, this rush of every minute being new.  They are not tired.  They do not know how to look back.  The do not feel the necessity of clinging to these beautiful, extra-long seconds.  I want to tell them.

Listen up, I would say in my most authoritative tone.  Soon you will have choices to make.  Soon your hearts will be vulnerable to rejection.  Soon you will allow your dreams to be nudged and molded by the expectations of others.  So for the moment, stop!  Stop and glimpse your own unique perfection.  Memorize the sting of a scratch on your knee, the excitement of pain, when you think that's the most you'll ever possibly hurt.  Enjoy the pulsating hollow in your chest after you careen down a grassy hill and hang, wheezing over a bench at the bottom.  Stretch.  Splash.  Scream.  But never let a sound or an emotion escape you without first cupping its flawless face in your hands and planting a kiss on its forehead.  All of this splendor cannot last, and the worst part will be forsaking it.

They would stop their spinning long enough to look me in the face, pondering what this odd, tall creature, this adult, could possibly know about life.  But then someone would snort and someone would laugh and someone else would kick the first one in the shin.  Then the noise level would escalate and the undertow of curiosity and all that is carefree would suck them back out to that airy place, that heaven of simplicity which is all they know.

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spilled pearls patter on the floor
the broken strand which was once whole
trails from between her childish fingers
and the burn of shame crawls up her throat
fans out on her cheeks.

shall she drop on desperate knees
and flail her arms like one desperate and drowning
pulling the opalescent escapees into her lap
corralled to be restrung and hung
around her innocent neck?

or shall she instead
wait for the thrum of rolling beads to cease
kick the final bead or two beneath the couch
then pocket the thread and walk away
in search of something priceless to cherish?

this is circumstance
and choice and free will
dropped into the unwitting hands of a child
who only wants the pretty thing
as long as it is perfect and whole

she knows not her own power
to render that which was priceless
worthless
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Millet_Gleaners[1].jpgTonight, my grandmother is sleeping in a hospital bed in a retirement complex where she has lived for many years.  She barely knows the names and faces of her children.  Her memories have been scrambled so that she cannot tell yesterday from her wedding day.  And every once in a while she comes up with stories of imagined love affairs and visits from relatives and friends who have long since passed on.

My Grandma Dot is one of the most interesting and intelligent women I will ever know.  Tragically, all of her knowledge, that glittering vocabulary and sharp wit, are wrapped up inside a mind which only intermittently opens to the outside world. 

What if she has more to say?

I wonder where her stories are, now that the outlet is lost.  Or perhaps the outlet is there, but her stories are affected by her juxtaposition with reality, brought on by disease, and cannot be told.  But I know she has stories, thousands of them.  When we played cards or when I painted her toenails, she was always talking.  I knew about her jewelry and her trips to Europe and her childhood friends.  She shared about the way she met and married my grandfather, a man I never had the chance to meet.  She talked about college and Catholicism and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Often I wondered how any one person could possibly earn the right to be so singularly fascinating.

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basketball_logo.jpg

How can I tell you what the hard leather felt like in my hands?  It was something I lived. 

Sucking the cold air deep into myself, holding it inside until it was warm, watching the exhale hang before my face.  And then the doors creaking open.  That hollow sound of potential energy as we filed into the gym.  Shoes squeaking on the hardwood.

I knew the ball.  The deep brown-orange, pebbled leather.  The thick veins.  It pulsed in my hand upon arrival, and I pumped it between my palms, bringing it into my body, to my chest, elbows out.  This place, this radius was mine, and I could keep it. 

Shooting guard.  Pancoast.  Number 33.  My game high was 29 points (against Cal High School, Halloween night, 1999).  I'll never forget the stretch in my tricep, the extension, the spin off my pointer finger.

But beyond the satisfaction of the shots, the swishes, was the beauty of the sport itself.

Glistening girls charging and streaking up and down the court, circling and spinning around the key.  Color.  Melodious voices, sopranos and altos, calling plays and calling to each other.  Harmony.  Hands and fingers slapping and snapping together.  Rhythm.  Whistles and applause.  Music.

The game was beautiful enough to warrant the harsh practices and the incessant running up and down the metal bleachers.

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little_mermaid_1.jpg Hans Christian Andersen's original Little Mermaid had no name.  Long before the folks at Disney conjured up the image of the nymphetesque Ariel, with her plume of crimson hair and ample seashells, the famed Danish storyteller described a group of sisters, daughters of the Sea King, with beautiful voices and tails like fish.  His little mermaid was "a strange child, quiet and thoughtful." 
 
Ultimately, that is my impression of Copenhagen, the city where Andersen lived and created for most of his life.  It is a strange city, quiet and thoughtful in some corridors, but brilliant and beautiful along others. 
 
Jonathan and I arrived after dark on a Friday.  A heavy mist of fog hung low over the city and, as we fought to translate street signs and road names to locate our hotel, our first reaction was something akin to disappointment.  Coming in from the west, we skirted heavy industrial complexes and passed miles and miles of concrete walls, graffiti crawling over them like many-colored mold.  We were blinded by the glare of neon signs, advertising (or should I say screaming about) the newest adult toys, videos and costumes, flagrantly displayed behind giant, plate-glass windows.
 
Anderson described the way the older mermaid sisters would occasionally rise to the surface, arms wrapped around one another in a row, and sing to sailors on passing ships who were preparing to brave an impending storm.  "They had more beautiful voices than any human being could have; and before the approach of a storm, and when they expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel, and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea, and begging the sailors not to fear if they sank to the bottom. But the sailors could not understand the song, they took it for the howling of the storm. And these things were never to be beautiful for them; for if the ship sank, the men were drowned, and their dead bodies alone reached the palace of the Sea King."
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us waterfall.jpgTomorrow morning, Jonathan and I leave for the quickest of trips to Disneyland.  We're celebrating our anniversary.  Three years ago (August 14, 2004) we wound up at the alter of our church and vowed to love and support and cherish one another forever.  I cannot believe it has been three years.  And a jam-packed three years at that.  We've done so many things together and grown tremendously as people.
 

He continues to be my best friend, my biggest fan, my supporter, my confidante, my defender, my lover, my playmate, my everything.  Thankfully, our first 1000+ days have been filled with laughter and flirting and planning for a future we're striving to make great. 

However, as is always the case, the serious things that come with growing up are forever prying into our relationship and twisting through the day-to-day like the undaunted, impervious roots of weeds in our little garden.  Jobs take up 40 hours each week.  Bills come in at the beginning of each month.  Car trouble.  Cat trouble.  Scheduling conflicts.  Family commitments.  It isn't always easy to smile. 

I suppose the way we work through it is by carrying that analogy of weeds a bit further.  Every day we manage to laugh and learn and love anyway.  The lessons we take to heart are packed in and around and between the roots like dirt.  A real relationship is both of those things.  The positive and the negative.  Without dirt, no weeds can grow; but without weeds, the soil is fragile and subject to inevitable erosion and depletion. 

Jonathan and I truly want to make our marriage a success.  So, when something new or difficult comes along, we remember that it is relative to all that is fantastic in our life.  (Sometimes it takes Jonathan literally reminding me of this...)  Then, even without realizing it, the trials strengthen our bond as husband and wife.  And every joy, even the littlest one, is magnified because not everything has been easy. 

In this way we find that all things work for the good of God and His purpose.  At the end of the day, we curl up in our bed together and, in the darkness, we can easily recall and rejuvenate our childlike faith in love and our own personal fairy tale.

I am one lucky girl. 

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small town.jpgSunlight on brick is hottest at four in the afternoon. It bakes between the boxy shadows of the buildings on Main Street. Boys sip coke from slender-necked bottles. One of them shakes his fist, rattling the dice and tossing them down to clatter up against the wall. Two sixes. As there are no rules to this game yet, he'll come up with them later, he smiles and takes them up to roll again.

Women move slower in the heat, but they allow their hips a bit more swing. This is to catch the only breeze with their pastel skirts; catch it and let it flutter between their knees, cooling their muscular ankles. From beneath the brims of their day hats they talk the way only women can. Words like soft bubbles float between them, many at a time. To the words they nod. It could be gossip. It could be education. It could be nothing at all.

I wonder at these people, the ones who move by me without looking back. They would only see a little girl with her hair snarled into something like a braid. They might see my freckles or my chocolate brown eyes. But I doubt very much they would see me. I do not translate well into words the way they do.

One man hefts a crate of newspapers. He is the owner of the market, and those newspapers no longer possess the news. What happened this morning is long gone. In the heat of the afternoon, people do not care about anything but the baseball scores, and they'll catch those on the radio this evening. Or they can stand in the doorway of the barber shop and listen in as he gives free haircuts to the only three White Sox fans left in our town.

Mr. Charles and his wife live above the market in an apartment with only three windows. Behind the store in a planter box, Mrs. Charles keeps a very small Victory garden. When she took the train to Springfield to visit her mother for a week, I stopped by and watered the tomatoes after school. On my last day I tied a red, white and blue ribbon to the top of each plant. The plants have outgrown the ribbon now, and it's tattered, but Mrs. Charles won't untie them. She says that patriotism must be able to withstand wear.

If I take careful steps, the long kind, so I feel a pull just behind my knee but both feet are flat on the ground, it takes only thirty-two to reach the corner where my house is. The two blue stars hang in our kitchen window above Mom's white porcelain duck. One star is for my brother, Henry, and the other is for Uncle Thad. When we're sitting around the table at dinner now, since last December, Dad tells us to hold hands and then he says simple words to God. He never asks for a thing, but instead speaks what he hopes he knows. Henry is safe. Thad will be home soon. Those goddamned Nazis will lose this war.

Sometimes I don't keep my eyes closed all the way, and I see Mom wince a little when he swears. But I also see her mouthing her own prayer. She asks things, so I do, too.

Our table cloth is sky blue with little eyelet flowers. When dinner is over and everyone is gone, I help to clear the table. But I get the napkins last. The crumpled white napkins look like clouds on the blue tablecloth sky. It makes me think of Henry and his plane, the way the engine sounds like a thousand snaps being pushed closed and ripped back open all at once. His uniform looks like that sound, all snaps and razor sharp creases down his long pant legs. His picture is on the piano and his cap is cocked to one side. He is next to his plane, which looks like it is baring its teeth; and I think he looks so dashing.

But that is all I think of this war. If I think much more about it I'm afraid I'll become bitter. I could even start to stoop a little, like Mrs. Macklin does because she's always leaning in to hear the war news on the radio. Instead I skip rope and walk along the curbs like they're tightropes. On Tuesdays we go to the community center pool.

I love to swim, and Mom made me a red bathing suit that looks just like the one Betty Grable wears in her most recent movie, but I don't look at all like her. Too small in so many different ways. The boys at the pool don't look at me, but like I said before, they wouldn't see me anyway. Until last month the boys went to the pool to watch Hannah Stuart. She's the only one in our town who owns a bikini. But then she went off to be a nurse in the navy. Both of the Levi brothers enlisted that same week, but that was probably a coincidence.

Today, though, I am merely sitting on Main Street. A lady in a pink dress and a yellow hat is buying a water melon, but she seems to be having trouble picking exactly the right one. When I am older I hope I learn how to do those grown-up women things, like applying mascara or picking out melons or placing strips of cucumber by the door so the ants won't want to come in. I can't do any of that now.

What I can do is watch. I see things and know things so fast that the words just come from nowhere, from that secret spot in my brain where I never sleep. And I remember all of it. I remember the way the chalk clicked and broke in half in Ms. Silver's hand just before she dismissed our Sunday school class on that weekend before Christmas. Dad was waiting for all of us in front of the church, even though he never goes. He'd walked over and he was out of breath. He was holding Mom's hand and squeezing, and then they led us down the street like ducklings. I shuffled my feet along to make scratchy, soft-shoe music. I remember Dad sitting us down on the sofa and explaining the word infamy.

My peppermint ice cream has melted into a pink puddle in my glass. It is time to take the thirty-two steps home. But today it takes forty-seven because Able Bowers was washing his truck in the street and he tried to spray me, but even when I ran out of his reach I kept count. I try to be impeccably honest. I also try to avoid Able Bowers.

Dad is whistling 'Ain't We Got Fun' from the bathroom where he is washing his hands. When he hugs me I can smell the soap. The plate in the middle of the table is piled high with corn on the cob. It has a damp, sweet smell. I wish we could afford air conditioning. But when we take our seats and settle into the evening time, a coolness comes over us. Around our table we are safe. Dad is a rock. Mom is impenetrable. I hold hands with my little brothers, Jacob and Matt. They are so small and fair. I feel love for them pouring from my heart, all of a sudden, a reaction to the dark, fluffy tops of their heads bowed as Dad speaks. I am supposed to be praying.

Tonight I do not ask God for anything, I do not tell him what I hope is true. Tonight I say thanks. Here there simply is no war.

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