Month: May 2014

When Stuck in a Wal-Mart in Columbia, Missouri for Two Hours

Begin in the electronics department.

Overhear an employee explain the difficult relationship she has with her daughter to a man who only asked whether the store has any copies of How to Train Your Dragon. Dodge the pleading eyes of the man, who does not know how to respond or how to leave. Think about how lonely we all are, and yet how uncomfortable we are when the evidence of this becomes so apparent.

Discover that there is a sequel to the movie Pure Country. Wish that in it, George Straight has turned to meth and is now the lead singer of a prison band that gets hired-out to weddings and corporate retreats. He has lost an eye maybe. He has definitely lost the ponytail.

Buy the Tom Hanks double feature of The Burbs and The Money Pit. Later that week, this purchase will spur a strange kick of eighties nostalgia that will lead you to watch Beverly Hills Cop, which is still pretty damn good.

Leave electronics before you spend more money you do not have. Walk past the line of front-end cashiers. Think of how you were a front-end cashier at a Wal-Mart in a town not unlike this one. Another college town, though smaller. The large blue smocks. The weekly meetings where they tried to get you to participate in company cheers. The test you had to take before you could begin work, the one that flagged you as being a “possible drug risk” and as having “union sympathies.” Wonder which one of these they considered the worse infraction.

Head to the grocery section. Purchase one red plum. Eat it in the aisle. Keep the receipt visible so no one thinks you a plum thief. Remember that the word scrump means specifically to steal apples. Wonder if a word exists for pilfering plums. Recall that your sister discovered the word scrump in Ireland, and that you both laughed and repeated the word, and tried to use it as an insult whenever possible. You’re nothing but a scrumper, that’s what you are. Think of all the trouble that time in Ireland has brought down upon your sister. But then think of your nephew, and smile.

Look for Irish-Style wholemeal flour in the baking aisle on the off-chance they have it and you can finally make a decent loaf of brown bread. Come-up empty, though not surprised. Most things ready-made and quick mix. Boxes of brownies. Jars of frosting. Ponder what “birthday cake” frosting even means, but let it go because you are being a snob and because you have noticed that all of the number ones for birthday cakes are gone, and you know this is because the numbers they form are the times when most people celebrate birthdays because after a certain number of years you stop celebrating the process of aging. You will turn thirty-three in few weeks. There are enough threes to go around.

Step into the cereal aisle. Take note that you don’t recognize the characters on children’s cereal boxes because you have no children because you have spent too many years with men who themselves were children because you yourself were also a child.

Shake this off. Smirk at all the Gluten-Free products. Think of how a few years ago everything was whole grain. And how before that it was sugar free. And how before that it was fat free. Wonder what will have taken-over a few years from now. Or if it will all cycle through again. Think of that part in For Whom the Bell Tolls where he tells the girl not to eat potatoes because she’ll get fat. Wonder how many men give a shit whether or not they eat gluten.

Mosey over to condiments. Marvel that you could, if tempted, buy an entire gallon each of the following: mayonnaise, syrup, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, Ragu tomato sauce, liquid cheese, mustard, ketchup, Country Time lemonade, baked beans, chili beans, no beans chili, country-style pepper gravy mix. You could purchase, all in single containers, three pounds of grape jelly, six pounds of peanut butter, four pounds of canned tuna, seven pounds of yellow cling peaches. Try to fathom the kind of life that requires seven pounds of yellow cling peaches, then see an older woman struggling at the other end of the aisle.

Help her snag a can of olives from a bottom shelf. See the shame mixed with fear hiding at the edges of her face as she thanks you. Know this has something to do with needing help reaching a bottom shelf, but also recognize this as the not knowing if there is enough credit left  to buy everything that is in her cart. Recognize this because you have felt it. And because, though you no longer work as a front-end cashier at a Wal-Mart in a college town, you feel it sometimes still.

Ask if you can help her with anything else. Know there is no one waiting in another aisle to do so. The stack of single-serve microwave dinners. The cans of soup. The four pack of toilet paper. The half gallon of milk. The single red plum in a white plastic sack.

Hear your name called over the loudspeaker. Smile and say that’s me.

Leave before your lonely becomes apparent.

Like It Is

I went trolling back over some oldMissouri Review Blog posts the other day. As a resident of Columbia, I know some of the contributors, and I always find what they have to say about literature interesting. (I was also avoiding student research papers.) I read a few posts by Michael Nye and Anne Barngrover. I let Wes Hazard expand my ITunes. I even went back and picked-up a few Austin Segrest musings.

Then I stumbled across a post from someone I do not know, one that is part of the Literature on Lockdown series, a series that “shares narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either.”

I read an essay titled “Flossing with Razor Wire” by author Tim Boland. It’s a pretty good short piece, and I’m interested in prison narratives (for various reasons), and so I looked this guy up, thinking that he might have publications elsewhere. I also admit I was curious as to what the “colossal achievement in idiocy” that he lists in his author bio might have been—I admit it, I wondered what he was in for.

What I discovered is that Tim Boland was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the brutal beating to death of a woman.

Now, please don’t think that I stand shocked at the crime itself. I was reading a blog written by someone in prison, and I am not entirely naïve about prison. While I have never so much as been arrested (thanks white skin!), on any given day of my life I have had relatives doing time for everything from meth, to spousal abuse, to murder. That kind of violence, while thankfully not part of my immediate experience, is not so entirely alien to it.

I am also not shocked because this appears on the blog of a highly-acclaimed literary journal. Frankly, it would be shameful and pointless if the Missouri Review vetted the contributors to the blog via the crimes of which they had been convicted. The point, I think, is to provide a forum for often-dismissed voices, and people convicted of crimes are dismissed more often than not.

But I do find something deeply troubling about how Boland is representing himself in his Bio.

Maybe I am troubled because the crime includes violence against a woman. The other day I watched CCN spend hours reporting on Monica Lewinski’s newest statement about blow jobs she gave to President Clinton nearly twenty years ago, all while young girls remain missing in Nigeria. It seems pretty obvious that people care more about a woman who fellates a powerful man than women who are actively trying to be educated. Want people to know your name? Close the books and get on your knees.

Jesus, even my handling of this is misogynistic as hell. Why am I slut-shaming Lewinski? What I should have said is: Many men, especially powerful and charismatic men, have convinced a good portion of people (including women) that a woman’s primary value is sexual, and that this must be a sexuality in service to their needs.

Or something like that. I’m still working on articulating what I think about this, and I probably won’t ever do so publicly, as writers and thinkers far better than myself have done so and continue to do so. My deepest thanks to you all, by the way.

But as you can see, this is an issue that’s looming pretty large in my brain right now, so I have no doubt that the impetuous to write this entire blog is built off of the anger and frustration of being a woman in a world where women are not valued. And I have no doubt that this will seep into my writing, and that it colors my perspective. But I’m going to work against this to the best of my ability. Or work through it, at any rate, because what I want to talk about here is not the case itself exactly.

I read various accounts of the case, from the mild to the much more dramatic. But I haven’t done any real investigation into it. I wasn’t present for any part of what occurred. I don’t know the people involved personally or casually. I have not conducted any interviews. I have never even been to Minnesota. Also, I have never studied Law, so I’m not going to try and deconstruct what happened in legal terms.

What I want to deconstruct is Boland’s Bio.

Now, author Bios are tricky things. A standard one goes something like:

Bob Jones received his MFA from Elite University where he was a Famous Dead Author Fellow and a recipient of the Local Hero Author Award. His work has appeared in The Fancy College Review, The Hip Online Journal, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Small Liberal Arts School and lives in Quaint Town with his wife Lilly, their daughter Euphoria, and Jackson, an irascible Boston terrier.

Okay, okay, I’m being an asshole.

What I mean to say is that the standard author bio (rather than the quirky ones) gives the following information: education, publication, awards, current residence and job. Sometimes, particularly if the place adds validity to the work being produced, it might also mention where the person grew-up or where the person lived in the past at some point. For example, in the past my author Bio sometimes included that I grew up in Oklahoma because my work was often set there, and I felt like I needed to legitimize myself as an insider.

And it’s this need to be taken as an insider (or a quirky outsider) that I think informs pretty much everything that goes into an author Bio.

So let’s imagine that the Bio I produced up top (the one where I am being a classist asshole) seems to be the standard one that I read over and over again in journals. I’m probably going to then assume that these are the kinds of people journals want to publish, and that the journals do so because these are the kinds of people who read journals.

These are not inaccurate assumptions.

Now, let’s imagine that I am someone who never finished my undergraduate degree, much less a graduate one, and that I have no journal publications, and that my current residence is a prison cell. Let’s imagine that I what I have to say and how I want to say it (through creative work) has been repeatedly dismissed by my culture (and probably even my own family and friends). I want people to listen. I fear they will not. I know if I can show them we are alike, that I am an insider, they just might.

This is the context I imagine Boland working in when he wrote this Bio.

Now, I have some (limited) experience in being told to sit down and shut up, not because of what I am saying, but because of my twang, or my gender, or my not-all-that-impressive educational pedigree.

It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. There have been times when it has made me fearful to speak at all for fear of being shouted-down. So while I do not understand the pain and frustration of being silenced to the degree of many others, I have at least a teeny inkling as to what that feels like, and it feels like fear. What I want to do is try to see Boland’s Bio as being constructed within a context of this fear.

So let’s take a look at what Boland constructed in this context.

Boland begins his Bio by telling us what he isn’t, rather than what he is (much in the way I began this post claiming that I did not want to discuss the case itself).

He is not “a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser.”

This, Boland seems to assume, is what people who run and read literary magazine blogs believe all prisoners to be, and he wants to begin by disclaiming this identity because it is one that will not be heard fairly. It will position him as an outsider.

Again, these are not inaccurate assumptions.

Now, what exactly constitutes a person as being a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser, I’m not sure. Violence? Repeated arrests? Sociopathic tendencies? I guess the image Boland denies that comes to my mind is someone like this man:

 

white supremacist prisoner

 

Boland denies being this man because he assumes the literati imagine that men like this man aren’t worth a listen. Instead, he claims himself to have been something closer to this man:

frat guy

 

A kid just like his assumed readership, one with a future, “who went to State (St. Cloud) on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams”

Mentioning the fact that he went to college and majored in creative writing is his listing of education. Mentioning that he wrote for the campus paper is how he fills the “publications” part of a bio. Insider. Insider.

The noble dreams? I’m not really sure. Surely there is no assumption that all writers have noble dreams. Many, it is well known, have quite the opposite.

I’m also confused as to what kind of noble dreams this kid aspired? Racial equality? Better public schools? Universal access to clean water?

It certainly doesn’t seem to have been women’s rights, as even years later, when he is trying to prove himself to be an insider, he uses the phrase “chased tight skirts.”

He doesn’t even say he chased girls or co-eds or Phi Beta Kappas. I could handle dames. Christ, at this point in our culture, I think I’d take chicks.

But no. He says tight skirts. He thinks of these young women as articles of clothing. And those articles of clothing are not even dresses, which at least cover the entire body, rather than one specific area.

Okay, that might be a little too far into the psycho-analytical realm for one not trained in psycho-analysis. I warned you that my just-beneath-the-surface anger might pop-up.

But even if we completely take-out the phrase chased tight skirts, I do think we can see Boland insisting that he is ‘just a standard, healthy, heterosexual male who was even a little bit smarter and more thoughtful than his peers’ You know, just like you and your friends, reader.

And hell, maybe that’s who he was. While I’m not convinced that this equals a voice I want to hear, plenty of other people do, so it is not an unwise strategy.

Nor is it unwise to then develop this ‘good kid lead astray’ story by letting us know that he “then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a ten-year cocaine smog.”

Cocaine. The downfall of so many good kids, right? But a drug people bounce back from, unlike those dirty cousins—meth or heroine or crack.

I’m not sure I need to take-on words like drifted and smog because they remove a level of clarity and personal responsibility and choice. That’s me not knowing the circumstances that lead Boland to drug use. And it’s me not understanding drug addiction.

And I readily admit to you right now, that this is me having certain prejudices to the harm drug addicts cause their loved ones.

I would never claim to understand either drug addiction in general or Boland’s story in particular.

Which is why, in this particular case, I am less concerned with Boland’s drug habits or what lead to the events for which he was convicted than I am with the way, years later, he soberly phrases these events. These events to Boland are “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

Man. I just really can’t get over it. Every time I type the phrase it sends chills down my back.

I arrive at two possible reasons why he might call his role in the death of Natasha Waalen something this innocuous, though my imagination is limited and there are probably others.

1) He fears his guilt will make the reader dismiss him.

2) He believes himself innocent.

I’ll tackle the first reason first. In order to do this, I’ll go back to that context of fear. I’ll do my best to get back to empathy.

Okay, so I’m a prisoner worried that I will be dismissed if people discover that I have been convicted of a violent crime. I’ll call this the “dismissal of the unvirtuous voice,” and it definitely exists in our culture.

People with a history of mental illness are dismissed as crazy.

Women who openly engage in sexual intercourse are dismissed as sluts.

People convicted of felonies are dismissed as ex-cons.

If I am someone convicted of manslaughter, I know that the most direct and honest version of my Bio might be: Amanda Bales was convicted of manslaughter in 2011. She is scheduled for release in 2015.

But I am worried that my manslaughter conviction will cause readers to dismiss me. Maybe as a way to avoid this dismissal, in my Bio, I do not mention being convicted of manslaughter: Amanda Bales was sentenced to prison in 2011. She is scheduled for release in 2015.

This is a tidy aversion, especially since the brevity of my prison sentence would make a reader assume I had been incarcerated for something non-violent. If my fear of naming the act is so strong that I find I cannot do so, then resorting to not naming it at all might be one way to handle this fear.

But instead, Boland names the manslaughter; he just calls it something else. Instead of manslaughter, it is “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

If he admits to that he bludgeoned a woman to death with a baseball bat, then to call this “an achievement in idiocy” is horrifying.

This seems as bad, somehow, than not naming it at all. To not name his actions is to try to erase them. To name them in this manner is to mock them.

So maybe it’s not a matter of simple fear of dismissal. Maybe it’s the second reason, that Boland believes himself innocent. This means he believes himself either innocent of the act itself or of his culpability in it.

Maybe, as it seems from his essay, he might believe the latter. Maybe he thinks he isn’t responsible for his actions because he was high at the time he committed them.

But that’s what manslaughter is, right? The taking of another human life without malice aforethought? The intentional killing of another person in the heat of passion and in response to adequate provocation? To claim innocence would be to claim that you did not commit the act. Being high might remove the rational intention, but it doesn’t remove the act itself.

Which leaves being innocent of the crime itself.

So maybe Boland genuinely did not bludgeon Natasha Waalen to death with a baseball bat. For this crime, he did not plea a straight-up guilty, but rather an alford plea. This, from what I understand is like saying “look, I didn’t do it, but I’m pretty sure all the evidence is gonna say I did.”

Maybe someone else bashed-in Natasha Waalen’s skull.

Okay, but Boland does admit to trying to conceal the murder. And, by his brother’s account, this concealment included placing Waalen’s body and a motorcycle into the back of a truck, then driving down a highway with the tailgate down and jerking the wheel until the motorcycle and the body fell out.

Even this, the best possible scenario for Boland’s culpability in the death of Natasha Waalen, does not excuse phrasing his part in her murder as “a colossal achievement in stupidity.”

Whether under mind-altering medication or not, whether as the perpetrator or as a witness who tried to cover-it up, referring to even the smallest part played in the brutal taking of another human life as an “achievement in idiocy”? As if it’s on par with a Jack-Ass skit?

Unconscionable.

Let’s be clear. This is a blog post, not a researched interview or news story. I don’t know Boland. I have never spoken to him. I have no real idea why he chose this as the phrase to convey the reason for his incarceration.

There I go, “the reason for his incarceration.”

I have no idea why he labels the part he played in the death of Natasha Waalen as “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

Nor do I know why it bothers me so much that he did so.

Except that I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance and power and hard, hard work of honest naming lately. 2014 has been a tough year so far. A loved one died. A friend committed adultery. A student overdosed. A man I loved told me he did not love me in return.

All of this occurred before May 1st.

And all of this has left me trying my best to be honest in the naming of what has occurred and how I feel, no matter how hard it has been to do so.

Most of us spend our lives trying not to do so. Loved ones do not die, they pass away. Those who cheat on their partners rarely call themselves adulterers. Alcoholics get a little sideways sometimes.

At one point in my life I ate fewer than 500 calories per day and at no point, not even after developing a thyroid problem, did I call myself anorexic.

Rapes are incidents.

Wars are military operations.

This avoidance of naming, and the intentional misnaming, has hurt me. Has hurt others. Continues to hurt us all.

And I believe that is what hurts about Boland’s phrase. Even understanding the deep context around it—the the slippery surface of self-representation and the dismissal of the unvirtuous voice—even knowing this, the phrase grieves me.

And yet, in all my grief, would I want to silence Tim Boland? Get him to apologize? Make him change his Bio?

No.

Boland chose this phrase, for whatever reasons, and his phrasing has a right to be heard, no matter how much it offends one woman in Central Missouri.

And I am in no way advocating that TMR begin fact-checking the bios of any contributor, especially those in the Literature on Lockdown series, as this would create an immediate place of judgment and mistrust—certainly the opposite of the intended effect of a blog that tries to give people too-often dismissed a chance to be heard.

Silencing others, dismissing others, seems to be at least part of the problem.

Maybe after all this rumination, the only thing for which I advocate is this—

That we all do the difficult, painful work of naming the hurt that we’ve done, no matter the fear that others might dismiss us for our honesty.

Jimmy Y

Jimmy Yadisernia, that is, but few bothered to pronounce the name and most butchered it, so he was Jimmy Y, and his favorite rejoinder was ‘Why not?’

I hate stories about bartenders. It’s a job too often romanticized by those who sit on the other side of the counter. They imagine a life of ever-changing characters, the pleasure in a well-made drink, the excitement of always being where everyone else wants to go. They imbue the men and women they’ve encountered with wit they do not possess and fail to see the craftsmanship behind the charm. They don’t understand that it’s grunt work. It’s lifting, cleaning, hauling, feet-aching grunt work you have to do while managing a smile or a smirk, whichever façade you wear best. It exhausts the body and wears at the mind, makes a wet twenty dollar bill shoved under a beer glass the highlight of a week.

But Jimmy was a bartender. A fellow bartender at a posh resort in Colorado too far from Aspen for Hollywood, but close enough for people to pretend. Jimmy’d been a bartender most of his life. He worked odd jobs until he was twenty-one, then caught a greyhound to Vegas for the glitter life until he found himself a soon-to-be father with bad gambling debts and a wife in rehab. Somehow, this all led him to Colorado.

I was fresh from college, drifting after graduation and determined, in my naive way, not to hand myself over to a life of working for a paycheck. I had watched my Dad sacrifice for the comfort of his family. He had sacrificed his body a piece at a time through truck wrecks, plant fires, valve malfunctions—the jobs college boys refused. He’d sacrificed his mind, working night shifts and day shifts and double shifts, until all he could do at home was down a beer or three, swallow a pill or four, smoke a cigarette, sleep, watch sports. I love my father. I will be eternally grateful for these sacrifices. But I did not want his life.

So I was tending bar and making plans for travel and graduate school. At 22, My life was all about the future. At 45, Jimmy’s was all about the past, though neither of us could deny where we came from. Jimmy couldn’t shake his Boston accent anymore than I could shake my Oklahoma twang, and we gave each other equal amounts of shit about both. When we worked a Sunday morning shift, he would ‘howdy’ and ‘ya’ll’ and I’d ‘Harvard’ and ‘chowder’ over trays of Bloody Marys and shitty church lady tips.

And it was usually in the mornings, the two of us the only ones on shift, when Jimmy would make not-so-sly sexual overtures. They were always half-teasing, half-serious. They were never threatening. He always left it up to me to tilt the relationship.

And I would always chuckle and make sure I looked him in the eye and smiled when I reminded him of his none-existent hairline, my far-more-attractive fling, and his impending social security check.

And he’d say, “Twenty years ago…”

And I’d say, “I was two.”

And we’d move past the moment, go back to talking about sports or co-workers we didn’t like.

It wasn’t a difficult decision not to have sex with Jimmy. He treated most women as half-wits, defended the designated hitter rule, and always had to have the last word. He had two tufts of hair that he parted down the middle, a middle-age paunch around the gut, and hands so dry they bled at the nails.

But he also had an ex-athletes body, the fat running to the belly, but leaving his hips, thighs, and calves as a reminder. And every now and then, his back turned to me, my mind elsewhere, I would take a second look and surprise myself.

And sometimes—when he mouthed-off to a customer in a way that made them peel a few more bills for the tip, or when he told the rich bastard at the corner to watch his mouth (or his hands) around the lady, or when he talked about his daughter—I could see it. And I would wonder about twenty years ago and imagine running across a smart-ass, tough, athletic, Boston guy who liked baseball and whiskey and girls who talked back. I would see the him of twenty years ago chatting the twenty-two year old me up. And I would think maybe he was right when he said twenty years ago.

Now, ten years later, I live in a college town, which means that when I go out, I find myself thinking “ten years ago” as college boys call me M’am, or fail to see me at all, or hit on me out of some kind of desire to ‘bag a cougar.’ Now they are the ones with only a future, and I am the one insisting on some past version of myself.

But why? These are not interesting or attractive men. I have no desire to sleep with them. So why do I have this need, not for them to desire me as I am now, but for them to see me as I once was?

Maybe it’s out of some desire to be that person again, to be someone who has yet to make thousands of bad decisions, and one or two good ones. To be the person who has yet to truly hurt others and truly be hurt by them. To be the person who does not yet know that for all her accomplishments, ten years from now her life will seem to be a series of lowered expectations. Maybe. But the only reason at which I arrive that seems to make sense is this: Maybe I want to strip away the experiences and trials of my current self because my 22-year-old self seems to have loved so much easier, and to have been loved so much easier in return.

This is, without question, true. If I were to wade back through my journals over the past ten years, I’m pretty sure I would note a steady decline in both the number of men I’ve fallen for and the number of men who have fallen for me. It might look something like this:

Men Loved Graph

Am I exposed to fewer potential mates now? Has my taste become more limited? Is my libido fading? All of this? None of it?

Or is the real key that I am far more cautious. Has having my teeth kicked-in (romantically speaking) a few times stopped me from leaving them exposed?

Whatever the case, no matter how much I occasionally want to say “ten years ago” to a twenty-year-old skinny-jeans hipster with a copy of White Noise and a Radiohead lyric tattooed on his forearm, or a perfect-smile senior with a frat-yard tan and a ten year plan, when I think back to that 22-year-old girl, it’s important for me to remember that I don’t actually want to be her.

That girl serving drinks and sassy comebacks in her purple cocktail waitress uniform. That girl determined not to take-on the responsibilities of family and work. That girl with nothing but future plans—that girl wasn’t really capable of loving anyone. Not in the way another person deserves to be loved. Certainly not in the way I think myself—after all the bad decisions and lowered expectations and broken teeth—capable of loving someone now.

I see the evidence of this in the way I love my family better. And the way I love my friends better. And the way I do my best to better love myself.

If this is starting to sound like an episode of Oprah, I apologize. It was supposed to be a story about a bartender. But I can’t tell Jimmy’s story because ten years ago I didn’t care enough about anyone other than myself enough to have listened to it. Ten years ago, when Jimmy said “twenty years ago,” instead of insulting his hairline, I could have learned what it was like growing-up Italian in Brookline in the 60s, and what took him from Brookline to Vegas, and whether his debts there involved the Mob, and what hopes he held for his daughter…There was a lot I could have learned about Jimmy.

Maybe then I could give you a good bartender story.

The Letting Go

I can’t swim. I mean, if you threw me into a pool or a pond or some other mostly still water, I would not sink. I would even make some sort of motion that looks similar to swimming. I would be horizontal to the earth and I would kick my legs and my arms would reach over my head.

But to call what I do swimming would be akin to calling what Dan Brown does writing (easy shot there, I know). All the main elements are there. A person might not at first even notice the difference between the real thing and the facsimile. But the minute a passerby actually examines my movements, that passerby will notice that this is not the real thing. And, should I be asked to swim any distance longer than say, fifty yards, I would drown.

I should maybe tell you that I’m not Black. This is a running joke, I guess, that Black people don’t know how to swim. I know this from listening to stand-up comedians. It’s supposed to be because Black people grow-up without access to water, pools or lakes or otherwise. Okay. I guess that’s a joke.

Anyway, the kind of swimming I can manage is entirely based on me watching other people and then trying to do what they do. This is why, at first glance, it may well appear that I am swimming.

Just like when I first started teaching College Composition, at the grand old age of 24, it probably looked like I was teaching. A passerby might have seen me in front of my class, gesturing wildly and scrawling across the board, and assumed that I was teaching. I assure you, I was not. I was performing. I was entertaining (sometimes, and mostly by accident). I was lecturing.

I was not teaching.

All of the above can be pieces of teaching, and I think they are the most effective means of teaching certain kinds of classes. But to really teach Composition, to effectively convey how to successfully compose, requires a lot less of me talking at my students and a lot more of my students doing the work.

If a person wanted to learn more about Jazz, they could take a lecture course on Jazz and learn more about it. But could a person who wanted to play Jazz sit in a lecture course and walk away sounding like Miles Davis?

How absurd would it be to hold basketball practices where no one every picked-up a ball?

These are, in many ways, faulty analogies, but there is something to be said about learning-by-doing, especially when the end goal is creation, rather than recitation.

I guess what I’m getting at is that if my students are to be the ones trying to execute the song or the play, then maybe I need to spend a little less time playing for them, and give them a little more time to play on their own.

But I don’t like losing control. Uncertainty makes me incredibly anxious. Ask any of my friends (or former boyfriends).

Uncertainty is also what I hate most about being in water. In the water, a person must allow for drift. A person must be okay with imprecise placement. A person must hand themselves over to the elements, even if in some small way.

The more I understand about teaching, the more I understand that those who allow students more control, those who drift, are the ones who reach greatness.

I don’t want to be a good teacher. I want to be a great one. I think my need for control holds me back.

The last time I entered any form of water, despite being encased in as many floatation devices as possible, I spent pretty much the entire time holding onto a boat deck.

After a full hour of lecturing during my first semester of teaching, I remember walking back to my cubicle, throwing my feet up onto my desk, and declaring that I had just “rocked that class.”

But of course, I shouldn’t have been the one who rocked—my students should have been.

For them to do this, I will have to learn to drift. To drift, I will have to let go.

To Cleave

On a bright June day a few years back, I crouched beside a creek in Yosemite National Park and lifted a stone from the water’s edge. It fit the well of my palm, and its weight sat like a good ink pen—enough to notice, but not to wear heavy. Bits of ore sparkled from its cleavage line. The edges, despite their stay in the water, remained sharp. I carried the stone to my friend so she might share this small wonder in a place made of the larger kind.

It is a long-standing habit of mine to mark a memory with a found object: a railroad spike from a romantic hike in Alaska; a soda bottle from a fishing trip with my grandfather; a wine cork from a toast to a friend dead too soon. But the objects I find are usually stones, probably because my memorable days are mostly spent alone in a landscape, maybe a good dog by my side.

That day I was not alone. My companions were a friend and her soon-to-be-mother-in-law. We were on a day drive through the National Park and had stopped to stretch our legs. My friend knows my habits well, so when I showed her the stone in my hand, she smiled. The mother-in-law, seeing my intention, said “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” in the same tone I imagine she uses when saying ‘a moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.’

I bristled, as I often do when receiving unsolicited advice, but in the interest of a congenial trip, I took a breath and knelt to return the stone to the creek bank. A car horn sounded in the parking lot behind us, reminding me of the line of cars had extended before us and behind us that day. And as I lay the stone back onto the ground, I saw not only my own hand, but thousands of hands reaching to the earth and taking pieces of it. And as they did so, the ground around me began to soften, and the creek before me flattened, and the Cascade Mountains lowered, until I was no longer in California, but in the far-less-spectacular Winding Stair Mountains, offshoots of the Ozarks that drift across the Arkansas line and settle over Southeastern Oklahoma. This is where my family has lived, through immigration and removal, for more than a hundred years. It is also where I chose my first stone.

My grandparents’ place. Thanksgiving weekend. The women were in the kitchen slinging flour and gossip. The men were on the front porch spitting tobacco and making certain the teller kept the story straight. I was young enough to be an annoyance in either place, and so I was allowed to wander. Or maybe I left without permission, knowing my absence would not be missed until the meal was served. Whatever the case, I grabbed a windbreaker and headed toward the creek that ran sixty, maybe seventy yards from the house.

Woodstove smells drifted over the damp fall light. The rust and canary and crimson of maple and bois d’arc and pin oak perched in contrast against the loblolly and cedar and juniper. It was in this rocky stretch of Oklahoma Ozark on this late fall afternoon where I first understood what it meant to feel a place. In the house, among dozens of people, I had been transparent—the youngest child by more than six years, and a girl, and therefore of no use or interest to anyone. Here, away from everyone, I felt solid. Here is where I discovered that lonely occurs more easily among others than when alone.

Not that this was a conscious thought at the time. But I do remember thinking that if I breathed enough of the air into my lungs, that if the cells of my body could absorb that place, then some part of it would become a part of me and work as a talisman against the crush of the evening meal, and nightfall, and nowhere left to be but alone among others again.

I stomped and stretched the barbed wire fencing, worked my way around a few cows, then squatted by the creek. I dropped leaves and twigs and watched them move in the dawdling current. I placed my fingers in the water, tried to make my hand weightless so it might also drift. I mimicked bird calls so that later I could ask my father the names.

A leaf rustle sent a sharp jolt up my back. I’d been warned of the hillbilly families who would shoot anyone on sight. The boars and bearcats and wild dogs that could shred a body. I cursed myself for not bringing a gun, though what I thought a .22 rifle—the only gun I could handle—might do to a charging boar, or a brain-damaged mountain family, I do not know. The next rustle produced a squirrel that bounded up a tree and scolded me for scaring it.

I laughed to get the nerves out, then walked along the bank a ways, observing how some rocks could break the current, while others were overtaken by it. This made me sad, and I had no idea why. It makes me sad still. I do not know the why any better now.

When my nose and ears began to chill, and the fall colors muted under shadow, I knew the meal would soon be laid, so I turned lazy-kid feet back from where I had come. In my scuffle, the thin rubber toe of my Wal-Mart Ked connected with a good-sized rock. My foot smarting, I went after the offending party.

It was not pretty in a way people think a little girl might like. It was not heart-shaped or pink. It did not sparkle. Dull tan and not of any interesting shape, it is a piece of sandstone common to the area. But I knew as I lifted this rock that it held that moment, that peace, and so I pocketed it and carried it back to the house. That night, when I felt alone and anxious, when I seemed to disappear, I thumbed its solid, rough sides and felt my shoulders ease. The rock now sits on my writing desk. I sometimes do this still.

There was no one beside me that day to say “take only photos; leave only footprints.” But of course, thousands of people do not daily arrive to drive through those hard-scrabble hills and gawk at opossums and persimmon trees. I hope they never do. And not only for the selfish reason of wanting a place of unknown quiet, but because I think we need both places if we are to salvage our relationship to the earth. It is important to remember that, wherever you find yourself on the continuum of creation beliefs—from Adam to Stardust, we are pieces shorn from the larger whole. And this act of shearing, of breaking-off, is called cleaving.

But note that to cleave also means to adhere, to cling, to join together. The most famous use of this, perhaps, lies in the Genesis passage, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” Two separate people made whole, but not to the point of eviscerating their original forms.

In my more ephemeral moments, I think of all life as pieces cleaved from a single whole, then cleaved together again, so that there is a distinction, but not a separation. I find this philosophy or ethos or whatever it is supported by the fact that our language has a single word, a single syllable, that means both to separate and to join together. Surely if we can hold near opposite meanings inside a single syllable, we can also hold inside ourselves these opposing, but equally important ways of treating the earth.

A young girl in Oklahoma should pick-up a rock and carry it with her for the rest of her days, a reminder of the first time she felt a landscape, a reminder that she is part of it.

And that same girl should replace the rock she finds in Yosemite because that is a place set-aside to experience wonder, a place to feel small and insignificant in the face of something greater than oneself.

We must take pieces from the earth and hold them and keep them with us.

And we must protect the earth and keep her separate and be content to observe her wonder.

We must be both separate and joined.

We must cleave.