Because Going Home Is Not An Option

On Sunday afternoon, I joined a hundred or so women in Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland. What began as an invitation to a small gathering in a friend’s living-room had expanded, within a week, into this bigger, sprawling, holy-seeming space with a stage and a ballroom, a balcony and curtained side-rooms, where we broke out into smaller groups to talk and listen and think and feel and share and organize.

A common cause connected us but, within that cause, our various and differing concerns and motivations nested like so many matryoshka dolls within the single, steeple-roofed space and, indeed, within our very selves. I helped at the check-in table and explained that, for logistical reasons, and to facilitate inclusive and meaningful conversation, everyone would have to select a single topic to participate in that day: Education, Gun Control, Immigration, LGBTQ rights, Healthcare and Reproductive Rights, and Energy and the Environment.

Their faces said it all as their pens hovered over the sign-up sheets. How to choose? Where to begin? How to prioritize when there is so much at stake and everything, everything, is so vital and urgent and cannot, cannot, wait? Those who know me know that, these past couple of years, I have been grappling with Time: the ways in which I squander it and how, knowing those ways, will I live my days from here? Few would argue that ‘activism’ is a poor use of one’s time but, accepting that we cannot do everything there is to do, how do we decide what our activism will be and look like, how do we choose what to do, where do we place our time and energy, to which people, and in which place?

In which place?

I am not from here.

I am a Permanent Resident of the United States, though the cynic or Buddhist in me smiles whenever I hear the word ‘permanent’ or ‘united’. I sometimes think of myself as an Alien, feeling, as I often do, as though I am living on a strange planet, trying in vain and in pain and in anger and frustration to understand. I was born and raised in Dublin. I am Irish. European. I am white. A few weeks ago, an older white woman engaged me on the bus. She was planning on voting for Trump and spoke at length about “those immigrants” and “those people”. I didn’t say much. I live in a progressive, tolerant, loving, echo chamber and was, frankly, fascinated to be talking to one of “those people” but eventually I must have said something because she noticed my accent and asked me where I’m from. “I’m Irish,” I said. “Ohhhhh!” she said, her face lighting up the way people often do here when they hear that. “Yes,” I said, “I’m an immigrant.”

The woman’s smile faded and her eyes flickered in recognition at the trap I’d laid for her, a trap she stammered and stuttered her way out of, or tried to. A Latino man to our left smiled. It was a sweetish moment, in the moment, but I wonder now what he was smiling at. The old white woman and her racism and inconsistent thinking. Or the younger white woman and her cleverness and privilege. Both he and I know that I am not and never will be an ‘Immigrant’, and all that word implies. In the days following the election results, unlike so many citizens, so many Americans, this pale alien could walk freely down the street and nobody was telling me to go home or that my time here was up. Unlike so many Americans, I was not harassed or intimidated or violently assaulted. Nobody looks at my face, my skin, my body and wants to end it, wills or wishes me out of existence. I get to make wry comments about permanence and the phrasing of my status but my status remains unquestioned and intact. I can play at being E.T., pointing my finger and saying, “America. Beeeee goooooood,” and pretend that I’m outside it all when, in fact, I am terribly within it and blend in all too well.

I get to say who and what I am. I have at least a dozen identities at my disposal. We all contain multitudes but I get to live them and can be this thing before breakfast and this other thing after lunch and who will I be tomorrow and what will I do and where will I go?

Home?

I thought about it. I hunted out my passport, put it in a safe spot.

It is an option and it comforts me to know I have a place to run away to but then I think of Virginia Woolf and her words in the essay, Three Guineas.

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

Woolf was writing about the connection between patriarchy, war and fascism, and a patriotism that fights and kills for rights and freedoms that she, as a women, had not shared and probably would never share. But when I read it now in this globalized, highly interconnected world, it takes on another meaning and I see that there is no place to run to. That there is a link between America and that little Syrian boy and his face in the sand on a beach in Turkey. That there is a farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland who is under threat of being forcibly removed from his land to make way for the Orange Man’s luxury golf resort. That rising seas and famine and drought will come for all of us. That there is no place on earth that is untouched by the same forces of hatred and injustice and denial that we face in this place.

So, no. No going home. Going home is not an option because wherever I am, I am already there. And there is work to do inside of myself and right outside my front door.

 

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I have a new story in The Stinging Fly. It’s about woodturners, sort of.

I haven’t done too much woodworking lately, not since last Spring when I finished my blanket chest. Our place is so small, there’s only so much room for another box, bowl, or coffee table. But some things from the past few years filtered into my story.

Like the woodpile at Ian’s parents’ home on the Oregon coast; the chalky cedary smell of woodshops; time spent in slow and patient purpose; bark, burl, rings; a little bowl I turned from some sweet-smelling apple; a tin helmet I saw when wandering around Portland one day; and this fog that won’t lift and makes me wonder is the world out there at all.

Small bowl, turned from apple

Blanket Chest with Bear Dovetail Joints, Blanket Chest Handmade Dovetail Joints Woodpile at the Coast WoodpileTable Top Legs In The Air Tin Helmet Morning fog, Portland

The Spring issue of The Stinging Fly looks beautiful, as ever, is available to order online, and will be in (Irish) bookshops very soon.

 

Fund My Dream!

Please help fund my dream.

(My dream was that I was a sardine in a bait ball and you were a hammerhead, a great one.)

(My dream was that I was the last hermit crab and you were an old marmalade jar.)

(My dream was I was wandering in a narrow gorge and other people were also wandering in the gorge but we didn’t speak to one another.)

(I woke up to pee and couldn’t get back into this one dream.)

(My dream was just roaring and shouting at her.)

(My dream is often a vast, silent wave. Nothing can prevent it.)

(My dream was my cat had a British accent.)

(My dream was I was a girl, dancing on my daddy’s shoes, holding on to the loops where his belt should go but when I looked up it was our old friend, Dave Franklin. He said “Hi!”)

 

 

 

Finland 2007 moleskin journal, and the first scrawlings of a story that would eventually be my first published story in 2014.

Found in a box, hardly decipherable in parts, and quite unlike what it became, as far as I can read.

Pages smell strongly like linseed oil.

That’s all.

Lay Down The Dark Layers

(But, also, I feel old tonight and wondering what I was doing for so long)

 

Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated on the www of late).

This Conversation between Dan Gunn and Lydia Davis at the wonderful Music & Literature.

This 1929 Soviet-era silent movie by Dziga Vertov, who once said: “I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”

 

Published a couple of years ago, but still – and maybe more so – relevant, Rebecca Solnit’s Diary in the London Review of Books meditates on the influence of technology and the quality of the time we spend in today’s day and age.

“A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing….  It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone.”

Solnit’s sentiments echo my own of late (though more beautifully and with considerably more clarity and conviction – I tend to vacillate between her perspective and one of the commenters who persuasively argues that Solnit is not the first in history to romanticize and misremember the reality of the past). Still, food for thought, and it nudged me into action concerning the way I do, and want to, spend my time. Day 2 of being Facebook-free and it feels okay!

Based on a couple of short stories I’ve read, I’m very excited about Irish writer Sara Baume’s forthcoming debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, from Tramp Press. Will certainly gush more about her another time. For now, though, I lately loved her little blog post documenting some artwork she made, and an installation of post-its titled All The Days I Did and Didn’t, while writing the novel.

I’ve also been seriously dreamy over the work of Mister Finch, a self-taught artist who sews delightful flora and fauna from vintage textiles. I want to fall down this lacy, threadbare rabbit hole and live in a world that looks like this:

Moths-on-Books-small

 

There were other things, too, but these are the things I thought to share with you, whatever share means, whoever you are.

Bye!

Day One

Prune.

Make room for summer’s blooms.

Say GoodbyeIReallyLovedYou.

Burn, then walk away.

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A poem, by Naomi Shihab Nye:

Burning the Old Year

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

 

You—like us—great for an instant

Forgive me, I am someone who seeks out synchronicity—that is, confirmation that I am where I am meant to be, in this exact moment in life and time.

It’s silly (is it?), but I need it (why?).

Last night, driving away from Portland, Ian turned the radio to a local station playing jazz. “Do you like jazz?” he asked. Almost ten years we have known each other, yet still some things to know and remain unknown. He told me about a college class he signed up for with this very radio station, a sort of internship where he’d learn the radio ropes and how to present a show, how he didn’t know anything about jazz and stayed up late at Powell’s reading and researching. But (alas, alack) it was one of those harsh winters and (oh, poor student) he didn’t have a car and wound up missing some classes and thus ended his career in local jazz radio before it had even begun. “Oh baby,” I laughed, “you could have been somebody.”

I was teasing, but it’s true—I think about it all the time: all the roads not taken or only half taken, all the somebodies we could have been and might still be. I can (and have) spend hours tracing back all the things that had to happen in order to find myself, here, now, in this place. And, though I am happy in this place, I am one of those people who can’t help seeking confirmation that all is as it should be, that there isn’t another place I’m supposed to be. Even the smallest of ‘signs’ can set me at ease for, oh, whole hours.

Last night, when we arrived back at the house we are watching for friends this month, the sky away from the city was clear and crisp. It has been so foggy lately and, so, we took a stroll up the back fields, in search of shooting stars. He saw three and I saw one and a bit. He deserved it. He gets up earlier than I do, works harder and longer, lights the fire before he leaves, leaves a teabag in a mug for me…

These things are important and real and good. And yet, I wake this morning thinking, Are we doing enough with our lives, should we be traveling or building or making, we should see more live music, we should write more, I should really learn an instrument—or to drive—I thought we’d have our Christmas shopping done by now, why do we procrastinate, are we wasting it, missing it, why did we just sit by the fire half the day? 

And then, as it seems to go, I stumble across some words that still me, that seem to have been written in the stars for me, today, this morning, when thoughts and anxieties shoot and fire and fizzle across the fearful, doubtful spaces of my mind. A small synchronicity, a poem by Galway Kinnell, makes me forget the creeping daytime thoughts and focus on last night, and all those time in which we are great, and happy, as long as we are arm in arm and looking up.

 

On the Frozen Field

We walk across the snow,
The stars can be faint,
The moon can be eating itself out,
There can be meteors flaring to death on earth,
The Northern Lights can bloom and seethe
And be tearing themselves apart all night,
We walk arm in arm, and we are happy.

You in whose ultimate madness we live,
You flinging yourself out into the emptiness,
You—like us—great for an instant,

O only universe we know, forgive us.

 

Frozen Field

Answers

Mark Strand has died.

His was among the first American poetry I read as a teenage girl (apart from the obligatory Robert Frost of my childhood schooling). I was looking for Answers and Alternatives and poetry often pointed the way into and out of myself.

In true teenage fashion, I especially sought those words I could appropriate for my own emotionally exaggerated ends. My seventeen year old self got some good melancholy mileage out of poems like Keeping Things Whole: 

KEEPING THINGS WHOLE 

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

 

I remember Strand’s Elegy For My Father was particularly impactful too, especially this second section of the long poem. It rendered the complexities and contradictions of truth—the truth of truth—which my sixteen year old self intuited but could not yet articulate (still often can’t).

ANSWERS

Why did you travel?
Because the house was cold.
Why did you travel?
Because it is what I have always done between sunset and sunrise.
What did you wear?
I wore a blue suit, a white shirt, yellow tie, and yellow socks.
What did you wear?
I wore nothing. A scarf of pain kept me warm.
Who did you sleep with?
I slept with a different woman each night.
Who did you sleep with?
I slept alone. I have always slept alone.
Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.
Why are you going?
Because nothing means much to me anymore.
Why are you going?
I don’t know. I have never known.
How long shall I wait for you?
Do not wait for me. I am tired and I want to lie down.
Are you tired and do you want to lie down?
Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down.

 

Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down. Wherever I am I am what is missing.

Who was that teenage girl? I can barely remember. But I know those words were my truth, that I found a mirror and comfort in them. I needed them then in a way that I can barely feel or fathom anymore. And perhaps they are the reason I no longer need them with such intensity, if that makes sense. They got me to a different place, a place where they wouldn’t be needed so much, or needed for other reasons. Those lines mean something different to me now and their meaning will change again and again, though they remain the same.

Thanks be to poetry. Thanks be to words and the writers who write them, knowing we might yet still need them long after they are gone. Thank you Mr. Strand.

LINES FOR WINTER 

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

 

The Uninvited

Last night I dreamed I was skating on glass. Nobody wants for mold to appear unbidden, and flourish, in the airspace between their double-paned windows; but, if it must, they can only hope for the crystal kind whose fine filaments creep into your nighttime with whisperings of snow.

From the Old Norse vindr auga came the word window: ‘wind eye’. Longboats and trade winds carried the word, along with other cargo sounds (fog, freckles, moss, gasp, sky), and it took the place of the Old English eag thyrel—eye-thirl, eye-hole. Words, like men, live and die. The Old Irish heard vindr auga as fuin deóc and their word for window is now fuinneoig. Sounds twist on the wind, morph, reshape themselves and, so, survive.

The mold on my window appeared slowly, at first, as a fog, but soon snow-like crystals surfaced like islands in a frozen sea: archipelagos of spores, remote colonies advancing slowly on the hazy center. A single stray hypha, trapped in the warm air between two panes of glass, has blossomed and burrowed its way into my dreams, a soft and silent invasion.

A dream is an invasion and it is also an evasion—from reality, the quotidian. The view from my window has become mundane; I hardly noticed it until the mold came, obscuring afternoon’s glow on red brick and the wooded slopes of Portland’s west hills. Nothing ever happens here is not the truth of the view, but only my perspective on it, which, too, may reshape itself.

By day, I think: I should call somebody, do something about this. But when night falls, I am skating. I am spinning fast on thin glass. Snow falls down around me and strange words float my way on the wind, replacing one world with another.

Deborah Reeves Window View 2

I was prompted to write this little essay when I saw a contest on The Paris Review website in celebration of Matteo Pericoli’s new book Windows on the World. 

I like these kind of contests – with a limited word count on a specified theme (this contest was 300 words). Like all writing prompts, it alleviates the pressure to think of something (God, forbid!). I often procrastinate writing because I’m waiting for a worthy idea to strike.

Though, I must admit that I needed the incentive of potentially being published on The Paris Review blog to sit down and write about the view from my window. If I saw this prompt in a workbook, I would probably press the snooze button, but I was surprised at the imaginative places my mind wandered to when I thought it might be read by other people.

Writing these micro-pieces requires focus, restraint, and thoughtfulness as every word and sentence counts. I love when an unexpected sentence or idea emerges but, too, I found that I was frequently questioning what, precisely, it was that I wished to communicate, or what feeling I wanted to create in a very short space, and tried to adhere to that and cull the excess and extraneous.

Of course, these things are required of everything I write but it’s easy with a longer essay or story to hold onto a sentence because it’s pretty, or so innocuous as to go unnoticed, a good sign that it’s not indeed needed.

Anyhoo. These ideas are not novel but I thought I’d share them anyway. Needless to say, my strange little mold essay did not win the contest but it’s been a while since I posted a window into my world, so here you go!

(The replacement windows arrived last week, by the by. In case you were wondering if I ever did pick up the phone, call somebody, do something about it.)

 

Rehearsals of ‘Buried Child’ begin at Profile Theatre

Last evening, cast and crew gathered in a back room for the first read-through of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning play.

The very first production of Buried Child was directed by Robert Woodruff who, many years later, would have Profile’s Artistic Director, Adriana Baer, under his tutelage at Columbia University. Last night, Adriana addressed her actors, crew, and guild members, speaking of her excitement to step into her chapter in this particular lineage.

The Pulitzer was awarded to Shepard based solely on the merits of the written page (performance/production is usually taken into account by the Drama jury) and the actors were encouraged to read through the play naturally. Often Shepard’s plays are read and staged ‘heightened’ because of the surreal and crazy situations his characters find themselves in.

For now, it was okay to just have the words—“we’ll find the situation later,” said Baer who encouraged us to embrace the play’s contradictions without judgement. For the characters in Buried Child, everything is true in the moment, and the truth changes, while remaining true, from moment to moment. The play only seeks to ask questions and the audience is to find their own answers to whatever they feel, think, believe, those questions are.

Before the read-through, we also heard a little from those lovely folks behind the scenes who are busy with costumes, music, props, and lighting. I particularly liked this little model that holds true to Shepard’s sparse stage conception. It’s a visceral as opposed to a literal architecture. The designer imagined the home as a contorted place that is reacting to and rejecting the people who exist there, poisoning their own lives, perpetually stuck inside their story.

Bleak stuff.

And yet, not—or not always.

Typical of Shepard, humor cut through horror, levity grappling with loneliness and longing, and the reading elicited many laughs and wry smiles from those of us who were lucky enough to sit in on it last night.

The actors are already so good—particularly those playing Dodge and Shelly. It’s fascinating to attend these first readings and I’m excited to see where they go with it in the next six weeks.

If you’re living in the Portland area, Buried Child plays May 29th through June 15th and I think it will be one to watch.

Buried Child at Profile Theatre Portland

 

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

“After lunch I’ll go out in the boat again; I might see something interesting. There should be a lot of interesting things around after a flood like this. Surely in all this water someone must have drowned.”

Offbeat, droll, macabre. Whimsical, charming, strangely delightful.

Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is the last book that I was truly smitten by.

(At this point, it might be worth noting that the word Smitten is the past participle of Smite which means to strike with a firm blow. It is equally correct to say She was smitten by the handsome boy; she was one smitten kitten, as it is to say, The town was smitten with an outbreak of influenza—or madness; or murder.)

I don’t write too many reviews these days—I might start calling them “For Your Consideration” pieces—but this dark, enchanting book, and the sometimes ghastly, sometimes lovely, Willoweed family it follows, has lingered with me long after I first read it.

First, there is a flood:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows…. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Then there is a death.

Well, many of them. The sorrowful hens commit suicide, the peacocks are drowned. Then Grumpy Nan who lived in the cottage by the mill croaks it. Then Mrs. Hatt, the doctor’s wife. Then another, and another. It is all very strange. It is all very dark and funny and matters terribly and doesn’t matter at all. Life goes on.

“Upstairs Emma sat on her bedroom window-sill and combed her marmalade coloured hair. She closed her eyes and forgot the sad, drowned sights of the morning. A feeling of deep satisfaction came over her as she felt the warmth of the sun and combed her hair, dreamily…. “Oh, how I would love to go to a dance and wear a real evening dress,” she thought, “but nothing like that will happen—no dances, no admirers. I shall just me me, and nothing will happen at all.”

Yes, it is a weird little gem of a book.

I was surprised to read that it was first published in 1954—by a woman born in 1909 and raised in an English country house with servants and a governess. Its simple, playful sentences; steady accumulation of strange details and observations; non-sequiter dialogue and diversions; and surreal images encountered by her characters as mundane or a nuisance, seem to predate the postmodern writing of the 1960s á la Donald Barthelme. Others have compared her to Angela Carter and consider Comyns a neglected genius. Still others have said she is not like anybody else at all and that is fine by me too:

“Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.” – Emily Gould, writing in The Awl in 2010. 

What is certain is she has been largely overlooked and I feel lucky to have happened across her.

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was banned by The Irish Censorship of Publications Board (though, what book wasn’t? one might ask). I happened to hear about it one night, deep in the interwebs, when I came across Dorothy, a publishing project who reissued the by then out of print novel.

“Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.”

Marvelous! I thought. And it really was.

For your consideration:

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

 

 

I still had two friends, but they were trees…

The Two Trees
by Larry Levis

My name in Latin is light to carry & victorious.

I’d read late in the library, then
Walk out past the stacks, rows, aisles

Of books, where the memoirs of battles slowly gave way
To case histories of molestation & abuse.

The black windows looked out onto the black lawn.

~

Friends, in the middle of this life, I was embraced
By failure. It clung to me & did not let go.
When I ran, brother limitation raced

Beside me like a shadow. Have you never
Felt like this, everyone you know,

Turning, the more they talked, into . . .

Acquaintances? So many strong opinions!

And when I tried to speak—
Someone always interrupting. My head ached.
And I would walk home in the blackness of winter.

I still had two friends, but they were trees.
One was a box elder, the other a horse chestnut.

I used to stop on my way home & talk to each

Of them. The three of us lived in Utah then, though
We never learned why, me, acer negundo, & the other
One, whose name I can never remember.

“Everything I have done has come to nothing.
It is not even worth mocking,” I would tell them
And then I would look up into their limbs & see
How they were covered in ice. “You do not even
Have a car anymore,” one of them would answer.

All their limbs glistening above me,
No light was as cold or clear.

 

I got over it, but I was never the same,

Hearing the snow change to rain & the wind swirl,
And the gull’s cry, that it could not fly out of.

In time, in a few months, I could walk beneath
Both trees without bothering to look up
Anymore, neither at the one

Whose leaves & trunk were being slowly colonized by
Birds again, nor at the other, sleepier, more slender

One, that seemed frail, but was really

Oblivious to everything. Simply oblivious to it,
With the pale leaves climbing one side of it,
An obscure sheen in them,

And the other side, for some reason, black bare,
The same, almost irresistible, carved indifference

In the shape of its limbs

As if someone’s cries for help
Had been muffled by them once, concealed there,

Her white flesh just underneath the slowly peeling bark

—while the joggers swerved around me & I stared—

Still tempting me to step in, find her,

And possess her completely