Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

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A Day Just Like This One

Today we made our way to Decatur for the largest independent book festival in the nation. We took the MARTA train. Public transportation always seems to smell like pennies and the hospital and hair and old sweatshirts and the palms of hands, and, in a strange way, I kind of like it. The cacophony of city sounds held my brain in a kind of cocoon: conversations in other softer languages, loud young mouths shouting about winning the lottery and clapping their hands stomping their feet, the roar of the train being sucked into its tunnels and back out again.

We heard Thomas Lux and Ellen Bryant Voigt talk about poetry and read some too. They both talked about how poetry is an act of discovery. How it’s important to challenge yourself, put yourself into a circumstance of not-knowing, which is the human condition, really. How the work of working through a poem or any piece of writing is what invites the discovery. How a poem without discovery is wooden. How if there’s no discovery for the writer, there’s no discovery for the reader. How poetry is composed of the most everyday moments of insight and appetite.

We schlepped back through the festival and around the corner for a Bees Knees Royale (read: gin, honey, lavendar, cava, citrus), then struck out again into the pitch-perfect September air that made our walk to the MARTA station feel like a gift. At the bottom of the stairs we descended to catch our train, there was a red balloon on a short string tied to the trashcan. The balloon felt like a poetic moment, even if its insight has escaped me.

We got home around 4:00 and did next-to-nothing until dinner at 10:30 at a funny little place around the corner. And, with Roger Miller pumping through the speakers, it was there that I had the best and lustiest buttermilk biscuit of my life. We had a lovely strange dinner of succotash and gnocci and yum. One Root Beer Float with vanilla rum and an umbrella straw later, and all 28 years of me are ready for bed.

Rubber Band Writing

© 2010 David Parker

From morning to mid-afternoon, my classes and I brainstormed all of the things you can do with a rubber-band. Inspired by a comment posted here, I decided to try this little exercise with 9th graders, and it was absolutely magical. When they walked in the door, I had a rubber-band waiting for them on each of the desks. They had to divide their paper into three columns and, in the first column, list all of the things they could think to do with a rubber-band. Then we shared (and I wrote our collective list on the board). Then they had to write more things to do with a rubber-band (that we didn’t already have on our list) in the second column. Then we shared and I wrote again. Then they had to do the same thing in the third column. EXHAUSTING! We spent an hour in each class with this activity. And every time, the kids whined about how there was nothing more they could possibly say about rubber-bands. But each column got longer than the one before it. And by the end, I was having to cut them off because we were out of room and out of time.

My favorites:

Take it to Wal-Mart.
Ask it how your butt looks in these pants.
Get mad at it for not talking back.
Lasso a rhinoceros with it.
Put it in your game day pants for good luck.
Insult it.
Measure it.
Forget it.
Tell your mother she can’t have it.

We talked about how our writing should be third-column writing. We figured out that it takes the first and second columns to get to the third, that you can write about anything if you want to (or have to), that you never feel like you have anything to say at the very beginning, that it’s sometimes easier to write if you have someone you can talk to about it.

My neck is sore, my arm feels bruised, and my back is all messed up, but, damn! It was one of those I’m-a-Teacher days, where you know you’ve just blown their minds (and yours). And the kids were buzzing about it in the halls. And, from now on, when they hand in shitty-first-drafts, I can say they need to work it into the third column and they’ll know what I mean and how to do it. But what made the day was that they valued each others as writers and thinkers. It’s not often you see 15-year-olds, or people in general, valuing each other’s ideas.

Us, the Most Fleeting of All

© 2010 David Parker

I like to measure time with my milk’s expiration dates. I start to get excited about things in my life when I buy a carton of milk that expires after the date of the thing I’m looking forward to. Buying organic milk means that I get excited about things nearly a month before they’re going to happen. So, today, I went to buy some milk and noticed that the expiration date is September 5 (two days after my 28th birthday). It’s finally here: my magical year!

I’ve been looking forward to 28 for a long time. I hated my early twenties because I felt like no one took me seriously. Now, I’m kind of thankful that they didn’t. My mid-twenties were full of change, change, change, and more change. From 24-26, I kept saying that next year would be predictable, constant, undramatic, maybe even boring. And I’m thankful that didn’t happen either.

But 27 has been a gritty, grace-less year for me. There were no short-cuts. I was spared no criticism, I had to ask for help, I discovered that I really have very little control over anything beyond myself, I became disenchanted. Despite its grit, 27 did bring me the best summer of my life, which I deserved and enjoyed. And 27 brought me to today, which, if you don’t count the poor decision to eat a taco from the school cafeteria, was a pretty good day.

What follows is the poem that opens The Time Traveler’s Wife. I just love it. That’s all.

Still Looking

© 2010 David Parker

All day today, I feel like I’ve just been swallowing stress. And I really tried to focus on happier things, but it just wouldn’t stick. Like this morning, after I dropped Ruthie off five minutes late, I did have a chance to appreciate the middle-school boy and his father both walking towards the school with back-packs on or the cross guard who high-fived every little kid who passed him crossing the street to the elementary school. The kids at school today were neat-o as usual for this bunch. They laugh easily and often, but not at each other. They willingly engage in discussions of symbolism and figurative language (two of my favorite things). But every little happy seemed to be accompanied by a burp of stress: the classwork already piled on the edges of my desk, the forgotten lunch, the parent conference that ran until I had to sprint to my car to pick up Ruthie on time. Even right now, Ruthie is singing in her bed, which is so sweet, but I’m a little panicky because it’s 9:00 and she really should be asleep if I’m going to wake her up with any amount of success in the morning. It feels whiney, but I can’t get away from wondering if this is really it. I’m beginning to think it is. And then I start thinking about Julia Child. For some reason, it always comes back to her and the fact that she was in her late forties before she got the acceptance letter for the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a project that was borne of her own boredom in France. And I think, when does the part begin where I really, really love what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and who I am? When I’m not working for what I’ll have tomorrow, because what I have right now is what I want? The troubling piece of all of this for me is that I’m pretty sure that part begins with me.

It would be remiss if I didn’t mention one bright spot that squelched a hiccup of stress: public poetry. So when I’m not whining about how boring it is to be an adult, I’ll be working toward doing a bit of THIS with myself and my students. Another yawp-errrific idea brought to you by one Emma Bolden, the presiding Queen of the Power of Whatever and Poetry whom I miss terribly and often.

Also, I’ll be writing earlier tomorrow because I think there’s not enough of me left over this late at night to piece together a post. See you in the morning.

Coming Home

© 2010 David Parker

The past two days, I’ve been thinking a lot about home or nostos: where we come from, the place where our identity, our self begins. And tonight I was locked out of my house.

My mom’s in town and I decide it’d be nice to take Ruthie for a walk before bedtime. As soon as I hear the door’s heavy click behind me, I know I’ve left the keys four feet away on the table where I keep my keys. Damn it!

We try my landlord’s house down the street. No luck. We’re sweating. We try the window in the back. No luck. I pick up some garden shears and try to pry the window open. No luck. Finally, after 30 minutes of jimmy-ing the window on the front porch with the garden shears, we get in. My jeans and t-shirt are soaked all the way through. I’ve got blisters on the tips of my fingers from all of the jiggling and prying and pushing. Sound dirty? It was.

The most frustrating thing about being locked out of your house is you’re right there! RIGHT THERE! I could touch the fog from the air conditioner inside. I could see the damn keys through the front door. A pane of glass (how thick could that be?!) separated me from air-conditioning, a glass of water, our bedtime rituals. For some reason, the fact of such narrow proximity to the thing you want (especially when it’s something you are so familiar with and have such access to as your home) makes it maddeningly worse. And it’ll make you do crazy things like jiggle your window with garden shears until you work the latch through (it’s hard to explain).

The moment the window pops open, sweet relief pours through the dusty blinds and into my face: bought air. I climb through and let Ruthie and my mom in the front door. Simplest thing in the world: opening up my door for people to walk through. But it feels like a privilege, like a glorious, unique opportunity to walk into my own home. It feels so good because to open that door took so much work, so much sweat, with the possibility of not making it inside breathing hot on the back of my neck.

This past week has been pretty wretched for me personally speaking. It was one of those growing weeks. You know, where you become more of who you are? And it hurt like hell. Ask my bestie-best-best (A.) or ask David or ask anyone I worked with last week. I was ruh-dic-U-lussssss: anxious, weepy, depressed, sleepless, eatless, productive-less. I was on the threshold of myself. Jimmying the window, sweating, panting, gasping, cussing in front of my kid. Who-I-am taunted me through the window: all of my flaws glaring, glinting in the light. And then, all of a sudden, I’m inside. Just like that. And all of my flaws are still here, but I don’t mind. Because the thing that separated me from myself was insecurity and the work makes me forget what I hate and focus on what I love (or else, why would I be working so hard? And for what?). And after all that work, it’s so nice to be home. I hope I don’t lock myself out again.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. [T.S. Eliot]

Since I Gave Up Hope, I Feel Much Better

© 2010 David Parker

I started this blog because I got tired of waking up at 2am with the Things-I-Haven’t-Done stuck in my throat. I’ve always been an ideas person. You know, I can think of great things, but I lack the administrative assistance, domestic help, and general drive that are required to actually do great things. Usually, this is when I totally shut down and admit defeat. But not this week.

This week, I gave up on hoping for what I’m not and I picked up the phone. I just started calling people: colleagues, successful writer-friends, friends who are good at life (you know who you are), people who pay people to make art, heads of creative writing departments, someone from the Provost’s office at Auburn University, and a some kind folks in the English Department. And nearly everyone spoke to me. At great length. About  how smart I am and how we can make something together.

Richard Goodman, whom I wrote about here in my old blog, was very kind and very dear when I rung him up at 9am this morning to talk about how the hell am I going to salvage what I thought I would do with my life and I just want to do what I love to do. Within ten minutes of speaking to him, my inbox dinged with news of a low-residency writing program and how I might be able to drop in for a workshop or two in November. I’ll be there. Why? Because when Richard talks about writing, he uses words like discipline and accountability, and you can’t do anything that entails any degree of those words without a community of people working together to accomplish the same goal.  I hung up with Richard and I called Emma Bolden, who is so brilliantly brilliant, it’s positively stunning. And she hooked me up with Ross White who’s doing something with other writers who are writing everyday. The Grind, he calls it. I’ve got a phone date with him tomorrow.

Now for the so-what. Usually, when I get into a funk like this, I do nothing. I wallow for so long that I actually begin to enjoy wallowing. Then I just pre-occupy myself with something else until I remember that I should be wallowing. But this time, I made up my mind that I am nobody. I am nobody. And I started calling every somebody I knew. And stuff started happening. It’s taken me nearly 28 years to learn that in order for Things to happen, you have to do something. And the first something is generally humiliating. It could be something like, I don’t know, a BLOG where you write what you think everyday as though it matters. Next thing you know, you’re writing down things from dinner* to remember to write about because you have this ridiculous goal to say something everyday.

*Things I wrote down at dinner:

  1. The entire time that our waitress talked to us (which was a while because she’s one of those thespian waitresses with dramatically arching eye brows and a kind of “this is my voice being a voice” fakish voices), she was holding four plates, a bucket, a bottle, and a wine glass in one arm and managed to jot down our order with the other.
  2. David told me a story about one of his friends whose house was robbed. They got away with a pistol and a T.V. dinner.
  3. There was a table of girls next to us and all of their laps were lighting up.