california 1,099 days in

Cyclops on my back porch

Cyclops on my back porch

Three years ago today, the occupants of the Wee, Small House woke up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in a hotel whose A/C was broken (highs around 100 all that week), packed our bags, and went downstairs into a drippy, humid, steam-on-my-glasses morning, where, outside the hotel, a few dear friends had gathered — some to say a last goodbye, and one to drive us to the airport. Several hours later we landed and began the California chapter of our lives. Here’s what I can say so far:

  • Weather: better. Um, understatement of the century.
  • Healthcare: better. We had a wonderful pediatrician in St. Paul, but overall there is more advanced medical knowledge here, and more experts-per-capita. Thank you, Stanford University.
  • Schools: worse. This is one of my biggest regrets of the move. My kids attend what are supposed to be some of the best schools in California, and they don’t hold a candle to the schools we left in terms of curriculum, differentiation, facilities, extra-curriculars, etc.
  • Real-estate: Don’t get me started. Let me just say that we were amazingly lucky to have relocation assistance and to have bought just before another uptrend in prices.
  • View from my kitchen window: worse. Then: woods, the bird theaters (as Sister still says for bird feeders), a beautiful old cedar tree. Now: the loading dock of the Asian grocery store, a strangely out of context center hall Colonial, a blue duplex that gets frequent visits from the police.
  • Traffic and parking: (*crumples in defeat)
  • Literary and arts scene: better. The Twin Cities had a good literary and arts scene, too, but the scene here feels more democratic and ubiquitous.
  • The City: (*swoons and holds up hands in adoration)
  • Produce: So much better, so much cheaper. The only cheaper thing in California. Tender mercies.
  • Streetscapes: different. In the Midwest, you tend to have your “nice neighborhoods” and your “not-so-nice neighborhoods.” In the nice neighborhoods, all the houses are nice, tidy, and well-tended. In the not-so-nice neighborhoods, not so much. In California you have wild mixes: a multi-million dollar, ultra modern, new home right next to a 1920s cottage with no central heating that looks like it’s about to fall in on itself.
  • Public transit: so much better.
  • Parenting culture: Oh, help. The parenting trends we’ve seen all over (achievement culture, wanting to make everything special for children, helicoptering, etc.) are at a fever pitch here. I have a long story about being assigned (I emphasize assigned) to make clam chowder for 60 and deliver it to school on the day after Second Son came home from major surgery, and about what happened when I said I was sorry, I couldn’t do it. I have another story about a friend who was assigned to make fruit tartlets for 8th grade graduation, “must match attached picture, no canned fruit.” Have I mentioned the weekly teacher appreciation brunch? Friends, I can’t compete and don’t want to. I’ve also noticed that many parents speak of their children in the collective here: We are doing gymnastics. We have Mandarin class today. Somebody please pass the Midwest in 1978.
  • (I hasten to add that of course not all parents here buy in to this culture, but enough do to make me feel like I need to run and hide. Have I mentioned that when we first moved here I was known as The One Who Lets Her Kids Walk Alone To School? 1.5 blocks, people, 1.5 blocks)
  • Access to brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews and cousins: BETTER <3 I feel so lucky to live near my brother and his family, and not super-near but near-enough to my uncle and his family.
  • Flora: All I can say is: Abundance of pants on steroids (oops – typo – I meant pLants, but there are pants on steroids here too). When we first moved here, I actually felt a little freaked out by how big and ubiquitous plants and trees are (First text back to Saint Paul: “freakishly large geraniums”). I’m now getting used to it, and I’ve particularly fallen in love with succulents, which look like little (and not so little) aliens on the planet, exactly mirroring what I feel is the shape of my soul.
  • Freedom to be you and me: better. You can pretty much be/do/look like/try anything and everything in California and no one will bat an eye. There is a real freedom here to be who you are, to fly your freak flag.
  • Sleeping weather: better. Even on the hottest days (which rarely reach the 90s, and which typically happen in October) the nights are always cool. Thank you, cold and indifferent ocean known as the Pacific. Speaking of which:
  • Access to big water: better. When we lived in Minnesota I’d sometimes become despondent. I felt trapped and landlocked. Husband would ask what was wrong, and I’d say: I need some water. BIG water. Although MN does have Lake Superior, it’s quite a drive away from where we lived. Here we can be at the ocean in about 35 minutes. Having been formed by the sands and horizons of the Great Lakes, I need that vast expanse of big water. Thank you again, Pacific Ocean.
  • Access to psychics and palm readers: better ;)
  • Joint pain: better. No storms rolling through, no 6 months of cold weather, no basement stairs. My arthritis is easier to manage here.
  • Access to my mother: worse :(.
  • Thing I miss the most: my dear Saint Paul friends (*heart literally skips a beat, then aches).
  • Have I mentioned my washer and dryer are in the garage? (still not quite used to that)

Sometimes I feel like my real life is still happening in St. Paul. That this is just a long, strange trip. Mostly I’m grateful for the way life can surprise and fill you full of goodness you never expected. I’ve made a few friends here, one of which in particular feels like a true soul mate, a sister ship on this voyage of life. Peaches grow in my front yard. My 3yo nephew loves to vacuum my couch, and lays his head down on my shoulder when he’s tired. My husband is employed, my kids are healthy, there is a roof over our heads and (at least for now) water comes out of our faucets when we turn them on. Who could ask for more?

friday roundup: opposites, diction, and “Then you can return”



Reader, the weeks fly by. Since the last roundup (or lack thereof) there has been one batch of houseguests, one trip to North Beach / Chinatown, one almost-finished book review, one pool closure (one distressing moment of realizing how disappointed I was about the pool closure — swim practice = time to read), one birthday party hosted, two rounds of laser tag, one pool reopening, one-half of a cousin sleepover in the tent in the back yard, two out of three cousins deciding they’d rather sleep in their own beds, untold numbers of arguments settled, one trip to Costco (and I am still alive), one electrical problem in the Wee, Small House, many meals, two trips to the library, many loads of laundry, many conscious avertings of eyes from my To Do list. There have been some narrow rooms of time for poetry — quite narrow, but quiet and with a lamp softly lit. I’ll take it. Now on to the roundup:

opposites Having recently spent most of my creative time revising my manuscript, and having finished revising it (at least for now), I’ve found myself in a lull of creative weariness and lack of focus. The general feeling is What can I possibly work on now? And also I am tired. The answer yet unknown, I’ve fallen back onto tricks that keep the juices flowing without having to think too hard. Yes, I’ve been writing opposite poems.

The trick is thus: Find a poem (I prefer short-ish ones, being tired and the one who others look to for their meals) by another poet, and then write its opposite. You don’t have to think about what to write — their language is your map. An example:

A line from Rick Barot’s poem “Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It”: “the sky has all these beginnings.”

The opposite line: “The earth has all these endings”

You get the idea. When you are stuck or tired or don’t know what to write about, I recommend trying an opposite poem or two. Already I have seen hints of new themes and obsessions come out in my drafts. Thank you, opposite poems, for doing my work for me.

diction n. Choice of words to express ideas; the use of language with regard to clearness, accuracy, variety, etc.; mode of expression; as poetic diction

A recent Writer’s Chronicle contains an article on diction by Tony Hoagland. Hoagland points out that, because it’s a mishmash of many other languages, English is a rich linguistic landscape: “We American poets are millionaires… we can write checks with our mouths all day.”

He goes on to talk about diction as a focusing device — as a way of directing your reader’s attention. He says:

“To use any interesting word is not just to pinpoint one meaning, but also to invoke a whole resonating web of vocabularies, contexts, and ideas… . (D)iction is very much an instrument of associative imagination, and one of the many modes of intellect which collaborates in the making of the poem.”

Diction — the choice of a particular word over another — as a means of focusing your reader can

“operate on both conceptual and emotive levels.”

This is why writers lie awake at night wondering what they will do in the Grim Times when it becomes necessary to leave on foot in search of water and safety, and there is no way, really, to bring along the Enormous Dictionary Which Should’ve Come with an Altar Boy, the Fairly Large Thesaurus, and the Exhaustive Dictionary of Etymology. This is why every word choice matters. Choose on.

“Then you can return” On one of the trips to the library this week, I was looking for anything by Lynn Emanuel. Nada, Reader, nada. But I did find an anthology called Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems in which she recommends a poem. I did not fall in love with that poem, but another: “Water Lilies” by Sara Teasdale. Here it is:


Water Lilies by Sara Teasdale

If you have forgotten water lilies floating
On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
Then you can return and not be afraid.

But if you remember, then turn away forever
to the plains and prairies where pools are far apart.
Then you will come at dusk on the closing water lilies,
an the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.


(Excuse me while I pull the dagger from my heart).

So much to love here, but there are two things I love most: One is that the poem delays the “then” clause for a few lines. We are left to wonder what the resolution of that “If you have forgotten” is for most of a stanza. Tension, emotion building — the syntax does it. The other is that this poem turns our expectations upside down. There are one zillion poems that remember home or another important place. Often remembering a place is an invitation to return there (literally or figuratively). But this poem says, “if you remember, then turn away forever.” Then the closing water lilies, then the shadow falling, the dagger in your heart.

(I also think this poem would be a good poem for which to write the opposite).

And now. It is still summer vacation. The pool is open. The children are hungry. The poet must leave her desk. Happy weekend, Reader.

friday in lieu of a roundup: keep playing edition

Happy Friday, Reader. There is just one thing I read this week that I feel must tell everyone, especially women — who tend to be the caregivers of the world — but men, too, and well, yes, everyone. It is short. It is from M.F.K. Fisher’s book Last House. It is impossible to find on the Interwebs. It is pictured below. I hope you can read it. And I hope if you like it you will seek out this book, which is full of wonderful writing, wisdom, and wit. For reference purposes, Rex is M.F.K. Fisher’s father, and Edith is her mother. I give you “Unsuspected”:



wordless wednesday with words: grocery list with wee, small fantasy. and words.

Reader. Hello.

Here is the photo I would’ve posted if I had done a wordless wednesday post:

highlighted item added for laugh-value

highlighted item added for laugh-value

But today is a word-full wednesday, and this is just to say I am still here. And…


This is just to say

I have revised
the poems
that were in
my manuscript

to the exclusion
of all else –
laundry, blogs,
even plums

Forgive me
they were waiting
so needful
and so close


This morning I printed the poor darling out for the one zillionth time, binder-clipped it, and handed it to Husband who said, Why do you look like you’re going to puke?

All I could say was: #joyofpoetry. Le sigh.

It is now in the most send-out-able form it’s been in to date. I know the work of placing it will be long and hard, and that I’m likely not entirely done with revisions. But I stake a claim here, on this day: send-out-able.


And this is also just to say, here is why we keep wordbanks [or lexicon, or word hoards, or word caches, or word lists, or whatever you want to call them]: because when we are revising our [fill in the blank: poems, series of poems, new poems, old poems, not-sure-they're-poems, manuscript of poems] and we interesting word for [choose one: sky, gate, tea kettle, black bird, the greying at your lover's temples], we pull out our word banks [or lexicon, or word hoards, or word caches, or word lists, or whatever you want to call them] and find words like: blindfold, shadowless, wheezing, sovereign, cinderthick.


And this is also just to say, here is why we keep on reading poetry no matter what else is going on: Because of poems like the ones in the current issue of One. Go read them. You will not be sorry.


friday roundup: on metaphor, reverse dictionary, and “everything of the stillness”


It was fun for a while…

Friday and I’m completely out of my rhythm. Something about summer vacation. I’ve decided I’m in the Secretary of State chapter of motherhood. In which I am primarily engaged in settling disputes amongst and between warring nations. Bringing to bear the power of diplomatic language. Suggesting compromise. Compromise from the Latin com- “with, together” + promise “‘The ground sense is “declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done.’” (etymonline). Alas.

Since the last roundup, there has been one heated debate over whether or not North Korea could ever host the Olympics (you can’t make this stuff up); one badminton set purchased and discovered to be too big for the Wee, Small Yard; one former midwesterner who never would’ve imagined a badminton set too big for a yard or a yard too small for badminton; four swim practices; one collection of poems read during swim practices; three trips to the library; one door closed to the general din in the back of the house (this just now occurring); one trip to the beach; two waves catching one 8yo by surprise; one very sad and sandy 8yo; one hasty departure; and one trip back over the mountains at rush hour. Alas. Onward:

on metaphor  I have not done a lot of reading this week, but when I’ve had a few minutes I’ve been reading Stephen Dobyns craft essay “Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory” (from this book). Dobyns puts all figurative language in the metaphor bucket — simile, allegory, analogy too — and while I would like to split hairs on this point, his thoughts are equally applicable to all forms of figurative language.

He argues that if a poem is meant to recreate an experience for the reader, the figurative language of the poem must serve to 1. heighten emotion and 2. involve the reader more deeply in the poem. This is accomplished when the figurative language both provides an easily discoverable context and introduces mystery.

He uses this example from W.S. Merwin’s Asian Figures:

like a house where the witch
has just stopped dancing.”

We know what quiet means. We have to think a little bit about the particular quality of quiet after “the witch has just stopped dancing.” This touch of mystery involves both sides of our brain, and increases our investment, as reader, in the poem.

There is more to read and learn about metaphor (and many other craft topics) in Dobyns’ book Best Words, Best Order which probably every other poet in the world has already read, but not me.

reverse dictionary  Sometimes it is a small thing, a slender slice of time, just a few lines jotted down, that convinces us we are living the writing life. When time is scarce for my usual writing practice, I try to do very small things that don’t take much time. One thing I do is choose a few words and write a “reverse dictionary” for those words (which is also good practice in creating metaphors). Examples:

  • The wandering of a throat. How breath becomes enemy. (thirst)
  • Meaning ‘from the very beginning.’ Meaning ‘there was a spectacular fire and I melted but survived.’ (mineral)
  • Somehow meaning ‘two.’ Somehow meaning ‘pedal faster, let me steer, look at the same view I’m looking at.’ (tandem)

If you need a 30 second to 3 minute writing exercise, I recommend it.

“everything of the stillness”  The collection of poems I read this week at swim practice was The Darker Fall by Rick Barot. Even sitting in the bleachers with my sun hat on, even with the background noise and the wind, the coaches hollering “Onnnnes, ready go! Twooooos, ready go! Threeeees, ready go!” I was broken open by so many of these poems. A particular favorite is the second part of the poem “Blue Hours” which I cannot find online but share with you here:


from “Blue Hours” by Rick Barot

II. Exile

All day I have made words
which fix my life
to the rhythm of
this day. I know
this hour’s satisfactions:

tea coloring the water
in a cup, and birds, kindled,
as if of one mind,
shuddering out of the trees,
then gone. The sun

falls below the familiar
line of roofs, and I
wait for someone who knows
I wait. Yet why
the old terror, the one

Seferis knew, sickened
with sensibility
as he stood on the ship
and watched the light
die over Sounion,

the cliffs still gold
while the hills turned blue?
He discovered himself
in the moment, and heard
the voices of others,

distant but calling.
Here, houselights blink on,
the breeze empties
of warmth. And more often
I catch myself

in these moments
when the light is scarcely
alive above the roofs
and I lean on the doorframe,
remember the small

fires of everything gone.
I know longer know who
I’m waiting for. I ask
everything of the stillness,
I wait for everyone.


I am in awe of the figurative language of this poem, as well as with the linebreaks, which often serve to suspend meaning, and/or to let it slip a bit as the poem continues.

And now… the blue hour of dawn is long gone here and I must away. I wish you happy Friday and a wonderful weekend. Thanks for reading.

balance the day

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

A book I return to again and again is How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. It was published during wartime (1942) ostensibly as a guide to cooking on a shoestring when ingredients, fuel, and time were scarce (time because so many women were entering the workforce **UPDATED to say: a faithful friend and reader points out that it was really only more white women who were entering the workforce — that women of color had always worked. And she is right!). I read it less as a guide to cooking and more as a spiritual tome. It both reinforces my sense that the wolf is ever at the door, pacing and snuffling, and somehow comforts me about it. For one thing, M.F.K. writes with a certain authority, and is all about common sense. Like me, she is a fan of double and freeze — (although I’m not sure there was such a thing as a chest freezer back then?? but it appears she put her icebox to good use). She is willing to stretch what she has and scrape together a meal. Amen (insert solemn bow here). This is why I’m inclined to follow her advice to “balance the day.” M.F.K. points out that everyone from slick magazines to scientists to the federal government have, for ages, been suggesting we serve balanced meals. Balanced as in the four food groups (if you, like me, were born a while ago), or as in the proper selections from the food pyramid (if you were born later), or… I don’t know what rubric there is now because, frankly, I have given up. M.F.K. says “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” She says,

“Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.”

Reader, she had me at “toast.” She says,

“For lunch make an enormous salad… or a heartening and ample soup… . That is all you need, if there is enough of it.”

She goes on to make similar suggestions for simple dinners (involving protein and a starch), and says:

“Try it. It’s easy, and simple, and fun, and — perhaps most important — people like it.”

Whether people like it is actually not the most important thing to my mind. The “easy” and “simple” parts are. <mothering interlude: Sister just walked by, noticed the book on my desk and said, “What!? She knows how to cook a wolf?” Second Son replies, “Not literally, Sister, metaPHORically.”</mothering interlude>. Which leads me to my point: I read the “balance the day” chapter (which is actually titled “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock”) both literally and metaphorically. This summer, I’m trying hard to balance the day, even though balance has never been a natural state for me. I think we should all get to sit down to an enormous plate of toast dripping with butter and honey — we should all get to relax and do something just because we want to every day. Sometimes I have about 5 minutes for that, but I’ve been trying to take those 5 minutes and make something of them. I’m also making sure to find that all important time for writing and other creative pursuits. Yes, this often means trading sleep for art, but I’m willing to do it, and happier and more balanced if I do. However you balance your days, I wish you luck. Remember, the M.F.K. model does  not require that each moment be balanced, or even each hour. I am often inclined to stretch her advice and attempt to balance the week. Sit down to your plate of toast sometime. Serve dinner on a shoestring. And consider these words from M.F.K. Fisher, with which I will close:

“[An unnecessary peptic goad, but a very nice one now and then, is a good soft stinky cheese, a Camembert or Liederkranz, with what is left of the bread, the wine, the hunger.]“


friday roundup: nash equilibrium edition

"The Pretty Housewife" by Amedeo Modigliani

“The Pretty Housewife” by Amedeo Modigliani

Friday again? What have I done all week? Oh yeah — there was the abandoned nestling (a sparrow, I think) that we nursed and delivered to wildlife rescue. There were anywhere from 3 to 5 kids in the house depending on the day and time. Many meals — mostly the scraped together kind, but one decent dinner. Swim practice. Doctor’s appointments. Laundry in there somewhere. A few early mornings at my desk revising, revising, and revising. Not as much reading as I’d like, not as much poetry time as I’d like, but there you go. Here is my humble offering for the week:

poetry and the Nash Equilibrium  Well, I never thought my economics background would come in handy in my poetry life, but just this week it did. The Nash Equilibrium is a concept from economics (specifically game theory) wherein people reach the best decision they can, taking into account other people’s preferences. In a Nash Equilibrium, it’s possible (maybe even probable) that no one ends up with their first choice, but overall utility is higher than it would be if people were not taking into account other people’s preferences. (I think this is right. It has been decades since Economics and I were in the same room together). The theory won John Forbes Nash, Jr. the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. Its real-life  implementation won Anne Sexton the Pulitzer in 1967.

Let me explain. Well, no, I’ll just let this article explain. But the bottom line is that Anne Sexton was nobody’s first choice for the Pulitzer in 1967. The jurors couldn’t come to agreement. Eventually, they settled on Anne.

What’s fascinating about this to me is that, as a mere earthling, I always assume that whoever gets the Pulitzer (or any other prize for that matter) was everyone’s first choice — that their work stood head and shoulders over everyone else’s, even the rock stars they were up against. This story tells us that, no — sometimes the jury can’t agree, sometimes they settle on nobody’s first choice, but a choice they can begrudgingly agree on. Even in poetry, even in the Pulitzer. Something to chew on.

the work of play  Summer vacation ain’t what it used to be. At least, here in the P-town it’s not. Remember going outside after breakfast, finding a pack of kids to run around with, going home for lunch, reuniting with the pack, and then going home for dinner (then reuniting with the pack until the streetlights came on or your dad’s voice drifted through the neighborhood dusk, calling you home)?

I’m sure I’m romanticizing this. But I’ve watched my kids — especially the eldest — try to find friends to hang out with this summer, and it’s rare that anyone is available. They are at this camp or that camp or this class or that class. I’m not against camps and classes as a rule, but I’m definitely for time to just be — to play (or “hang out” when they get older), to get bored, to lose oneself in the shade of a tree or the pages of a book.

Madeline Levine is a child psychologist and researcher who argues for the importance of play (amongst other things). Here’s a brief article on why it’s important. Maybe this has nothing to do with poetry, but I can’t imagine how I’d have become a poet if I hadn’t had hours upon hours to be in the world, and in my head, on my own terms. And we all know that play is a crucial ingredient of art.

between the chopping board and the stove  I haven’t read much this week, and what I’ve read is Larry Levis’s Elegy, which is a-MAZ-ing, but does not lend itself to sharing poems in a blog post. But sometimes just the right poem finds us even when we are not reading much, or reading very long poems that can’t be shared in a blog post. This happened yesterday when I was reading through the current issue of flycatcher, and came across Francesca Bell’s poem “Housewife’s Meditation.” This poem saved my life yesterday. That is all. Go read it here.

And while we’re on housewife poems and Anne Sexton, here is that glam lady-poet’s contribution to the subgenre:



Some women marry houses.
It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That’s the main thing.


And now for me it’s back to the work that is always undoing. Happy Friday, and thanks for reading.

friday roundup on saturday: two out of three ain’t bad edition

if you don't know what this has to do with this post, see below.

If you don’t know what this has to do with this post, see below.

Once upon a time, a Very Famous Writer (I believe it was William Stafford, but I’m not sure), when asked how to cope with writer’s block, said: “Lower your standards.” This is basically how I’ve coped with motherhood as well, and I was reminded of that this week, which was the first week of summer vacation. Two out of three get to bed on time? Not bad. Two out of three ate breakfast? Okay, I can live with that. Two out of three put on sunscreen? Well, at some point they must experience the results of their own decisions. In that spirit, I am here to share two items (rather than the usual three) for this week’s roundup, which is also a day late. See how I lower. Onward:

tell it slant  I read a really good article by Camille Dungy about how to treat the (often brutal) truth in poetry. Some of her advice is akin to the concept of “the bay leaf” which I wrote about here. Dungy notes that even the construction of a poem (the form, the “circuits” it makes) can help deliver the truth on the slant. But, she warns:

“What I am arguing for is a degree of obliqueness sufficient to allow the mind to rest on something else, something unexpected. To be oblique is not the same as to be opaque. Obliqueness refers to angles and slopes, to geometry that is not parallel.”

Read the whole article here.

underlying conditions  It’s hard to write about the body. In my opinion. It’s hard to write about chronic illness in ways that are accessible to those who have not experienced it. But this week at Dialogist, Kelly Davio has done it beautifully. Here are three of Davio’s poems that treat the subject of chronic illness. They took the top of my head off #poetry. And now, I will leave you with this classic anthem of unrequited love, because two out of three ain’t bad.