desire plays in wakes
breaking. sun stains my skin
vast is the sea
*I wrote this after meditating on a haiku by Sonia Sanchez from her book Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums.
desire plays in wakes
breaking. sun stains my skin
vast is the sea
*I wrote this after meditating on a haiku by Sonia Sanchez from her book Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums.
Today, Kane, a fiction writer friend of mine asked, “Have you found a routine in rainbowland?”
India, more specifically Mumbai, has consumed my thoughts and snuck into every paragraph of work I’ve churned out in the past two weeks since moving here. This is beautiful and good; but you see, I’m working on my masters creative thesis which is a collection of personal essays centered on my life and family in California–not my first two weeks in a new country. Besides, I am not egocentric enough to think that I can write with authority on a city which I have only spent two weeks. It is overwhelming how much I have to learn.
Here is what I have found to do today: Write about the things I’ve brought with me to this new space and (spoiler alert!) the process of beginning a writing routine in Mumbai–a city with more brilliant colors in daily attire then I thought possible, and I haven’t even made it to the textile districts.
At the bottom of this post you will find the first few paragraphs of the piece I’m working on–the working title is: On My Desk In Mumbai.
If you would like to join me and write your own, here is the exercise paraphrased and directly quoted from Bret Lott’s flash nonfiction exercise included in Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, between his essay Writing in Place on craft and his personal essay On My Desk.
On My Desk In Mumbai
(A work in progress, please be kind)
For two-week I’ve sat every morning at this new-to-me desk to write—to write is the goal. The first few days had me getting up every few moments to busy my hands: cooking, cleaning, unpacking, arranging furniture-the-refrigerator, I even attempted meditation clutching wooden beads with my atheist hands five minuets at a time. It is morning and I can hear the first call to prayer that sounds like a fire siren before long hymns projected over a loud-speaker. I must go out side to investigate the new sound and see what there is to see.
After the arranging days, came the days of interneting. Netflix and Pandora—go to’s for my procrastinating brain–are not offered in this part of the world. A blessing. Back to work, back to the desk.
On my desk, I set the totems brought to make this new space home. I pick up and move three objects to sit in the center. I ask the three to act the part of muse while pushing back the all-consuming stimulus just outside my window. There are rickshaws being washed in the street in front of my building and you expect me to write?
First, I examine the piece of polished flat metal, not more than an inch-by-inch square. The metal has an abstract flower etched into one side and the words wish it. dream it. do it. on the other.
When I first received the metal square, more than ten years ago, I thought the words etched on it cliché, empty. The polished surface felt good to the touch, I liked holding it and feeling it cold then hot against my thumb, so I kept it to remind myself of the dear friend who gave it to me. The words still sound cliché when I read them aloud, but anything but empty. I understand their meaning and perhaps also that friend who gave it to me better now. At that point in my life I had yet to take any major risk.
(to be continued…)
Below you will find a blog post by a good friend of mine, writer Kat Fitzpatrick, regarding her Stories of Vietnam project. I hope you will be inspired (as I am) to continue to read about her adventure at Stories of Vietnam and consider contributing to her IndieGoGo trip fund here.
Thank you and happy reading!
Vietnam is really far away.
I speak in both terms of distance and in terms of time. The small country is a half a world away, while the Vietnam Era, an eleven-year period of intense conflict, is almost a half a century old.
In some ways, it would make sense to just forget about it all, the country, the conflict, the lingering questions.
But that would be wrong.
Vietnam is not just a place, not just a time, not “just” a war, but a deep excoriation on the American consciousness. This is not the main reason I am interested in Vietnam, but it is the reason I cannot let it go. It’s not that I—or any single person—can bring about magical answers regarding the era. However, I think that ignoring the lingering questions invites no small peril.
Five reasons why I care about Vietnam:
I was there. I turned eight years old the year we moved to Saigon and we evacuated before I turned nine. I don’t have a great many memories, but those I do possess echo ever so persistently.
My father rescued people. My father saw to it that “his people” and their families got safely out of the country. Over 1000 people had a chance at a new life because of him. (Though one should never forget that they lost their country.)
My mom wrote amazing letters. My mother’s letters to her parents during that time are a wealth of information, insight and a dark sort of amusement. Imagine laments about the “laundry situation” tucked in between allusions to “avoiding burning monks in the streets” and to incoming artillery.
Our being there is a hard fact to swallow. In all my years of growing up, my siblings and I would touch occasionally on the fact that we had lived in Vietnam. The conversations seemed to go something like this: “We lived in Vietnam.” “We lived in Vietnam?” “Yeah, we lived in Vietnam.” “Huh.” Silence.
I am writing about it. This may seem to be a self-serving reason, but I did not set out to write about Vietnam. The “call” to do so came in the form of an overwhelming wave of unanticipated emotion which hit me when a friend suggested that I do write about it. So I got a notebook and began. That was nearly three years ago—and despite many reasons not to (time, money, raw emotions)—I am still writing about it.
Three reasons why you should care about Vietnam, too.
Vietnam is a huge part of America’s history. There is no question that the Vietnam War is an unsutured wound. It was a major turning point in the way America sees itself. What that means is still coming to light and it is a question that affects all of us.
Vietnam quite likely holds a significant role in the world’s future, just as Germany and Japan hold significant economic and political power in the world three-quarters of a century after the end of WWII. Vietnam has become a top travel destination and as it moves toward the 50th anniversary of its independence (yes, when we left, the winning side celebrated its new-found independence), its esteem and energy will continue to rise.
Vietnam is beautiful. Or so I’ve been told. I will find out (again) soon.
Oh, and the Vietnamese love us. Again, mere rumor at this point, but I will definitely be keeping you posted. (Oddly enough, they love us though we were their most recent enemy. They still do not like the French, however.)
Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.“ The Vietnam Era and the land of Vietnam are a time and place where America stumbled; perhaps there is yet the possibility for us to uncover, if not treasure, then some peace, reconciliation and connection.
Roman gets my phone number off an application for employment at the West Portal Bookshop in San Francisco. I imagine him taking my application off the stack and going to stand outside in the grey with his ankle showing tight black pants, jacket and long black hair.
“Hi. No. I’m not calling about the job.” Roman is, tall, olive skinned, he rocks back and forth when he stands with his hands in his pockets. “Would you like to go for coffee?” he asks.
I tell him, I’ll meet him at eight.
The Blue Danube Café is in the Inner Richmond District, between the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park. Inside there are little twinkle lights and small walkways; we join the lines of people waiting to order and pick up.
Roman is attractive and repulsive; I see vulnerability in his weighted shoulders: he smells familiar. Like cigarettes.
“Everyone who applies to the bookshop writes,” Roman says. “What do you write?”
Can I assert I write anything?
There are two eras in my life: BE, before emphysema and AD, after death. My father died of emphysema two years ago, after his diagnosis before his death, I shared only a few small things I wrote with him. Every day of my life, since I can remember, I have written fragments of poems, stories and ideas. In AD, my poems and prose are meditations on breathe.
Besides, I have never been published and isn’t that really the question?
I do not say any of this to Roman, instead I tell him I write stories about my life and take care not to mention my father’s passing, particularly the bit about emphysema to my smoking companion. I refer to my dad in the present tense; I do not trust people I do not know with privileged knowledge. At twenty-two years old, people I meet do not expect me to have experienced the loss of a parent. Besides, what do you do with that kind of information? Sorry your dad’s dead? People become weirdly condoling or they shrug off the information like it is not a big deal and I haven’t decided yet which response I disdain more.
Roman listens as I ramble on about my stories. He holds his paper cup of spiced hot chocolate and tells me to look up Joan Didion. “You’ll like her, she writes like that.”
“Like what? Rambling narcissism?” There is a hole in the left leg of my jeans and I pull on a thread, subsequently widening it.
He tells me to just read her work and I’ll get it.
I ask what he writes and he says poetry; so we walk up Clement Street to Green Apple Books. Entering the bookshop, we pass a used book on Salvador Dali, my father’s favorite painter, opened to an image of Jesus Christ suspended on a cross made of blocks, my father’s favorite Dali. We walk up the staircase and resist the temptation to leaf through sections labeled psychology, sociology, philosophy—books packed into floor to ceiling bookcases and overflowing into piles on the hardwood floor. The smell of book musk is as lovely as childhood, which is to say it holds a bittersweet nostalgia for my father’s house—that reeked of old books and cigarettes.
With the great wall of poetry in front of us, Roman hands me Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. He watches me page through it. I recall my father’s story of dropping acid and listening to Bob Dylan for the first time, when he was the age I am now. My dad told me it was like the world caved in. So I read Pessoa’s July sixteenth, 1930 entry: “You can feel life like a sickness in the pit of the stomach, the existence of your own soul like a muscular cramp.” And inside Pessoa’s words, the world is caving in.
Roman leans towards me to kiss; I move to bar his advance.
I smile and feel friction in my face and gut.
*Books and Cigarettes was first published in the Pink Panther Magazine, Issue 21.
In her essay titled In Bed, Joan Didion presents her subject – the evolution of her relationship to suffering consistent, frequent, and severe migraines -in the fifth sentence of the first paragraph by means of precise, implicative diction and phrasing. The fifth sentence is as follows:
“When I was 15, 16, even 25, I used to think that I could rid myself of this error by simply denying it, character over chemistry”(168).
The phrase that indicates an evolution in thought is, “I used to think.” The term “error,” phrases “simply denying it” and “character over chemistry” imply an internal struggle; the catalyst perpetuating her evolution in thought.
The reader is first made privy to the eventual change in Didion’s relationship to her ailment through the phrase “I used to think,” expertly foreshadowing the journey to come. Why does this clue the reader in? The coupling of terms used and to, in the past tense, is defined by New Oxford American Dictionary as:
“Describing an action or state of affairs that was done repeatedly or existed for a period in the past: this road used to be a dirt track | I used to give him lifts home.”
As a result, this exacting instance of “used to” implies the thoughts and attitudes expressed directly following are in the past. They are a product of thoughts she no longer has in relationship with her ailment. Consequently, the subject is introduced.
In Didion’s pivotal fifth sentence, the term error is used for the second time interchangeably with the term migraine. Error is defined as: “a mistake,” New Oxford American Dictionary gives the example: “The state or condition of being wrong in conduct or judgment: the crash was caused by human error.” The repeated use of the term error, in place of migraine, implies a migraine is the manifestation of a mistake in Didion’s character or rather a migraine is an error in and of itself. Utilizing error in this way, deepens of the reader’s understanding of Didion’s younger self’s judgment against her own condition. Secondarily, it serves to invest the reader in Didion’s journey.
The idiom that clues the reader in on the tone of the essay subject, is “simply denying it.” First, breaking down the idiom into singular terms, the word simply is defined as: “straightforward or plain manner.” Simply is further defined as “easy” or “merely” with the given example, “just: simply complete the application form.” Interestingly, the term simply also has the implication of “absolutely; completely (used for emphasis), it makes Terry simply furious.” Simply turns out to be not such a simple word. Not only should the act of denying the migraine be easy, it should be easily eradicated, entirely.
Next up in the idiom is term “deny,” again defined by New Oxford American Dictionary as:
“(a)Refuse to admit the truth or existence of (something): they deny any responsibility for the tragedy (b) refuse to acknowledge or recognize; disown : Peter repeatedly denied Jesus.”
Didion’s use of the term deny therefore clues the reader into the absurdity of the assertion. Didion’s younger self is admonishing herself for not being able to refuse to admit the migraine is real, therefore revealing the central friction of the essay: acute contradiction, the catalyst for Didion’s journey. “Simply deny it” has a mocking tone, begging a fight with anyone who would claim a migraine is the product of the imagination, particularly Didion’s younger self.
Didion ends the sentence on an exceptional clause, “character over chemistry.” She sets up an unrealistic dichotomy; how can character be over chemistry? Yet, this phrase has the ring of a common wisdom cliché. The narrator is self-mocking in her purposed opposition of her own mental capacity over her biological reality. New Oxford American Dictionary defines character as:
“The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual: strength and originality in a person’s nature: she had character as well as beauty.”
Character is further defined as: “a person’s good reputation: to what do I owe this attack on my character?” Ultimately, character refers to our social identity whereas chemistry is defined as:
“…the branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances.”
Didion’s use of the term chemistry foreshadows her assertions of scientific evidence for the validity of migraines further in the essay. She set her younger self’s ideas around character against her older self’s understanding of chemistry. Didion uses the term over to set the two in opposition. Over is defined as:
“(a) At the other side of; beyond : over the hill is a small village.(b) By means of; by the medium of : over the loudspeaker. (c) Higher in grade or rank than : over him is the financial director.”
The last clause “character of chemistry” employs a mocking tone, calling into question the idea of utilizing a socially constructed identity over one’s scientifically measureable biology.
Didion masterfully crafted an entire essay around the subject of her evolving relationship to the suffering of migraines. She introduces her ailment in the first four sentences and then plunges into the heart of the subject in the fifth sentence. Didion’s precise diction and phrasing not only intrigue the reader, but leave no doubt to the tone and direction of the essay.
Didion, Joan. “In Bed.” The White Album. New York: Noonday,
Stevenson, Angus, and Christine A. Lindberg. New Oxford American
Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
All definitions included are from this source.
“THE world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings. ”
Robert Louis Stevenson
David Shields’ book, The Thing about Life is that One Day You Will Be Dead, bridges a harmony between intense academic structure and surprising narrative. Biological life cycle, literature, and historical fact act as massive levies shaping the story of a father and son. Sheild’s personal narrative is composed of ungulating prose, refreshingly feminine in their tenderness. He has the ability to expose deep personal vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities which are mostly associated with being a man. Shield’s ego is satisfyingly missing.
“It (stuttering) prevents you from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not of the naked feeling itself but of the best way to phrase the feeling so as to avoid verbal repetition, you come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property and not yours- not really yours expect by way of disingenuous circumlocution.”
Sheilds’ moves the reader through a meditation on the biological life cycle. He shares a rich irony in Leonardo da Vinci deathbed sentiments: I offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have. We are given passage into Sheilds’ relationship with his father. He brings us down into his personal mental loops, rounding the curves of his processing of the life cycle and his reoccurring connection to his father. The feel of the book is that of an author who is just as eager to find answers as we are.
What will be my father’s last words?
What will be mine?
The thing about reading Sheilds’ work is it is an experience to crave, deliberately.
I feel like our mother when I read in bed,
Early in the morning, stacks of books and letters next to me.
Thoughts written wildly on the backs of bank statements and PG&E envelopes.
Blankets tucked up and around my chin.
Bunches of pillows balancing my head, elbows, hands and book.
I feel like our mother for hours-
Window open next to my bed, fresh air swaying in.
A delectable morning chill sucked in through nostrils.
When I wait like this, allow my day to start like this,
I get a strong desire to lay next to our mother and hear her read a story.
Perhaps Gus and Gerdie, in her morning voice.
I feel like my mother when my thoughts bunch together and loose their logical orange and green threads.
I feel like my mother when my mouth cracks lopsided open- red.
I tell you, I just don’t know.
But you know.
I feel like our mother when I walk, just to walk,
Just to move my feet and mumble to myself about the flowers and shape of the clouds.
Watching houses with potted succulents pass by,
Feel dirt close to concrete under foot.
When I feel beautiful,
When I feel noticed,
When I feel deeply needy and needed-
I feel like our mother.
You say, Andrea, you are not mom.
I say, You’re right, I know.
David Sedaris is not for everyone. In fact, I would go as far as to say he is not for you. He may be a bit crude for your taste, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls ends with three words: ‘licks his anus.’
Sedaris mostly writes in a tricky genre: Narrative non fiction. Which bits are real and which are elaborate manipulation of the truth? There are a few fully fictional shorts included in the anthology, placed at apparent random between obvious autobiographical essays. In one short, the narrator reveals herself as a tea party member. Even the obvious autobiographical essays with characters like Sedaris’ long time boyfriend Hugh are suspect. Did Sedaris really touch a mummified cut off arm of a sailor from the 1910’s? Does he really spend his days collecting trash by a country road in Sussux? Ok, he confirmed the trash collection in an interview on NPR.
I have such an evolved sense of humor that when I went to experience Sedaris read last winter, I cried big fat copious tears of laughter. People like me, highbrow humorists, use words like copious every day. By the time Sedaris got around to reading The Happy Place, included in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (Publication date: April 23rd 2013) my vision was fully blurred. Sardis was a glowing white shirt behind a podium with a high-pitched voice. I could have had the same experience squinting out the window at a street lamp and listening to This American Life on the radio. But then I would not have been able to meet him. He would not have signed each of the five books I’d read that he’d authored. He wrote all sorts of witty things in my books like lets celebrate life with thyroid glands and thank you for making me rich, making the three-figure ticket totally worth it.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls read like a conversation with a long time friend who never asks: How are you doing? Tell me about your day! But I choose to keep this friendship because David is so goddamn entertaining and I console myself by admitting that he does care about somebody, even if that someone isn’t me.
If you do happen to get his humor, he’ll be that voice that says you are as weird as they said you were and that is why we like you. Then, before you know it, you’ll be reading ‘licks his anus’ and wishing for more.
I much prefer the fine-tuning
the trimming of my mostly leather-hard clay pots
Even glazing, after first fire bisque, excites me more
Than dirty fingers slipping over lopsided lumps of clay
Spinning pot after horribly deformed pot only to find one worth firing
I slip them the deformed pots into the hard plastic reclaim bin
stopping for a moment to name my unwanted
I much prefer coming to a third epiphany in a coupling of three
Manipulating words already on the page
Black letters covering up judgmental whiteness
Even my muse
With her exhilarating rush through me
Causing my fingers to cramp around pen
Cannot take the space of the fine-tuned revision
The beginning of things is not without good
Raw infatuations are not without their perks
There is a craved flirtation
a certain amount of sexiness
more often than not
Lifts from me like sweat from skin underwater
Once part of me
but now spent and gone
I do not prefer the shiny new
Rather my desire is
to take part in
the confident sex of a lover
who already knows
and doesn’t need every memories’ reference explained
To have the same disagreement with this same person
has in it the potential for growth
in its second
and third round
to have this disagreement with the
second and third person
finding myself alone
I much prefer the fine-tuning of things
The depth of intimacy
engaged with a human I
The intentional cool
whitespace between twenty-six black letters
The trimming of
Glazing of firing of clay pots.