Stumbling: Cut Short

SILENT MEMORIALS

Our eyes tripped over a four-by-four inch bronze memorial embedded in a sidewalk in Cologne, Germany:

Hier wohnte

Jona ‘Johnny’ Herz

J.G. 1942

Deportiert 1942

Theresienstadt

Ermordet 11.7.1944

Auschwitz

Or, in English, “here lived Jonah ‘Johnny’ Herz, born in 1942, deported to Theresienstadt (as a newborn), murdered on July 11, 1944.” It immediately struck us, first, they sent a newborn to Theresienstadt; second, little Johnny survived a long time, considering. Alongside Johnny’s memorial lay a second memorial that read, “Here lived Samuel Kaufmann, born in 1868, deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, murdered on September 1, 1942.” Unlike the infant, the old man, who was already seventy-four years old when he was exiled to Theresienstadt, didn’t last long. We thought: Samuel didn’t last long, probably because Theresienstadt provided almost no health care; and, yes, murder is the right word.

IMG_1152_edit_1 (1)In Koblenz, we saw memorials outside the former home of Dr. Eugene Stern, born in 1894, and Kaethe Stern (nee Blumenthal), born in 1903, deported, murdered in Auschwitz 1944. Stern was my Jewish grandmother’s family name, so this struck home.

Easily mistaken for cobblestones, each Stolpersteine or “stumbling stone,” remembers one persecuted or murdered victim of National Socialism, 1933-1945, including survivors of the Holocaust. The Stolpersteine project began in Cologne in 1995 to remember Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust, but quickly was broadened to include all persecuted or murdered Holocaust victims. The vast majority memorialize Jews, but also remember others offensive to National Socialism including Romani, Sinti, gays, blacks, physically and mentally disabled, forced laborers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, military deserters, POWs, and those who provided refuge and protection.

Most Stolpersteine begin “Hier wohnte,” meaning “here lived,” others begin: “here worked,” “here practiced,” “here taught,” “here studied.” Most are placed at an individual’s last chosen place of residence. By returning victims to their neighborhoods, Stolpersteine remind passersby that victims were torn away, and most likely murdered. It says to passersby, “You are standing in what was once their space. They once breathed the same air you’re breathing now.”

The overwhelming majority of Stolpersteine are located in Germany. Some locations, such as Berlin, have large clusters of Stolpersteine—hundreds of them—to memorialize individually each resident of certain apartment buildings. Across 1,000 locations in eighteen countries, nearly 50,000 people are memorialized by Stolpersteine. There’s a catch in the name because, at one level, it reminds us that, in World War II, there were some major stumbles in recognizing basic human rights. At another level, this is a pun because, before the Shoah, when someone in Germany tripped over a cobblestone, people often cracked an anti-Semitic joke: “There must be a Jew buried there.” This dual meaning captured the irony in calling them stumbling stones. In practice, stumbling stones are placed flush with surrounding sidewalk or cobblestones, so they pose no real risk of tripping up passersby.

In Bamberg—a city in Bavaria that largely escaped the devastation of World War II bombings, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—we came across a memorial to a different type of war victim: “Here was shot Bernard Delachaux, born in 1914, a French soldier and prisoner of war who died March 24, 1942.”

IMG_1291_edit_1 (1)Later, on a busy street in Bamberg’s shopping district, we came upon a cluster of five newly-installed, brightly-polished Stolpersteine. What caught our attention was a six-year-old boy, out with his mom and three-year-old sister. The boy went down on one knee and read clearly, slowly, solemnly: “Here lived Rosa Brueckmann, born 1868, deported Theresienstadt 1942, murdered Treblinka.” Then another for Fanny, born seven years earlier, likewise deported and murdered. He then read the Stolpersteine for the Hahn family: Heinrich and Martha deported from Riga in 1941, and there murdered, Heinrich in April 1, 1943. Their son Martin, fled to Holland in 1938, interred in Westerbork en route to Mauthausen (where Anne Frank later died of typhoid), and there murdered December 12, 1942. Heinrich outlived his son by several months. The boy’s mom didn’t say, “Hurry, you’re wasting my time, it’s time to move along.” She let him take his time to read. No laughter, no playing. The boy seemed to understand too, at least as well as anyone could. No need for commentary. Done, the boy reached out and took mom’s hand, stood, and the three walked on.

The power of these little memorials is that they say so little: someone was born, lived, was sent to a concentration camp, and there they were murdered. Occasionally, they tell the story of someone who deserted, or was shot and taken prisoner of war, or who escaped to freedom (leaving behind their home, possessions, and what remained of their community), or who was killed elsewhere other than in a camp.

The Stolpersteine project keeps expanding slowly. Across 1,000 locations in eighteen countries, nearly 50,000 people are memorialized by Stolpersteine. German artist Gunter Demnig coordinates the project and travels throughout Europe to oversee directly the installation of the memorial stones. While in theory the intent is to acknowledge every Holocaust victim individually, Demnig does not expect to see that day. He has no interest in stepping up production of mass-producing stumbling stones, because doing so would mimic the mass annihilations perpetrated by the National Socialists. Moreover, installing Stolpersteine requires cooperation from host communities and from the living family of Holocaust victims. It costs 120 Euros to sponsor the creation and installation of one Stolpersteine.

Demnig quotes the Talmud as saying, “A person is forgotten only when his or her name is forgotten.” The memorial stones ask us to stumble for a moment in silence to remember, “one stone for one name.” Perhaps in that remembering we can find our own silence. If so, it is a silence uncomfortable with injustice of all sorts and, above all, at odds with the collective silence that once masked the Holocaust atrocities.

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SECRETARIAT

Ignoring any reasonable protocol for treadmill running, she sashayed her head from side to side as she ran, like a horse trying to shake off water.  Her arms occasionally reached out to either side, front, and overhead, as if she danced. Once, she became fixated on adjusting a belt clip, and nearly dropped off the treadmill’s end. She sang quietly to music on her iPod except, every minute or two, she belted out the lyrics, and made even more extreme movements. Her bursts in volume, screechy tone, and extreme gesticulations caught the attention of everyone nearby.  Now and then, she checked text messages. After each, she shouted a drawn out, “ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!” that became progressively louder before ending with a sharp expulsion of air. After a while, she stopped dancing, and started punching the air in front of her, left, right, left, right. Once, she bent half over and looked like she picked imaginary flowers. Maybe when she sashayed her head back and forth, right to left, and when she punched the air, she meant to be a boxer bobbing and weaving, he thought, watching her on his left, but she looked far more like a punchy horse.

Without breaking stride, she slowly pulled a blue sweatshirt over her head with her right hand, yanking a white t-shirt back down with her left hand. Her head continued to sashay back and forth, and she kept running with her arms moving like a dancer’s arms. She wore neon orange shoes. Her shorts were pink with green trim. Her gnarly, dirty blond hair was tied up behind her head in a bunch, not a bun or pony tail. She was probably about 20, he figured. After about 25 minutes, she switched from running 10 minute miles to walking at a 15 minute clip.

“That’s an interesting running style you have there,” he said.

She turned to him and gave back a goofy smile. “Oh, I don’t have any idea how to run. My sisters both ran track. I’m just learning how.”

“Why didn’t you learn before?” he asked.

“I had an accident. It was in New Orleans. I was riding a bike and was hit by a truck. There was a big law suit. I was never supposed to walk again,” she said.

“But look at you!” he said.

“Don’t tell the lawyer I’m running now,” she said, with an even goofier smile.

“I can imagine what it was like,” he said. “I lost use of my foot two years ago. The nerve died.”

“Me too. And I had five operations on my foot so it would work again.”

“Looks like it worked,” he said.

“But I still have no idea how to run. I’ve always done things like being a goalie in soccer or the catcher in softball, things were I could throw my whole body at things,” she said.

“Looks like you’re still doing that,” he said.

“I still need to give up smoking,” she said.

“That would be one of the best things you could do for yourself,” he said.

“I will. I plan to. But I can’t give up everything all at once,” she said.

“When you run, you look more like a horse running on a track,” he said.

“Ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!” she said, with an explosion at the end. “My sisters always said I had horse hair.”

“I don’t know about your hair,” he said, although he could see exactly why her sisters said it, “but you don’t run like anyone I’ve ever seen run. You look like a horse.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said.

“I mean it that way too. Seabiscuit,” he said.

“No, Secretariat. I want to be Secretariat,” she said.

“You got it,” he said. “I gotta go. See ya, Secretariat. Keep on running.”

When he walked by 20 minutes later, she had resumed running at a 10 minute clip. Her head sashayed back and forth. Her arms flew in every direction. She occasionally punched the air rapidly, with a left-right-left-right motion. Now and then, she checked text messages and let out a loud, “ha-a-a-a-a-A-A-A!,” or she let out a loud cry that drew attention from everyone nearby. Perhaps, he thought, this is what we’d all look like in dreams if we ran from some unspecified threat, propelled forward by forces exceeding our invested effort.

The next day, he read that a documentary called “Secretariat’s Jockey Ron Turcotte” was about to appear at a nearby theater for only one screening seven days away. The film was about Ron Turcotte, who won the Triple Crown riding Secretariat’s back. It contains never-before-seen footage about Secretariat but that’s not why horse girl needs to see this, he thought. It’s Turcotte! Just like horse girl, Turcotte fought his way back after a 1978 fall left him a paraplegic. Back to the people and places that marked his life. Horse girl has to see this. Wait, Turcotte’s actually going to be there with the film. So is Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. There’s a Q&A with them after the film. Horse girl’s adrenaline’s going to soar.

He bought two tickets, put them in an envelope, sealed it, and was about to write her name on it when he realized he didn’t know her name. He took the envelope with him to the Y the next night at roughly the same time as when he’d run on the treadmill next to her. She wasn’t there. He went back again every night for two hours at roughly the same time. He even went one morning and early one afternoon. He asked around, but nobody knew her. Two days before the screening, he heard they were looking for people to participate in an hour-long taping of a PBS show about Secretariat right before the screening. Horse girl will be perfect, he thought. She’ll just love this. But he never saw horse girl again. Nobody used the tickets.

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WHAT IS YOUR NEED?

In October 2010, after walking on le chemin St. Jacques by myself, and never being certain where I would spend the night, I had to return to Paris to catch a return flight to the United States. On my last night in Paris where I was staying in the residential 19th ward, I went out for a brief walk to investigate the St. Martin’s Canal nearby. At the bottom of the street, I passed two women who were standing upright and stoically, almost like statues, next to what looked out of the corner of my eye like a pile of backpacks. Both were dressed in black. One wore a hood that almost entirely covered her face. The other had a hood, but her emotionless face was completely visible. When I returned from a quick trip to the canal, they were still there, and I passed without stopping because I was thinking about dinner and the Affligem blonde I was going to wash it down with. But, when I got back to my hotel room, all I could think about was the two women and their backpacks. The one woman’s face stayed with me. I had to go back and try to establish a connection if only to find out why they were there so late in the day guarding a pile of backpacks.

When I got back to the two women, the one whose face was visible had removed her hood. I also could readily see that the backpacks were actually a gigantic shopping cart stuffed with luggage, other possessions, and multiple water bottles. There was none of the usual evidence of homelessness. They both stood upright rather than sitting or lying on the ground. Instead, they stood upright, with excellent posture, like sentries. They had no bowl or cup. They did not reach out a hand to passersby or make other entreaties to strangers to ameliorate their life conditions. I tried to start a conversation and learned quickly that the older one spoke no English, but the younger one spoke English fairly fluently. I estimate she was about 30 and the older one about 65. They passed cigarettes back and forth between them. About 15 minute into the conversation, I tried to hand the younger a 10 Euro note. After and conferring with the older one—she conferred before answering nearly every question—she said, “You don’t have to pay us to talk with us.” I put my money away for the time being.

We continued to talk for nearly an hour and a half. I learned that they were two university-educated women, mother and daughter, the bottom of whose life fell out. Their message was this could happen to anyone, it could even happen to you. From day to day, they didn’t know where they would sleep that night. I offered them money once or twice more, and again they refused it. Occasionally, I asked them a question they chose not to answer, to which they said, “You don’t need to know that.” After a while, I realized they were asking me at least as many  questions as I was asking them. Finally, the daughter said to me, “People stop and ask us questions because they have a need. What made you come back? Why did you stop? Why do you want to talk with us and hear our pain? What is your need?” I thought for a moment, and all I could think to say was, “I saw your face.”

It had turned dark and they said they need to go and find a place to spend the night. My heart said I should offer them my hotel room, but I knew that the hotel was already very guarded about who they allowed in. I stuffed 20 EU in the daughter’s hands. I closed her hand on the money and held her hand shut. I looked her in the eyes and she looked back at me. The mother spoke and the daughter translated. She said, “We accept your money and we thank you. We will use it to buy food.”

There’s more to the story, but what stayed with me was her question, “What is your need?” I have asked myself that question many times. And, I’ve also wondered, who really were they? Were they truly a mother and daughter on hard times? Were they a professor and doctoral student collecting data? Were they political activists out to play on the public’s compassion for the plight of the homeless? I wanted to go back and find out at the minute I left Paris, but the answer really doesn’t matter. All that matters was their question, “What is your need?”

Jim RossJim Ross is a newly retired public health researcher. He’s recently published poetry, stories, or photographs in The Atlantic, Pif Magazine, Friends Journal, The Sun, Cahoodaloodaling, Dirty Chai, and several other journals. Forthcoming work includes photo essays in Cargo Lit and In the Fray and poems in Work Literary Magazine. Jim and his wife split their time between Maryland and West Virginia. They looking forward passionately to becoming grandparents of twins this summer.

 

On Journals: The Journal of Jules Renard

In the digital age, there is an incessant drive to “share” what you’re thinking, doing, eating, writing, not writing, obsessing about. This starts to feel like a bright and shiny red alarm button, urging me to cast my words out into the world: comment on social media posts or online articles, rant about a television show in a blog post, and send a story, essay, or poem out to a publication before it’s ready, just to see if they’ll take it. I try and second-guess myself before I do anything too rash, and ask why it matters if I do send my thoughts or opinions out into the digital universe, whether they are random or well-articulated. What am I actually saying with this Tweet? Do I like the publication I’m sending my work to, and why? Or do I just see a “Submit!” button and want to click “send” for the endorphin rush of anticipating a response?

Or, am I too hesitant about engaging on social media, too cautious? After all, if you don’t make your presence known, it’s only known to yourself. It’s a modern day conundrum: to share or not to share. Still, in order to contribute to the social conversation happening online about any topic—instead of just throwing your opinions against the wall like a wet noodle and hoping they’ll stick—you have to have a well-rounded and thoughtful perspective on that topic. For me, there is at least one social conversation online I find relatively easy to contribute to: books.

“What’s your favorite book?” is one of the most difficult questions to answer outright. Many writers will say is its just too vague and leading: favorite when I was a child? When I was a teenager? As an adult? To read while traveling? On the workday commute? While lounging around on a rainy Sunday afternoon? The possible differentiations are endless.

If I could rephrase the question for myself at this given point in my life, I would ask: what book made me think I could be a writer? What book gave me the audacity to even consider that such a scenario would be possible? How could I compare with all of the other writers out there (and whose numbers are increasing?) Why would anyone care about my words over all of these other words?

The Journal of Jules Renard is a book I picked up on a whim at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books several years ago. It details the French playwright and novelist’s journal entries each month from 1887 to 1910. Some entries consist of past memories and are longer, but some are just one line. For example, in December of 1891, Renard writes: “How vain is an idea! Without the sentence, I’d retire.” Or this gem from July of 1895: “All our criticism consists of reproaching others with not having the qualities we believe ourselves to have.”

It is a book that revealed to me as a writer that my words matter because they matter to me, and that I need to write them down. If I share them, then maybe I am all the better for it, but if I don’t, then they are also fine to remain as my own kind of proof of existence in the world. I know that writers are often told that it’s pointless to toil away in obscurity. That said, to articulate an idea into actual words and sentences, it takes time. This can be difficult to achieve if you are craving an opinion or feedback on what you’ve written preemptively.

What strikes me the most about The Journal of Jules Renard is how easily Renard’s entries translate into the modern day. One of my favorite excerpts is from June 1902: “The writer must create his own language, and not use that of his neighbor. He must be able to watch it grow.”

I don’t always keep a journal myself, but at times when I’m wrapped up in a fit of emotional frustration and need to vent without subjecting all of my wailing to a kind friend’s ear, I journal either by hand or on a computer. Journaling is a good place to go when I feel emotionally boxed into a situation and can’t find a way out. It’s also how I dialogue with myself on paths to take out of serious issues or nagging concerns.

I admire the diligence with which Renard administered his journaling without the distractions of the modern world, and the book itself is a window into his life, in general and as a writer. If you had to ask yourself: How would you define the difference between the thoughts that are yours alone, and the ones that you share online?

A more recent book that also speaks to the value in journaling is Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf), an essayistic take on her diary entries over the span of twenty-five years. In an article about Manguso’s book in The New Yorker, Alice Gregory writes: “In her memoir, Manguso makes the striking decision never to quote the diary itself. As she started to look through the old journals…she became convinced that it was impossible to pull the ‘best bits’ from their context without distorting the sense of the whole.”

What book (or books) you’re reading can say a lot about you as a reader—whether or not others have heard of it, have read it themselves, and where they place it in their own esteem. Another way to look at this question is why a book matters to you not just as a reader—but as a writer.

Clearing The Writer’s Garden of Weeds

springgardenweeds

Spring weeds in my garden.

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have set about clearing, prepping, and planting our garden for the main summer season. Though we live in a climate that boasts year-round growing, summer feeds us color—it is the season we eat rainbows, stuffing our mouths with sun-warmed fruits, painting our bellies, while outside the sun yellows, browns, and reddens our skin. It is the season that waters our mouths when we speak of gardening, as we anticipate the taste of peach, purple, yellow, red, orange, and green-streaked fruits and vegetables.

Earnestly, Saturday after Saturday, we’ve crawled and stooped around our yard, pulling spring-blooming weeds of dandelion, hay grass, mallow, and crabgrass, careful to leave what mint and plantain weeds we have growing alone. Ritually, we go out in spring clearing; mentally, I take note of what new and old weeds have come, choosing to let some run wild, pulling invasive weeds we have no use for, and keeping what I’ve learned to use.

“Weeds are like thoughts, distractions, in a writer’s mind,” I called over a thick patch of dandelions, deeply rooted and setting seed, to Edward. “If my writing mind is a garden, weeds are the distractions that come, intruding, covering up my meaningful thoughts, ideas.”

Edward is an accountant, and though he would tell you he does not have a creative mind, is not artistically-inclined like me and our two kids, his spreadsheets and budget-work often astounds me. He understands numbers the way I understand color, language, and sound.

wildweed seeds

Wild spring grass/weed seeds.

“Think about it.” I pulled and pulled at a deeply rooted, thorn-filled dandelion, eventually falling backwards from my squatting stance to a seating position.

“I’m listening,” Edward said.

“Like this dandelion I just pulled. It is like a distracting idea when I’m trying to write. If I don’t deal with it, root it out, it will grow deep roots and suck energy, light, and space from my real ideas, my creative ideas. It will muddy the colors I’m trying to see.”

“Okay,” Edward said. He continued to clear his patch of hay grass beneath our peach tree. With blooming calendula and lavender flowers, and newly spent peach blossoms nearby, bees were loud and busy buzzing around him. I wanted to work where he was, letting the bees glide their yellow, black bodies over me. But the thrill was giving me goose pimples, and I was afraid my excitement, my adrenaline would get the bees riled up, leading to my bare arms getting stung.

“Seriously, it is a great metaphor.” I sat in the dirt, staring at the broken dandelion roots. “Take this dandelion. I know I didn’t get the entire taproot. If I don’t do the work of digging down deeper, and getting it all, it’ll come back, stronger. But, if I would have come here two, three weeks ago, the roots would have been weak, I would have easily pulled it up. Now, I have to worry about the roots, and the seeds the wind may carry—I have to work harder to clear this one weed from the garden.”

“I see.” Edward continued to pull and listen as I went on making sense of my writing practice, my life in the thick of weeds and soil.

Soon, the weed patch was too thick to talk and pull, and with my point made, my mind began to think about all the weeds I have growing in my writer’s garden, my mind. Fear. Doubt. Impatience. Insecurity. Comparison.

As we made progress, the shape and space of the garden bloomed. After fifteen years of gardening, and a lifetime of watching my grandparents work their garden, I’m familiar with weed-clearing magic—the joy found in reclaiming space and form. What looked abandoned and wild hours ago soon appeared well-kept, tamed.

Our peach trees appeared wider, our apricot tree taller, the Black Mission fig tree, more mature this year than last, with large, green-lobed leaves. Without the weeds, and the confusion and spatial noise they brought, I could see new forms, colors, characters. The fig leaves were hands giving high-fives to the few clouds scattered in the sky. The bright yellow calendula flowers smiled the same gummy grin my children smiled when their front teeth fell. The lavender flower stalks, somehow, reminded me of the spiral curls that stand up from my hair, combing the wind.

What if I took the same care, and ritually went about clearing my writer’s garden of weeds? What forms, colors, characters may appear without fear, doubt, impatience, insecurity, and comparison? What poems may come if I gave myself space to bloom and feed what nourishes me, instead of thoughts that strangle my voice? 

In my garden, winter is the seworkingeason of lush greens—purple-green broccoli, yellow-green peas, scarlet red and green chard and beet greens, white-stemmed green bok choy, emerald green kale, and dusty-gray green collards leaves.

Summer, however, is the season of rainbows. Purple tomatillos that ripen nearly black beneath brown-yellow husks, lipstick-red tomatoes and peppers, candy-orange sweet peppers, black-green zucchini, butter-orange squash, juicy-yellow corn, variegated grassy green melons—some with stars and moons, others with sea-wave lines running the full length of their bellies. There are green tomatoes, pineapple-yellow tomatoes, indigo-rose tomatoes, peach-colored tomatoes, orange tomatoes, and pink and purple tomatoes, too.

Color riots the summer garden, with red and yellow running the revolution.

I would never allow weeds to grow wild, without abandon in my garden, browning the rainbow I crave to consume. The rainbow that colors my belly, yellows my skin, and scents my hair purple with the sun.

I’m learning I eat my words, too. My poems scent me, redden my skin, balloon my belly, and fuel my hands to do my work. My work of seeing the world anew, in color and form, and creating figurative language that expands what is familiar to meet what I, we, have yet to understand. My work is the work of metaphors, colors, sounds.

Metaphor takes what we do not know, joins it with what we do, so that we may expand, see and understand the world with deeper, richer possibilities.

Metaphors make the fearful familiar, like gardeners make seeds food, and poets, writers attempt to make sense out of confusion. All acts of creating meaning. I tell you, us writers, we don’t just write what we know, we write towards what we need to know. We write to understand, create meaning, make sense.

I make sense of the world through color, then words, then shapes. Fear does not birth the yellow I long to see, the peach and strawberry-red shades that make me dream my way out of confusion. Neither does doubt paint the sky purple, or green for me. Those weedy thoughts muddy my process; they suck the color out of my world.

“I feel joyful,” I said to Edward cradling a new Reed avocado tree in my lap. My hand gently bent its blooming branches, inward, and cradled it from the wind as Edward drove us home from the nursery with a car filled with new seedlings.

“You’re thinking about your summer garden?” He smiled at me.

“No, I’m thinking of the colors, the poems. The hours the sun will redden and brown my back while I sit at the root of these plants. I’m thinking about the bees, lizards, hummingbirds we’ll feed. Us, too. And I guess the grasshoppers and June bugs, too. I’m thinking of all the poems we’re carrying.”

I urge you to define how you make sense of the world, what inspires you. But also, do the work of discovering the weeds you have growing wild, without abandon, some you’ll find use for, you’ll turn into pieces of art, but others, you’ll learn to discard.

This weekend, while I’m longing for summer peaches, I’ll settle for a homey peach cobbler. It’s a little taste and promise of summer’s riot of color soon to come. Here’s the recipe:

cast iron peach cobbler

Cast-Iron Skillet Peach Cobbler

This cobbler comforts and soothes after a long day of garden work. I wanted a taste of peaches that would be just as welcomed in the morning or late afternoon as in the evening for dessert. So, it isn’t overly sweet, but it is peachy and warmly satisfying. It’s wonderful served with a spoonful of vanilla yogurt in the morning or early afternoon for breakfast, and decadent warmed and served with vanilla ice cream on top. Cooking it in a piping hot cast-iron skillet caramelizes the peach syrup and deepens the flavor, so if possible, don’t skip that step.

Peach filling:

4-5 c. sliced peaches (canned [drained], frozen, or fresh)

1/3 c. brown sugar

¼ c. white sugar

2 tbl. butter/margarine

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. cardamom

½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

pinch of salt

2 tbl. almond milk

1 tbl. cornstarch

 

Cobbler topping:

1 c. + 2 tbl. flour

1 tsp. baking soda

3 tbl. brown sugar

½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg

5 tbl. butter, cut into cubes, plus an additional 2-3 tbl. to butter the skillet

2/3 c almond milk + 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbl. turbinado/raw sugar

 

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, place the cast-iron skillet in the oven to heat.
  2. Place the peaches, sugars, butter, and spices in a small pot over medium heat and cook until the peaches began to release their juices and mix with the sugars, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the cornstarch into the cold milk and form a slurry. When the peach juices just start to bubble/boil, stir in the cornstarch slurry and cook until the juices thicken, another 3-5 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Place 2-3 tablespoons of butter in the cast-iron skillet and let it melt and brown in the oven while you prepare the topping. Add the vinegar to the milk to curdle, set aside. Mix flour, baking soda, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Cut butter cubes into flour mixture, mix until course crumbs form. Stir the vanilla into the curdled milk, then add all at once to flour/butter mixture. Mix quickly, and lightly, until no white flour remains, but being careful not to over-mix.
  4. Carefully (it will be hot) remove the cast-iron skillet from the oven, and very carefully pour in the cooked peach filling. The skillet will be much hotter than the filling, so be careful that the melted butter doesn’t splash or pop on you. It should sizzle and make a lot of noise, this is good—you want the sugars in the filling to lightly caramelize to deepen the flavor.
  5. With a large spoon, drop spoonfuls of the topping over the peaches, spacing them out. As it bakes, the topping will spread, covering the peaches with a ‘cobbler’ like topping. Sprinkle the turbinado/raw sugar over the topping.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes, until the topping is brown.
  7. Enjoy!

castiron peach cobbler

skillet peachcobbler

Birds Missing From Sky

1.

Today you follow the holes
birds clawed into the sky

Each cloud a hatchling mouthed by a hawk

Today the sky burns its wings

Built out of a bird’s flight
your house will crawl far away from you
The trees, always eaten by birds,
will never fly

Go back to the house
Show me the trees that hate us,
and the birds who sleep there                                

Show me the house, why its birds are gone

2.

The clouds broken across the sky

Once for each bed underground

Once for each bed that is now a bird

3.

The birds tell you:
keep your burning quiet

The feathered airplanes torn with holes that sing

Your voice back from the trees

I don’t know where the birds live
How will 1 protect the birds
who’ve eaten the cold from the sky

4.

Where the birds turn into night
you planted your feathers

Go to sleep so the sky can’t follow

Fall asleep counting the holes
the sparrows made of you

Make a song out of the seedlings you’ve lost

Each time you sing
the feathers lost the sky in your chest

5.

Today the sky tracked you
until it ran out of clouds

I kept quiet in my burning
so the hawks could make the blue
go on for another mile
of kites that have not yet
devoured each other from their crags

The feathers weren’t ever a place to rest

You walked where the trees went missing

and found in the holes left of you
little black whispers
you scraped out of the sunlight

Why do the birds lose half of heaven
when they cry from the jaws
of the delivery drones

I don’t know where the sky is,
just that you’ve eaten the cold from the trees

Rob CookRob Cook lives in New York City’s East Village. He is the author of six collections, including Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade, The Undermining of the Democratic Club, and Asking My Liver for Forgiveness. His work has appeared in Versal, Rhino, Caliban, Fence, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Thrice Fiction, Great Weather For Media, Small Portions, Arsenic Lobster, Space & Time, Osiris, Phantom Drift, Weirdbook, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Posit, Zoland, Pear Noir!, Mudfish, Borderlands, and Tampa Review.

 

 

Writing Centers

I just submitted the workshop packet for my third MFA residency this June. In a delayed, it’s-too-late-to-change-it discovery, I realized that I have basically written the exact same thing for the third submission in a row. Not only that, I submitted it with errors: a typo, an incorrect verb tense shift, a missing coma. The details of my essay are different of course, but the theme is the same, and I am still struggling with sequential verb tense agreements within a piece. One of the reasons I opted for a career in the creative arts instead of a career in medicine (and it was between the two) was because I was pretty sure if I had a patient I would leave the syringe with the life-saving antidote by the water cooler, would be actively involved trying to locate it as the patient’s blood pressure dropped before I realized where I had left it, and would then be running back at breakneck speed to their bedside, hoping it wasn’t too late.  I get distracted.

For the last three months, I have been a teaching assistant for an “Introduction to the Humanities” class at a nearby community college. Each week, the students complete a module that includes films, readings, and discussions, and which then finally concludes with an essay on what they have learned. After reading their essays week by week, I have come to know the writing patterns of each student: their themes, their grammatical errors, their lack of attention to detail. At the same time, I have also seen the efforts students make to try to be understood. Some of them are really struggling. The sentences are often run-on, the ideas aren’t clear, and the punctuation seems haphazard. They are excited about what they want to say.

It sounds just like me.

I am supposed to be a graduate student, able to write flawlessly with perfect grammar and punctuation, right? If I don’t know something, I should be able to look it up, right? Submissions should be perfect, but sometimes I can’t see the problems. I can’t remember the rules for numbers: do the small ones get written out, or is it the big ones? It’s like someone is always saying, “go north for two blocks and then go west for three;” I am always looking up at the sun, and I am not sure where I am, but I have to get there in a hurry. Sometimes I am embarrassed by my mistakes.

When I discussed my editing problems with one friend, she suggested I read my work aloud. For me that’s not always the best solution, since I already know what I want to say and can control the rhythm. Another suggestion she had was to print my work out and read a page or two at a time, and not all in one sitting. By breaking it up, I would be forced to concentrate on making sure every sentence and paragraph made sense. The final suggestion she had was to ask someone for help. Good idea! Who?

The professor that I am assisting recommended that before the students in the Humanities class submit their midterms, they take their work to the college’s Writing Center. The Writing Center, like the one on so many campuses across the country, has tutors available by appointment and drop-in, ready to assist students with their writing assignments. After reviewing their midterm essays, I could tell immediately which students had followed the professor’s advice. Their work had fewer errors. Their sentences seemed clearer. Their voices had more confidence.  The professor has now made it mandatory that each student go to the Writing Center at least once before the end of the semester.

I am requiring the same of myself.  Antioch University has an online Virtual Writing Center for its students. Any student in any program at any of Antioch’s campuses can submit writing projects to the center online. It is then reviewed by one of several peer consultants who first read what the assignment is, what class it is for, and note areas that may need special attention. Recently, I submitted the first eight pages of an essay that needed to be twenty pages. I wrote that I was having trouble with the conclusion. I said I needed stronger transitions. I was pretty sure I had caught the punctuation errors, but I know even with Strunk and White’s chapter on quotations, even with Purdue Owl’s chapter on quotations, I sometimes get lost in my character’s dialogue; would the peer consultant please be so kind as to mark any errors?

Less than twenty-four hours later, I received a kind letter back with an explanation of some of the things I might pay attention to. The document itself was marked with comments that suggested writing more in some places, or writing less in others. The peer consultant asked me really thoughtful questions like, “Can you tell me what you mean here?” I was smitten.

With her feedback, I was able to extract the remaining twelve pages that I needed. It hadn’t occurred to me to strengthen a particular scene with more dialogue. I didn’t realize I had said the same thing in two paragraphs. She also kindly sent a link for help with punctuation. The peer consultant had simply done a review of my work.  She didn’t give me points or a grade. She made recommendations. Her only intention was to help my work get stronger.

I plan to use the Virtual Writing Center for as many of my projects as I can for the rest of my time here at Antioch. I will be telling anyone who is a student to use his or her campus’ writing center.  I will keep in mind when I am editing someone else’s work that my intention is to help their work get stronger, clearer.  More importantly, I will remind myself that asking for help is what I need to get better at, too. I can ask for that. I can do that.

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For Antioch students, here is the link to the Virtual Writing Center.

Writing: The Toolbox III

There’s more to writing than the writing itself, like there’s more to baseball than the game. The pre-game of being a writer requires training, warm up, preparation, stamina, and perseverance. Writing is not just an intellectual and artistic practice, it is a physically demanding and mentally strenuous activity. It requires strength: strength of mind, strength of conviction, strength of will. The writer must perform; perform every day, and triumph over doubt, attrition, distraction, and the self.

I continue writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my many years of experience. Here are some more tools I reach for every day I write.

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7. The Ritual

Before each time at bat, Wade Boggs scratched the Hebrew symbol chai into the dirt of the batter’s box, and Turk Wendell scratched three crosses into the mound. A pitcher named Jason Grilli wore a baseball card in his shoe, with the image of his favorite pitcher facing the sole of his foot, and Coco Crisp, had to move his left hand and stomp his foot before taking an at-bat. I am an immersion writer. I need to go deep and stay there. I need to disappear into my writing, like diving into a pool. I have to submerge. At first, I dread the plunge, the cold shock, the effort. Once submerged, however, I adapt, I’m not in the real world anymore, and I try to stay there until I’m done.

To help me keep my concentration, I have my rituals. There are those rituals that begin the day. For me it’s jasmine tea. It’s a candle that stays lit for days, my silent, flickering companion. I like to cocoon, keep the room more dark than light. I keep the windows shuttered. I don’t want to see the street; I want to see the images in my mind. Then there are research rituals. In the “olden days” before the Internet, I collected maps. Any place I wrote about, I had to have a map. Before I wrote a word, I traced the locations with my finger, put myself there in my mind.

These days, I go onto Google Maps, and virtually walk down the street where my story is set. In a sense, research has become ritual as well. I research the foliage, indigenous plant species, shrubs, flowers, and trees, just to imbue a one sentence suburban scene at a mailbox with authenticity. Sometimes one sentence requires five separate Internet searches just to get it right. The reader might not know that only dogwood trees are genuine to the setting I am describing, but I believe they can feel it. Accuracy and authenticity is a ritual in the early stages of writing, since it gives me an edge of confidence and security that helps bring me more quickly into the place of immersion I want to get to.

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8. Hate Away

Starting a new project, even with candles blazing, tea steaming, and maps transporting me to another place, it still is a process to get comfortable with the work. Even after 25 years of writing, it’s not uncommon for me to hate what I’m writing, at first. It’s so commonplace, in fact, I just don’t worry about it anymore. I know I’m going to rewrite, and the work will eventually meet my standards. I don’t let it slow me down. I lay down the tracks. I get it on paper. I make notes and cross out half my page, I write in margins, scatter question marks and squiggly lines all over the place that imply “What were you thinking?” Occasionally I just write “what?” or “no!” or “bad.” But I trust, after a few revisions, bad becomes good.

If we had an x-ray machine as writers, and could diagnose what our new work will require, it would be easy. But we’re like drunken surgeons in the Wild West, a lot of savage exploratory slicing and dissecting, before we find the root of the problem. The key is not to let the patient die on the table. The key is not to stop, not to give up. I keep the faith, I forge ahead, I put stock in my abilities, and I keep going. I once wrote a script at the end of which I jotted down the phrase, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever written.” But I didn’t give up, though I was tempted, and I rewrote and rewrote, until it became the best thing I’d ever written. The key is to keep going.

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9. Learn to Love to Rewrite

Rewriting is your best friend. It’s grace and forgiveness. It’s atonement, and works. It sets you free from the sin of bad syntax. When I was commissioned to write my first script for Joel Silver Productions (an original idea I had pitched them), I went off and wrote my first draft and handed it in when I thought it was ready. I was young and inexperienced, and unsure about a lot of what I had written. I was lucky to have a great producer to give me feedback. It took two hours at Caesar’s Palace, where he wanted to have our conference, and he walked me through every screenplay storytelling technique, and pointed out all the flaws in my script, until the whole thing was solved. By the end of the session he had generously handed me a roadmap to the rewrite, and he said, “It will take you seven rewrites to get it right.” But I had listened to every one of his notes and took them to heart, and I got it right in one session. From then on I was introduced as, “This is Bettina. She’s a really good rewriter.”

It’s essential that you rewrite, and you rewrite well. If you are hired to do writing work, and are not adept at taking notes and rewriting satisfactorily, you are not too likely to be hired again. An editor editing for the first time might be skeptical of your abilities in the rough, but if you take the edits and notes and do a bang-up rewrite, an editor and publisher will take note of your abilities to pull it together, even if the first draft starts off rough. Most of all, rewriting is when you save the patient. There isn’t much that can’t be mended in the rewrite. Yes, occasionally you have to concede defeat, but most of the time, rewriting is where it all comes together. I believe rewriting is where the real writing begins.

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So, whether you light your candle or stomp your foot, get your ritual to get you writing. Ignore the first draft; it’s always a jumble. Make rewriting your best friend. These habits will give you a boost that should keep you writing for years to come.

Previous blogs in the series:
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois.