Spotlight: Telling it Slant / Counting on an Axe / Disturbance with Walnut

telling it slant

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or everyman be blind –
                                           Emily Dickinson

so there is Michelangelo up the ladder
on the platform
laid on his back
wishing he chipped at a piece of sculpture instead
inevitable that
some paint falls on the stone floor
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++below
drips from between the planks
in a second
hits ground
to describe another kind of art
that will not be known for centuries yet
where another artist
is more deliberate rather than his attention
being elsewhere

and each day a novice cleans the floor
knowing heaven and angels only appear from
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++above

 

 

counting on an axe

 
winter has arrived             or is on its way when
I sit on a chair in the shed
to sharpen the axe
with a whetstone
+++++++++++++++count the scrapes
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++over metal
until I lose track
++++++++++++++then start again
+++++then wonder again
where the word whetstone originated
so stop
+++++go and look it up
find whet means to make more keen
++++++to sharpen –
++++++this satisfies my appetite
++++++++++++++++++++++++++for a while
so return to the shed and bend over the task
once more

observe how grains of the stone powder fall
on my work jeans after a long count
so stop to brush them off
check the axe edge to see if burrs
and metal blemishes that dull a wood split
have gone
continue to scrape and let my mind
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++wander
think about how long people have sat
somewhere sheltered and quiet
to carry out this essential activity

only think about this for so long
because I still do not know where the word
whetstone originated –
++++++++++++++++++plan to find out
turn over the axe head
++++++++++++++++++begin to count

 

 

disturbance with walnut

each hashed up pantoum is a disturbance in the force
potential victim for any wandering death star
lined up to crack a walnut with a sledge hammer
that announces if your name is Ray you’ve had it

no no this is not science fiction
this is not a Bradbury or a Technicolor Lucas
though could well be over in three hours
its potential victim any innocently wandering death star

with lines hashed up as a disturbance of poetic form
that announces with repetitions it will not be a sonnet
non no this is also not genre fiction
or a pantoum lined up to crack an innocent walnut

who can we trust when internal rhymes announce
it will not even be a villanelle
over in nineteen lines and not three hours
pure fantasy like the Gollum ring thing

just think of the longest line you could fit on a page to disturb the balance
line it up to crack a walnut with a sledge hammer
say something original for the penultimate line to convince
that each hashed up pantoum is a disturbance in the force

James BellJames Bell was born in Scotland and now lives in France where he contributes photography and nonfiction to an English language journal. He has published two poetry collections: the just vanished place and fishing for beginners, and continues to publish poetry and stories internationally, most recently with Long Exposure Magazine, Cyclamens & Swords, Shearsman, Tears In The Fence and The Journal.

The Problem With Remembering

faceless-mannequinsRecently I wrote an essay about the summer of my fourteenth year, which I spent discovering the Grateful Dead and testing boundaries, musical and otherwise. Somewhere in those pages, I tried to capture the freedom, madness, and jealousies of adolescence, but the story morphed into something else, an elegy to the unbridled narrative of my youth. I submitted the essay here and there and while it has not been published, I did receive a much appreciated personalized rejection, even critical feedback. I pride myself on these teenage mutinies, now that I know their effects were not permanent. I am sober now. No one was terribly hurt. Nobody died (then). I do not have a permanent record. I got away with many things. I accumulated stories, weaving them into a tapestry of causality: why I am the way I am.

In other words, a fiction.

During our December residency at Antioch’s MFA program, Lidia Yuknavitch honored us with a guest reading and seminar. At the Electric Lodge in Venice, she read her essay, Woven, which circles around narratives of violence, in particular a homophobic attack that left her with a knife wound and her partner with brain damage. She read, “I don’t know how to belong to the story in a way that doesn’t betray it. I don’t even want to be in the story, the one in which a woman I loved was left partially paralyzed. But mostly I don’t tell the story because I didn’t stay with her happily ever after forever and ever.”

As she recounted the following day in her seminar, Yuknavitch struggled telling her story because she could not speak of violence without also telling of this betrayal. And betrayal, like many aspects of personality—shame-ridden, conspiratorial, culpable—feels better left unsaid. For her, the unarticulated thing remained obscure, an idea behind the words she grappled with, a grain of sand in the typewriter keys.

I am struck by this. How can we know what we do not know? As Yuknavitch explained, at the center of all stories is a formal question, a negation, or crisis. Around this dilemma clusters the story, or the fragments of many stories, and all the narratorial conclusions, conjectures, and digressions, like a bunch of electrons in an electrostatic field. Here is my version of a formal question: How do we choose which realities wander in and out of our narratives?

I have spent two decades obsessively analyzing the motivations and events of adolescence and early adulthood. I have crafted my own narrative. I was wild. I was depressed. I was artistic. I kept running away from home and nobody ever noticed; I had feelings of abandonment. I wanted to be different so I got pierced and tattooed just like everybody else.

Jerry Garcia died when I was fifteen, not long after I saw the Grateful Dead play in Tampa. Since I was a teenager and fickle, I supplanted my Nag Champa problem with other ones. It was the mid-nineties. Raves had become cooler than Phish or even Lollapalooza, which was too commercial. I had a pacifier and glow sticks. I threw around the word “underground” like I owned something special.

And yet, a friend recently reminded me that during this same period, I was a window model for 5-7-9, the nineties equivalent of Forever 21. I had conveniently forgotten the entire episode. I remembered modeling, dreaming of being Kate Moss with her whole heroin chic thing, but the mall? Not so much.

One morning, my father drove me to the old Palm Beach mall.

South Florida Offerings

South Florida Offerings

He was French and traditional; we were never allowed junk food at home. We ate things like mustard-drenched rabbit and liver cooked in vinegar and he never drank water, just wine and coffee. But each time we came to the mall, he walked straight to the Orange Julius counter: the sine qua non of mall visits, a catharsis of high fructose corn syrup, a time he could eat garbage with impunity and survive this terrazzo-floored, fluorescent-lighted sliver of South Florida.

My father walked me past the Burdines, the Hoolihan’s, the piercing pagoda, the arcade. Had I grown up in France perhaps he would have escorted me to ballet classes at the Opera Garnier. We would have walked down cobbled streets, me in a wool pea coat and him in a smart motorcycle jacket. Instead I wore my favorite pair of oversized corduroys that I belted up with rope, Birkenstocks, and a Camel cigarette t-shirt. Did he feel pride as he left me in front of the 5-7-9?

As Yuknavitch explained, memory is a constant overwrite, a program more concerned with now than then. This is known as reconsolidation theory. Each time we bring to mind a memory, we rewrite it. While the mind operates this behind-the-scenes program, we naively believe that our perceptions hold weight and truth. But memories are neither cells nor capsules; they do not exist in pictograms—they’re more like a flight of birds, forming again and again when called by the wind, each time heading to different locations, with subtle variations in shape and size. Writing is therefore not a record of the past but a record of the process of remembering.

With a handful of other girls, I stood immobile in the vitrine for hours at a time, five or six in total, for very little pay, and for very little reason. We were supposed to have done our own makeup and hair, neither of which I had any experience doing. My hair was wild and my skin uneven. People lingered by the window to see if we would move. We were given sunglasses so we could blink our eyes in peace. They had given me a floral crop top. My back ached and my skin flushed with embarrassment. I counted the seconds till my shift ended, and did what I had learned young—something I can still do to this very day, something I imagine all introverts know de facto: I dissociated myself from the present, removing my attention to the distant edges of my brain, till I was far from that wide window, like an instantaneous memory selection, a real-time edit.

Floridian fashion

Floridian fashion

There was nothing rebellious about this act. I wanted to be a model but I sucked. My pictures sucked. My eyes are different colors, brown and blue, and one is slightly bigger than the other, which shows up vividly on camera (like a Husky, they told me). My hair was and still is unmanageable: long, coarse, a magnet for twigs, necklace clasps, door jambs. So when my tiny agency out of Fort Lauderdale asked me to cut my waist-length hair, I quit. Truth be told, I was mortified by the demands of femininity, this type at least: to be demure, charismatic, well groomed, with good hair.

Lidia Yuknavitch recounted that “Woven” took around eight months to write. The piece refused to come together. She had set out to chronicle the attack on her girlfriend but ended up writing around it in braided narratives, about the time her second husband put a gun to her chest, about Lithuanian folk tales. She wrote and wrote until finally it appeared like a blooming drop of blood: her complicity. She did not stay with her girlfriend. The missing piece that was running through all her words, the pea under the mattress, became her compulsion to tell a broader story of violence. In “Woven” she writes, “My question is, where does my love come from that I walk through male violence to find it?”

Here is my disclosure: I have written many versions of myself and in none of them appears the fourteen-year-old window model. My memories of the mall, of my shyness, of my desire to be someone other than who I was: These are little shames. I am not suggesting this is remotely similar to Lidia Yuknavitch’s harrowing account. I have had larger shames as well, things tougher to write and share. No matter the size, it seems the flavor of shame remains the same. Perhaps its only measure is how much we can swallow at once.

In “Woven” Yuknavitch writes, “Aren’t we all woven through with stories? Isn’t that how we think of our lives, how we survive them?” How is it that so much of what we know about ourselves exists on the periphery? We write and write some more, hoping our memories surface, shame rises to the top, truth appears ugly, adulterated, even cosmetically enhanced, but still there and willing to be part of the worlds we create. I write fiction and perhaps this makes it easier to channel my stupid shames. How many different ways have I have told my story to make myself seem better, instead inflicting this scale of pains on my characters? I hope it makes them more believable, more embodied, complex and ultimately forgivable, because I cannot always say the same for myself.

Barstow: A Love Story

barstowI spent the first day of the new year in Barstow, a small city in the high desert just over a hundred miles east of Los Angeles. I was there with my spouse and children to lay flowers on the graves of family members buried at Mountain View Memorial Park. From a distance, irregularly planted trees were all that distinguished the rows of flat stone grave markers in a swath of close-cropped yellowed grass from the surrounding desert. The morning sun was low on the horizon and intense in a cloudless blue sky. It was cold for Southern California—below 40º F. As I climbed out of the car, I jammed gloved hands into my jacket pockets.

The cemetery is located on Barstow’s northern boundary, past the BNSF rail yard and across State Route 58. It feels remote, though it’s only four miles from Barstow Station, the busy railway-themed rest stop just past the junction of interstates 15 and 40. Authentic rail cars provide dining space for Barstow Station’s eateries and typify the city’s identity as a logistics hub.

Barstow’s location midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas to the north, and Flagstaff to the east, earned the city its reputation as “Crossroads of Opportunity.” Today, eighteen-wheelers travel highways and interstates that replaced the Old Spanish Trail, the arduous trade route through the high mountains, deserts, and deep canyons between Santa Fe and Los Angeles, and the Salt Lake Road that Mormons traveled in the early nineteenth century. Later, in 1883, Southern Pacific constructed a railway between Mohave and Needles, California to serve miners who converged in the area when silver and gold were discovered in nearby Calico and Daggett, respectively.

Though Barstow is still associated with travel and shipping, the city’s primary employer is now the military. Fort Irwin National Training Center (NTC) and the Marine Corps Logistics base together employ twenty-five times more people than the city’s next biggest employer, the BNSF Railway. Demographically, Barstow’s population mirrors the U.S. military today. It’s diverse, yet racially whiter and blacker than San Bernardino county or California, where Latinos predominate. Most residents pursue education beyond high school, but few ever earn a bachelor’s degree. And while military service can pay well, Barstow’s low median household income—$39,000, compared to $54,000 for the county and $61,000 for the state—suggests most NTC and Marine logistics personnel are not topping their branch pay scales.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Downtown Barstow was deserted on New Year’s. The few Main Street businesses still in operation were closed and strip mall parking lots were empty. Absent the usual traffic and activity, the low-slung, stone gray buildings blended into the pavement, weathered asphalt, and the dusty desert sand. This desperate city, epitomized in Kevin Sheridan’s Leaving Barstow, is a place not worth staying in unless “something’s wrong with you.” The impoverished, isolated desert road stop and those who inhabit it—struggling mother, new girlfriend, teacher, boss, and best friend, in particular—provide the context for the film’s protagonist, Andrew, to wrestle with his opportunity to leave home.

*     *     *

“Place is emotion,” according to Dorothy Allison, author of the autobiographical Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. It integrates the physical details—the colors, sounds, tastes, temperatures, and textures—and emotional cues that provide the reader/viewer with the information necessary to form a picture in her mind’s eye. Writing about place requires a close reading of a location’s sensual landscape and attention to the ways its inhabitants interact with one another and their surroundings. John Steinbeck visited Arvin Federal Government Camp for migrant workers and studied reports compiled by the camp’s director, Tom Collins, before writing The Grapes of Wrath. Jim Rawley in Grapes obviously channels Collins; more importantly, Collins’s extensive documentation of conditions in immigrant camps provided the historical information necessary for Steinbeck’s construction of place. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah draws on the author’s own life as a Nigerian immigrant who becomes “black” in America. Adichie interrogated the ways in which she herself navigated identity, race and place as a black woman in the American cultural context to create the novel’s protagonist, Ifemelu.

*     *     *

My paternal grandparents are among the family members buried in Barstow. Their story unfolds with the expansion of goods movement in Southern California and the westward migration of an established Midwestern family. Still it resists easy identification with the desolate Barstow of Sheridan’s film. Rather, it reveals a Barstow that more closely resembles the small Iowa towns they grew up in than a collection of affordable neighborhoods for passing soldiers and low-wage workers drawn to the area by the Tangiers outlets and the promise of a casino and resort.

My grandmother, Stella, was an Iowa farmer’s daughter whose part-time job was selling peanuts at the movie theater in town. Lyle, my grandfather, was the young man who developed a taste for silent films, just so he could buy peanuts from his girl. They married, became parents to four children, including my father, and moved across the country to California via Kansas City, Missouri. Lyle was a driver and manager for Yellow Freight Transit (now a subsidiary of Yellow Roadway Corporation), first in Orange County and then in Barstow.

Post retirement, he and Stella stayed put in their small desert home. Stella had grown to love the sunsets that filled the sky, the mountains on the horizon, and the company of their children and grandchildren who all lived within driving distance. As a child I loved visiting my grandparents in Barstow. My siblings and I would spend hours exploring via the city’s flood channels accessible from the ditch behind my grandparents’ back yard. We’d return hungry, hot, and flushed to fight over the corner stool at the bar, the only seat in the house where you could simultaneously eat, watch TV, and enjoy the cool air coming from the swamp cooler in the hall.

Version 2Stella died quietly in her sleep at the end of a long day spent with their children, one arm across her husband’s chest. Nearly every day after Stella’s burial, Lyle visited her grave at Barstow’s Mountain View Memorial Park. The groundskeeper often stopped his work to watch him. My grandfather sat for hours on a stone bench near the sapling that was planted to shade his “peanut girl’s” final resting place—a quiet spot near the edge of the park with a clear view of Black Mountain and the surrounding wilderness. He was tall, despite a pronounced stoop, and thin, with white-gray hair that stood up with the slightest wind. He’d lean forward over his knees and worry his fingers as if smoking, whether or not he had a cigarette at hand.

One day, he stopped visiting, and the groundskeeper moved the bench.

Lyle was buried with Stella on a warm April morning in the spot of shade provided by new leaves on a rapidly growing a tree. That tree, tall now and full in spring, is the first thing we look for when we bring flowers to lay on their grave. The simple gray headstone in a patch of grass at the base of the tree is a reminder that Barstow is a place where enduring love stories unfold.

Writing and Mindfulness

IMG_1486

I pulled into my snow covered driveway after a long day of work. I locked my black Subaru, fidgeted with my keys ‘til I found the kiwi green colored one marking home, and unlocked the front door. I was greeted by my dog Amelie—shaking her whole black-lab-pit body in a tremor of excitement. I put down my bag, rubbed her belly, threw my leftover Tupperware containers in the dishwasher, peed, noticed how dark yellow the color of the liquid was (too much coffee), drank a glass of water from the kitchen, and grabbed the leash to take Amelie for a walk. I could feel a dull pang of hunger in my stomach and wanted to eat something, but I knew if I were to stop moving, sit down, I would not get back up, and so I did all this quickly, while the air was dry and cold, even inside, and the soft light was fading quickly into the devouring darkness of winter.

It was snowing when I stepped outside—a slushy, wet snow—and the cars splashed across the black asphalt through the wet Salt Lake City streets. As I walked, I listened to the podcast On Being. The program seeks answers to questions like, “What does it mean to be human? And how do we want to live?”

You know, the easy stuff.

This week, host Krista Tippett had Ellen Langer on the podcast. Langer is a social psychologist who in many ways began the “mindfulness” movement back in the seventies. For Langer, mindfulness is not connected to transcendental meditation or yoga (which she sees as sorts of means to an end) but merely the “simple act of noticing things.” As I walked, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between writing and mindfulness. Because where else does writing start but in the noticing of things?

As Amelie trotted in front of me, I noticed the wet snow like clumps of slightly moistened flour, the variety of cars, from beat up Honda Civics to Black Escalades and small trucks. I noticed how the snow lit up the area in luminescence, reflecting the orange and white glow of fluorescent streetlights. I watched Amelie stick her black nose into the white snowdrifts, smelling something of which I was completely unaware, and as I held her leash I felt the tips of my bare fingers begin to numb. I looked inside the houses, or tried to, and I wondered about the people nestled behind the curtains in their houses along Oakley Street, each with their own story. You could write an entire anthology of stories, I imagined, a series of books, just listening to the people inside their houses on Oakley Street—or any street. Perhaps I would write a book like this one day. The sky began to fade from a whitish grey to a light black.

Langer continued by saying that most of us go through our lives in mindlessness, taking care of what is in front of us—work, kids, emails, social activities—and we then relax and kick back through entertainment and recreation in an equally mindless manner. But what we fail to do is notice and pay attention to what is front of us, which Langer argues has tremendous physical and mental benefits. We often equate rest and leisure with doing nothing and turning our brains off. But is this alone truly restful? Sometimes. I have spent entire weekends on the couch watching movies, thinking that was just what I needed. But I’d still feel exhausted when I showed up to work on Monday. Langer would say this phenomenon or experience has to do with mindfulness.

Langer conducted two famous studies in order to demonstrate this argument. In one, she found that hotel workers who thought of their rigorous daily duties as “exercise” rather than work began to reap the physical and mental benefits of exercise as if they were at the gym all day. They lost weight and reduced their blood pressure, all through simple awareness. In another study, she took two groups of older men and transported them both back twenty years, to a set designed to look as if it were the late fifties. The first group was told to pretend they were young men again for a week and the second to reminisce about the time period. Both groups showed cognitive and physical improvements, but the group that was told to pretend they were young improved dramatically more. Almost as if they had reversed time.

One of the most aware and mindful writers I’ve read over the last year is Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård. I’m currently working on a paper about how exactly he is able to write some 3,600 pages about his very ordinary life over the course of six volumes and, for some reason, still have an audience willing to read it. Knausgård employs various literary strategies such as engaging voice, humor, and meticulous detail. But the main way he accomplishes his epic work? Awareness. He is aware of the minutiae of daily life. He doesn’t simply say, ”My brother and I spent the afternoon cleaning up the house.” He takes you into each room—the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom downstairs. He doesn’t just say, “My wife went into labor and we drove to the hospital.” He gives us a near minute-to-minute analysis of the entire ordeal. This is in no way original to Knausgård—Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov (a few of the most detail-oriented writers) were doing this long before. What makes Knausgård unique is the sort of juxtaposition of ordinary, everyday, blue-collar content alongside opulent detail. Knausgård, more than anything, is aware. And awareness is the key to writing. To be able to observe and describe the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, facial expressions, and moods of a house, a character, or a conversation, is awareness, mindfulness. To be a writer is to be aware and to notice, and then translate into language. As Knausgård says about viewing everyday life:

Everyday life, which could bear down on us like a foot treading on a head, could also transport us with delight. Everything depended upon the seeing eye. If the eye saw the water that was everywhere in Tarkovsky’s films, for example—which changed the world into a kind of terrarium, where everything trickled and ran, floated and drifted, where all the characters could melt away from the picture and only coffee cups on a table were left, filling slowly with a falling rain, against a background of intense, almost menacing green vegetation—yes, then the eye would also be able to see the same wild, existential depths unfold in everyday life.

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Mindfulness is often considered synonymous with “being in the present,” in the sense that if I am mindful, I do not worry about what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future (both of which are out of my control). Instead, I do my best to tune in with what is happening in the present. The same goes for writing. The writer must be mindful of the present if they are to create well-written dialogue, external descriptions, setting, and so on.

There is however, a downside to this awareness and mindfulness. For to be aware is to remove the blinders from our periphery. To observe and be mindful is to not only be aware of that which is front of us in the present moment, but to be aware of and mindful of what is going on all around us—police brutality, war, economic injustice, racial divides, gender issues, addiction, poverty, and so on.

After all, the world can be a cruel, lonely, dark place and I, personally, contend daily with this reality and do my best not to numb it through drugs, alcohol, sex, or Netflix, even though everything within me screams for this numbness. The difficult-to-obtain balance has always existed in the ability to hold the present moment of awareness without being sucked into the vortex of motherfucking existence.

It is not always the prettiest or easiest activity, to engage in awareness and mindfulness—it takes concentration, focus, and endurance—but it is one job of the writer. To notice and be able to convey what others see but perhaps do not fully understand or engage with. This is not to puff the writer up with a big ego, but to humble them for the responsibility that rests upon their shoulders.

I turned the corner of the block back to my house. I saw the orange fluorescent glow of streetlights turn into magical, snow globe prisms. I listened to the splashing of the cars, the muffled chomping of my boots on the sidewalk. Water now seeped into my wool socks and I felt my feet turn cool and damp. I smelled tacos in the air from the tiendita across the street. I walked up the sidewalk to my front door, undid the blue leash from Amelie’s collar, stomped my feet on the brown welcome mat, rubbed my dead hands together, fished the kiwi-green-colored-key out of my pocket, and opened the front door to my house, where everything was now imbued with a different hue of light.

Spotlight: Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) / Sooraya Qadir / Mr. Frank, Biology

 

Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel)

Ammi and Abu, and that brother of mine—
They don’t know who I am. Curfews & calls
to prayer, weekly lectures at the mosque,
but then, there’s also the smell of bacon
sandwiches at the Amreeki corner shop,
and the cell phone buzzing in my back pocket.
And then I changed. Like being me
wasn’t complicated enough. The first time
I turned, I turned blonde. Busty. White.
That’s not what I meant when I asked for ass-
kicking beauty. I thought I’d feel
strong, but nope. Just naked. Wrong.

 

Sooraya Qadir

I call myself
Dust. I settle over the city,
under tired wheels,
sandals, hooves, bare—
Wait on the streets
until you step out of the air-
conditioned hotel.
You sit. You pour, and pour
white sugar into your tea.
Listen: the grains
against the gilded glass.
Listen: I collect
around your feet,
in the creases
of your tailored suit, fill
up the many small fists
of your lungs. Barely visible,
I block the gun’s trigger.

 

Mr. Frank, Biology

The male, he said, is striking,
The male is nature’s
masterpiece. The female
is muted in color, so she can
vanish. The male is what keeps
all species alive.
Now girls, watch. The male
gets what he wants.
It is a perfectly natural thing.

Annette C. Boehm’s poems have appeared in the New Welsh Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Chariton Review, and other journals. Her collection, The Knowledge Weapon, won the Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition and will be released in spring 2016. Her chapbook The Five Parts of Love was published by Dancing Girl Press. She is a poetry reader for Memorious and a graduate of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Navigating Intersections in Panama City

I have always been struck by the fluid lane-changes and cultural mash-ups that are part of day-to-day life in Panama, but never more so than on this year’s trip—one of at least twenty that I have taken since meeting my Panamanian husband in New York over thirty years ago.

Over time, Panama City has become my second home, and Spanish, my second language. My cultural fluency improves with every visit. Still, it always takes a few days before the personality and patois of the country makes sense to me, before I am able to shed an American perspective for one that’s transnational and transcultural—for one that reflects América. Panama is a complex mix of Afro-Antilleano, Afro-Colonial, Jewish, Chinese, Kuna, and other indigenous communities. As in all of Latin America, Spanish influences are everywhere and relations with the U.S. are complicated. Navigating Panama’s cultural intersections—and its particular blend of class, gender and race intersectionality—is not for the faint of heart. The same holds true for surviving Panama’s traffic clogged intersections (and occasional circles of death). I’ll never get used to driving here but, for the full Panamanian experience, it has to be done.

Day three of our trip, I decided it was time to get behind the wheel. Two of our nieces had recently graduated from high school and I wanted to swing by their homes to drop off presents. My reluctant husband handed me the keys. It was mid-day, a few days before Christmas, and traffic was already bad. In order to avoid MultiPlaza, the sprawling high-end mall in the middle of the city, I turned onto a narrow side street in a residential area. Cars were moving. There was a steady flow of traffic going in the other direction. My side of the road was almost empty. I gained confidence and picked up speed.

“Este Yaris es bien zippy,” I told my husband. My mind wandered as I tried to come up with a good word for zippy in Spanish.

“Hueco,” my husband warned. “It’s not an SUV, Rochelle.”

Photo Credit: R. Newman-Carrasco

Photo Credit: R. Newman-Carrasco

Zippy would have to wait. A hueco is a cross between a pothole and a ditch. In the land of the Canal, also known as the Big Ditch, huecos can be very wide and very deep. In spite of oncoming traffic, I knew I should swerve out of my lane and drive on the wrong side of the road for a minute. My husband could do that without blinking an eye. I couldn’t. My Panamanian reflexes had not kicked into gear. Bam. The small Toyota Yaris sank. A loud thud was followed by a jolt and a metallic scraping sound. I winced, trying to act calm, and slowed down in case there were more holes to come. The driver of the giant Lexus SUV behind me started leaning on her horn. I cursed, in English, then accelerated and hoped for the best.

“Tranque,” my husband groaned a few blocks later.

Panamanian gridlock is impressive and can be caused by anything from protesters to broken down buses to cars spilling onto main roads from supermarket parking lots. No sooner had I become aware of the traffic jam up ahead than my attention shifted to the car in front of me. It was backing up while I was still moving forward. I slammed on the brakes in time to prevent a collision. I cursed in Spanish because it made me feel better. He was just doing what Panamanians do—changing directions, oblivious to what was going on behind him. It was just how things were done. The more fearless I got about sticking my car into oncoming traffic, cutting off buses, and ignoring signals and stop signs, the sooner I found my Panamanian flow. Assume nothing, I would tell myself. Cars were coming from every direction. They were not interested in playing by my U.S. driving school rules. It looked like chaos to me, but it was my job to drive, not to judge.

We arrived at my niece’s house. Alive. The anxiety of unruly intersections was replaced by a series of other cultural collisions the minute we walked in the door. Like driving, capturing the essence of a day in the life of Panamanians doesn’t work when I am in a U.S. state of mind, when I am relating to others as other, when I am not able to let go and, instead, cast myself in the outsider role. In spite of my bilingualism, I’m conditioned to expect monolingualism. In spite of my cultural fluency, I readily fall into the trap of the Single Story. It shouldn’t have surprised me that my trilingual, Sherlock Holmes-loving, Panamanian niece had a gift wishlist that included two Panic At the Disco CDs and the DVD of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Or that, upon hearing Panic At the Disco for the first time, her tío, my husband, immediately recognized a generational intersection and introduced her to Elvis Costello. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Panamanians don’t live by Ruben Blades alone. But on some level, it still did.

My youngest niece sat next to me on the living room couch, showed me her anime pencil sketches, and talked to me about the anime géneros she liked best. Before the list of genres appeared on her laptop screen, the word géneros reworked itself in my rusty bilingual brain like the subconscious rearranging of an anagram. Soon, my sister-in-law joined us, sporting her new natural hairstyle. Not only was she pleased that it made her look younger but, as an Afro-Panamanian, it also made her proud. Like most Latinas, she had learned about pelo bueno and pelo malo at an early age—only straight hair was good hair, everything else needed to be fixed. No more. Her daughters were going natural as well, she told me, before she switched gears and launched into a rave review of an award-winning documentary about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, directed by a prominent member of the Panamanian Jewish community.

This was my first trip to Panama since graduating with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. In fact, the degree was just a day old when we arrived. As soon as we were off the plane, I found myself observing and mentally recording each unfolding moment with a heightened sense of responsibility. I was in official “writer” mode and I had placed pressure on myself to capture detail and search for meaning in every scene. To make matters worse, my recent graduate presentation, entitled The Problem with Privilege, had me hyper-focused on ways in which I could constructively contribute to the literary conversation on white hegemony—on ways that I could encourage writers to consider their blind spots. Was I truly able to detect my own?

Kuna with pipe and mola

Panama is all about intersections and disruption. The isthmus united continents but divided oceans. Here, the single story is virtually impossible to hold on to for long. There is bound to be a collision or an overlap or an unexpected turn or twist; it’s built into Panama’s DNA. The country’s cultural diversity was fuelled by its position as the narrowest spot between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the 1500s, the Spaniards were intent upon leveraging this strategic advantage. They weren’t alone. The Scottish tried, but failed, to become a world-trading nation by exploiting Panama. With the Spaniards came black slaves, some of whom, upon escaping, formed their own influential communities. Chinese and West Indian immigration started with the construction of the world’s first Transcontinental Railroad. Then, of course, there was the Panama Canal, which was started by the French and finished by the U.S. Over 100,000 workers came from Jamaica, Barbados and throughout the West Indies to build the Canal, and many died in the process. This feat of engineering also attracted immigrants and adventure seekers from around the globe, including Sinclair Lewis and Paul Gaugin. Panama’s indigenous populations include at least six distinct cultures. As an example, The Kuna (also known as Guna), are Panama’s second largest indigenous population. They were granted political autonomy and maintain their culture on their own terms, on their own land, adding yet another layer to the diverse Panamanian population. Cultural intersections abound.

Before our visit ended, my niece told me something she had learned at Panama’s new Biomuseo, the first biodiversity museum in the world. The museum was designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is married to a Panamanian. “Somos todos Panameños,” my niece said. Then she pointed me to an online article from a dated issue of Discover Magazine entitled We are all Panamanians;” it makes its case based on the hypothesis of Steven Stanley, a paleobiologist at John Hopkins:

The uplift of this skinny little neck of land between the Americas set in motion an enormous oceanographic change that allowed the Arctic to cool; that had an enormous effect in Africa, by drying the climate and leading to the evolution of Homo. In other words, we would not exist if this little neck of land had not risen up across the ocean from where our ancestors lived.

I had arrived at my sister-in-law’s in Panamanian-driver mode. By the time I left, according to my niece, I was Panamanian. As a writer, I want to be open to this and many other possibilities. As a reader, I want the same. Diversifying and adding dimension to the literary landscape is in all of our best interests. We are all connected. We all intersect. Collaborate or crash. The problem with privilege is that it narrows perspectives, shrinks sightlines, and creates blind spots. Deluded into believing that we own the road, we see no reason to merge, yield, or get out of the way.

Biomuseo. Architect: Frank Gehry.

Biomuseo. Architect: Frank Gehry.

Carlos Fuentes once wrote, “The United States has written the white history of the United States. It now needs to write the Black, Latino, Indian, Asian, and Caribbean history of the United States.” Although best known as a Mexican writer and essayist, Fuentes was born in Panama. He lovingly refers to the country as “… a scar in the sea in the middle of the jungle,” as he reflects on the scope of Panama’s motto—Puente del mundo. Corazón del universo. Bridge of the world. Heart of the Universe. It’s what Panama is as a country. It’s what we are as writers.

Spotlight: Breakup

In Charlotte, where winter brings no guarantee of snow, small children press their palms together, close their eyes so tight they see waves of color, and plead with God to unzip heaven. And last night God answered their prayers, pouring a fine dusting across the hard ground. This morning the radio says, “No school.” Twitter commands, “Stay off the roads.”

After my young daughters slip into seldom-used boots and pull fuzzy hats over the tips of ears, I open the front door to the sound of melting snow. We emerge into the bright sun as rivulets of water already gush down the road. Grey concrete peeks through our trail of footprints. Tiny icicles clank against the ground, succumbing to the same warm rays beating my brow. Tomorrow, I will stand on this bare sidewalk, absent the melting song that declares the cold can’t remain.

In my childhood home, we referred to today’s symphony as “breakup.” Breakup in Anchorage was a thing of weeks, maybe stretching beyond a month. A whole season. First winter. Then breakup. Finally spring. After months of snow and ice, breakup reminded us that winter could not prevail. That spring would always swallow death. Drops of water plunking against still frozen ice. Tiny rivers in search of street gutters. Frozen fangs released from roofs, shattering against porches and decks. My rubber boots—breakup boots, we called them—pounding puddles, splashing slush.

Now in my front yard, thin blades of dead grass poke through the snow. The girls lean back on the white lawn, thick tights and fleece pants shielding them from the damp. Flapping arms and legs, they leave behind the outline of angels.

“Listen,” I say. “Do you hear the snow melting?”

“Listen,” I say again.

Can they know the music? Can their ears discern those sounds in a world where snow leaves in a day? Tomorrow we will stare at yards returned to winter’s norm, at our world carrying on in muted colors. Then on a Saturday in the near future, we will awaken to the hum of lawn mowers and the soft fragrance of fresh cut grass. Without realizing it, we will step into a season that splashes pinks, purples, and vibrant greens on flowers and buds and lawns.

But what of the waiting, what of the longing for an end to the grey? What of a season that reminds us of what we leave, but hints at what still will come? The in-between time when we start to believe for another year that winter will pass. When we muster hope that the spring we remember will come again.

Standing in the driveway, I watch the girls tumble around the yard, puffed out with coats, weighted down by pastel boots. They lean towards the ground and run mittened hands across the snow. We walk to the sidewalk, a mixture of feathery white and patches of wet concrete. Around me the air sings, and the curve of my mouth mirrors my daughters’ smiles. The girls remove their mittens and slide warm fingers across chunks of ice while I languish in the dripping, the cracking against the ground, the music of today’s breakup.

Feel the ice, I think as I watch my daughters. Feel the melting ice. With both her hands, my oldest breaks a frozen gem into smaller stones. She presses a piece against her cheeks. My youngest takes another to her lips. And I imagine what I hear today, I will hear tomorrow, and the next day. Until one bright morning, a bird will sing amidst fresh buds pushing through the branches of a tree.

 

 

Patrice GopoPatrice Gopo’s essays have appeared in several publications including Sweet: A Literary Confection, and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is currently at work on a collection of essays that explores issues of race, immigration, and belonging. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina.

 

A Message to Myself on January 1, When I’m So Hungover

davi bag

Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

Hungover Mary Birnbaum of the future, I’m writing to you with an urgent message.

You’ve crossed into 2016, while here I sit, planted forever in last year. Once I send this blog to my editor, it will travel away from me like a lover on a train, waving a scarf from an open window as it recedes into steam. Yes, it does seem like an improbably old-timey train, Future Mary, but you’re missing the point.

For you, Mary of January 1, all the kissing and the swaying is over; the champagne is frothed over and the sparklers are just charred sticks. The kazoos have had their wail. The clackers have clacked their last. Everyone is finished mumbling Auld Lang Syne. They’re sleeping off 2015 on a pile of confetti somewhere.

[blockquote align=right]because we live in the language trap, for now let’s call it “unguarded desire.” I want to call your attention to that feeling, which is recent enough that you still may access it.

But you are awake, Mary. Good for you! You’re up, reading the Internet, though you’re suffering the pain of a ghastly hangover. The point is this: you know that feeling you had, right before you passed out? It’s hard to name, but because we live in the language trap, for now let’s call it “unguarded desire.” I want to call your attention to that feeling, which is recent enough that you still may access it. Tapping that desire will make you write better this year, Mary. Cleave to it like Aspirin.

Desire is the plot. What did we want, as the actor Stanislavski was known to ask. What have I come on stage for? Or to the page for? For a sandwich? For a pillow? For vengeance or forgiveness? Or have I come looking for love, love, love? The drink washes all obstacles away and desire is transformed into deed. I’m not advocating that you abandon impulse control. I’m suggesting that you examine your unabashed actions.

On a side note, Mary, you should check your phone for drunk texts.

Future Mary, this blog is my time capsule to you. We presume that desire is relevant only insofar as gaining its object, and once the kiss, the job, the banana cream pie is obtained, desire swirls away like smoke from a spent match. The thing is, it was the wanting that mattered, not the pie. The sweet longing, not the sweet. All that drunken flopping is the point—the ecstatic mind playing the body like an instrument.

[blockquote align=right]Longing is what makes us write, not the promise of a perfect essay. A perfect anything always recedes from us.

Mary, as you sober up, latch onto that final New Year’s Eve moment when love came easy, when feeling bolted clean through you and made you dance or disrobe or burble a maudlin tune for old time’s sake. The memory is recent and not out of reach; it is as close as your dreams. A drunkard by definition has never had enough drinks. This is the way it should be with writing. It should resist satisfaction or complacency. It should always grab for another swig, lunge further to the dark. Longing is what makes us write, not the promise of a perfect essay. A perfect anything always recedes from us. When we think we have arrived at the goal, we find we have misjudged the distance. I’m sorry about our prospects for ever “finishing” an essay. But there you have it. The beauty’s in the chase.

Future Mary, I know you are filled with self-loathing. Let’s face it. Our track record is not great and sometimes contempt is warranted. Like the time we couldn’t find our way out of an unlocked bathroom for a couple hours. Like the time we flashed our Spanx at everyone at the wedding, right before leaping into the pool. Like the time we wandered off and our sister’s fiancée had to pick us up and carry us back but we were too heavy and we fell into the vegetable garden and we felt terrible for damaging our sister’s fiancée. I could go on. You know I could. I will spare you.

What do they say is the cure for a hangover? Eye of newt? Hair of dog? A spoonful of sugar? We know from experience that these are cruel lies. Let this thought be your balm today: that you sidled up to something powerful. It was your unfiltered mind, full of wanting. Mere hours separate you from those New Year’s Eve minutes, Mary, when you were all energy and yearning. Desire is part of you, drunk or sober, it’s just that when you’re sober you wonder what the view is like from the top of the tree, and when you’re drunk you start climbing.

Climb the tree if you must, Mary! Climb the tree! But do it sober. This is a safer approach. You damage fewer bones and relationships. And remember that the joy was actually in pulling your body between the branches. And we don’t mean to offer getting drunk as a reasonable or sustainable means to tapping one’s secret self. Lots of normal people do yoga. Mary, why don’t we welcome 2016 as the year we finally got on board with yoga. [blockquote align=left]Forgive us our early drafts… We all know that even clean writing wants revision almost immediately.

I know what you’re thinking. Hey, McFly, time for you and your stupid metaphors to make like a tree and head back to the DeLorean. Because by now you have a better idea for this blog. That’s about how fast we think: two weeks too slow.

(You should write that better idea down immediately, Future Mary. You’ll need it in like six weeks when your editor wants another blog.)

Try not to spend too much time today regretting this topic. Forgive us our early drafts—forgive the writer who tries to write a blog over winter break when everything is cookies, cookies, cookies and crying and “generously” agreeing to sit at the kids’ table at Christmas Eve dinner because you don’t want to have to talk to grown-ups about grown-up things. It’s a blog, headed inexorably down the tracks toward the Internet, but you suspect everyone who reads it will be as forgiving of you as you are of yourself. ‘Tis the season, etc. We all know that even clean writing wants revision almost immediately. The revisions are as infinite as our drunken antics.

stormtrooper

Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

You feel hollow and hopeless now, and no number of electrolytes will make you whole. Mary, I want to suggest that all that pain you feel now is the remnant of desire. I’m not saying it isn’t the tequila, but it’s also the body shuddering as ecstasy takes its leave. This is a semi-sadistic entreaty to seize the fleeting feeling that made you throw up your skirt, the moment right before you launched your body into the pool, the urge that made you run off into the night, whatever it was that made you think you could sing.

What was it you wanted? What do we ever want? How does the wanting feel? That itch lives under your skin even now. So write it down.