Let’s Talk About Lava: What I learned about reconfiguring death from a 7 year old

by Nikki Wallschlaeger 

I was playing old school video games with my son, and like most adventure-type games, there’s the level where you have to maneuver your characters around seas of hot lava. On one particular game, shoots of lava would flame up from the eight-bit river beds, and the challenge would lie in knowing exactly how many seconds to wait so we could jump to safety. He was entranced and I was curious.

I asked him, “What does lava mean to you?

“Not dying,” was his immediate reply.

I recently had a dream where I was examining the furnace in my basement. To my surprise, I saw that the furnace was running on lava. The best part of the dream was the lack of threat I felt watching the lava rotate like a washing machine at a Laundromat, an umbilical cord to the earth smiling through the floor.

So lately, it seems I am becoming closer to the spirits of fire. Since I turned 30 a lot of things have changed for the better: I have reached ease in my skin, at home in my own body at last. I’ve been through a lot of shit in my life, and I’ve been feeling a deeply profound sense of relief of return and renewal. It feels like I am coming back to something I observe mirrored in my own son—who is going on eight years old.

When I was his age, I remember the lava game: the floor or the carpet was an abyss of burning hot lava so deadly you died immediately upon entering. Your life depended on being able to jump from couch to chair, pillow, or anything else in the room to get where you wanted to be in the game. If you fell or tripped onto the floor, you were finished. No one could save you, so you started over.

I’ve watched my son play this game often enough with his friends, but there was something about today that reminded me of how I used to deal with death at his age. In the game, death was consciously avoided with excitement; the threat of melting into the lava below was the center of their play. They also took risks, I had noticed with piqued interest, rather than sitting on the couch a safe distance away from the terrors of volcanic melted rock. They strategized.

I felt there was something to be gleaned here about approaching death, about how to choose for yourself. You can sit on a couch and wait obediently for instructions about what happens after life is over, pretending to be the winner of the game. Or you can engage in play with death, looking at it, sinking every now and then into the carpet. The message wasn’t clear, which I have a tendency to prefer over certainty, but what I could tease out by watching the children was a dance of natural courage that they gave willingly to something they instinctively knew was unavoidable—even if one’s life came to a violent end.

On the contrary, in their play, violence seemed to be the preferred way to confront death. It was easy, fast, and adventurous. They also seemed to have a profound understanding about spiritual death than most adults are willing to give them credit for: death marked a beginning to start the game again, often with a different rule system in place. Resurrection was as natural as breathing and unbreathing, without the dogma of an established tradition of theological values. It was what you did to avoid mishap into an orange-red abyss, and if you did fall, it was met with squeals and an obvious delight. Maybe the real point to their games, and the video game, was death instead of victory. Do we long to fall into something that promises an ending so we can start over as smarter, fresher participants? Is victory actually a buzz kill, where we reach a static plateau of accomplishment? Of course, this is in the realm of the metaphorical, the cycles of renewal that can be controlled by having a functioning physiological pulse and brain, by moving flesh and blood. I can’t imagine falling literally into the spew of a volcano as being anyone’s choice of things to do on a Sunday afternoon.

As a family, we do not belong to an organized religion. I didn’t grow up in a religious family so I’m predisposed to making up my movements as I go along. Kind of like a free-range approach to spirituality while I maneuver through obstacles, mess around at some of the oases. I also like dying every now and then, my foot hitting the floor, getting up again when I’m ready. It feels like play not knowing the answers. It feels like play when I can feel good about dying when I’m not dying in the present. So I’m befriending death. I won’t deny you. I’ll look at you as a new beginning, a spontaneous children’s game where we rely on the unknown to get us safely across.

Let’s Talk About Lava: What I learned about reconfiguring death from a 7 year old

What Made the Salt Caverns Unsound: A Conversation with Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma

HER KIND: Deborah A. Miranda ends her poem “Old Territory. New Maps.” with this entreaty to a former lover: “…Help me/ translate loss the way this land does—/flood, earthquake, landslide—/terrible, and alive.” What are the natural worlds of Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma?  In what ways do you and your work connect to the natural world?


WENDY BABIAK: Wow. First, I have to thank you for introducing me to this powerful poem. And then say that the natural world reflected in it manifests one way I see it: the landscape in which we love. But it’s also the world that feeds us, the very stuff from which we grow. As I’ve heard it said, the earth peoples like an apple tree apples. To imagine that we’re separate from the natural world is one of man’s most ridiculous fallacies. And it’s why we’re killing ourselves, by poisoning the air and water, by killing the micro-herds of the soil and the bees that pollinate our food, by dismantling with our carbon in the atmosphere the life-supporting systems of the planet: because we imagine that we are not of this world, but just living in it.

But it’s more than just the stuff of life; it’s also the stuff of spirit. As a panentheist, I believe that everything is imbued with divine nature, that God is immanent. (Also transcendent, which is why I say I’m a panentheist, not a pantheist.) And since we’re part of the natural world, we partake of that divine nature. The Hindus’ greeting, namaste, means “the divine light within me recognizes and honors the divine light in you.” The consciousness that looks out of my eyes is the same as the one that looks out of every pair. We are God meeting herself, whether we greet another human, a wasp, or a sunset. So Christ’s mandate, love one another as you love yourself, is quite literal. You love the other because you are the other. Of course, I’m not talking about the small self, the ego (which is just a trick of the mind…shhh, don’t talk about that too loudly, the little bugger really takes it personally). I’m talking about the ground of being.

I was born and grew up on the east coast of Florida. As a teenager, I watched pristine areas be developed into strip malls that no one wanted. “If you build it, they will come.” It was the 80s, it was totally stupid, and it broke my heart. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18. Instead I walked, roller skated, or biked wherever I wanted to go. I engaged the world with no barrier between me and what I moved through, and that’s still my preferred mode of travel. I spent a lot of time at the beach. I saw dolphins from my dinner table, which looked out over the Intercoastal Waterway (what we called the Halifax River, though it wasn’t a river at all). Great blue herons would land and stand on my dock. Brown pelicans bred on a mangrove about a mile away. I once had a close encounter with a pair of manatees. As a moody teenager, the truth of the human world dawning on me, I walked the beach in the wind of November at night, feeling kinship with the clouds and the Atlantic, and suicide no longer seemed necessary, all my bad energy drained away into the storm. Now I don’t go home to Florida much. To see how much of it has been paved is distressing.

I have lived in big cities: Valencia in Spain, Chicago, DC, New Orleans. I remember in Chicago feeling trapped between the buildings, looking up at the strip of sky, and not feeling okay until I got to the lakeshore and could again see the horizon. In DC I walked to work along the C&O canal. Canadian geese spent the winter at the reservoir, near where I lived in Georgetown, and in the spring the goslings announced the season’s arrival as surely as the tulips. One time one of my bosses on K Street was stressing out, and I asked him, “Have you seen the pear trees down there in bloom?” Wherever I have lived, I have observed keenly the passage of time as it plays out in plant and animal life, learning the names and relationships. I started gardening as soon as I could, learning as I went. I got tired of killing plants and enrolled in the Master Gardener program through the extension in Shreveport, completing it shortly before being uprooted from my garden there (still a tender spot). For a very long time I’ve been gardening for butterflies and hummingbirds. About seven years ago I read Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and started trying to grow my own food, though there’s lots of competition for that stuff out there, especially here where I live in Cayuga Heights, overlooking, on East Hill, Ithaca, NY. Just today I noticed that somebody’s come and eaten one of my kale and two of my Brussels sprouts starts. Tomorrow I’ll need to go out and fortify the fence. I think it was the resident groundhog. This summer I hope to complete my design certification at the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, outside of town.

Because of all this I can’t write a poem without some detail from the garden or glade cropping up. I wrote a poem about desire, “Fall, Falling, Fallen” that begins, “The leaves of the dogwoods now/ almost match their berries/ heavy and red, swollen with rain.” I also can’t keep my concern regarding what we’re doing (the rape of the biosphere) out of my work. My first collection, Conspiracy of Leaves, is full of such natural imagery juxtaposed with very different images. I chose to focus my first collection on war and fundamentalism, though climate change is, strangely enough, an even bigger threat in the long run. But I knew I could never get anyone to see the personhood of a tree if they couldn’t see the personhood of another human being, blinded by their ideology. My next collection, Perrenial, deals even more directly with the land and our relationship with it.


METTA SÁMA: Greetings. I echo Wendy: thanks so much for introducing me to that poem, and to this conversation, as a way to begin.

Yesterday, while driving here (to upstate NY), I was in Maryland on the Interstate, 895, I think, and talking to a friend about this conversation that Wendy & I would soon embark on. By way of reminding her of who Wendy was, I reminded her of a poem Wendy wrote for me, and, as I did when I read the poem the first and second time and consequent times, I stopped the tears that were brewing. 895 is surrounded with trees and there are signs throughout Maryland asking us to respect the natural world around us. Wendy’s poem begins on a premise, a question: do black people in the U.S. see trees as trees, or do we see the sordid history of the U.S., lynchings and such. I contacted Wendy & told her that when I see trees I see trees (and this was partially true). However, I’m now on these 1000 acres of land, and when I see this land, I see 250 freed enslaved persons who didn’t receive their 40 acres. A friend reminded me, too, that these 1000 acres are carrying the blood and bodies of Indigenous persons who were brutally removed from this land. I’ve been here about 26 hours and I’ve taken two long walks through the woods, encountered a snake, dozens of insect varieties, some tadpoles and birds. This is protected land, and I’m already loving it here, yet I do worry that when I get into my car I’m disturbing the natural order of things. But this is the new natural, yes?

Too often, we treat the land and the water and the air with incredible brutality. We believe it will replenish itself, and often it has, but it can’t keep getting depleted and returning itself to us, scathed but unscorned. At least once a year, when I lived in New York, I’d drive down to TN to visit my family, and so I’d have to drive through VA, which I both detested and completely loved. VA is a naturally beautiful place that’s being devastated by mountaintop removals and is also being devastated by widening highways. It’s always been so amazing to me to know that there are people in this world who feel nothing at the sight of mountains being cut into, trees being chopped down, rivers being polluted. How can one not feel that you yourself are being torn apart, dumped into?

When I was a young’un, I would feel intense physical pain to see our mountains in TN being dug into, watching people tear into the land simply to have a house perched on a mountain peak. I no longer feel that physical pain; now I feel rage and prolonged sadness. I’m an earth sign, and I’m a woman, so I feel that the land and all its non-human inhabitants are my kindred folks. They belong to me, and I belong to them; as Wendy said, they are of me and I am of them. I’ve always had a deeper connection to non-human forms; I was a bare-footed wanderer who spent most of my time looking up at the clouds, walking barefoot through the hills, trying to understand insects, hanging out in trees. I recently showed my parents my swollen, fire-ant bitten foot, and later one of my sisters immediately asked: “were you barefoot?”

Wendy’s final thought strikes me as what and how the natural world has to mean and matter, if any of us are serious about continuing on this planet: “But I knew I could never get anyone to see the personhood of a tree if they couldn’t see the personhood of another human being, blinded by their ideology” (par 5), and I’d add “and vice versa and interwoven”. And to return, briefly, to Miranda’s poem, and because Claudia Rankine’s Nothing in Nature is Private is sitting right next to me, I’ll add that there is something about escape, for me, in the natural world, and recognition, of humans, and their destructive force and power. And the natural world has always been a great source of power, of erotic power; there is energy in the land, more energy when the land is fed by water, tended to by air, cleansed by fire. I’m turned on by nature, physically, yes, and also mentally, spiritually, psychically, emotionally. Charged. ~


WB: Metta, lovely that you end with the resonant word, “Charged.” As you may know, in spellcraft, one charges an object (a candle to be burned, a crystal or stone to be worn or handled or placed as protection, a tool to be manipulated) with intention. I love the thought of you being charged, being filled with intention, by the natural world. I feel that way, too. Sometimes I can feel it rise up through the soles of my feet. And after it’s discharged, often through writing, I am left feeling a little shaky, like after good sex.

How wonderful, too, that you find yourself in upstate New York while we’re having this conversation via email. I went to Google Maps to figure out how far away you are: only about 3 hours driving. Oh, I hope you do come for a visit. I bet we end up laughing, and crying, and we can “bravely deplore.” And there is so much to deplore (of course we don’t want to let that sort of emotion eat us up, there is that danger, but dang, one can’t simply shrug off such ridiculous brutality, such obvious willful ignorance, such absolute disregard for the consequences of their unfettered greed—sounds a little like slavery, or colonization, doesn’t it?). Maybe I’ll drive you over to Seneca Lake, where my daughter goes to summer camp, and where an out-of-state company is attempting to colonize what is now a jewel of a place, with soft folding hills and long, deep lakes, by making it the northeastern hub for natural gas storage. In salt caverns that have been declared geologically unsound. I shit you not. And they’ve already been given permits to dump obscene amounts of toxins into the lake, which they’re doing. I’m not sure I’m going to send my daughter there this year, though she will be heartbroken. But not as much as I will be if she gets cancer.

Or I may come and visit you— a real possibility once the old Volvo is out of the shop and my son gets his driver’s license, both immanent occurrences (fingers crossed). Alas, I thought perhaps I could trek there on bike, but that would take 21 hours riding time, which means having to spend the night on the way, and risking who knows what. Well, we do know what. Rape and murder. Which brings me to another constellation of thoughts I’ve been watching dance in my head of late: the mythologizing of the natural world, and what impact it can have. And I don’t mean the sort of historical associations that can mar the experience of nature for some people, such as my poem engaged. (I didn’t mean to make you cry!) I’m talking about the way, at least in the West, nature has been imbued with a feminine being by patriarchy, making it ripe for rape. The whole Mother Nature trope. Material, matter, mater. Which places environmental degradation at the apex of rape culture.

We can blame it on Plato, convincing us that the soul, a perfect sphere, resided in the skull created to house it by the gods, the body simply being a machine to carry the head around. Cut off from the heart and from the brain in the belly, instead of fully inhabiting ourselves along the axis of being, we’re stuck up in our cranial brains, wondering why we feel so alienated. We’re alienated not only from the world we sprang from, but from our own deeper selves. This is how those whose actions against the world we so deplore can do what it is they do: they are cut off from the parts of themselves that would speak to them about the truth of things. The cranial brain is very good at rationalization. We all carry this conditioning, though some of us, admittedly, are at least in the process of teasing it out. Some swim through this story completely oblivious. The fact that you so identified with the natural world, so saw the truth of your oneness with it, that you felt physical pain when you saw it damaged, tells me that you didn’t quite buy into the culture’s story. Good for you.

Imagine instead a culture in which fully integrated people, people inhabiting their whole selves, engaged the natural world aware that they were an inextricable part of it. This is where we need to go. It seems like we need to write a new myth, of a sort, to get us there. Sure it’d be great if people could simply wake up to the truth, without some story to lead them. But that’s not the way we work, is it?


MS: Ummm hell yes I want to see you! I’ve been wanting to trek the gorges with you for quite awhile now, to see it as you see it. When I lived in Binghamton, as often as I went to Binghamton, I never went to the gorges. If you visit here, we can hike the trails & perchance take a book of St. Vincent Millay’s poems (and maybe a cocktail or two!).

What has happened that made the salt caverns unsound? I can imagine this to be true, particularly if people have been allowed to visit there and touch the walls, disturb the environment.

A few weeks ago, while I was co-editing (although I think we used the term co-curating) a section of a journal, I read a poem that had been sent in that likened the woman’s body to the land (the oppressed woman, the trampled on land); no troubling of phrases, no complicating of ideas, and I was so bothered by this, that I talked with the co-editor about it. He insisted that my irritation was steeped in Western ideologies, that many African nations readily likened women’s bodies to the land, and there was power in this. But I recalled being a conference of women writers of the African Diaspora, and this notion–woman-body-earth–was deeply critiqued, writers ridiculed for continue to validate this trope. Assia Djebar’s Fantasia opens with the trope, of the veiled mountain (veiled by fog) and the veiled women in the city, the generals seeing the penetration of horizon as the penetration of the women. In Pueblo, México, there is a volcanic mountain range with four snow-capped peaks called Iztaccíhuatl (which is Nahuatl for white woman), and the highest peak is called La Mujer Dormida (sleeping woman); there’s a whole legend about it. And then there’s Walt Whitman, who, in *Song of Myself* talks about dropping his seed into the earth. During the time that I first came across Djebar’s work, I was also writing missives to a student-turned-great-friend about the rape and pillage of Africa’s natural resources, the wars waged on people and land to get to these resources, the women’s bodies being pillaged and raped, too; for a time, I couldn’t get the image of caves and caverns as vaginas out of mind, so deeply ingrained was I in that rendering of the land as mother as woman! I fence-straddle about the connection: it’s there & it’s not there; it’s been mythologized, yes, certainly, and often, when we read these myths, they seem to damn the woman to the land or silence the woman in the land. Claudia Rankine says Nothing in Nature is Private (and I often think she’s saying): “everything is nature is up for grabs,” literally. We’re a very grabby race, humans.

Rationalizations and Romanticizations and Plato (who we have to stop blaming things on! The dude was theorizing and philosophizing in an age that had little technology to see and understand the mysterious concepts he and others were contemplating. We were talking about Freud, here, and I saw the eyes rolling, and I thought, “Xist Almighty! How much weight we always give to white men! Ideas only seem to die down or get hidden away or erased when they don’t belong to white men!.)

Mentioning white men, I brought Roland Barthes’ Mythologies here, and it’s quite appropriate that we’re talking about mythologies, now at this time, for each of us, it seems!

It’s a good thing for a poem to prompt tears. I can’t recall the last time I’d cried from reading a poem. That poem stays with me, while I’m here, in part pondering settlements and settlers.

What’s the equivalent of laughter for the land? This morning, I woke up in tears (intense dream!) and got dressed and set out on my daily walk to rid myself of those dream-memories. Didn’t work, so I turned around and sought out my resident mates, who are always filled with some turn of phrase or story that gets me laughing, which always seems to be just the stimulant my body needs to slough off the blues.


WB: I will be researching good hikes. I often simply walk the dogs through my neighborhood, passing over the gorges that separate the village and the Cornell campus, but I have gone on a couple slightly out of town. One on my birthday in July last year, to a disappointingly dry Taughannok Falls. Drought. Thanks, climate change.

I’ve heard it said that the earth laughs in flowers. If that’s the truth, then something is seriously tickling her funny bone this spring. It’s a riot around here! (Look, I just did it myself, that feminine pronoun.) There is some basis to the metaphor, however clearly it’s time to move past it. It started before they understood how necessary the male contribution was to forming life, when they didn’t know how it all worked. Life clearly emerged from the woman. And I think that ancient (though mistaken) feeling of not being necessary created a deep-seated insecurity that fuels a lot of misogyny. They should get over it all ready. Too funny that you’ve brought Barthes with you! I’m reading it myself, the final, long essay. It’s so funny how disparaging he is of myth. I do understand why he might be so, but I’m a long-time student of Joseph Campbell, so although I grok how it can be and has been and is misused, I also very much find value in it. The key is choosing, as Campbell says, the right myth to live by. (Nationalism/racism/patriarchy/consumerism sure ain’t it.) One of the books most formative for me in my evolving relationship to the natural world is Thomas Berry’s *Dream of the Earth*, in which he posits that we do need a new myth, one that he calls The Universe Story. Berry is (was? not sure we still share the planet with him) a monk who took advantage of his decades of solitude to study deeply just about every aspect of the physical world, as well as studying theology and myth, and synthesized it all into an incredible statement the reading of which will give you a new set of eyes with which to see the world. (Part of the Sierra Club’s Natural Philosophy Library.) Wondrous, really. And he offers a lovely authorial presence, deeply humane, good company. One of those white guys who transcends his white-guy-ness.

You were right to object to a straightforward perpetuation of that trope. It’s essential that we tease it apart, that we muddle it, because as long as it’s accepted without question, it will continue to work as it has, allowing those hyper-masculine CEOs to keep raping and pillaging the planet. This need to oppress and penetrate in a damaging way is one of the most toxic of concepts regarding masculinity. I start a recent poem, “Communicable,” with the line, “A man peacocks with a Bushmaster.” I could easily have made it, “A man peacocks with a bulldozer.” What strikes me as ridiculously ironic in this masculine=intellect/feminine=body construct is that the mythological feminine and mythological masculine have nothing to do with genitalia. Every human being contains both the masculine and the feminine in their psyche. And yet, and so, patriarchy’s denigration of the feminine has led men to be unable to accept and embrace half of their very selves. Pity the fools. They’re not only cut off from their heart and their gut, but they’re cut off from half their psyche, as well. And they spend a lot of energy and do a lot of damage trying to prove how masculine they are, because they’re freaked out by what they hear in the silence, their feminine selves screaming for release from behind that closed door.

I know what you mean by the goodness of having a poem make you cry. That doesn’t happen often for me, either, but it did just the other day. It was Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Wandering Around An Albuquerque Airport.” The ending is so hope-laden it hits me in the gut. Not in a stupid hope way, but the kind of hope that carries the burden of knowing the distance we have to go to create the world of connection she craves, and that she experienced temporarily in the incident the poem relays. And I find it no less powerful with repeated readings. I wish I could thank her personally for it. And I thank you, Metta, for being the person you are, a bridge builder. Goddess knows we need more bridges between us. It was that about you that led me to believe you’d be receptive to a poem that could indeed have been seen/felt as an imposition.

Don’t worry, I do cut Plato some slack; I know the kind of idiocy he was surrounded with, the sacrificial-bull-intestine-reading bullshit artists, the eager men with swords. And a lot of his ideas turned out to be spot on. But dang, when the man is wrong, he’s really, really wrong.

The salt caverns were mined hollow until they were ready to cave in. Now they want to fill them with an explosive fuel, under pressure. Again, yay. I believe I mentioned willful ignorance and blinding greed. They’ve got it bad. Speaking of cocktails, when you come I’ll take you to dinner at Maxie’s Supper Club, a New-Orleans-inspired restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their shrimp and grits are off the chain. And they make a mint julep with local MacKenzie’s bourbon that is worthy of an ode. One of the many products from this area jeopardized by this insane fracking industry.

Just now, I heard something outside the window, a scratching very close. It was a bird I’ve never seen, hopping up and down one of the posts of the fence I’ve built around the beds against the house, looking for bugs under the post’s peeling bark. Onwards.


MS: We’ve yet to see any wolves or foxes, no bears, although we’ve been told about the brownie-smell-loving bears (that come (or perhaps once came) to the window to sniff some freshly-baked brownies, was satisfied, and moved on), no raccoons, not even a squirrel sighting. There are only birds, the same robin that seems to alert the others of our presence, a few mockingbirds, a finch every now and again, and a black bird with an undercoat of white, that we’re trying to find a name for. There are bees, wasps, bumblebees (who are very protective of their wild daisies!), and carpenter bees that seem to only exist to run headlong into each other. Every morning and evening I walk a mile and a half and often think of my friend, Randall Horton, who once queried where the poems about urban nature were. It’s tough, isn’t it, to find any balance between human existence/urban life and the natural world. We have to destroy in order to build (the Dadaists love this idea), and we seemed so consumed with building building building. And waste. Monteverde, Costa Rica, founded by Quakers (there’s a horrible story about them walking all the way from Alabama with hundreds of cows to the northern mountains in Costa Rica and establishing a place for themselves there; it’s supposed to be an inspirational story, but I often quake at the thought of frontier stories being simply inspiring, without thinking of the land occupations and the (often) displaced persons. . .), is all undeveloped roads, and just one step from Monteverde (literally, as all land borders work), there is Santa Elena, all paved roads, cars, 4 wheelers, scooters (If I’m not mistaken, you’re not allowed to operate a motor vehicle in Monteverde, although I do recall a nice motorcyclist, who was, perhaps, just across the border). The Quakers (and I believe some Korean War conscientious objectors) had an idea to preserve land and do some dairy farming (I find this quite impossibly hilarious! I have to study cows; I just don’t think cows naturally produce milk all the time; somehow, preserving land has nothing to do with preserving the integrity of the cow, the dignity of the cow, to let it’s milk dry up (I say this as I sip a cup of coffee that has more than a few dashes of half and half in it!)).

I think some parenthesis got lost along the way, which is an indication for me to shift direction.

I also brought along Ed Roberson’s City Ecologue and Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In. Roberson, a limnologist poet, somehow easily blends the urban landscape and the (mostly) untouched natural landscape, the body and the spirit, language and gesture. He once said (and this is pulled from Poetry Foundation, from an interview he did for Chicago Postmodern Poetry: ““I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-Out the one we’ve got”. I’ve been thinking about gender and nature, the sexed body (Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry is on my desk as well) and nature, race(ial designations) and nature, nationalism (and regionalism) and nature, who has access to the natural world (there was a brief conversation here about how the open space, the clean air, doesn’t allow our bodies time/space to fall into a brief illness here (a travel cold or sinus infection, although pollen pollen everywhere).

And I think of my nephew who has asthma and lives in the South, but not the rural South, and those multitudes of kids who grow up in congested urban areas, who have limited access to clean climates. Every coffee-shop I’ve entered, since being here, has reminded me of the ways in which race and money (sometimes, but not all the time, right, there are some financially struggling farmers out here, Caucasian farmers) have made spaces like this, cleaner air, wider pastures, available to some folks, but certainly not to all. Suffice it to say, I’m the person (the Black person) who enters town and the normal blah blah everydayness of life stops for a second, and the giant, omniscient camera clicks on, and the townspeople stop walking (at least their limbs stop walking; their eyes, however, walk all over me), and stare at the outsider (the Black outsider). So often I just want to stop thinking “oh! you have to be overly friendly and smile smile smile!” and just yell at them “I have a right to fresh air too!”

As I think, then, of the line to your poem (what a great great line! fantastic image of the “man peacocks”!), and of this conversation about gender and the natural world (and of that awfully funny cock building in China that you shared with me and the pussy mountain that you also shared (we can talk about that, too, the ways in which we can often find women’s bodies embedded in nature, and yet, the images we find of men’s bodies are almost always cocks (or phalluses for those cock-shy folks) and almost always hand-made (recently, a friend admired the cock-capitol of a town, and here I was thinking, Xist! another cock as a stand-in for legislative power!)!), I’m also thinking of, say, Lucille Clifton: “the earth is a . . . black and living thing”.


WB: The earth is indeed a black and living thing. Witches wear black because it’s believed to repel negative energy. Darkness is good, because it protects us, gives us cover. And so much of life happens in darkness, the silent exploration of roots, the beginnings of life in the womb, all the interior workings of these bodies. The splendid flight of the owl. Strange that all you’re seeing is songbirds. I imagine that means that at night the foxes and wolves are very busy. Around here we have huge numbers of small mammals, which we coexist with to varying degrees of satisfaction: groundhogs, chipmunks, gray and red squirrels, skunks, weasels, raccoons. And also an obscene amount of deer. This is what happens when you get rid of the predators. But further out, past Ithaca College, in Brooktondale, people have had bears in their backyards. And lately we’ve had coyotes here in our village. Cats disappear when they’re around. The fawns lure them in, but they’re easy prey only for a short time of the year, and then the cats start to look tasty. What’s really scary are the coy-dogs, especially if the coyote have bred with a larger feral dog. They’re not shy, like the truly wild coyote, but they’re sure not tame, either. A friend had one scare the bejeesus out of her retriever. Poor thing doesn’t want to go into her own backyard anymore. I am thankful that at least there have been no cougar around. Those see us as food. Out in California they build subdivisions in pristine cougar territory, then act surprised when someone gets eaten while out for a jog. Brian once saw one about ten feet long (from nose to tail) when he was commuting from Carthage in the foothills of the Adirondacks to Sackets Harbor, where we lived. Our backyard was an abandoned pasture, and I would sometimes have fearful imaginings of watching from the second floor while one hunted my children, and me unable to stop it.

I couldn’t resist the Mother Earth vajayjay and the techno-penis, sorry. I was taking a quick break, after having written my last missive to you, and there they were in my newsfeed. They seemed serendipitously a propos to our conversation! And I thought you might enjoy a laugh. Cock-as-symbol-of-power, yes. So tired. Not all phalluses are man-made, though. There’s a highly toxic mushroom that looks just like an angry red one stuck up out of the ground. A friend in Shreveport had one come up out of her lawn. Of course she took a picture and shared it with us.

Apt that you stuck in the parenthetical “mostly” regarding untouched landscape. Truly, there is no place that we haven’t disturbed, what with our chemical trespass. Our persistent petrochemicals have shown up in the fat of penguins at the South Pole (as well as in every mother’s breast milk). Roberson sounds like a poet I need to explore. I’m very interested in the line between wild and not wild. For the organic gardener, it’s pretty wild right outside the door. Because I’m not spraying stuff out there to get rid of the bugs, there’s a whole ecosystem forming in my yard. The more I learn about the relationships, and provide the proper plants for the wildlife I want to attract, the more complex and stable it becomes. This will be my third summer here. Already the little bit of land I’m stewarding has changed quite a bit since I’ve started touching it. There’s a certain mythologizing about wildness that goes on, as if land that we’ve interacted with is automatically debased. And though all too often that’s true, there’s another way to relate to it. And since we belong here, as part of nature, there’s nothing inherently negative about changing things around, as long as we learn and practice ways that replenish the land instead of degrading it. Nature takes a hundred years to make an inch of topsoil (which is why the loss of so much of it due to our chemical agriculture is such a crime). We can help it do that in a year, with sheet mulching, piling up layers of organic matter in clever combinations. There are people who’ve been studying this stuff for about fifty years now. We just need to get that knowledge out there, get all hands on deck. Permaculture, if widely adopted, really could save the world. It’s absolutely insane that we’re still growing lawns, with all that water and the poisons and the carbon to mow it, instead of growing food right where we live. And permaculture landscapes, because of the way they mimic nature, are beautiful. Like living in Eden.

I am sorry you’re getting stared at. That’s rude, and you’d think that at an artists’ colony the locals would be past that already. There are so many people who do need to get out into the fresh air. Richard Louv in 2005 posited in Last Child In The Woods that many of us are suffering Nature Deficit Disorder. Clearly not you and I, because we thrive on getting out there, and we know it, and so do. In the book I mentioned earlier, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver writes of a friend, apparently intelligent and well educated, who didn’t realize that carrots have a “green part.” I know there are neighborhoods, mostly black, where you can find lots of liquor but no produce. In Dirt!: The Movie, we see heroes who are transforming that situation by creating urban food forests and gardens to feed their neighbors. The change that needs to happen is happening. So far too slowly, but things could snowball. They’d better.

Oh, foxes. Our first night up here, several Februaries back, in that basement apartment in Oswego, our furniture still riding the truck up from Louisiana, we lay, the four of us, on our bellies, propped up on our elbows with our pillows, the half-empty pizza box on the floor next to us, looking out the sliding glass door for entertainment, barely talking. There was deep snow out there, and about twenty yards away, a line of fir trees. In the moonlight, all by itself the landscape was magical. And then a red fox streaked across, coming around the side of the building, taking cover in the trees. We all gasped. This was another world.


MS: Here’s what was in my head all day today: let’s compose a list of items that we need, that we currently don’t have (“we” in the large global sense). And let’s also compose a list of resources that we need in order to get those items on list one.

I’ve been thinking this since yesterday, after I read your post about the salt mines and the fracking, and later, as I followed behind a truck hauling wood, wondering where it was going, and I’d also just come down a hill, and looked up and saw yet another of those houses sitting on the highest point in the mountain, and as I tried to figure out how much land they’d cleared out to get that house there and to get that view they wanted, I began to wonder: could that family truly not find a house that had already been built? And that question, of course, with the truck ahead of me, spiraled. I don’t know where to begin with the list, I’ll admit. I can’t think of one thing that is needed in this world that’s not already here.


WB: I’ll tell you two things that we need that aren’t already here, or rather are here in insufficient quantity: love and forgiveness.

And the huge irony is that the source of both is infinite. It’s about getting out of the way. The ego blocks it. Get it to step aside, to go to sleep, to sit down and shut up, or if necessary, chain that bastard and hide it in the dungeon, whatever you can manage with compassion and discipline, maybe some prayer: and let spirit flow.

What we need: real food, shelter, and clean water and air. All that talk about jobs, but there’s plenty of work to be done ensuring those. What we don’t need: strawberries in December. McMansions. A constant influx of new toys and clothes. The newest gadget. Movies with big, expensive explosions. They talk about how green energy can’t yet meet our needs, but that’s only because our needs have become unreasonable. Ridiculous. And neoliberalism/neoconservatism, with its financial elite doing shit like starting wars so they can sell missiles and missile defense systems and get paid to rebuild the buildings the missiles turned to rubble is the same sick system that has chickens inhumanely raised in California shipped to China to be processed by near slave labor and shipped back to be sold cheap at Walmart, the carbon cost on the planet externalized and the cost of the fuel subsidized. The cruelty to both chickens and Chinese citizens (and the brown people under the rubble) ignored. WTF? And the fact that millions of farmers have been put out of jobs.

And speaking of homes, a sane person builds a home into the south side of a hill, not on top of a mountain. That’s my dream, a passive-solar hobbit house surrounded by an edible forest. A pond for fish down the hill a bit. Some chickens for eggs. Tolkein’s brilliance shines in linguistics, narrative, and characterization, but his deeper genius is his subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) critique of humanity and gorgeous vision of the Good Life as lived by the halflings.

What we need to get from where we are to that good life is not just love and forgiveness (though boy, we really do need those), but also to regain the knowledge that was lost when people moved from the land into the cities, when everyone came to rely on the industrial food system. That system is failing, based as it was on plentiful oil. We’ve run out. Even if climate change caused by our carbon weren’t a reality (and it IS, for Christ’s sake, people, get a clue), there simply isn’t much left. Hence the fracking. Hence the BP ecocide: shit’s gonna happen when you’re drilling for oil with a mile-long sippy straw. There’s also the fact that we’ve exhausted the soil.

So we need to learn or re-learn things like: how to grow food in a way that replenishes the soil, how to preserve food, how to cook food. How to make bread. How to keep sourdough starter going. How to make beer and wine. How to keep bees, chickens, cows and etc. How to prune trees. We don’t all need to know all of this. But we need to build communities in which together, all our needs get met. I’ll come prune your apple trees and you pay me with eggs. Next week I’ll bring you some honey. See? But we need to start now, not only because it takes time for roots to grow, time for trial and error, but because we need to build the loving relationships with our neighbors that are required for such a community to exist. And we can’t wait until everything falls apart to do so. The relationships need to be there beforehand, or when everything falls apart, and it’s headed that way, we’re going to end up eating each other.


MS: Say that, Wendy! Say. That.

Post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic narratives are based on what you write above, it seems to me. A total collapse, a pure, total collapse, that tests our abilities to be human (whatever that means, yes? I agree that we can use more (condensed) expressions of love and forgiveness (I say “condensed” because I believe, deeply, that those of us who love, freely, wholly, persistently, and seek and offer forgiveness (and are compassionate and kind), outweigh those who are tra-la-la’ing along, self-absorbed and self-serving; we get so caught up simply working towards being alive in this world, that we somehow don’t see or sense those who are, en masse, doing the work to help this planet survive the current over-consumptions). Somewhere along the way I left out a closed parenthesis, but that’s all well, yes?

I have this ex-colleague who once said, “there’s no turning back; we’ve reached the point of no return, and all we can do now is to not go any further towards” the pure and utter collapse of the planet. Those remarks set off a chain of reactions, of course, one being: “so, okay, then, if my recycling isn’t helping; if my solar panels aren’t helping; if my composting isn’t helping (a long list of “if my”), then just fuck it all! Let’s go out with a bang!”. I’ve never quite gotten unshaken from those comments; from this sense of solo “I’ness”; no conversations about what we, as a community, are doing; what we, as a series of linked communities can do; what we, as linked communities, can do to, well, shut this shit down.

There will be those assholes who read this and say “let’s punch holes in this conversation” (I’d likely be one of those assholes if I weren’t participating!); there will be those asses who will say “nothing new has been said here! this is just a bunch of liberal talk!” and well, because sometimes I’m an anticipatory kinda person, I’ll ask our readers: what are you committed to doing? what communities, globally, are you committed to connecting with, to collapse this old world? You know, Wendy, I think that even for compassionate, loving, caring folks such as you and I, we still have this mind that has to be completely overhauled, to completely re-see and re-imagine what we’re doing here, what our relationships are with others (and I include the natural world in “others,” as I have a hard hard time distinguishing the important differences between these organisms, other than the obvious: some of us are typing and driving cars and smoking and producing junk food and making 100% Egyptian cotton sheets (sooooo lovely) and some of us are squabbling mid-air and acting as sentries and building nests and stalking prey). I don’t know what that re-seeing entails, but I know, deeply, that it’s not what we’ve been talking about so far. Not in its entirety, anyway.

BTW, I think I said daisy at some point and I meant dandelions. The dandelions have EXPLODED from the ground since yesterday’s rain, and the bumblebees are truly becoming quite territorial about them! One hovered right in my face, a couple of days ago, before the grass become mostly dandelions, just hovered there, staring at me, for like 30 seconds! Eye level, eye-to-eye; I reckon because I was sitting on a bench that was sheltering a cluster of dandelions. The coyotes have started announcing themselves and that one robin that was following me on my walk, seemingly calling out to the others what I was (boringly) doing (you know, walking, stopping every so often to take a photograph; I think a woodpecker has now taken on the shift of sentry). It seems they were sniffing us out, figuring out what we were doing here. Yf we’re a threat. Some of us, too, have waited them out, have sniffed around, staying out later and later in the evenings, walking through the woods.

One of my college peers said, about the death of Barthes: all of that talk of symbols, and he was (eventually) killed by a symbol of wealth and the working class, one that he, apparently, didn’t see: a laundry van. I think of that, often, when I’m ready to give in to Barthesisms too quickly. Mythologies is serving me well, here, though, I must admit. . .


WB: To those who say that we’re past the point of no return I have to say: why bother breathing? Nihilism serves no one. Pessimism serves no one. Have we thoroughly f&c#ed things up? Oh, hell yes. BUT, the earth operates on a different time scale than we do. Think of it like steering a huge ocean liner (another one of those things we don’t need): what we do now will come to fruition in thirty years or so. That’s both really scary and really heartening. It does mean that if we continue on our path, all this carbon we’re pouring into the atmosphere currently (such a thin membrane around this jewel of a planet, it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s seen photographs of the earth from space can’t understand that the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our effluent is incredibly limited) is going to totally cook things to the point that the whole place is a hell. But it also means that, if we get our act together, if we, through Permaculture and such, restore the soil, the living skin of Gaia, we can turn it around. Because a layer of living soil, planted with carbon-sequestering biomass (food forests!), could filter out that excess carbon, clean the water and air of toxins. According to my favorite movie referenced before, this could happen in about a decade. We could turn this ship around. But it will take all hands on deck. I don’t have time for anyone’s nihilism. We’ve got to get to work. Compost…and not just households, though that’s necessary, but municipalities. (I just came from the district-wide Green Team meeting, for which I’m the parent-at-large rep. The Ithaca school district composts, using Cayuga Compost, a company that also picks up from a lot of restaurants and office buildings around here.) Plant trees. Quit growing lawns. Eat local. Garden for wildlife. It DOES do good, but it’s a matter of scale. We’ve got to get everyone on board.

And we’ve got to reign in industry, especially biotech (I’m looking at you, Monsanto!) and fossil fuels. They are literally killing us. If our government refuses to do it, we need a new government. Which seems impossible, but it’s been done before. We can’t let the appearance of impossibility convince us to lay down and die. As long as we have life in us, we can fight. And people are fighting! Grandmothers are locking themselves by the neck to the machinery of extraction. There are so many more of us than there are of them. And information sharing is happening at rates that were unheard of just a few years ago.

I’m not saying that we can simply compost and recycle and grow a few vegetables and everything’s going to be hunky dory. No matter what, we’re in for a rough ride. But if we play it right, if we fight the battles that need to be fought and really put our backs into the work that needs to be done, we could survive, as a species and as a planet. And that is really what’s at stake, not just our comfort, not just our economy, not just our species: if we continue on our current path, we could make this place unlivable not just for humanity, but for life. There are some feedback loops that could be brought into play (that are very close to being brought into play!) that could turn us (the earth) into something like Mars. Let’s not go there, I say. Why would we do that? That’s a level of criminality that surpasses even Hitler’s evil. And ignorance is no excuse: the science is there. It’s a fact. We need to risk seeming like some hysterical tree-hugger in order to raise the alarm. The knowledge is there about how to fix things, we’ve got the backs and hands to do it. All that’s missing is the political will. And that can change very quickly. It’s up to us, thinkers, writers, to make it happen. Mother Nature is certainly not shy about giving us the stimulus needed. Here comes summer. California’s already having wildfires, in May. This past summer, in Australia, while we wintered, some spots were so hot that they couldn’t pump gas: it just evaporated. There are going to be food shortages, drought, floods. Remember Sandy? Political will is going to be easier to get every season that this new normal passes.

The needed re-seeing, something I hinted at in the beginning: understanding ourselves as part of a web, not at all separate, that is divine. I’ll leave you with my poem published recently at IthacaLit, part of my next collection:



for Deanna Graff


It happens to you, I know. You’ve said.

Waiting in your car, or walking the dogs

watching, to see what you will see, that

sudden wing-flash, the crimson leaf settled

on a blanket of green. Or, the poem the clouds write

across an azure sky, the trees’ hands waving.

And the God That Is the World

suddenly appears as a web that you are a part of

and the joyfulness erases everything else

and of course you have to laugh: even the grass

is in on it.


Actually, no, I take it back. I won’t leave it there, because your story of the dandelion and the bee reminded me of something that happened once down in my garden in Shreveport. Down there I had to deal with fire ants, which had an unfortunate symbiosis going on with another foreign invader, Bermuda grass. They’d use the deep roots of the grass as fortification for their tunnels, building around the roots, so when pulling out the damned stuff I’d often end up discovering a new nest (and by discovering I mean I’d be marauded by a swarm of the little beasts). Very distressing. Once I was weeding, and with my garden knife poised to plunge into the dark ground, I stopped, a bee buzzing frantically a few inches from my nose, under the brim of my sunhat. This was, of course, enough to get my attention. So I stopped what I was doing, and addressed the bee, which was clearly addressing me (it didn’t feel aggressive at all, but simply conversational). This was enough to satisfy it. It hovered close, still, but quietly, while I turned my attention back to the ground, in time to see that fire ants were pouring out of it. To this day, I believe the bee was warning me. I’d been gardening there for years at that point, and the life there understood that what I did created sweetness. I was the god of the garden. My work meant flowers that provided nectar and pollen for the hive, and the bee wanted me to keep at it, and risked getting swatted to ensure that I would.

Interconnectedness IS reality. If someone you know doesn’t believe it, cover his nose and mouth with your hand and see how long he can manage separated from the whole.


MS: That’s a great story, Wendy! Glad you didn’t end with the poem (although the poem, too, is rather full and speaks to much of what you’ve been saying here), and instead with interconnectedness (and protection from fire ants! The wretched little things. I know they have a purpose and their toxin is great for something or other, but ouch!). This morning I went out, as is my custom here, for a walk. I went the opposite direction I typically take and, once again, every time a bird really went hard on the chirping, I stopped to have a look around, to find the bird, to see its shape, and instead, I happened upon the most beautiful sights. I can’t say that they were telling me to stop thinking and take some awareness of my surroundings (& whoa was I thinking thinking thinking), but their sounds made me pause. Interconnectedness is precisely what I felt: surrender and commitment to be aware of the world I was currently inhabiting.

I had such hope for the U.S. when Majora Carter was becoming the face of urban greening, a series of ideas she got from projects throughout the world. Growing gardens and grass on high-rise rooftops in urban areas, yes; creating sustainable jobs, yes. What happened to that momentum? Wangari Maatha’s Greenbelt Movement. . . It sounds like upstate NY is doing some great work. Maybe folks who read this conversation will provide information about what’s happening in their neck of the highway/woods/cul-de-sac.

Today is Joy Harjo’s birthday, and I think you mentioned her much earlier. I’m providing a link from Poetry Foundation to her poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here”  .

WB: Eating of the last sweet bite.” Oh, ouch. I don’t mind that I will have a last sweet bite (I mean, I’m going to put that off as long as I can, and try to get as much work and loving done as I can before it happens, but I came to accept my own mortality eight years ago, when I had a close brush with death, undergoing an emergency surgery only 2% survive). But that the world might have a last sweet bite, because of our stupidity and greed…yeah, that gets my goat big-time. Sometimes I get filled with rage, but it doesn’t burn long. It’d burn me up it’s so hot. Sometimes I sink into depression, but what can I do from the bottom of that pit? I’ve got kids to raise, chickens to feed, a husband who needs my own sweetness. Poems to write. And a novel! A novel that imagines a post-dystopian future in which, by necessity, we’ve figured out how to live in a lasting way, with the mess we’ve made. So joy! Joy is the mode of choice. It’s what works. But it takes faith. Not just faith in Christ, though I’ve got that, finally. But faith in the healing capacity of Gaia.

During my most recent poetry binge, the first poem I wrote was “Nineva,” exploring the concept and purpose of prophecy, and repentance. The sackcloth and ashes, the fasting, were gestures that begged for mercy. Successfully. The biosphere wants to heal, has powers to do so, but we have to move in that direction, take steps, make the necessary gestures. I trust that if we start to move in that direction, the planet will cover the distance to meet us. But they can’t be empty gestures. They can’t be greenwashing. The Greenbelt Movement is a good model. They got (are still getting, I believe, though we’ve lost Wangari, sadly) some real work done, planted millions of trees. And the miracle of trees is that they pull up deep water, and make it available for the rest. So they can turn apparent desert into an oasis, if we help them just a little bit with judicious watering until their roots reach down. Of course, they also sequester carbon, taking it out of the air and turning it into solid matter.

Outside, the clouds are gathering, again. For the past two days they’ve promised rain, but delivered only a drizzle. The ground, with everything in flower, is cracked. It does not bode well for this summer. I read a recent report that really frightened me, projecting long-term significant drought for everyone but the tropics. We already know that the warmer air holds on to moisture longer, that our agriculture dependent on annual crops is doomed. The seedlings dry out between rains, and those that survive get washed away when the hard rains finally come. That’s what Permaculture, with its deep roots and water catchment, can address. But if most of the moisture ends up hanging around the planet’s midsection, we’re going to be seriously screwed. Again, I have to say: we’ve got to get serious about the work to be done, and now.

I went this morning to buy flowers from a friend’s business (of course Ithaca has a sustainable florist) to bring to church this Sunday, which is both Mother’s Day and confirmation Sunday. Not only is my son being confirmed, but I was a mentor for a girl (young woman? she’s right on the cusp) who had been convinced by this culture’s assertion that you have to choose between science and a life of faith. When we started on this journey together she was solidly on the side of science. I think I’ve successfully convinced her that it’s a false dichotomy (the presence of particle physicists in our congregation, and many other scientists from Cornell, has helped a lot). The Daddy-In-The-Sky that’s posited by fundamentalism makes a convenient straw-God for the Dawkinsites to tear down, but the mystery of the divine is so much more than that. My favorite theologian, the feminist Elizabeth Johnson, argues that the patriarchs have created in God the Father an idol that obscures the wide horizon of divine reality. Part of that wide horizon is the immanence that animates everything. To be one with nature is to be one with God. And it’s not really something that one chooses; it’s something that one recognizes, or doesn’t. And to fail to do so is to consign oneself to alienation, to separation.

Swedenborg has a great analogy for the Kingdom of Heaven and Hell. He likens them both to a banquet, a long table set with every delicacy, a feast. And at each place setting, a three-foot fork. In Hell, the banquet’s guests sit at the table, smelling and seeing the food but unable to feed themselves with these long forks. In Heaven, the guests feed each other. Thank you, Metta, for feeding me here.


MS: I guess there are some very thin folks in Swedenborg’s Hell and perhaps some chubby ones in Heaven! Hopefully everybody gets to get up from the table at some point.

Did you see yesterday’s solar eclipse? I didn’t even realize it was happening, but today at the post office, the clerk was talking to a man in front of me about how the eclipse through her whole day off, & he talked about how mucky his day was, and I was standing there, waiting, thinking about how I twice had to “press the hard reset button” yesterday. When it was my turn, I asked her what happened, and she explained this whole series of snafus at work; she was certain Mercury was in retrograde, but one thing she knew: that solar eclipse had some magnetic energy that caused all kinds of problems, electronic and otherwise. It’s always amazing to me how the planets press in on us, how their energies become our energies.

It’s been a divine pleasure listening to your thoughts, sitting with them, before coming back to respond. I’m serious about us meeting face-to-face in the sooner rather than later future & in continuing to learn from you! Have a splendid Mother’s Day. Have you read “These New York City Pigeons” by Jayne Cortez, who transitioned last December, and would have celebrated her 79th birthday today? It’s hard out there for a pigeon, Wendy, real hard ~


WB: I confess the poem does not make me sorry not to live in New York City. But did make me chuckle. Once, down in New Orleans, I sacrificed one of my son’s blankets to try to save a pigeon with a broken wing that I came across while pushing the stroller, not far from Maple Street. I carried it in one hand, in the blanket, pushing baby Sasha in the stroller with the other, to a nearby vet’s office. The doctor there took it from me, looking at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am. All I knew at the time was that I couldn’t just leave it there in the street, not when I could do otherwise.

No, I missed the eclipse, and as far as I know nothing here went haywire. We’ve had a lot of cloud cover, so it didn’t even register. I’m an agnostic about the zodiac, myself. Considering how everything is hitched to everything else, I don’t consider planetary movements having an effect on us to be impossible. But what do I know?

Do come to Ithaca when you’re done at Millay. I’ll show you my developing garden, the chickens, take you to the gorges, see some ravens which roost there. I wish I could put you up, but we have no guest room. But I’ll feed you, and give you good strong coffee, and we can talk, and read each other poems, and watch clouds, and pray for rain.


Wendy Babiak (Conspiracy of Leaves, Plain View Press) has had poems published online (Poets for Living Waters, -esque magazine, Big Bridge, No Tell Motel, among others) and in print journals (Poems Against War, Barrelhouse, Tampa Review, among others) and in anthologies. She’s currently working on a novel that imagines a post-dystopian culture in which by necessity we’ve figured out how to live in relative harmony with the natural world, after screwing it up almost beyond recognition. Wendy is also an editor for Poets for Living Waters.


Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks 2012) and South of Here (New Issues Press 2005 (published under her Lydia Melvin)). Her poems, fiction, creative non-fiction, & book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, bluestem, Drunken Boat, The Drunken Boat, Esque, hercricle, Jubilat, Kweli, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Pyrta, Reverie, Sententia, Vinyl, among others. Sáma is a Visiting Assistant Professor of the MFA Program at LSU.


What Made the Salt Caverns Unsound: A Conversation with Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma

Other Mothers

by Lucy Wang

Mother’s Day is sacred, and so are the rituals. There’s no denying the importance of Mothers. The malls are crowded with shoppers in search of the perfect card to accompany the perfect gift. Restaurants are booked. Flowers sent. Circuits jammed.    Mothers are everywhere, beaming, dressed in their Sunday best. It’s their day. The day we honor all Mothers for who they are, and for their unconditional love and support without which we would most definitely be losers.

And most certainly I am on Mother’s Day. The Biggest Loser.

The day I wish I had a mother who loved me.

A mother who would admit she was my mother.

That’s right.  Contrary to the lies she spreads, my mother’s alive and kicking. Living in New South Wales.  Married to a famous Australian painter. Mothering twin daughters she adopted from my Uncle and Uncle’s Wife who did not want baby girls.

My parents used to beat the crap out of us, and out of each other. One day my mother realized she could leave. Save herself. This was America.

Even though her abandonment triggered what I call the “Dark Ages,” I was sure she’d be back. No other scenario made sense. Sure, mothers abandon children at birth because they cannot afford to raise them. Mothers divorce Fathers. But when do mothers give up on loving teenage sons and daughters? Never. Illogical. At fifteen, I could not imagine a motherless future.

I was twenty when I set foot Down Under. My brother and I looked forward to spending our summer vacation in Australia, reunited with our mother and meeting her husband. That she lived in Gerringong, a small seaside town two hours south of Sydney, far away from most tourist attractions, did not dampen our enthusiasm. We were finally going to have a mother!

Or, so we thought.

When anyone asked, “Who are these two?  Where are these two from?”

My mother always responded, “Friends from Ohio.”

“Friends?” Who did Mother think she was kidding?  “How many friends stay the entire summer? Don’t we look rather young?”

“My past is nobody’s business.” She explained that Gerringong was a small town, and that folks might not buy John’s art any more if they knew his wife was previously married with two grown children. Australians were far more Victorian than folks in Ohio.  In fact, Gerringong derives its name from the Aboriginal word for “fearful place.”

Mother bribed us with a series exciting excursions: Manly Island, Blue Mountains, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne, Canberra.

My brother wanted his dignity.

“If we leave now, we’ll never have a mother.  It’s over.  If we stay, we might have a mother later?”  Like Icarus, I was flying towards the sun.

Terrible to admit even now, but back then, I wanted a mother more than I wanted my dignity. We stayed that summer. Stayed friends from Ohio.

Years later, I was finally making some money on Wall Street, paying off those student loans, and enjoying life when my mother calls me in the middle of the night to say she’s having marital problems. Can she live with me? I can’t believe it, but the first word out of my mouth is yes. We lived together in my 450 square foot Gramercy Park studio for one hot summer month, sharing the same bed.  When my brother visited, Mother joked we were sleeping refugee style.

I didn’t mind being cramped. For thirty days, I am happy, she is my mother, and that is how I introduced her to my world. I treated her to many fine restaurants and Broadway shows, including M. Butterfly where we are seated right in front of Jackie Onassis. When my mother shakes hands with Jackie O, her hero, I think finally I have her, she will be my mother for the rest of my life.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The next time I visited Mother, the twin girls she adopted from my Uncle were flesh and blood, while my husband and I were “friends from America.”

No one believes that such an “Other Mother” exists. Incredulous! Impossible!  My in-laws were dying to meet this woman who can abandon two grown children. They are too curious, and who can blame them if some small part of them wonders if something, in fact, is seriously wrong with my brother and me. I’ve seen it in other people’s faces. I’ve seen it in mine.

So when Mother invited us to John’s art exhibit at the Bank of Ireland, we go. Opening night, the bank was teeming with Dublin’s glitterati, and yet, we stood out. One reporter stuck a microphone into my mother’s face and asked the obvious. “I notice a family resemblance. Are you family?”

Mother did not miss a beat: “These people are John’s groupies from the U.S.”

Groupies from the U.S. We all felt like total idiots; we thought deep down inside, my mother loved us.

When you’re loved, people say you can handle anything. Including heartbreak. And Other Mothers.

Conversely, when you’re not loved, nothing.

I have survived on the kindness of Other Mothers.

The CEO who nominated me for the Board of Directors of a consulting firm specializing in organizational behavior and development, and upon discovering I was 16, instead of firing me, told me that history is full of luminous stars who refused to act their age. The Jewish godmother up the street who kept close touch, sent care packages when I was at college, and kept a scrapbook of my press clippings. A high school English teacher who insisted, Icarus beats Babbitt any day and still sends me books to read. An English Honors professor who knew I was a writer long before I knew, and lobbied the University President to keep me enrolled when my father refused tuition. The artistic director who plucked my script from the slush pile and nominated it for an award from the Kennedy Center.

There are so many men and women to thank, and some may even be surprised by how much their past acts of kindness affected me.

At times, it still surprises me, I think because this has been the hardest lesson of all, to be kinder to oneself. My self. To be my own Other Mother. Growing up with toxic parents and their hurtful legacy, it’s so easy, almost second nature, to beat yourself up, deem yourself unworthy and unwanted, to cave into darkness.  Every Mother’s Day, I just wanted to die. Fortunately, becoming a writer taught me how to be my own Mother.  The transformation evolved out of necessity. When you give birth to a new idea, you must fiercely protect and love that voice and vision as you would a newborn. Swaddle it with care. Keep it warm, close, fed.  Nurture it with unconditional love. Withhold judgment. Dismiss the bullies who insist you are delusional, headed for wrack and ruin. Yes, first drafts are often rough and lacking, and the road to fame and fortune precarious and formidable, but we can’t get anywhere unless we are our Own Other Mothers.

When flooded with rejections and doubt, we need to step outside our works-in-progress and embody our Other Mother. Is this how you’d speak to your child from birth?   Is this how a child grows into a fully developed individual?  You’re no good, a mess, no one’s interested, as is there are too many children in the world today, now go back to the womb, or wherever else you came from. No. You know what to do.  Mothers know best.  Well, not mine. But I’m convinced the best writers listen to, and foster their voice, their vision, and their Other Mother.

Other Mothers

Seeking Submission for “First Summers of Mischief & Mayhem”

HER KIND readers, we need to hear from you! In honor of HK’s first year anniversary, we want, in exactly 111 words, a flash fiction/nonfiction piece about one of your first summers of mischief/coming-of-age/ocean discoveries/etc. Tell us your out of body, discovering your otherness, your coming into, your most terrifying, your most formative summer. We plan to run our favorites in our Global Women feature in July. Email your flash in the body of the email to: Tellhk2013@gmail.com Deadline: June 15, 2013.

Seeking Submission for “First Summers of Mischief & Mayhem”

On “Motherhood Bringing Things To the Surface”: A Conversation with Karen Rigby and Rachel Moritz

HER KIND: Poet Camille Dungy prompted this May conversation for HER KIND. She begins by quoting Dan Bellm’s “Aspens”:

“…Oh honey–just wait until you’re in a small town somewhere with an underpaying job and a couple of babies, not enough time, a husband who helps out, or not, and one book on the shelf while the world has moved on to the next bright morning star–that’s when, if you’re lucky, you’ll be a writer. Send down your taproot then, into the many-chambered whatever it is, the comfort and fright of it.”

Dungy then writes: “I have been thinking about this quote Dan shares from a conversation with one of his mentors, Cleopatra Mathis. In the poem, he complains that the rate of his publications was so slow, and that he had to exercise such extreme patience. She responds that ‘you can thank God herself for it.’

“I am wondering, this morning, about the importance of practicing patience, and writing regardless of any affirmation from outside. This morning I think I understand why this was helpful as conditioning for adjusting to writing with family around after what was, for me, so many years of writing with only myself and my other job to keep me from my desk.”


KAREN RIGBY: How to begin? My son, who is twenty-months-old, is what is known as a “high needs” child. This is not a diagnosis, and not a condition, but a set of traits marked by intensity, sleeplessness, activity and other tendencies that are hard for many people to believe – until they have experienced it firsthand. For a small example: my son would wake up every 2 or 3 hours each night, every night, until he was eighteen months old. His cries weren’t cries – they were ululations. The calm, happy baby? That is someone else’s baby, mythical to me. My husband and I were given this extraordinary, different, passionate temperament to live beside, and there is little else like a tiny, persistent force on one’s life to summon previously unknown strength. That feeling of “I can’t go on/I’ll go on.”

Before motherhood, writing was something I did. A curiosity, even, not entirely understood by my family, but accepted. Post-motherhood, the fact of being a writer is more present, active, involving all of us, because it has to be – I guard it more and if I want to pursue it, everyone in the house has to come along, too. Right now, there’s no other way to make that writing life happen.

Motherhood has also clarified what I want in my life. Age has that effect, too. I am more willing to say no to what isn’t productive, to the energy-and-spirit-draining, to clutter, to whatever is taking away from rather than adding to. More willing to circle the wagons when that is needed. But even after that kind of refusal, there is a lot to do and fitting the writing in – the actual sitting down and thinking and reading – that’s the challenge. How do you even read a book when another pair of hands is eager to rip the book away from you?

Sending down one’s taproot – I like that idea very much. It feels right.


RACHEL MORITZ: Karen, I appreciate that you start with your son—and your real son, not the mythical baby. Motherhood and writing are often states discussed in the abstract. Because they are general states, right? There are so many of us doing this: trying to negotiate the continuation and growth of a creative life while raising a child. I don’t know how many essays I’ve read since becoming a mother about writing while stirring mac n’ cheese on the stove or while nursing in the wee hours of night. I still imagine this busy, energetic world of the domestic, and this generalized woman/poet somehow flourishing within it, balancing everything effortlessly. Why do I allow this image to continue in my mind? At this point, I want to just cut it all out and get real. For me, it’s a sham image and tied to what is expected of women in our society—which is doing it all.

There’s the specific real child, real day, real poem. Like your son, Karen, mine (now almost three) was/is intense and sleepless, especially as a baby. He absorbs pretty much all of my physical and psychic energy not taken up by my paid job. After him, there is also my partner and other family members to maintain relationships with, friendships to try and continue. I am often aware that my expectations for what is ‘optimal’ haven’t yet shifted, and I wish I was a more introverted or single-minded person who only required a relationship to literature to survive. Perhaps that shift is what’s now being asked of me.

Speaking generally, again, I often feel there is absolutely nothing new to say about motherhood and writing that hasn’t been said by generations—or decades, or mere months—before. And yet, one thing I ruminate on these days is the kind of ‘adjust and write while your family gathers around you’ sentiment. (Which isn’t really what Camille Dungy is saying here, just one nuance of this larger conversation). And I wonder if it’s harmful in some way. No one ever expects this of male writers who happen to be fathers: they get to maintain their position at Hemingway’s standing desk in that house at Key West with hours of uninterrupted time. What if this was possible for mother/writers? What if we had more support for this—both internally and externally? How can we shift the dialogue away from the ‘write while stirring mac’ n’ cheese’ conversation? I gotta say, I’m tired of mac’ n’ cheese. I want to write while sitting down at my notebook or computer, completely alone. Of course, I also want my son, who is the most visceral and real pleasure of my life.

Before I had my son, I read Tillie Olson’s amazing book, Silences (1962), while weighing in my mind the two possibilities for my future: with or without child. What a privilege to choose. Olson writes about “those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”

As a mother, now, I feel a greater kinship with the masses of silent people who have lived and died without leaving any words for us. The strange effect of this awareness, for me, is that I find language so much harder to come by. And standing within silence is more and more what being a poet means to me. This makes no logical sense, but it’s present.

What I think I’m doing right now is being used up— largely, by my child. Is it okay to think of myself as a vessel to be expended; isn’t that the point of life? The paradox of life with a young child is that I feel both far more full than ever before, and far more emptied. This leads, somehow, back to silence.

All of this said on a morning after a night of minimal sleep, what Camille Dungy and Cleopatra Mathis focus on here is patience. Motherhood teaches patience because one has no other alternative but to endure. Patience and silence aren’t exactly qualities of value to American capitalism, nor are they part of young childrens’ lives. So the mother/writer who sends her taproot down has first to find these qualities within herself.


KR: Rachel, the absorption, the emptying out you mention, the physicality with a young child who doesn’t always know – yet – where I ends and mother begins, who has an awe-inspiring, primal, innocent and exhausting sense of ownership… that’s exactly it. That ferocity of love and need makes solitude – let alone uninterrupted solitude – impossible. I’m reminded of a line by Alice Notley: “I am he, we are I, I am we.” Such is the porous  relationship in early childhood.

Often the well-meaning will say this period only lasts for a few years, implying that life (an adult life, that is, or a semblance of one’s previous life, if that life enabled one to create) will return, and that one should savor the present while waiting. Such voices are right, of course, but still, why the expectation/assumption of deferment?

This conversation is about more than carving out a few hours to write. To put it perspective, my poems can wait. They have before, they will again, and the world isn’t waiting for them. Even before my son was born, there were years when I wrote nothing. The silence of not-writing (whether it is a welcome silence or a fraught one) isn’t unusual postpartum. Time is not the main question (though it is one).  More a question of not being able to even think. The contemplative life that shouldn’t be tabled at all.

You’re right that we don’t seem to live in a time or place that values silence and waiting.  Solitude as essential and serious. Not just for daydreaming or renewal, but as necessary. Not just a luxury or the province of the “strange” (the spiritual, hermetic, defiant, eccentric), and not something wasteful, unproductive and selfish.

The disappearing act is the one act I can’t pull right now (a closed door, real and metaphorical) but it isn’t a new feeling. Mothers who write commiserate frequently, I’m sure. It comes back to compromises, working-around… and maybe a kind of faith. That powerful things can still be forged within us no matter where we are. It’s a fearsome leap, to believe that whatever is intended will be fulfilled.


RM: Karen, I love that you end with faith. Also, this image of elements being forged within us no matter the circumstance. I am remembering now the poet Sarah Vap’s essay, “Oskar’s Cars,” which I read in the last weeks of my pregnancy and found so painful to absorb that I almost couldn’t face it, though her writing left me rapt and breathless. Now, reading the essay again—three years on the other side—I understand that she’s speaking to this conversation we’re having—about the contemplative life, about re-orienting one’s self post-motherhood. She writes:

What I could try to tell you is that in mothering, I’ve lost the mind that I had before. I’ve lost my solitude, my body, my privacy, my time, my concentration. Mothering, I have lost my seriousness, my access, my connection to, my inclusion. Mothering, I have lost my sleep, my dreams, my mornings, my nights, my money, my job, and my time with other adults and other poets.

I do feel that my mind has been transformed in some essential way; beyond considerable memory loss, it has been made more porous, more speechless, and definitely more lost—not in the verb sense, but perhaps in a more essential state of ‘lostness.’ Like this, in Sarah’s words again:

Motherhood took the tree, and left me air, soil, space.

Sometimes I imagine my son’s arrival as serving to push me off a cliff. His body now catapults through time; my own is pushed at warp speed ahead of his. I am no longer tucked behind my own potentiality, which had everything to do with bringing him into the world, but hovering just beyond. This is also about age, and about experiencing the death of my father when my son was nine months old. Before, there were two doorways on either side of my selfhood, firmly shut. Now both have opened, in a terrifying way, and I feel myself less a distinct bookend between these two poles, but part of a continuous chain trailing out on either end. This curious—and of course, ordinary—perception is still new to me. Does it make any sense? Karen, I’m wondering about your own experience of selfhood, and of time, in these last nineteen months of your son’s life.

I’ll end with what Sarah Vap writes, in the same essay, about wordlessness and waiting:

But at the same time, something in me, something I used to participate in more directly, that something (or someplace?) is sustaining the poems on its own.

Composing and waiting, wordless until I arrive.


KR: “Wordless until I arrive” – a beautiful expression, isn’t it? To answer your question, Rachel, after my son’s birth, I experienced a huge shift. Being tethered by raw need left me on edge. The arrival of a divided mind – one part is always, instinctively, turned outward – a mind which I now realize will remain divided until the end of my life (how can I not think of my son, of where he is, what he feels, how he is doing?) — nothing could have equipped me for that simultaneous fragmentation and concentration. The sustained exhaustion of motherhood also brought everything in me to the surface. Nineteen months out, chronos marches on, kairos braids through it, and I’m beginning to see the shedding that happens in motherhood not as a complete loss, but as slowly revealing.

I don’t want to exalt motherhood, though, and go as far as saying that now the scales have fallen from my eyes, or that I possess deeper knowledge than before,  or that a mother is a phoenix rising from the ashes. None of that would be the whole truth.

To come back to the idea of “standing within silence” – do you feel a different responsibility as a writer now, to speak from or for or to…? Or that the sense of mortality (your own, your son’s) has created a new compulsion/seeped into your work?


RM: I resonate with what you write about motherhood bringing things to the surface. The mental and physical stress—at the very least of having a baby who doesn’t sleep—bares you to the bone, doesn’t it? I’ve been faced with my own raw patterns and needs in whole new ways over the last three years. I’m also aware that I can project my best qualities onto my son; and I try to remember this is mostly my projection, as he’s his own person and always has been.

You’ve raised an interesting question about responsibility. I’m not sure that I have an answer. In terms of silence, I notice that I’m less able to write poems reflecting the movements of a self in the world. The living world, again, feels porous; everything bleeds into something else, and everything exists in present tense. I’ve lost some access to the music of emotion or internal conflict, which used to generate poetry for me. That said, I’m more engaged than ever with my life as a reader and more interested in voice-driven narratives in poetry and prose. Perhaps because I have less time to read or because I’m working through some change in the poems that are en route— a way to speak directly while tapping into whatever exists beyond my own egoic self.

How has language—and the act of writing—changed for you in the last year and a half? Do you find yourself answering to new preoccupations in terms of subject or approach?


KR: Writing is more accretive, with longer intervals between words. Am I finding less to say, less that is necessary to say? I don’t know. I have noticed, though, that I can no longer inhabit certain darker personas/voices as easily, and that some of the sources which fed my poems have receded. I’m with you on the poems en route. I can’t sense them yet, but somehow, I think the image bank I draw from will be another one. Determination may will that taproot into the earth, but the groundwater rising to meet it remains unseen, just beyond us.


Rachel Moritz is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Elementary Rituals (2013, Albion Books), Night-Sea (2008) and The Winchester Monologues (2005), both from New Michigan Press. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in American Letters and Commentary, Aufgabe, Cannibal, Iowa Review, 26, TYPO, Volt, and other journals. She lives in Minneapolis, where she edits poetry for Konundrum Engine Literary Review and publishes a chaplet series from WinteRed Press (www.winteredpress.blogspot.com).


Karen Rigby is the author of Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012). Her poems have been published in Black Warrior Review, Canteen, Meridian, Field, and other journals. She currently lives in Arizona. www.karenrigby.com



On “Motherhood Bringing Things To the Surface”: A Conversation with Karen Rigby and Rachel Moritz

Mommy Loves an Ant Parade

by Nikki Wallschlaeger

Look at handiwork that doesn’t make sense. I’m tempted to write fertile here, but I don’t think that’s the right word. In the roving grocery we make choices about our eats. So we can give to the neural families inside us. No one knows how many because guts are marketed to serve, not to rule. Never, never rule, especially as horizontal. That would involve Mr and Ms Self backing down from the bodily speakeasy, the wreath thallus drunk enough to black out. I will play table tennis. Back and forth, back and forth, but that’s not the way it really is. Bowel hat quilling. Either you wear the fat or you don’t. Pfft.

Mother is as mother is, say the little beasties. I appreciate a proper microscope, but if I get carsick from the same rotation of vintage warhorses, I’ll get out of the car and walk. She’s made it possible for all other things to be mothering, since she was too lonely to live outside.

Do you pray?

I talk to myself. I listen to my body. I send messages out to the universe sometimes. Often without consciously knowing it. I talk to animals and rocks, beetles, flowers, cacti, mountains, my cats. I’m especially fond of ants and trees. I try to listen to what I see, or what I think I see. Sometimes a better listener, sometimes not. It all depends on how self-invested I am at the time. Distance is important to me, not becoming drowned in your own selfhood. I try to cultivate this daily, but I’m not obsessive about it.

But in the conventional sense, for example, in the Christian tradition of prayer, I do not pray. I think there’s something inherently selfish and manipulative about praying for someone else—how do you know what that person needs for their own nourishment? I wish people well. I am there for the folks in my life when they need me, empathy is not difficult for me to experience with another being. But there’s something so repulsively smug to have someone tell you they are going to pray for you, (especially after you have shared your own beliefs with them) when it is backed by a patriarchal, imperialistic, genocidal, xenophobic religion. If your beliefs are so absolutist that you believe I will be tortured eternally because I am not like you, you can keep your prayers. They are not good for me.

I do understand that prayers vary from culture to culture, religion to religion, person to person. I am reassured knowing there are gentle, good people out there who are sincere about alleviating pain and tragedy from people’s lives by honoring our earth and its beings, people who envision a better world that isn’t part of a political or religious dogmatic agenda. I value the efforts people make when they are genuine about their intention for creating beneficial changes. What I do not value is when people use prayer as a crutch to real action. It’s irresponsible to pray for a better life in death when you could be making it a priority now by being alive with the rest of us.

What do you think about Beyonce (and rapper celebrities) throwing up the Illumanti symbol?

I really don’t give a shit what celebrities do. They are not that important in my life. When I was a teenager, whenever I would pay attention to them, (especially Tyra Banks: she was black and had perfect straight hair and I had curly hair, growing in a small, primarily white town with no black hair care instruction anywhere) I ended up feeling bad about myself. Eventually I learned that this was more or less planned while they took my money to further their careers and capitalist empires. It’s easy to get caught up in the glamour because their performances are designed to be that way—they want you to keep coming back. When I choose to give my time, whether it is art, music, literature, activism, I am open to being influenced. It’s this willingness that I have for new experiences that make me take what I enjoy and learn seriously, because there’s enjoyment and then there’s consumption. Celebrities (and their entourage of financiers) are preoccupied with consumption because they are addicted to their wealth, which affects the quality of what they are selling to the public. I’d rather not be an enabler of an addiction so massive, but since we live in a capitalist society, does it really matter if I don’t care what Lady Gaga and Beyonce do with their lives? People become so preoccupied by money, by its illusion of intellectual authority, that people actually take pop icons seriously. And it’s only getting worse: watch almost any news network ticker and there’s bound to be a blip about the latest (insert current reality TV debutante) publicity marriage.

Are you superstitious?

If superstitious means being open to philosophies outside of Eurocentric reason and logic, then yes. Yes, I am VERY superstitious. So superstitious an anthropologist would describe me as “primitive” in one of their little ethnographies that no one reads, yet seems to be shared by a majority of the population.

What is sacred to you? What is taboo?

Life is sacred. So is having a sense of humor. I’m not a pro-lifer, though. It’s none of my business what another woman does with her own body. The body is sacred. Especially when it gets used. Building muscle is a pleasure. So is growing a baby (even though strangers suddenly think it’s OK to assault your belly because you’re a baby-assembling-lab technician growing workers for economic progress). The organs moving in the dark, veins, blood, slow water, all this stuff going on that you never get to see! It’s wild, like the weather, hurricanes; directions of moods. What if you could talk to your organs? What if they answered back? I like communication outside of language.

Poetry for me is a great exercise in being filled with language and at the same time being out of it. Taboos would be the opposite of life. This is not death. Death is life with a different door. I am talking about stagnation. Like plastic and toxic shock syndrome. Or manipulating genes. Or slurping up mutated chicken broth. The extreme arrogance that our global, mechanistic culture has in assuming everything on earth exists just for human beings to manipulate and control. If that isn’t the ultimate taboo, then I don’t know what could be worse. Every time I see a construction site cutting into what used to be a forest I turn to my spouse and say, “They’re determined.” We laugh but it’s really not that funny anymore.

What is the truest thing you know?

The first thing that came to mind was the functioning of impermanence. Nothing changes, everything stays the same, etc. etc, etc, the usual lines of the spiritual high-brow Buddhist set. But I felt I was also deflecting because I feel this should be obvious, although I am sure there are many who would disagree with me (an Ayn Rand hobbyist or a gold member of the American Family Association). But honestly, I am only 30 and I feel a little ridiculous trying to answer this question. What the hell do I know about life? There are recurring themes I have noticed throughout my earthly travels that are trying to be something more than a floating lily of an idea, that are part of some larger non-linear pattern of the universe. I’d like to think so, but maybe that’s just me being “superstitious.”

Mommy Loves an Ant Parade


by Sun Yung Shin

“The words he uttered were no longer understandable, apparently, although they seemed clear enough to him,” Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung, 1915, The Metamorphosis, translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken; 3rd edition, 1975

 “You’ve had yourself stolen, haven’t you? There is someone who looks exactly like you, isn’t there?” Kim So-un, “The Disowned Student,” The Story Bag: A Collection of Korean Folktales, translated from the Japanese by Setsu Higashi, Vermont and Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1953

* * *

It is now known that a fetus dreams. Infants make memories, memories not accessible to the older mind, but perhaps to other systems of the body, older systems than our frontal lobe and other parts of our brain that developed later in our evolution. Dreams occur during REM sleep, which, according to Dr. Charles P. Pollak, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, is “an evolutionarily old type of sleep that occurs at all life stages, including infancy, and even before infancy, in fetal life.”

As a Korean adoptee who has not been able to find any members of my (Korean) family, I have no access to stories about my so-called fetal life, or to the body of the (my) mother who was the creator, protector, and nurturer of that (my) life. I was with her (here it is tempting to write “Her” due to her personally mythic and unknowable status) until I was about six months old. I was breastfed and I was bonded to her—information I can extrapolate from records made after I was abandoned and ushered into the social service system in South Korea.

I was born in or around May of 1974. I do not know my real birthdate or my name, both blanks which are profound sources of shame and grief and loss, though I understand that the existence of those erasures are hardly the worst thing that can happen to a person. It’s what they represent: unshake-off-able, existential anxiety; permanent emotional disorientation; uncertainty about one’s embedded-ness in a shared time; and a sense of being an object, easily laundered and transferred. Relocated and reassigned. Physically safe, perhaps, and fed and sheltered, but without one’s first essential need: one’s mother, one’s ur-body.

To give some historical context to my birth time, I do know that a few months later on August 14, 1974, Park Chung-hee, the military dictator of South Korea, who had declared himself “president for life,” was the target of an assassination attempt by Mun Se-gwang. This violent incident resulted in the death-by-gunfire of Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo, and a high school student who was part of a choir performing at the ceremony. My country, a people with a continuous history of over 5,000 years, was left divided since the end of the Korean War. That peninsula-wide trauma resulted in tens of thousands of children being made available for adoption to the West, first to the U.S. The profound disruption of the end of Japan’s colonial occupation, the brutal civil war, and the aftermath orchestrated by the U.S., resulted in unprecedented political and social change.

Perhaps my father and mother were people from the North, refugees to the South, ultimately trapped below the 38th parallel. Perhaps they were married but I was the fourth child, one too many. Perhaps my mother was raped by a taxi driver. Perhaps my parents were involved in a extramarital affair and could not be together. Perhaps my father died, or moved away. Perhaps my mother wanted to keep me but could not find the support. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. . . .

Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, now sixty years old, who was a young woman of twenty-two when I was born, was recently elected President of the Republic of Korea, the first woman to hold this office. She, being the daughter of a dictator, among other things, is a figure of controversy. Underneath (or merely behind) the machinery of politics, I wonder what dreams her mother, Young-soo, had while she was pregnant. What maternal stamps and stains marked her, competed or melded with Chung-hee’s heritable contributions? Could they have predicted that the mother, the First Lady of a despot, would give way, in this manner, to the daughter?


I wrote an essay, titled “One Hundred Days in the Cave;” it was published by Cerise Press. It contained this explanation, from Korean sources, of the importance of fetal life:

Koreans count the gestation period as the first year in a child’s life.

It is believed that the mother’s thoughts, behaviors, and feeling during the pregnancy will have a formative influence on the well-being of the fetus, so the prenatal period is called the education period for the unborn child.

A dream may predict the kind of person the unborn child will be.

Someone very close to the child-to-be-born—the mother, grandfather, or other close relative—is likely to have such a significant premonition-like dream.

During the six or seven months of my life outside the womb, in my post-fetal life, I surely dreamed. I also experienced three families, three mothers during that time. A foster family cared for me until I was adopted by an American couple. I was delivered at the age of thirteen months, or, about one year in American time, while, in Korean time, I was over two years old.

I am now a mother, with a daughter and a son. They are growing up quickly, born in 1997 and 2000. I remember well their slow fetal metamorphoses. My sleep was highly interrupted by various expected discomforts.

Did I loan them my sleep? What dreams did I give them?

In the late summer of 2010 I had a miscarriage at nine weeks. I was in Korea at the time with my husband. It was hot. I had been experiencing, as I had before, olfactory sensitivity, fatigue, and morning sickness. At some point, late in our trip, though I kept it to myself, I knew something was wrong. I no longer felt pregnant. Once we returned to the States, I went for my scheduled obstetric check-up, it was confirmed. The nurse could find no heartbeat. The ultrasound tech could find no movement. The doctor delivered news I already knew, but had still hoped was wrong.

Like for many pregnancies, forever throughout human history, those fetal dreams never made it outside the womb. The making of a human—our large brains, those frontal lobes, that capacity for memory, planning, and cruelty—is an energy-intensive and complicated, though automated, process.

Apparently, many embryos “know” there is something wrong with them and thus efficiently self-destruct, making way for the next embryo that may have a better chance at survival outside the womb’s plush red palace.


In Greek mythology, dreams were thought to exist close to the underworld. When I looked up Morpheus, the god of dreams who is winged and can take any form, Wikipedia (don’t tell my students I visited this forbidden resource) offered this:

“According to the Orphic Argonautica (line 1142) the land of dreams (δῆμος ὀνείρων) was located somewhere in the underworld, presumably near the domain of Night and her children. Poets often referred to the two gates leading from the dream realm. One gate was fashioned of sawn ivory, the other of polished horn. False dreams were said to pass through the gate of ivory, while truthful, prophetic dreams winged their way out through the gate of horn. There was also said to be a wilted elm tree in Morpheus’ domain, upon which the dreams fashioned by the Oneiroi hung, with the appearance of winged phantom-shapes.”

As I task my memory-organ to re-member my life in Korea, I breed dream after dream. False dreams? Truthful dreams? Hanging? Phantom-shaped? They drop like ripe fruit, then disappear before hitting the ground. Dreams are ephemera and have no body to violate, no flesh to decay. They can remain fresh as the wind, recycled like hot vapor rising from the ocean, into frozen clouds, and back into the crashing black water—the source of all dreams, the living body of our planet.


 A few years ago, I had my first dream, that I could recall, that was set in Korea. Everyone, including me, was speaking Korean. A grandmother and a hut and a doorway figured prominently. There might have been a fire. There might have been daylight.

I woke up changed, an altered person. Transformed. But not visibly.

In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find that he has become a monstrous vermin. We are not privy to the transformation itself, nor to any rational explanation for the radical change. It can be read as, among many other things, a metaphor for the arbitrariness of punishment in an indifferent, hostile universe. Though there is a hospital right across the street from his room, no attempt is made to either bring Gregor there or fetch a doctor.

Late in the story, a large, bony, wild haired “char woman” (a stand-in for the archetypal witch, although bemused and practical rather than wicked and rapacious) addresses Gregor as “you old dung beetle.” I learned that dung beetles live on the dung from other animals and can roll dung balls many times their own weight. Some dung beetles also eat decayed vegetation. Gregor found he preferred rotting food to the food he used to enjoy in his previous form. A metamorphosis (the Greek words for “change” and “form”) is one of the dung beetle’s life stages. A dung beetle may begin its life as an egg inside a dung ball. The egg hatches and the larva eats the dung until it emerges from the ball a fully formed adult—a singular evolution.

In Kafka’s tale, Gregor devolves. He is transformed during sleep, during the time of dreams. He spends the rest of his life in his bedroom. Its furniture irrelevant as Gregor enjoys crawling on the walls and ceilings, since he can no longer lie comfortably in bed, cannot sit on his settee or at his desk. By the end of his sad, solitary life of working to pay off his parents’ debt (the German word schuld means both debt and guilt), he has shrunken, and his body is placed into a small box. A paper coffin, like a grave made of something as flimsy as words. Easily hidden, buried, burned.

Abandoned then re-en-familied, and re-kinned, I, as an adoptee, am many things, including, I would posit, both a form of ongoing transit and a re-territory, a re-form. This form takes on different meanings depending on the place, the language, and the people who are looking, listening—or not there to listen, or there, but not able to understand.


How important is memory?

The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about memory, an explanation of its complexity that comforts me and somewhat affirms my preoccupation with my fetal psychic amnesia:

“Remembering is often suffused with emotion, and is closely involved in both extended affective states such as love and grief, and socially significant practices such as promising and commemorating. It is essential for much reasoning and decision-making, both individual and collective. It is connected in obscure ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. Much of our moral and social life depends on the peculiar ways in which we are embedded in time. Memory goes wrong in mundane and minor, or in dramatic and disastrous ways.”

My fetal dreams, my memories, while un-worded by me, and mundane, minor in the scheme of things, coalesce to form something: the abandoned, a student of my-self, a stranger, a double, one disowned and re-owned, winged, made of polished horn, in debt, haunted by guilt, monstrous, arbitrary, punished, rewarded; nameless and re-named.

All of us dreamers, past, present, and future—this is us, sleeping, waking, through time, through the gate.


My Name Is Pariah

by Wang Ping

“Ping,” said my colleagues when they learned my promotion denial, “just stay quiet till a new president and provost, and you’ll have no problem to be promoted.”

“Ping,” said another, “if you make ‘noise,’ no college will ever want you, no matter how breathtaking your resume is.”

“Ping, don’t complain to the human rights department if you still want to teach here. It’s equivalent to taking poison and hoping that your enemy will die. It’s a suicide.”

Suicide: an act of taking one’s own life…may stem from social and cultural pressures, such as isolation, bereavement or estrangement. –Merriam-Webster

I know what they’re saying. That’s why I stay quiet since I started teaching in 1999. Quietly I taught MWF 8:30-3:30, three weeks after my surgical labor, still wobbling from a torn birth canal. Quietly I watched my colleagues got their early promotions with 1/7 of my publication while I was denied the promised opportunity. Quietly I complied when I was told I couldn’t teach poetry, or fiction, even though I was hired as a poet and fiction writer. Quietly I cut 1/5 of my salary to do service: create new curriculums, expand the writing program, establish the Chinese program, serve on different committees, organize conferences, bring visitors from China, curate permanent photo installation for the President…

For 13 years, I kept my mouth shut and worked. Creative Writing became the most popular major. I hired every single faculty in the department, and helped establish the Chinese department. I brought 45 visitors to the campus. I organized over 30 student readings, mentored and nurtured many students into great poets and writers. I published 10 books, won book awards, national fellowships and Distinct Alumna Award, gave hundreds of readings, lectures, key-note speeches, served on EPAG, Freeman Grant and ACTC committees, judging for NEA, PEN, Griffin…

For 13 years, I’m the first to arrive in my office, the last to leave. The security guard knows my blue Honda, parked 7 days a week outside the Old Main, even on New Year’s Day. My kids know it’s impossible to make me sit down on the couch. They no longer ask me to take them somewhere for a family vacation.

For 13 years, I have no time for my family. I give my bone marrow to the college.

For 13 years, I made hundreds of dinners for students and faculty, elaborate banquets that require weeks of preparations, food made for joy and peace.

My photos adorn the President and Admission’s Offices as symbols for harmony.

Everyday I endure pain: joints, muscles, stomach, TMJ, IBS, depression, loneliness…

For the dream that I’d be an equal, someday, if I keep quiet and work hard.

Until I was called into the office and told: “ Promotion denied. You’re not enough.”

Until my appeal was rejected. “You’re just not enough.”

Until the FPC chair pointed her pinky at me, “Ping, you’re nothing.”

Until they try everything to stop my research.

Until they cut all my teaching fund.

Until they dismantled the Creative Writing major I built.

Until they ignored my pleas to stop their retaliation and let me teach in peace.

Until they hired a five-lawyer team to Shock & Awe me into dust, pushing for a trial.

Until lies run rampart about my demand for a “large sum of money,” my refusal to mediate.

Until I become the Pariah on the campus: nobody looks at me; nobody speaks to me, nobody knows me, nobody returns my email, including those I hired, sheltered, worked with, co-taught with, traveled with, shared meals with…

That’s when I realize I will never ever be an equal, no matter what I do, no matter how quiet and low, just because I’m a Chinese, a Chinese woman, a Chinese woman immigrant, a Chinese woman immigrant who dreams and speaks in America.

In fact, the more achievements I make, the deeper is my trouble, the more hatred and violence. It goes so deep it can no longer be explained with logic. The refusal to support the Kinship of Rivers project cost the college about $250,000 potential grants, and much coveted publicity. The dismantled writing major will cost thousands of dollars of potential tuitions. Their passion to eliminate me through the legal battle is costing the college thousands of dollars, its invaluable reputation.

The lies and estrangement from this battle are costing my life…

All because I ask to stand as an equal to my colleagues, to teach and research as an equal in an institution that relies so heavily on the principles of justice, diversity, internationalism, and academic freedom.

Academia has become a violent place, especially for women of colors, especially for those who dare to speak.

I watched the violence unleashed upon Soek-fang, Kieu Linh, Rosalie Tung, Sun, Feifei, Carmen, and many others. I watched my sisters flailing, writhing, dying alone. I stood by with my mouth shut hoping it wouldn’t be me next. I worked with my teeth clenched hoping I’d be spared. I endured waves of retaliations praying they might stop some day. I called and emailed begging for a face-to-face meeting to resolve the conflicts, NO MONEY NECESSARY. Finally, my attorney sent a sample complaint hoping for an internal resolution…

My private complaint was answered in court. I was blasted into the public arena for a “hunger game.”

That’s when I realize that my silence is a suicide that kills myself from inside, a homicide that killed Soek-fang, almost killed Kieu Linh, a genocide that is killing the entire group of women of colors in academia, one by one, thousands by thousands…

Read my story, our story, Soek-fang, Kieu Linh, women from Presumed Incompetent, every detail backed by facts and legal documents, every word soaked with tears, sweat, blood…Call EEOC, Human Rights Department, Chronicle of Higher Education, AAUP, NAS. They’ll tell you they’re overwhelmed by discrimination claims.

And if you dig, anywhere, you’ll unearth the skulls and bones of women of colors upon which the Great Wall of American Academia is built.

Kieu Linh, assistant professor at UC Davis fighting for her tenure, described the other world and how she came back from her “90 minute clinical death,” her survival already a “miracle” in the modern medical history.

It was cold there, littered with bones. “Eat us, eat our bones,” begged the voices, “so that you’ll have strength to go back.” I held them, bones like roots that won’t die, brown, red, black, yellow…I cried, “No, I can’t eat you, sisters.” “But you must,” ordered the souls. “You must take us back to the living and tell them what they’ve done to us. Eat us so we can live, so you and your baby daughter can live. Eat us!” So I ate. Every bite I made, a sigh was released from the bone, as if she knew her story would have a chance to see light…

Genocide: a deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group… —Merriam -Webster

Before I spoke, I was dying slowly from exhaustion, shame, doubt, violence…

After I spoke, I’m dying from isolation, estrangement, retaliation, intimidation, terror and heartbreaks…at a much faster speed.

To speak or not speak, it’s no longer an option.

I am dying no matter what, being a woman of color, an immigrant who dares to dream for equality, justice and truth in American academia.

If I’m given a death sentence for this dream, then let me die with my mouth wide open. Let the public eye be my shield. Let the public conscience be my sword.

Let me be the Pariah if it means no other women of colors will have to go through this again, if it means my children and sisters can live with some dignity.

Speak, if you don’t want to be the next in the “Hunger Game.”

In poetry, we seek truth. In poetry, we unite to stop this violence.


My Name Is Pariah

Immi: Sit El-Habayib (My Mother: Queen of the Beloved)

by Hadeel Assali

In my early college days, friends used to come to my house to play trivia, all brainy classmates at the University of Illinois in Urbana, mostly Desi and Arab girlfriends, and mama would effortlessly whoop all our butts. Her smart, sassy attitude and her cooking made me popular (still does). I was sort of a “townie,” but we had just moved there from the deep South, which rendered us quite the anomaly in the Midwest. (Imagine me as a 16-year old Palestinian-American with a country accent…it was remediated rather efficiently.) It was in large part mama’s captivating warmth and charm that easily made a home everywhere we landed during our semi-nomadic lifestyle. She, a Saudi-born-and-raised Palestinian woman, is rich with brains, beauty, and southern soul (we lived in Mississippi and Louisiana for 15 years). I have always been awed by her. It is she I emulate, she with whom I take council, she who still licks my wounds.

How do I tell mama’s story? It is daunting to attempt to contain such a complicated creature within a word count. Even in her greatness, she is human, and like us all, has taken tumbles in her journey through life. The story changes depending on how I choose to remember the past, on how one interprets life’s inevitably scarring tribulations – in this particular case those faced by an immigrant family. The story also changes depending on how much gratitude one remembers to hold for the worlds and opportunities opened by parents willing to take the plunge into a diasporic life. My esteem for my father is a pendulum hanging between personal scars and the privilege of access to the world. Any esteem for him could be misread as a lack of empathy for mama… or as a very naïve me. History is a bitch, it forces you to take a position, to decide which of its fruits to pick and which are not worthy. The storyteller determines, and not innocently, what gets told and what doesn’t, what dirty laundry is aired and what stays tucked away, hidden from sight and memory. The language selects the audience, the metaphors deploy the imagination, and the narrative trajectory conveys the storyteller’s emotions – which might change depending on the day, or even the hour. Good stories require a sort of disciplined passion, your edited presence, a position stabilized just long enough to write something, anything. I take heed of Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s provocative advice, and muster the courage to start somewhere in telling this story, faulty though it may be. This bit of herstory is a fragmented assemblage of moments in time, a shard excavated and shared, placing all the swirling memories and emotions on pause, at least for now.

I was 16 when I graduated from my Louisiana high school. At the same time, after a long dissertation process that included birthing my younger siblings and raising us all, my mother was finally graduating with her doctoral degree in food science from Mississippi State University. This put us in a precarious immigration status. We were stateless, as in no passport to anywhere, no citizenship or permanent residency in any country. “Citizens of the world,” I used to proclaim, taking refuge in the peculiarity of our status, a story in and of itself that commanded an audience for explaining this different kind of creole; we were a novelty to many around us, which often provided a personal entry point ripe for exploiting, an opportunity to tell the larger dispossession story of why we were stateless in the first place. Our right to be in the United States hinged on my mother’s student visa, which would soon be expired. With the help of a lawyer, we ended up in deportation proceedings, apparently a strategic move to get us in front of a judge. Our case, when presented in court, rested heavily on our personal profiles – mama, a freshly minted PhD graduate who was on the team that developed low-fat cheddar cheese, and me, a high school valedictorian with multiple college scholarships and scholastic awards. The judge declared, “We would be honored to have you as citizens in our country,” and granted us a home. Permanent residence in the United Status enshrined in the form of green cards. Given that both of our graduations were met with less than celebratory family strife, the judge’s words were a welcome gift bestowed on two women who understood all-too-well the privileges that came with it.

In the years that followed, my mother’s career was stunted by my father’s nomadic tendencies. Even now, he cannot seem to sit still in a city for more than a few years; his is a perpetual state of exile that prevents any personal investment that limits mobility. Despite years of holding it together through the toughest of times, they divorced, which brought on even tougher times. Mama’s resilience still leaves me wondering how she did it; she was suddenly a single, unemployed mother with the two youngest still living at home – at that time “home” was northern California, the site where my father had last migrated. Several months ago, I myself became officially unemployed for the first time, and when waves of panic hit, my mother reminded me of that era she endured in California. “We find ways to survive,” she reminded me, and of course, she was right. Now, not only did mama (and I) survive, but she found a life partner with whom to build a new future. She and Adel are two peas in a pod, “mama farmer” and “papa farmer” who are sharing a beautiful, simple life together on a recent dream-come-true: a small farm in the country where my mother finally gets to put her knowledge and skills to productive and creative use. We have named it “Laziza Farms.” Finally, our family has a piece of earth to nurture and call home; a land ‘ownership’ we recognize as always temporary, for what does it really mean to own a piece of earth. The best we can do is to be soft trespassers who somehow maintain a detached attachment with the hope of slowly fostering an extended community of folks with common values.

The beauty of my mother’s story, which is still being written, is her ability to look forward. The past is something she has for the most part left behind, but like all of us, exiles or not, it occasionally surfaces – in stories bearing traces of resentment, in our recurring behavioral patterns, in occasional longings for a homeland denied, or in unearthed archives of VHS tapes and family photos. But she no longer lets it linger. Life for her seems to have taken on new meaning at the farm, where the cycles of birth and death are constant reminders of the ephemerality of emotions and existence itself. There, on that modest piece of land, mourning is brief; it is granted just enough time before the future must be attended to. This newfound happiness did not come without taking major risks; it was a family plunge, a collective investment, a commitment to grounding our diaspora in the heart of Texas. Owning land carries a different meaning for exiles who have spent a significant part of their years stateless, which also means landless; it is the sowing of a new geography, planting saplings for a new family tree, an attempt to harvest a coexistence of old (motherland) and new (local) traditions. It is an intentional act of redefining culture and staking a claim to the future. And what better leader for this act, what better example of courage, resilience, creativity and fun than immi, sit el-habayib.

Immi: Sit El-Habayib (My Mother: Queen of the Beloved)

“My Time Was Spent Years Ago”: A Conversation with Writers and Mothers Aimee Phan and Julia Fierro

HER KIND: Poet Camille Dungy prompted this May conversation for HK. She writes: “Once I heard Judith Ortiz Cofer say she had to ‘steal time from herself’ in order to write.  When I heard her, I thought I knew what she meant, but now, at this early hour of the morning, having chosen not to sleep, not to make my lunch for the day, not to exercise, and not to use the last hour snuggling with my husband or my little girl, but, instead to write, I think am beginning to understand what she meant.  Now I am awake, early as it is and disruptive as it will be, sending my taproot down into something larger than myself, stealing time from my own life and giving it to the work.”


AIMEE PHAN: Time has certainly become more important to me in the last year. Although I knew my life would change once I became a mother, the time suck didn’t become apparent until the second arrived. I now look back at the single child parenting with such wonder— we had buckets of time! Time to record every moment of her life, time to focus on our writing, and so much quiet in our home to think. That seems impossible to do with two, though I love both of them and the complete family unit we’ve become. It is hard to steal time from yourself, even though it’s absolutely necessary. I find it’s much easier to do this with work, because while the emails can sneak up on me, I always prioritize it after my family. But between family and writing, it’s such a tough call because the children are so much cuter than that blank computer screen or marked up short story or incomplete essay.

I don’t think of time as mine anymore. I feel in many ways the entire pie belongs to the family and work, and certainly, writing should be a big part of the work slice. But it’s also the easiest to shunt aside because it’s the hardest to endure and sustain. And that’s the very reason we need to actively steal it back, and to have faith that it’s worth it to put the hours back in writing now, before that muscle grows weak and it becomes months since you’ve written something new.


JULIA FIERRO: I feel so fortunate to be able to talk about this balancing act (family and work and writing) in a year when “Having It All” and “Lean In” joined the nation’s discussion of motherhood and the choices women make in work and ambition, and when the VIDA count once again underscored gender inequality in the literary world.

And to discuss this with Aimee, who, like me, has small children and a full-time job and a professional writing life, is an extra special gift.

Then why do I still feel fear when I sit down to write honestly about motherhood? Fear of judgment, fear of self-criticism. Fear of revealing something awful to myself, like what if I really am doing an inadequate job at mothering?

Every few days, a Sackett Street student, or another writer (usually women, often mothers), asks me how I balance work/family/writing, “How do you do it? Do you ever sleep? When do you make time to do it all?”

Part of me feels extreme pride – hell yeah, I’m doing it all.

And yet another part of me loathes myself for this pride and this need for recognition of what one might call suffering – the stereotypical martyr complex. Oh, it’s nothing. I worked until 2am and then got up and made the kids’ pancakes. But I’m happy, I really am!

Sometimes, and I hate to admit this, part of me feels irked when I’m asked this question. If it is an especially tough day (tantrums, stomach viruses, etc.), I want to confess: It is really fucking hard. I’m exhausted. My husband is annoyed with me. The house is a mess. My kids miss me.

My mother worked full-time from the time I was five-years-old, but when she was home, my brother and I were her main focus. She wasn’t writing 100,000+ word novels in her spare post-work hours. Now, when my mother hears that I worked through the weekend, or that I stayed up late to squeeze in some writing or catch up on work, she asks, “But the children always come first, right?”

And although I feel a simmering anger, and despite my doubt, I always say, “Yes, of course.”

But because emails for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop stream into my inbox all day and most of the night, and because we live in a time when email, Facebook messages, tweets, etc. are inches from our fingertips, there is always work to be done.

And so I confess – and feel terribly guilty doing so – that unlike Aimee, I don’t always prioritize the children before work. My children are always with me – in my thoughts and in every nerve of my body – but I must steal time from them, and from my husband, who must care for them many hours of each week (which steals time from his own writing).

If I didn’t, my business would fail, and I would simply never write. I write at night after a day spent working. I write on the weekends while my husband is with the children.

Stealing time from myself sounds like a luxury, actually. My time was spent years ago. And I have to admit: I had too much free time on my hands before the kids were born. Now that I have less time, I savor every stolen minute and make each count. Although I have less time, the time I do have is worth much more.


AP: Julia, what you say feels so achingly familiar, and it’s such a relief to hear you expressing these doubts openly–I think that’s why these students and writers have sought you out to talk about this balance. You have to be brave to admit these vulnerabilities, and many women are afraid to show these insecurities because they’re don’t want to be accused of failing their families or their careers.

The thing with a balancing act is when you’ve been doing it for so long, you stop being concerned with falling. I’m pretty sure I am falling all the time and I just don’t have time to acknowledge it or get upset with myself.

Last year, I gave birth to ZZ within months of getting my second book published, earning tenure, and negotiating an appointment to chair the graduate writing program at CCA, in addition to continuing to chair the undergrad literature program. This, at a time when many of my mother friends were taking extended maternity leaves or reducing their workload. Instead of stealing time to enjoy motherhood, I was taking on more work. I could only imagine what my colleagues and friends thought of me, who already believed I was doing too much. When they ask me about how I balance it all, I try to change the subject. I don’t say that it was actually one of the hardest years of my life, how I worried about the book’s reception, or how we stressed over putting two kids in childcare, or how my parents were moving closer to us because of my father’s Alzheimer’s, or how the guilt of living so far away from Matt’s family continues to weigh heavily on us. I don’t want to be admired or scrutinized too closely, because I am still unsure of how we’re keeping it together. I think like many other working mothers, I’m barely hanging on, and that has to be enough. And much of the balance is thanks to— like you— an amazingly resilient partner who takes on a lot of childcare duty, while also being my best reader and personal supporter. And Matt does this while also teaching and working on his own writing!

Amelie has learned to hate the word “readings.” When she hears that Mommy is going to a reading, she gets upset, and insists on waving to me from the front window, weeping as I drive away. It is a terrible, pitiful sight. But I also know–because Matt assures me so–that a minute later, she skips back to her father and brother, and is just fine. And I trust my husband, who is often the more fun caretaker, because of his endless patience and abundant energy. And after my reading, I drive home as fast as I can, because I cannot wait to be with them again.

Life, doing all that we want to do as mothers and writers, can feel very full, often overwhelmingly so. I remind myself to feel grateful for this, instead of feeling guilty because on a daily basis, I’m constantly choosing between going to a school function, working on my writing or taking my daughter to her ballet class. Our shared Google calendars of competing appointments is a rainbow of over-commitments, but every morning, we sit down, take a look, coordinate pickups and drop-offs, and do the best we can.

ZZ walked for the first time today. And once he started, he couldn’t stop, walking from me to Matt to his big sister. It was thrilling, and we all got to see this— with the full knowledge that he’d walked for his nanny earlier that day.  But I don’t feel guilty that his first steady steps were probably with his nanny and not me. He reaches for her, just as he reaches out for me, and his daddy, and his sister.

Instead of going away for spring break this year, Matt and I used our current childcare to unplug from work and get our own writing done. I started a short story, and it felt fantastic delving into a new set of characters and creating their circumstances. I came home to my children happier than I had in a long time.

I think you’re very accurate when you say that time is worth so much more now. Every hour of childcare, when I’m writing, feels like a gift. So even if I’ve only written a sliver of what I accomplished in my pre-parenthood days, it still feels precious and worthwhile.


HK: We love that you are so honest about the challenges of being both writers and mothers. Tell us: Who were/are your “other mothers”?


AP: This is an interesting idea of other mothers. Since my own mother was such a dominant presence in my life, there sometimes wasn’t enough room for another maternal influence, or one that I can point out that served as a significant counterpoint.

My mother was not a nurturer, though she was a fierce caretaker. Now that I’m a mother, I’m much more understanding and sympathetic of her position as a working mother of two kids. She was impatient, stubborn, at times, very domineering, but it all came from a place of giving us every opportunity she could afford–even if it meant taking on other jobs to pay for them. She gave me her determination and strength.

I have many aunts, nine on my father’s side and three on my mother’s side, and you’d think they would be like other mothers, right? And I certainly felt nurtured and loved by them, especially growing up. I remember, with guilt now, how I wished one of them was my mother instead of my own, because they seemed so much gentler and nicer. Of course, after talking to my cousins, I realize now that while an aunt can indulge and spoil you, the mother has the harder job of caring for you.

My dad’s favorite sister happens to be one of my favorite aunts, and I realize it’s because we have similar personalities–good and bad. We are both emotional and take everything very personally, and take family problems on as personal burdens. And then there’s her ability to completely disconnect from a situation because she cannot handle it emotionally. I do that all the time, but when she did it to me once, I remember feeling completely abandoned. It was a stark reminder that she was not my mother.

For better or for worse, my mother has never abandoned me–emotionally or physically. Not when I need her. No matter how many times I hang up on her or argue with her. She doesn’t take our arguments personally. She has this amazing ability to move on from a traumatic argument with such ease. It’s part of the refugee survivor mentality, probably. There is little time to grieve–we need to move on and take care of things.


JF: I am grateful for this prompt because although this idea of “other mothers” is emotionally difficult for me, in thinking about this I learned a lot about myself, my mother and how my expectations of her have changed as I’ve grown older.

My mother, like Aimee’s mother, is a survivor. She had a difficult relationship with her father, who believed that women should be seen and not heard, and it wasn’t until she went to all-women’s Catholic college that she blossomed into the strong, opinionated and courageous woman she is now, particularly in her work as an advocate for the AHRC (The Association for the Help Of Retarded Children).

That said, throughout my childhood, she did defer to my father’s strong personality and often unpredictable moods, and though I am ashamed to admit it, I did not consciously look to her as a model growing up.

Because there were no other adult women in my life, I often felt mentor-less, which is a terribly lonely feeling, especially when you are so different from your family. No one in my family felt passionate about reading, and my active imagination – much of which I shared at the dinner table until I was politely told to “stop thinking so much” – wasn’t nurtured directly. In fact, I do think that I sought out “mother mentors” in the books I read as a girl.

In many ways, my mother – and even my father in his own way – were what I’ve come to call “accidental feminists” (a topic of an essay I am working on actually) because they never treated me in a way that was different from the way they treated my brother.

But it was my witnessing of their relationship that affected my perception of my mother, and of women in general. It disturbed me to see my mother submit to my father, despite the fact that, in many ways, she was the one who “wore the pants in the family,” and who handled the finances (my father’s English has never been fluent). As a result of what I saw then as her “weakness,” I rejected women almost entirely as a young woman. I had one or two female friends, but always hung out with a group of boys. I understand now that I feared the kind of emotional intimacy needed to have a close relationship with a girlfriend, and it wasn’t until I met my husband in my twenties that I became a more confident person. Then, one night, around my 22nd birthday, I realized, with a sudden clarification, as if my entire perspective of my parents reversed, that my mother was, in fact, the strength in our family. Like many women of her generation, she often bowed to my father’s demands so that we could remain a family. All along, I had resented her for not taking a stand against my father, for not stepping in when he lost his temper and hit me (he too was a survivor of war, of physical abuse, of poverty, of immigration). I had resented her for not leaving him. Now I know that she had done the best she could, and in many ways this was courageous. She did not have the choices and the support that women – especially women who are mothers – have today. Now I live with the guilt of not respecting her all those years, though she is now – especially since I became a mother – one of my closest friends, and she has been (in her own way) an incredible support in my own experience, and challenges, as a mother.

In the last ten years I have read, studied with, met and been inspired by a host of amazing women. And I like to think of them as “mothers”–although some are mothers, some are not; some are older than me, some my own age, but they are all women writers and thinkers who have nurtured me and my understanding of myself as a woman and as a writer.

They do this by reminding me again and again that I am worth just as much as any man. It is sad to think that I need this reminder. Me, a woman in an equal partnership with my husband, with whom I share all parenting and household task equally. Me, a successful business owner. Me, a proud author and teacher. But there are days I need a reminder.

Like today, for example, when the list of contributors to the latest issue of The New Yorker is 100% MALE (!!) and reads like something pulled from the 1965 archives.

And I look to one of my intellectual “mothers” (though “sisters” would be better) for reassurance, and some kick-in-the-butt motivation.

Today, Elissa Schappell not only pointed out the all-male New Yorker, but she also reminded us to head over to Wikipedia and create entries for our favorite women novelist, to combat the ghetto-ization of “women novelists” who are being removed from the “American novelist” category.

One step forward, and then something like The New Yorker or Wikipedia makes it feels as if we’ve fallen one step back. So we need to take two steps forward, and it is the voices of women like Elissa Schappell, Meg Wolitzer, Deborah Copaken Kogan, Roxane Gay, Michelle Dean and more, that remind me to keep marching forward.


Julia Fierro‘s debut novel, CUTTING TEETH, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2014. She founded The Sackett Writers’ Workshop in 2002, and what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has grown into a creative home for over 2000 short-story writers, novelists, memoirists and essayists. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Guernica Magazine, The Millions, Poets & Writers, HTMLGiant and other publications. She is graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and has taught literature and creative writing in the Honors Program at Hofstra University, and at the University of Iowa. http://www.juliafierro.com/

Aimee Phan grew up in Orange County, California, and now chairs the MFA Writing Program and Writing and Literature Program at California College of the Arts. A 2010 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, Aimee received her MFA from the University of Iowa, where she won a Maytag Fellowship. Her first book, We Should Never Meet, was named a Notable Book by the Kiryama Prize in fiction and a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Awards. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Arts Colony and Hedgebrook. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Oregonian, among others. Her novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martin’s Press) is now available in paperback. http://www.aimeephan.com

“My Time Was Spent Years Ago”: A Conversation with Writers and Mothers Aimee Phan and Julia Fierro