Sunday, August 3, 2008

Artist Residency

I have always been a bit of a sceptic about writer's residencies--why not just buckle down and write at home? And then, last year, I stayed home and graded and graded and then for a bit of spicy fun, I did some lesson plans and some course readings. When I wasn't obsessing about teaching, I was obsessing about how I wasn't writing.

Thus: Soaring Gardens, PA.
Time: 18 days
I applied for the residency with Lorissa (along w/ another friend who ditched us for the south of France). Lorissa and I became friends in Prague, where we attended a writing workshop. We're both nonfiction writers. Both writing about family tragedy. We arrived at Soaring Gardens at midnight and were instantly charmed by the old farm house, the sweet wallpaper, the spa bathrooms, the walls and walls of bookshelves. How were we so lucky?

In the mornings, we would sit on the back porch and drink coffee and watch the birds and critters. In the evenings, we would take long rambling walks around the farm land. In between, Lorissa wrote like someone with her hair on fire. I picked berries, sat in the hammock and read, and then casually opened my computer and revised here and there. And somehow, at such a languid pace, I got tremendous amounts of work done. It was lovely.

Soaring Gardens

Soaring Garden's Artist Residency

Taking walks with artist Lorissa

The raspberries were a delight!

A serious day of reading

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Teaching Ms. 29 books!

Ah Minnesota. I was launching into some teacherly nonsense when I was interrupted by the warbling call of loons. Loons! You can't compete with that. Nor with coffee.

I'm on the campus of St. John's. More particularly, I'm at the Ecumenical Institute, and I just finished a week of minster wrangling. In the mornings, the ministers talked with Eugene Peterson (of the Message Bible, among other books) about balancing pastoring and the writing life, and in the afternoons, I led out in a writing workshop. On the first day of class, each pastor gave an introduction--which roughly translated into this: Have you written more books than the teacher? The answer: Why yes I have! One lady had written 29 books. Another gentleman had written 4. Still another had written 8 or 9. "How did you get this gig?" they kept asking me during breaks.

It was an interesting gig. Not only did the 12 students attend, but so did my boss Don, so did Eugene Peterson, and so did Dave the moderator. I got to be Miss Bossy Pants and enforce a cone of silence around the person being workshopped. It went something like this: "Remember Silvia, hold your comments till the end." "Ah, hate to interrupt you again Silvia, but it's hard to listen when you're talking." "Silvia, great question, but why don't we dialogue after the workshop?" At first, I was terrified to have so many non-students just lurking around the table, judging all the weirdness that comes out of my mouth, but Don and Dave were great, and I began to prey on poor Eugene. He is a lovely person. He's like a thin, incredibly quiet version of Santa Claus. Each time the students gave me a I'm-not-buying-that-particular-brand-of-crazy look, I would say, "Eugene, What do you think?" And he would agree with me, each and every time!

At the end of the week, Ms. 29 books said this: "I know this is probably a stereotype, but usually it's a disaster when a young person attempts to teach her elders. But it turned out better than I expected."

Don kindly let me stay in an apartment for a week after I taught. It is beautiful here. I can see the lake from my desk and this afternoon, I walked down to a pottery studio and talked with the master potter over tea. He said that you can't properly throw a bowl until you're 50. Before then, you just practice.

There is no one else staying at the apartments this week. At 5 pm, everyone at the institute packs up and drives home. Since this is Minnesota, nothing is locked--except my apartment, I lock it good at night, which is ridiculous and redundant. The main hall is kept unlocked and all the apartment keys are hanging on the wall inside. Last night, around 1am, I heard footprints right under my window. I looked out and saw nothing. Then, I again heard a very distinct crunch of gravel, pause, crunch of gravel, pause. My cell phone doesn't work here and Silvia clearly has a reason to come back and do me in. I again peeked out the blinds, and there, just below my window was a deer walking, pausing, walking, pausing.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day

A dhow on the Indian Ocean
date unknown

Kaarina Fordham's letter to her father:

Uganda, April 6, 1980

"We have grown more tomatoes and red peppers from our own land. The rains stopped this time, but they will start again fortunately. Here it has been peaceful at school, but in Kampala it is just as unsettled. The Tanzanian soldiers are gone, but they stole so skillfully that they took many things with them. They also shot civilians if they dared oppose them. . . . Sonja and Sari just left to get milk. Sonja learned to ride a bike (I already told you about this battle) and she rides passionately in the yard. The children sang last Sabbath for the YM performance and they put Sari as the leader to conduct one song. It was something to see as the littlest kid stood on a block of wood and conducted the others. People, of course, laughed.

I'm leaving now to see if I can find carrots or tomatoes from the land. The girls came back and both want space to write something. Wishes from us."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Los Angeles Times 2008 Festival of Books

Ah, lovely, literary Los Angeles. This morning, I went with four students and a colleague to UCLA for the festival of books. Since there were six of us, I drove one of the cars and even though I do not have air conditioning, and even though it was 98 degrees out, and even though I had warned the students that I'm a bad driver, one brave soul chose (willingly) to ride with two teachers. (This, unfortunately, becomes a relevant detail.)

UCLA is a beautiful campus. While I didn't see the ocean, I sensed its nearness, and I loved the eucalyptus trees towering beside the parking lot. The festival itself was crazy. There were panels and tents and events and, this being LA, even film stars. Julie Andrews was there to promote her memoir. (Apparently her childhood was filled with darker themes than dog bites and bee stings.) I mostly wandered around the exhibit tents and bought books, including Screaming Monkeys an anthology my teacher at Iowa State University had been working on at the time. It was fun to see it in print

So there I am, armful of books, moving from small tent to small tent when I see a novel titled: Skunk, A Love Story. Because I am a bad person, I hold the book up to my colleague and said, "hey, you should get this." I'm a little serious because she loves animals, but I'm mostly joking because--Skunk, A Love Story?

The man on the other side of the desk says, "Oh, are you interested?"

I noncommittally mumble something.

"Well, if you are, I could sign it for you."

We chat for a bit about skunk research. Apparently, he made some stuff up (that you can get high on skunk musk, for instance). In the end, I didn't buy the book. But it is getting good reviews on Amazon.

After eating a frozen sandwich, I attended a memoir panel. It was the first panel I've ever attended. (really!) Five years of creative writing classes and somehow, I never attended a literary panel. Now I have and the world is slowly righting itself. This panel was about place (natch) and self. There was even a debate about Truth and Accuracy. So all the memoir-y lions were taken out and dusted. Nevertheless, the panel was engaging. I didn't have time to buy books afterward, but I must, must, must get The Unheard by Joshua Swiller. The author was funny and smart and spoke unsentimentally about living in Zambia. I know, I'm so sentimental, but I'm beginning to realize that it's a disservice. You could tell he loved Zambia, but he just wasn't going to paint his experience with rose petaled sunsets.
On the drive back, I first pull in front of an on coming car. (long, angry honk) Then as I'm changing lanes and then changing lanes again, I nearly side swipe two different vehicles in my blind spot. This all happens in 5 flustered minutes. For the next hour, every time I change lanes, I notice the student in the back seat is also anxiously checking the next lane. When I dropped him off at his dorm, and he nearly hurls his body out of the car, I say, "well, you'll have some driving stories to tell."

His response: "Indeed. I sure will."

"Less of the indeed part," I say, ever the schoolmarm.

"Ha ha," he says. "You drove fine."

As he walks in front of the car, I assume my vehicle is in reverse and I almost hit him.

Friday, April 18, 2008


My nephew and I are taking taekwondo--half a world away from each other. Aidan is four years old, and he has just been promoted to a yellow belt.

I have been demoted to a purple one.

I got my black belt in Korea several years ago. Each morning, I woke up at 5:45 to attend class--a fact that still amazes me. My classmates were 15 middle school boys and 1 very angry middle school girl. They were all superior athletes and when I had to preform my pumsays, they would stand out of the teacher's eye range and demonstrate the steps I was getting wrong. I found the whole situation amusing, particularly my lack of talent--I think that's why I persevered through those dark winter mornings.

When I tell people I am no good at taekwondo, they usually think I'm being modest. I should be so lucky. I just joined a taekwondo institute in Riverside. The first day of class, I wore a track suit and practiced with the white belts. Afterwards, the instructor begged me not to wear my black belt to class and discourage the other students. Instead, he gave me a purple belt--and hinted that he was being overly generous.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, I'll be taking classes with adults, but on Wednesdays, I will be joining the teen class. That should be interesting (or terrifying).

Monday, April 7, 2008


Back in July, I did this complicated apartment search. Much to my delight, every apartment in Riverside had a.) a balcony b.) a pool. (No fridge, however.) For a while, I was dreaming crazy and looking at places with fireplaces and fitness centers.

Now that it is warmer, I have been sitting on my balcony, reading. I just finished Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. It is very good. Disturbing, but good. His sentences are a marvel. He has stripped them of any excess, and yet, they have still retained their warmth. He also uses a lot of dialogue, but it doesn't feel talky.

It is Saturday, market day. Lucy wakes him at five, as arranged, with coffee. Swaddled against the cold, they join Petrus in the garden, where by the light of a halogen lamp he is already cutting flowers.