Tag Archives: Reflection

In Which My Grandparents Turn 90

grandparents 2.JPGIn the year 1928, my grandmother was born in Kennewick, Washington, on October 20, and my grandfather was born on July 24 in Elk Basin, Wyoming. Last week, their six children and an extensive number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren got together in/descended upon my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Montana (approximately halfway between Kennewick and Elk Basin) to celebrate their 90th birthday in the one week in summer when most of their descendants are free between work and travel.

I’ve only been around for twenty-five of those ninety years. I don’t know much about the sixty-five years my grandparents lived before me. I’ve always known them in one place, their garden-surrounded home in Hamilton, but I’m told they traveled a lot, from Montana to Washington to Minnesota. Their house has a kind of permanence in my mind. It has always been there, and has always been theirs. It’s strange to think of my grandparents living anywhere else. But ninety years is a long time to accumulate stories.

grandparents.JPG

They were born on the eve of the Great Depression. When they were five, the Weimar Republic was dissolved. When they were 13, the US entered the Second World War. They married in 1952. At some point, family traditions began to take shape: camping, river floating, fishing, miraculously digesting Spam.

Stories about my grandparents’ lives move all over the place, and I know that any story I hear from or about them will only ever scratch the surface. I don’t know how to quantify my own quarter-century of a life. Quantification isn’t always important, though. Nobody needs to measure a life, old or young, in order to celebrate it. 90 years is a long time, and I can learn to let it meander beyond my understanding. Their lives are too varied for me to know in their entirety, and that’s a good thing. It means there will always be something new to learn, something new to unlearn as well.

They still technically have a bit of time before they officially turn 90, though, and their dedication to wild partying, as evidenced in the weekend-long get-together, puts my own youthful spunk to shame. I have a lot to learn.

-jk

The Dogsitting Writing Residency

Two dogsCommensalism or mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction. The housesitter is apt to recognize the opportunity as a private windfall, and the pleasure is tandem: first in his own dis-habituation, and then in the adoption of a new readymade home, a vacated life to try on. With the extra keys on his chain, the housesitter leaves work on a different train or by a new road, becomes a local in the café or dogpark, creates or stars in fantasies grown out of his new neighbors’ notice.
-Brian Blanchfield, “On Housesitting,” from Proxies.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve never had a writing residency. Applications for residencies are expensive and highly competitive, and travel is even more expensive and time-consuming. Like a lot of writers, I don’t have the time or resources to travel to another country and write for a month, as much as I want to. But I can construct my own version of a residency with occasional opportunities and a little creativity.

For example, I’m currently dog-sitting for some relatives in Pullman, Washington, just six miles from Moscow but in a subtly different environment. Pullman is full of hills and mosquitoes, whereas Moscow is comparatively flat and full of earthworms. I’m in charge of a few tasks around the house, cleaning, taking out the trash on trash days, but most importantly I’m in charge of two good but regularly loud dogs. It’s been a week so far, and they are starting to get used to me.

I also have access to a large table, the internet, a coffee maker, and a view of the neighborhood. It’s not a real writing residency; I’m not funded to go wander the hills of Pullman and get acquainted with the local mosquitoes, and the dogs’ needs, of course, take precedence over writing. But it’s a chance to use my time wisely.

Since settling in last Saturday, I’ve revised one essay, written another essay, submitted fifteen various essays and stories to journals, and read a handful of essays from various collections (out of order like a heretic). By the time I leave Pullman, I’ll have been productive. I don’t have much of an excuse not to be.

This isn’t exactly a vacation, though, not a real one. Everything is borrowed and temporary. Everything comes with a caveat that I’m a stranger. I’ve been thinking about Brian Blanchfield’s essay about housesitting for friends and colleagues. The notion that housesitting is trying on another life is apt. This is a life I’m not used to, one I have to learn, and am responsible for maintaining in the absence of this life’s real inhabitants. I’m not quite a guest, nor a visitor, and also not exactly a steward.

Stranger still is that Pullman in May is very green, and it’s been rainy and overcast but also somewhat warm, and I wandered around town the other day between showers, passing neighborhoods filled with so many plants that I sometimes didn’t realize there were houses, and as such the city keeps reminding me of Galway, Ireland. I even found an Irish pub downtown, something I haven’t seen since living in Lincoln. I went in for a drink, wishing I could stay, or bring my laptop and write and read in the corner and be moody with the dark wood decorum around me. But I couldn’t stay, because this isn’t a real residency.

This place, in its slight and uncanny differences too subtle to classify but too monumental to miss, makes me want to travel, to break out of my long-established routine, to be the one who needs a housesitter for a change. I know this will never happen, for a lot of reasons. But I can still accomplish as much as a real residency with what little I have. And of course I’ll never say no to access to dogs. Just look at them.

-jk

 

After Hibernation

SpringI found out recently that bears do not, as I had previously believed, hibernate. Now my whole world is thrown into chaos.

I’ve been thinking about bears a lot lately. I took a short trip to Montana last weekend to visit my grandparents, and though I didn’t see any bears, the few I have seen crossing the road, if my memory is correct, have been in Montana. I passed the University of Montana, whose mascot is the Grizzly, and was saddened to discover that they will likely be cutting many of their programs, including English. My grandfather and my father both have pointed out to me it’s a good thing I didn’t get accepted into UM because of their financial issues. I could have been a Grizzly, but in the long run it’s better that I’m not.

Biologically speaking, I am not a bear, but I share a few characteristics: I have a special affinity for honey and berries, I possess a quantity of brownish unruly fuzz, and I require a lot of alone time. Also, I like to stand in front of a river and wait for fish to jump into my open, gaping jaw, but who doesn’t? Most importantly, I have always appreciated bears because they hibernate, or so I thought. I, too, have always thought of myself as hibernating, but if I was wrong about bears, I might be wrong about myself.

Hibernation is absolute isolation. Other species hibernate because they literally sleep the entire winter, clicking off their other functions to preserve heat and energy. Bears, on the other hand, wake up periodically during the winter months to leave their dens. During winter, they stay in their dens with stored energy and warmth, but move about to replenish their needs, but only sometimes, when it’s necessary. Bears don’t hibernate; they’re just introverted.

It’s unlikely that bears clack away on a typewriter during winter, crescent moon glasses on their large wet bear noses as they squint their bear eyes at their bear memoir (beamoir) while taking a sip of mead and then glancing out of their den to contemplate the complexities and horrors of being alive. But if they did, I would sympathize.

It was cold and rainy and almost snowing when I drove six hours to Montana through sloping mountain passes, driving past and in some cases over small secluded towns in the forests. I rarely leave the Palouse, or Moscow, or my apartment. I prefer long periods of seclusion storing energy, writing, digesting berries and honey and whatnot. But apparently, this is not hibernation. Even in summer, I burrow away to write and read. It’s more like conservation, if anything.

Now that the weather in Moscow has finally become consistently warmer, I cannot justify staying inside my den all day. In some respects, I don’t want to. This has been the longest winter I have experienced in quite a while. It has been brutally windy, unpredictably cold, overwhelmingly sunless. It has become easy to stay inside my apartment in isolation, because going anywhere requires preparation, even on good days. For me, I’m realizing, this is true in other circumstances. But it’s comforting to know that what I do is not hibernation. I don’t vanish, I’m just resourceful.

The road to Montana was clear and almost completely empty in the early morning. Low storm clouds obscured some of the mountaintops and dark green forests along the road. It was cold, but not violently so, and the clouds slipped away when I reached my grandparents’ house in the Bitterroot Valley. It was almost warm during the weekend excursion. As a break, it was even almost enough.

-jk

Etymology, From the Greek for Wordstuff

Palouse 6At least 30 percent of creative nonfiction is devoted to reflecting on etymology. We examine the words we use everyday. Fruit, from the Latin frui, meaning to enjoy; paragraph, from the middle French for stroke, as in a painting; field, from the German Feld, for open country; language, from the Latin lingua for tongue. The trend in nonfiction is to meditate on the the roots of our language to explore its deeper, older meaning.

But what about the etymology of etymology? The definition is embedded in the the word itself. It describes itself. The word etymology is self-referential, like a hipster trying to be ironic. Etymology is its own inside joke, wearing seventeen layers of irony. Etymology wears beanies with collared shirts and eats egg whites with spinach on whole wheat toast. Etymology knows what time it is.

Etymology comes from the Greek etumos, for truth. It was adopted into Latin where it had a good life before going to middle French to mean a field of inquiry, and after graduation found its way into English, and then ended up in English departments, as the creative decision to plunge backward through itself into its own roots. Like all words that move from English to English departments, its meaning becomes questionable, which is why etymology is used so often in application, but not applied to itself. Worlds could end if etymology, too, was explored into its roots, dug up, transplanted to an essay, and placed in new soil.

As field of inquiry into truth, in its origins, etymology is an artistic form. An essay could be an etymology, gathered into a collection of etymologies. An essay looks backwards, reflects, investigates. The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais established the literary tradition of using nonfiction to explore ideas, to “test their quality” according to the etymology of essay, may have simply been creating expansive etymologies, long-form etymologies, extended inquiries into truth. Maybe this is what the field of creative nonfiction, in all it encompasses, is meant to do. Journalism, biography, history, documentary, and auto-theory are all founded on etymology, rooted in root-seeking.

I have only recently started using etymology in my writing, but I think it’s more than a trend. It’s a strategy, and one that is regularly tested. I am beginning to use this strategy more and more. When I write, I start on the ground and dig up the roots around me to see how far they go, to see where I can go from there.

-jk

We Have Decided to Keep the Flags Perpetually Half-Mast

flag

After careful consideration, we have decided, out of convenience, to keep all the flags at half-mast for the duration of the year. We figure it will just save us all a lot of time and energy if we left the flags lowered for this week’s tragedy at half-mast for the next tragedy, which we’re sure will come but don’t want to do anything meaningful about. This is the easiest thing for us, the people who lower all the flags, to do.

For especially horrific tragedies, we will have the flags lowered three quarters, to show you that we recognize your pain is serious this time, but still not serious enough to do anything about it. For something really, really bad, we’ll just remove all the flags entirely and burn them in the streets. At that point, a lot of Americans will probably be happy to see the symbols of their country burning. We also expect that, if things somehow but predictably get that much worse, whomever takes charge of the country will remove and burn all flags for us, at which point we will consider it our solemn duty to retire and take our large sums of money so we can spend it in another, safer country.

Lowering all the flags is a way of showing you that we know you are in pain, and keeping them perpetually lowered will show you that we know your pain is constant and ongoing. This is literally the least we can do for you, to the point that it’s almost like we don’t actually care. But we do, because we’ll keep the flags lowered on your behalf. The flags are all for you. That, and basically nothing else from us, the people who lower the flags for you.

Half-mast is the way of life in America. The United States is a half-mast country run by people with half-mast efforts. But we appreciate your hashtags and dedication to showing support through gestures rather than actions, and we’re especially grateful to you for not voting us, the people who definitely totally care if your children are murdered in a school, out of office. We’re glad to stay as long as you let us.

We feel it is redundant to continually raise the flags, just as it is redundant for you to continually raise your hopes, because hope is no more useful in preventing violence than lowering flags for a day. Hope has to be earned through action, not the other way around and your hopeful inaction means a lot to us. As long as we’re here, all the flags will be at half-mast indefinitely, to account for the tragedies that will likely come next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

-jk

Irish Goodbyes

treeI have a bad habit of leaving places without saying goodbye first. I recognize that many consider it rude, but I know I’m not alone in this habit. We have multiple terms for it: the Irish goodbye, the French leave, ghosting. I promise I’m not being rude. This social practice is more common than you’d think.

Ghosting suggests a kind of permanence, because it implies death. It might be a complement to accuse someone of ghosting, a backhanded way of telling someone you value their presence by suggesting that person’s absence feels in some ways tragic. But ghosting doesn’t make sense, as a word for leaving without announcing so. Ghosts spend their energy trying to be known. They knock on doors and haunt people at night. When I leave early, duck out into the snow past the smokers huddled together, I’m not leaving forever. I’m not going to the afterlife, just back home for the night.

Supposedly the French leave was a practice among wealthy French elites at dinner parties, but the Irish goodbye came from impoverished women and men leaving Ireland for America during the Famine. The Irish goodbye is more permanent in this sense, but the drama of leaving a starved nation is a bit much to describe leaving a party early. The French leave is more accurate.

It’s disconcerting how often shyness is interpreted as rudeness, how often presence accompanies the expectation that I need to remind people that I’m there. Will I be forgotten if I don’t? Will I be made to feel like a ghost if I’m not quiet? I don’t like to interrupt, or be interrupted. My silent departures are a way of saving you time, a way of not interrupting you. Your time is precious, and I don’t want to shave off sections of it for myself to announce my leave.

I’m not a ghost, so far I know, but if I were that would be an unsurprising plot twist. I’m not French, or rich, or starved, or Irish. I’m not running away from you, or even running away. I just need to breathe for a bit, get a good night sleep, a long breakfast, maybe spend the weekend on an armchair reading so I can catch my breath.

I promise it’s not personal. I really do enjoy your company; that’s why I listen so much to those around me. I want to listen to everything because I’m afraid I’ll interrupt a brilliant insight or a kind attitude, because I’m surrounded by brilliant and kind people every day whose thoughts are so regularly cut off or never even asked for in the first place. I want to hear from you without interruption. I want to know where you’ll arrive with your thinking, to understand how it works and where it goes. I promise I’m not being rude. I’m just a little shy.

-jk

On Writing as a Profession (But Not as a Career)

IMG_4605For me, writing is a practice. More than a hobby, writing is a profession, though I’ve never been paid for it. Writing is work that I enjoy, but it’s not labor. It’s production, but not a job.

My job is to teach on an organized schedule broken into lesson plans, weeks, units, semesters, and academic calendars. I know roughly what I’ll be doing on May 10 (grading final papers) and I know what I’ll be doing on January 10 (introducing a syllabus). Between those dates, I have a little more room for spontaneity, but not much. This is a job, for better or worse: reliably predictable and strictly regimented.

As such, I cannot call writing a job or a career. The point isn’t to make money by providing a unique service, but to make stories and essays, some of which I publish on this blog and others I submit to journals with a broader readership, almost always operating on minuscule budgets. But I can call writing a profession.

I want to completely separate the word profession from its frequent association with economics and careerism. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word profession to Anglo-Norman and Old French. The OED cites one of the earliest uses of the word to a thirteenth century text called the Ancrene Wisse, meaning “manual for anchoresses.” Authored by an unknown medieval priest, possibly in Wales, the Ancrene Wisse was a religious manual addressed to three sisters to instruct their code of spiritual, monastic conduct. This text, like most early uses of profession, aligns with the OED‘s first definition of the word: “The declaration, promise, or vow made by a person entering a religious order. . . Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.”

Writing may not be a religious order (though graduate school certainly feels monastic at times), but writing is a profession in its oldest sense, a solemn declaration, a promise. When I write, I profess what I am capable of knowing at the time, and I do so for the creative and intellectual benefit of my readers (first) and myself (second). More importantly I read the writing of others, to benefit from my fellow cloistered writers. Writing is a profession of what I know and want to know, a profession of the questions I have.

Not everything needs to be monetized. I don’t want to market my writing as an asset, and I certainly don’t want to think of writing as an extension of my own commodification. If I do one day get paid to write, I’ll be grateful. If not, I’ll be happy for the stories I’ve had published online for the world to view for free. That my professions can be made public is what matters.

-jk