Monday, July 9, 2007

The Low Five: Desperate Moments in Teaching

Ryan was backpackless.
I shared a classroom and
my roommate was always late.
Tired of monitoring her students before the bell,
I locked the door – lights out – “no one’s home.”
Then Ryan came for his backpack.
Another teacher let him in, flipped on the lights,
and discovered me,
writing on the board,
in the darkness,
like a madwoman.

Vanessa was bored.
It was Halloween and I walked the aisles,
my antennae bobbing,
passing back papers.
It was difficult to maneuver the
narrow rows because
I had drastically underestimated my wingspan.
“I hate this class,” Vanessa said,
her arms folded.
“It’s so BORing.”
I looked at her. Paused.
“I’m dressed as a friggin’ butterfly,” I said.
“What more do you want?”

Javi was distracted.
They were taking notes while
I lectured on transcendentalism.
(What could be more captivating?)
I paused and stuck a pencil up my nose.
Javi stared out the window.
I took the pencil out and poked him
with the slimy end.
He just blinked at me,

Brianna was hungry.
She asked (127 times) if she
could have one of my potato chips.
I refused.
Then, she wanted a sip of my water.
“No,” I said, “don’t ask me again.”
I wrote something on the chalkboard,
then turned to find her sipping from
my water bottle.
“I had one of the chips, too,” she sneered.
I took three long strides to my desk
and spit all over my chips.
And I spit in my water bottle, too.

Amber was cheating.
She stuck her vocabulary list
in a binder and hid it on her lap.
“Everything under your desks,” I reminded.
She clutched the binder and
glared at me with the red hot anger
of a thousand suns.
“Give it to me,” I said with my hand out.
“Never,” she whispered.
The next bit is a blur.
Somehow I wrestled it away and
came up triumphant. The binder
in my hands. Sweating.
Dust on my pants and a
crushed Skittle embedded in
my elbow.
The class erupted in applause.
“Rock on,” they cheered.“Rock on, Miss Smith.”

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Existential Travelogue

Train Sequence


Cross the signal bridge and start at the suburban station: home of the Big Sky Garden Railway. It’s a Saturday and the train is brimming with tourists. Around the bend, six Hereford cows make their way up the ramp and into the cattle car.

The locomotive blows its whistle and so starts the steady rock of the passenger car.
You move forward, absorbing Montana’s majestic beauty. Across the broad plains sprinkled with tufts of silken grass, over the glistening Gallatin river, then forward through an orchard of floweret trees, beside mountain peaks dusted with snow.

A team of cowboys gently ushers cattle out to pasture. One of them tips his hat as you head into town, past the local grocer, the Big Sky Café, the bank. A child licks a lollypop outside Mr. Foamy’s Soda Shop.

On the final bend of the Big Sky loop, you lean out the window and take in one last breath of the town’s rustic charm. Its 24 telephone poles. Its 36 street signs. Its 48 male and female figures (modeling several sizes and poses). The train gently coasts to a stop, and you pause to thank the engineer for the smooth, slow speed operation of the electronic power pack on this impeccable, nickel-coated track.

Exiting the platform, you turn and notice that the locomotive has a real, operating headlight and a tube of liquid smoke.


The brakes make me panic with every scrape of metal against metal. I’m waiting for the green line. A sullen engineer sits crumpled over his paperback. I lean my head against a concrete pillar, close my eyes, and remember Italy.

I only understand pieces of her smooth incantation as it spreads out over the speakers.
Il treno. . . e’ in partenza . . . dal binario tre. Downstairs, I cross the underpass and make my way to the platform. Avvisiamo . . . il treno . . . per La Spezia Centrale . . . e’ stato soppresso.

Soppresso. A common event. Temporarily stranded in Monterosso I wait with a sigh, absorbing the solid air. The red, wooden bench. Everything still except the pigeons.

At 16:15 a train arrives. We board and I travel upward in my window seat. Outside: flashes of vineyards and disheveled castles. Inside: an exquisite woman in a white tank top fiddles with her necklace. Her phone rings. Pronto? Upward she smiles that love affair smile that everyone smiles in Italia and I warm to her but just as my face begins to blossom the brakes scream to a halt.

I open my eyes. The engineer pockets his paperback. Clears his throat. Boards the train. And I think is America beautiful? With all its peaks and rivers, certo che si.

But I never seem to go there in my mind.


She left Antigua. Not because she no longer admired the roses at the Iglesia de Santa Clara, but because she got soul sick when children in rags left their bare footprints in the garden. So, she bought a ticket to Taiwan on the first Oceanic Railway across the Pacific.

Now she sits alone in the dining car, sipping a glass of Riesling while the train skates across the waterway, waves washing over the rails, obscuring the path before and behind it. Her forehead pressed gently against the window, she watches the shore sink beneath the horizon. Suddenly and without warning, a solitary thought rises up from her toes and sucks itself into her chest: No one will ever know I exist. She swallows. Then opens her handbag and fumbles through, searching for a tissue.

Then, a distant quake. Passengers pause and set their forks on their plates. The plates shudder. Plumes of yellow ash burst forth to the surface and the winds rise and the waves rage churning into a violent, onrushing tide that shatters the glass and splinters the boxcars. Shot from her seat and derailed by the storm, she sinks downward past the monk seals and moray eels. Downward past crustaceans and corals, through layers of darkness, into the depths beyond light and clouds.

She releases her handbag and floats gently among the passengers. Turning and drifting. Swollen bodies engaged in a nautical dance.

Bone Sequence


Some ranchers say it’s impossible to catch all the strays.

It’s a beautiful day on the Big Sky loop and you’re somewhat distracted by the auburn sky. Then your mind wanders and you hit a bump. The train stops quickly, minor damages, slight derailment. But the smoke obscures your view. What happened here? Is she hurt? The passengers look on – frozen in horror. Then you see it.

One of the brown Herefords was crossing the track when the cowcatcher caught her.
We need help somebody, somebody help, can you hear me? Cast aside, motionless, still breathing. Her flank: severed. Her leg: disjointed. Sal arrives at the rail – the best vet in town – but even he agrees it’s a dismal scene. He offers to fashion a splint out of toothpicks, but you decline. Now the cow count is down to five.

Some ranchers say it’s impossible to catch all the strays, and Sal agrees. But you know the truth that lies beneath the railroad ties. You have no one to blame but yourself.


Between the din of construction and the trains overhead, it’s a tense wait for coffee. Everyone seems on edge. A lawyer in a white shirt snaps a fold in the newspaper. A courier on skates dips in and out of the line. I hunch my shoulders, survey the tables of a quaint outdoor restaurant, and think of Florence.

Standing on a footbridge at the Ponte Vecchio, an old man with no teeth stands beside me and sighs Ah, la bella Fierenze. And he asks if I am a turista and I nod because I can’t explain that I’m here on business. So I smile and brush strands of hair out of my face just as the breeze brushes sunshine over the water. Un raggio de sole. It captures everything: the scent of leather, tomatoes, la statua del David with his ribs exposed and his fingers curling around the way my own fingers curl.

Too hot to hold. I put my money on the counter. I grab a cardboard sleeve, slide it over the cup, and head out to State Street.

I step off of the curb drop my keys and dip down, without looking. Construction zone. The tractor hits a pothole and the backhoe snaps – slices my rib cage – snaps my leg.
I crumple beneath it like tissue paper.


She stands on a sphere where the horizon seems unnaturally close. With deliberate steps, she makes her way to the excavation site. It takes a moment to settle into this cratered wasteland. She takes up her trowel and begins the first archeological dig at the Sea of Tranquility.

Slowly scraping layers of soil, gently sifting, layer by layer, moving from buckets to sieves. Sifting and scraping until a small white nodule, a pearl, peeks from the dust. She picks up her brush. Begins to sweep away the moon dust. There are 27 bones in the human hand. Piece by piece she counts up the scale until it reveals itself, palm down, clinging to the past.

Detailing the edges she uncovers the first of a series of roots stretching out from the fingernails, a splash of red beneath the gray, stretching, pulsing, she brushes and brushes, unearthing the intricate network of silken threads and she thinks of cummings (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; swelling outward into the sharp-rimmed craters in Kandinsky colors spreading and nourishing the ground with flesh which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide).

Gently. Skillfully. She lifts the wrist. In the tomb of the palm, she finds them. The heart. The kidney. The lung. i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart) A huddled pile of stones. Dead beneath the bones.

Sleep Sequence


Before laying more track, carefully consider the sleepers. In the early days they used wooden railroad ties, and you must never break with tradition just because you’re bored. Remember: the sleepers provide a level base. They keep the tracks parallel.

However, there may come a day when you head to the lumberyard for materials and you pause and wonder if you really want to forge more rails and build more paths leading back to the same, monotonous loop, and you get tired of playing.

You remember Thoreau and his solitude. We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. And instead of construction, you choose a piece of pie at the Big Sky Café. You slide onto the red leather stool, put cream in your coffee, and you ask yourself did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, and you stare out the window at two young boys fishing in the river. One sits on a rock still with his head at a tilt. One stands in the grass and stares at the line. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them.

The boys never age. Look at the peak. The snow never melts. The river never dries and the water whispers sweet lullabies to children who never wake. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.


The car is rocking steady and a man in white hovers over me. Stay with me. Stay awake. But a red light bobbing in my periphery lulls me out of consciousness and I drift to Venice.

It takes mere moments to conjure, recapture, the romance of a city on water. I take an evening walk and listen to jazz gently flow out of a nearby bistro, while smells of wine and sauces drift in front of my nose. Come dire che amate? Stay with me. Statte cu mie. How do I say that I love you? Somewhere there is an accordion, a guitar, a man singing love songs. Se tu m'ami, dimmi un segreto. If you love me, tell me a secret.

Water slaps against the sidewalk as people drink wine on patios. Shops glowing. Tinkling glass. A man with a bouquet of red roses slung over his shoulder walks along the canal and the pathway is guided by lampposts, by couples, by bridges and gondolas by candles dotting the walkways with stars. Tu sei una stella . . . la mia stella.

The whole city is in love with me. The window boxes on Via Garibaldi are full of gardenias and I want to rest my head in their beds forever, ever, ever.


She’s on a bridge turning upward. Her eyes peel back like iron shutters. You’re awake, how do you feel? Tears burst and travel into the tributary folds of the pillow. All her organs are dead, she says. No, no. You’re confused, it’s the morphine. She keeps crying. Let me get Dr. Snyder.

He scoots on his stool in white coat and glasses. The leg will heal, but the rib’s gone. Whom should we call? Her Grandpa Sal raised her, but he’s gone. Friends? Traveling for the agency leaves little time for friends. Well, your office was concerned when they heard, so the nurse will touch base. A pat on the hand, and he’s gone.

She turns her head slowly, taking snapshots of the room. The leather chair. The unopened juice box. And the moon framed in the window is just like the moon she remembers. Come outside and look at the sky. He promises she can go back to the basement tomorrow and the train will be just as she left it. There’s nothing like a Montana moon in July. She steps out on the porch and climbs up in his lap. The rocking chair goes back forth, back forth, back forth.

And the moon is fine but she’s partial to the stars. Here’s the secret that keeps the stars apart. I carry your heart. That’s cummings. And she asks what it means. You’ll learn. And she asks why it’s secret. Nobody knows, little one.

They gaze upward. Nobody knows.

Process journal for “Existential Travelogue”

(This is a bit stream of consciousness, sorry.)

The first week of the Denver Writing Project I didn’t have anything to share because I hadn’t done my homework, so I pulled something out of the basement of my writer’s notebook. It was an imagery activity we had done at the retreat a month earlier. I had to walk outside and write about all these sensory images so I wrote about the light rail and what it sounded like. Later in the first week of the writing project, Jake Adam York came in and gave a poetry demonstration during which we wrote lyrical essays. The prompt was something like “the scene of the crime” and I wrote about a traffic accident. For some reason this activity was a bit difficult – a bit vulnerable for me. He kept talking about tapping into the intuitive part of our brains and letting it take us somewhere. I did that and it was scary, but important.

Later in the week I continued writing about the trains and started including anecdotes about my trip to Italy last summer. I thought about traveling and how empty it was when I traveled alone (to Ireland, for example) because there was no one to share the beauty with. “Platforms” was the first vignette that I really refined. A woman in my writing group read it and said it was “lonely but comfortable.” I was disturbed by that comment all evening, because it was true. It was true about me. I wanted to explore that more.

A fascination with trains, travel, and traveling in the mind led me to write the other two pieces of the train sequence. I wanted to go from a small concept (the model train set) to something large and surreal (the Oceanic Railway). I thought a lot about the ocean and why I’m afraid of it. Then I had a random memory of walking on the treadmill a couple years ago and watching TV news about the tsunami. The reporter said something about how the dead bodies were washing ashore and they were all swollen because they had been dead for several days. My stomach turned. I didn’t watch the news again for three months.

During the process of writing the train sequence I had to research model train sets, ranches in Montana, Italian phrases (with some email help from Danny), oceanic life, tsunamis, underwater volcanoes, and Guatemala. It was really exciting to delve into this new genre of the lyrical essay and try to figure out what it meant – a combination of research, expository writing, poetry and prose. It was a real challenge and I loved it.

After I finished the train sequence I workshopped it again and my writing group was intrigued by the Oceanic Railway and they wanted to know more about the character. As I was walking home from the bus that evening my mind was just brimming. I had been on the “Laboratory of Art and Ideas” web site looking at all their “mixed tastes” lectures, and I tried to think about how I could incorporate that concept into my writing: putting words and ideas together that were seemingly unrelated and finding ways to connect them. That is what led me to the Bone Sequence and the Sleep Sequence.

At this point I got some general ideas about the ending for my piece. I knew I wanted the main character to awaken from some kind of “dream state” but I didn’t want it to be predictable. I remembered how when my Dad had his kidney removed the morphine really messed with his brain. He woke up from surgery and thought all his organs were dead and started to cry. My mother had to get the doctor to come explain things to him. (Actually, his organs were really swollen, causing him a lot of pain – this I connected to the swelling bodies in my tsunami piece.)

My lyrical essay was structured around threes: three sequences, and three levels for each sequence. I knew I wanted to thread together each level between each sequence. I also knew I wanted my character to become injured in some sort of traffic accident (back to my original writing during Jake York’s demo) which guided me through the bone sequence. Then I thought about Inez, the tiny alpaca figurine that Jessica brought back for me from Ecuador. I’m always worried about someone breaking her fragile, little legs.

So at this point all of these layers of thought are churning at the same time and I can’t fall asleep at night. I wonder what would be the most horrifying way to get impaled during a traffic accident. I wonder how many bones are in the human hand. I wonder what e.e. cummings meant by “I carry your heart” and what if he meant that literally? I thought about other parts of his poem (the tree of life), the creation story, Adam’s rib and what role “ribs” would play in a godless universe. Then my mind went back to trains, and I had a tiny recollection of something I taught during my transcendentalist unit about “sleepers” and I knew they had something to do with railroads but I couldn’t remember what, but I figured it would work well in my “sleep” sequence.

Also at this time, I re-potted some of the plants on my patio. One of them was terribly overgrown underneath the soil and when I pulled it out of the pot there was this disgusting, horrifying network of roots that completely freaked me out. That image stayed with me for days. But then I remembered how one of the people in my writing group thought the death scene in “Railways” was morbid but beautiful, and I wondered if I could do the same thing with the image of the roots. In the process of writing the Bone Sequence I had to research cows, cow catchers, archeological digs, more Italian phrases (found the ones I wanted online this time), and the moon.

I brought all three sequences to my writing group and listened to them discuss the connections they saw and where they were confused. It took a while, but I felt like they were understanding what I was after. I also posted some of my drafts online on the DWP “open mic” site, but my online feedback was less positive. People reading it without my explanations and drafts weren’t making the same connections that my writing group was and this was kind of frustrating.

As the revision process continued, I kept thinking about that theme of “lonely but comfortable” and I wondered what that would look like as a life philosophy. So, I revised each part of my lyrical essay to include some or all of the following ideas:

Earlier this year I read something by Neitzsche about how man has no need for God, or faith. I thought about the existentialists and how lonely it would be to live that way. Existentialism has its appeal, I guess, especially for narcissists who think they are powerful enough to go and do whatever they want. (This is especially popular in this country, where “self reliance” is supposedly the American way.)

Granted, there is a Christian school of existentialism (I think) but I was busy thinking about Nietzsche and his godless universe. How lonesome: to be the only proof of your existence, the center of your world, with no relation to other people. To be totally responsible for your actions and your destiny is a terrible burden. Think of the constant work it must take to deny the paths and influences that exist outside yourself and work away like a slave, forging your own, flaw-filled journey all by yourself. Think of the inevitable pain.

I’m not into predestination or anything. I do think we have free will and choices, but that’s not all we have. In my view, the existentialist philosophy forces a person to place limits on the imagination because anything beautiful, divine, or creative has to come out of your limited self-awareness. Life ends up being like one of those movies where, at the end, the main character realizes all the colorful parts were just a dream. How disappointing.