My husband was once detained at an airport—not taken into custody, but kept back from boarding.  We were leaving Kyrgyzstan after a three week visit with family, returning home to the U.S.  The staff at Manas Airport said something was wrong with Stas’s passport or visa—I don’t remember now—and wouldn’t let him board the plane.  He had a green card at the time and a Kyrgyz passport.  The airport staff insisted that I move ahead to the waiting area while they held Stas back at security.  I couldn’t see Stas from where they made me sit, and I had no idea what was going on.  Kyrgyzstan is a place where the police sometimes pull people over for bribes, and I didn’t know if the security staff saw a legitimate problem with the documents or just a couple of Americans.

When I got up to try to see the security area I was told to sit back down.  Meanwhile, the plane was boaryellow-tulipsding.  I tried to think about how to think about whether to fly or not if Stas wasn’t allowed through.  How many days of work might I miss if I didn’t get on the plane?  How much money would we lose on the ticket?  How serious was the problem with Stas’s documents?  The questions mounted while the line at the gate diminished and I began to panic.  But soon Stas was allowed through—his documents had checked out after all (and without a bribe).

We flew home as planned, but this incident really shook me up.  I couldn’t believe how easy it was for someone to control me and separate me from my husband.  It was shocking that anyone could have that right.  Not being able to explain my situation or argue a position in a local language had made me feel totally helpless while the atmosphere at Manas—at once rigid and unpredictable—had made it difficult to breathe.  Encapsulated in this incident were many of the things I found challenging about being in Kyrgyzstan, from the stony authoritarianism to my language limitations.  As the final episode in an at-times challenging three-week visit, this incident came to represent the trip as a whole and left me feeling awful about a place I loved.

When it came time to return to Kyrgyzstan a year later, I had to have a serious talk with myself.  I couldn’t control other people—the taxi drivers who took risks I wouldn’t, the vendors in the bazaar who raised their prices for the American, the store clerks who got impatient with my Russian.  And I couldn’t really stand up for myself.  With my intermediate Russian language and zero Kyrgyz language, I had little ability to navigate difficult situations.  The only thing I could do was take things as easily as possible and look for things to appreciate.  So I tried this.  Not only did I feel happier and safer, but the encounters I had with others—drivers, vendors, and  clerks—were better.

I’m not suggesting this as some kind of object lesson.  I’m just telling what happened to me.  And none of this has anything to do with the image above except that over this cold gray weekend I was remembering Manas and drawing yellow tulips.



Reading Girl Out In The World

All month I’ve been hearing from family and friends of the arrival of Reading Girl, from California to the Carolinas.  And just in time for the holidays.  I’m so grateful to everyone who ordered a copy—or in some cases many copies—during the pre-sales period.  You made this book possible.  I’m also grateful to Finishing Line Press for making my manuscript into a beautiful book.


If you’ve read my previous post about the book cover, you know that I’d hoped to use the Matisse painting “Reading Girl” on which the title poem is based.  As it turns out, I think the book got the cover it needed.  A few weeks ago I took several copies to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has the largest Matisse collection in the world.  The museum shop’s book buyer was enthusiastic and quickly agreed to purchase six copies.  When I asked her how she decided to take the book, she said the cover was the main factor.

Ironically, I don’t think Matisse’s painting would have been as suitable a book cover or as referential to Matisse.  And while I’ve gotten some nice comments on the poems, I’ve gotten more comments on the cover.  Reading Girl got the right one in spite of my plans, and I love that–a sign that this book has a life of its own.

Color Doodle


I am old enough to know my numbers because Mom points to the black and white alarm clock on the bedside table and tells me I can wake her when it says 3-1-5.  She is trying to catch a nap while I play with her tin of necklaces—strings of beads and shells that clatter against the metal when I tug at the tight lid and it finally gives way.  The numbers of the clock are white on small black plastic rectangles that flip like cards in a rolodex.  There is a small click as a number falls into oblivion.  Do I understand the concept of time, or am I just watching for 3-1-5?  I am waiting and doing something grown up.

I am lying in bed, waiting for sleep, listening to the hollow flow of the Edens Expressway. It sounds like someone breathing or like a heart beat or like Mom’s rocking chair after being tucked in–someone is there even though I can’t seem them.

I am seven, and my younger brother is five and a half, and Mom and Dad and I have a secret.  Each night when Noel falls asleep, I sneak into my parents’ room and join them on the bed.  Sometimes they are watching Masterpiece Theater.  Sometimes they are doing needlework or reading.  Sometimes Mom and I play a game.  She takes a yellow legal pad and scribbles random lines—zig-zagging-, swirling-, figure-eighting-lines—all over the paper.  Then we look for things in the random shapes.  “I see,” Mom says, holding the “see” like a whole note, “a house.”  Then she takes the pen and traces certain lines to reveal a house.  “I see,” I say, holding the “see” like a whole note, “a flower.”  Mom hands me the pen, and I trace the lines that make a flower.  Bees, dogs, rabbits, faces, socks, windows, and leaves, we find a whole world in the 8.5 x 14 space of one yellow legal pad.

I am lying on my bed, watching the red and white lights of planes blink across the sky.  I watch to see where the next blip of light will appear, what line will be revealed, and when it will be drawn beyond the frame of my window.

I am sixteen.  I want to paint like Van Gogh.  I go through my bedroom window onto the roof to work on a canvas.  A deer appears in our yard, and because deer do not come to our neighborhood by the highway, I feel doubly lucky to be on the roof where I can see its whole tawny form against the greenery like one of the found creatures on a legal pad.  It pauses and looks back as though something is pursuing it.  It leaps the viburnum bush, darts across the street and disappears into the margins of other homes.

The Tyranny of Productivity

A couple of weekends ago was the State Department’s annual book sale fundraiser where, for four bucks, I picked up The Golden Ring: Cities of Old Russia because I liked the photographs of medieval architecture and thought it might be fun to draw them.  I almost didn’t buy it, fearing I might not ever get around to drawing and that even if I did, it was a lame reason to buy a book that, if not expensive, would still take up valuable bookshelf space.  But I did buy it, and then it sat on the kitchen table for a couple of weeks.  “I should draw already,” I told myself yesterday.  “Why?” I thought.  “What’s the point?”

Does this one ever get you, this tyrannical assumption that everything we do must be productive, not in a creative sense but in a getting-things-done sense?

Yesterday in my English Conversation Class one of the students talked about time management.  Students in this class have a standing assignment to come prepared to talk about something they watched or read–TED talks are a favorite.  This student, like others before her, had chosen to watch one of the TED talks on time management, and the three women in class all shared how they don’t feel like they get anything done, how they feel like they waste their time.

One of these women has a full-time job and several other family-, house-, and school-related responsibilities.  The second is newly married to a diplomat and newly moved to the U.S., missing her job and feeling she has too much time on her hands.  The third is also new to the U.S. and has a part-time job.  Their lifestyles seem to represent the full spectrum of busyness, yet none feels good about her time, which left me feeling that we must be making some fundamental error in our approach to this topic.  Maybe we expect too much from ourselves.  Do we think we should be getting things done every moment because our technology allows it?  Or maybe we don’t stop to reflect enough.  Are we so caught up in the flow of activity and connectivity that we don’t take the time to appreciate our experiences and celebrate our achievements?  I realize these questions and ideas are hardly new, but I find myself and my students coming back to them again and again.

When I visit my family in Kyrgyzstan I always marvel at how much they (and others in their country) value down time, except they don’t call it down time.  “Down time” reflects an American sense of relaxation as a temporary respite from the inevitable march of productivity.  In Kyrgyzstan people just say  they’re relaxing, and relaxing seems more like an ideal state of being than a special allowance.  During a two-week visit, my family is happy to relax as much as possible the whole time–watching TV, doing crosswords, talking, eating, being together.  I’m usually good for about a day and a half, and then I can’t take it anymore.  I have to read, write, draw, study Russian, or even work.  I used to think that I would enjoy relaxing more if my Russian was better, but over time I’ve realized that it’s just hard for me to not be “productive.”  I like feeling productive, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that until it keeps me from enjoying family time or from writing or drawing or doing other things that seem non-essential.

I realize that wanting to be productive could just be an excuse for not writing and drawing. After all, concerns about productivity do not keep me from watching TV (although we accept “down time” as important for “recharging”).  So that leads to the question: Why do we make excuses not to draw, write, be creative?  I know this is not a new question either, but I’ve never heard a satisfying answer, perhaps because it’s such an illogical thing in the first place–to resist something that makes us happy.  And I was happy, drawing medieval Russian architecture.  Does it show?


When I see buildings like this, which took decades to build, I wonder how people in other time periods have thought about productivity and relaxation.  Did everyone talk about time management in the 1100s?

Jumping Fences

Hybrids.  Grotesques.  Chimeras.  Today I’m thinking about the drawings of Eduardo Galeano in The Book of Embraces.  Have you read this book?  I love it—its playfulness and seriousness, its range, its voices, and its visions.  It celebrates art, imagination, and the human spirit through beautiful vignettes and whimsical illustrations such as a man with an octopus for a head holding a hula hoop, a pensive donkey wearing a suit and spectacles, a fish carrying an umbrella.  These images were the catalyst of my MFA critical thesis, “Seeing in Embraces,” which was published by Assay Journal this month.  Check it out to learn more about The Book of Embraces.

I’ve used the illustrations in The Book of Embraces as prompts in creative writing classes, and it’s always gone well.  I keep it really simple, just ask everyone to choose an image and write from it.  I write too, and I always find that the image catapults me into the middle of something interesting.  I write something I had no intention of writing, follow a trail of associations I’d had no idea was there.  I love the surprise and the weightlessness of having jumped the fences of the self.

These hybrids had been such great springboards for writing that I thought I’d apply them to drawing.  I grabbed my journal and some pens, walked to Java Shack, ordered an Iced Tea, and sat down at a table to draw some hybrids of my own.  There was a dog with a flower for a head and a plastic cup with a parking-meter-straw.  But it was not going well.  My hybrids lacked the vitality and poetry of Galeano’s creations.  I imagined Galeano’s combinations came from intuition, intention, or spontaneous play.  Mine felt forced.  And my drawing style seemed ill suited to the depiction of wild hybrid creations.  In my article, I say that Galeano’s style doesn’t strive for verisimilitude.  But as I looked at my own drawings, I realized that Galeano’s illustrations project a certain authority nonetheless.  Maybe it’s the authority of his draftsmanship or of a style reminiscent of 19th century news sources, pre-photographs.  At any rate, my hybrids lay flat on the page like the drawings they were while Galeano’s creations inhabit the page.

A few days later I tried again.  A face from a magazine sprouted a stem.  The stem sprouted a leaf that required another leaf, which would require another stem.  Was I going to do this?  It looked nothing like a Galeano hybrid, sharp and self-contained.  Should I turn the page and try again?

When I was an art major at the University of Illinois, I heard a piece of advice I often think of: sometimes you should see a piece through even if it doesn’t seem promising.  So that’s what I did, and eventually I fell into the zone—an hour passed like a minute.  That’s another kind of fence jumping.  But in this case I didn’t escape myself but rather came home to myself in a hybrid done my own way, in my own style.


This makes me wonder: Do we ever really escape the self?  When we say we’ve escaped it, maybe we’ve actually enlarged it or discovered it to be something different from what we thought it was or just done something outside our usual habits.  Maybe it’s a particular sense of the self we escape, and not the self itself.



The End of Summer Owl


More decoration than decoy, the owl did not seem to take its job seriously, leaning against the fence like a summer hire in the last week of August.  The sparrows saw a slacker and hopped around under the awning, cracking seeds against the pavement, skittering about the dogs’ water bowl, beating the heat with their open-beaked bird pant.  But the end of summer owl had a message for me: eat all the raspberries, go swimming, go barefoot.  What does the end of summer owl say to you?

Child Sense and Clover

I was trying to think of something to draw or do for this blog.  A while ago I’d taken a picture of clover weeds with the idea that I’d make a small painting, but I thought I could do better.  Maybe I’d go to a café and sketch something or just think of something else.  Days passed, and inspiration had not struck.  The heat index was regularly in the 100s, and that didn’t make me want to sketch at a café or hit the streets.  A couple more days passed, and I bemoaned my lack of ideas.  But then I remembered that I did have an idea and had had an idea all along—the clover painting.  All I had to do was accept it.  So I did.

Does this kind of thing ever happen to you?  I’ve taught and practiced freewriting long enough to know the power of first thoughts, yet I still fall into psyching myself out sometimes, insisting on some theoretical better thing, instead of just saying yes to what’s at hand.

Clover.  It represents summer and childhood, IMG_3273minutes meditating the way children do—with such intense interest and rapt attention, like falling down a rabbit hole, totally absorbed.  I long for such intent looking.  That’s why I love travel.  We get our child sense back through the strangeness of things.  I picture myself, maybe six, squatting in the world of a suburban driveway, pondering a fissure in the asphalt where the prairie of a prior century showed through.  Big brother clover, expert on the way things are here, tell me what you know of storms and earthworms, sneakers and basketballs, dandelions, ants, and the lilies’ white bells, of inhabiting margins and claiming a place, of the right to exist, a calling into summer, a sprawling meekness, marvelousness, symmetry and pattern, subtlety, delicateness, of the touch of tiny fingers.