Welcome to English 505


“Essays end up in books, but they start their lives in magazines.  (It’s hard to imagine a book of recent but previously unpublished essays.)….The influential essayist is someone with an acute sense of what has not been (properly) talked about, what should be talked about (but differently).  But what makes essays last is less their argument than the display of a complex mind and a distinctive prose voice.”

           —Susan Sontag, from The Best American Essays, 1992

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Hi folks! So I was very anxious this whole quarter about posting on the blog.  I think my irrational fear of blogging and my fear of writing outside my genre had a baby and it was terrifying.  But, here I go!  This is an essay I’m working on.  It’s still very rough, but I would love love love your suggestions.  Also, since it’s about creating a writing hygene, I’d also love to hear some of your writing practices.




I light candles every night before bed.  A trail of fire leading from my bathroom, muggy from the shower’s steam, to the bed—scented in vanilla to bring fatigue.  The other lights have been off for two hours, the phone and computer shut down, the place is silent but for the sound of moving into pajamas and then in between sheets, but I can hear my mind churning.
I’ve started this routine because I can’t sleep (as I write this, I have to wake up in three and a half hours and get my mind to speed with teaching and to do lists).   When insomnia hits for several days, my week is strung together by a brief memory of lights dimming and then waiting.
Almost a year ago, I stopped sleeping.  I was living in an artist co-op in St. Paul, MN with two college friends.  The building had been converted from an old box factory—what was once industrial brick was now artistic flair.  A default period had just expired on one of my student loans and I knew I couldn’t pay the new bill and keep my room in the artist’s fantasy that had been my home.  I knew I had to leave and I knew it would pressure on my roommates, who were artists after all.  But I had to step out for myself.  Intellectually, I understood that, but still I felt guilty.
A few weeks before I moved out, I began to feel the walls resenting me.  One night, after what should have been an easy transition to sleep: working on my feet at the Café/Wine Bar for eight hours, a hot shower, a light dinner, and as many pages of a Hemmingway novel I could squeeze in before my eyes began to droop.  I turned off my daylight simulator and the faux sun set over my brick-lined room.
Three hours later I was still lying in bed, but my mind was working.  It ran through moving strategies, the search for a new job, and conversation starters that would repair the natural rift that had occurred between my roommates and myself.  No matter how I turned, how twisted the bed sheets became around my legs, and no matter how many ways I placed my pillow, I couldn’t sleep.
I opened the Hemmingway again, but I couldn’t read.  I was still tired.  I felt the hours of work and the lateness, but my mind still ran, unable to turn it off.  How did I ever do it before?  I thought around four am.  How does it work?  How do you close your eyes and then suddenly stop thinking? I didn’t seem scientifically possible.  Biology doesn’t explain that kind of magic.
At seven am, after the sun had risen, I fell asleep and woke at nine to the sound of breakfast-making in the kitchen and the reminder that I would return to work in a few hours.  My sleeplessness continued, but I figured it would return when I moved out and away from the increasing tension in the apartment.
It didn’t.
I moved in with my boyfriend to cut costs.  The first time we had lived together, we still lived in Switzerland and it was the hottest summer of my memory.  All of southern Switzerland experienced one of my worst fears: getting locked inside a sauna.  But we had just fallen in love and made the best of it.  We both worked from home, so we became nocturnal, sleeping through the hottest part of the day, moving the mattress right under the one window, Italian-style shutters flung open, and then emerging right as the sun set to walk around Lago di Lugano and catch the gelato stands before they closed.  Though our hours had dramatically shifted, I don’t remember any sleepless nights and I don’t remember him snoring, but apparently he does.
What was once the slow comfortable descent into sleep held in his arms was replaced by nights in our living room, listening to a slow rumble from the bedroom and trying various tactics to induce drowsiness: reading dense texts with cups of tea flavored “sleepy time” and “bedtime” followed by yogic awareness of breath activities.
I was lucky if I got four hours a night.


Two and a half years ago, I stopped writing.  I had graduated from college and all the structure and deadlines had dropped from underneath me.  I didn’t step up to the challenge.  I didn’t transition gracefully.
I kept journaling and occasionally I would go to a café and squeeze out a few pages, but I didn’t finish anything and I didn’t look to publish it.  Whenever I thought about writing, I always found something else that I could do, something more urgent: laundry, bills, and friends to call.
I still called myself a writer.  When customers at the Café/Wine Bar (that employed mostly artists) asked what I did, I told them I wrote.  When they asked to see my work, I told them I was very private.
I began to feel my writing deprivation physically: a nervy edge to my movements, a recoiling like from pain or a bad smell, a weight that pulled at my feet.  I began to eat more, cry more, and a feeling of disappointment sunk in each night before bed.
The last time I’d finished a story I was still in Switzerland.  The story was about a subway line and a slaughterhouse.  It was creepy and magical at the same time and I had fallen in love with it.  The night I finished, I had to pick up a friend from the train station.  The night was clear and starry.  The mountains reflected a glowing blue the way the Alps do.  I walked down a small path between ancient villas feeling light as if the story carried me to the station.  Overcome with happiness, I began to sing out loud.  I am normally a shy person in public and try to avoid public attention at all costs; it was the first time I had ever sang in public.  In my memory, that night glows.  I wouldn’t feel that way again for another three years.
The time in between then and now was filled with a lot of whining about writing and a lot of worrying about writing, but absolutely no writing.


A few months ago, I started seeing a therapist for anxiety.  I told her about my trouble sleeping and she gave me a handout titled: GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE.  At first I felt like I’d been caught neglecting to shower or wash my hands, but after I read the bulleted list I realized that falling asleep was more than laying down and closing your eyes.  You have to:

  • Maintain a regular bedtime and waking schedule.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Avoid going to bed after midnight.
  • Sleep in a cool room.
  • Take warm baths.

So now I don’t drink coffee after noon.  I don’t take afternoon naps and I try to set an alarm everyday at seven.  I make sure my last glass of wine is at least two hours before bed.  I take a shower if I need to relax. I wash my dishes and clean my house at least an hour before bed to reduce any stress caused by a mess.  I light my way to sleep with candles.  Now, I sleep most nights, some I still don’t.
Now that I’m in graduate school with the structure back into place and the deadlines to obey, I’m writing.  I have too many ideas to keep up.  When I finish a piece, I again feel like I’m floating for the rest of the day.  I just finished making my first chapbook and, boiling over with excitement, I rushed down the hallways of the English Department greeting everyone I with, “Look! Look at what I just made!”
When I graduate, I still want to feel that.  So, I’m making up a hygiene.  I’m making it like brushing my teeth and combing my hair: write once every day and write to finish, even if I don’t like it.  I take Hemingway’s advice when I get stuck: one true sentence at a time.  Before I think of something better to do, I try for one sentence and then slowly put one after the other until I look down and, brick by brick, I’ve built a wall; a hygiene; a trail of fire leading to bed.  Once I write, I always sleep.

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English 505 Gabfest Podcast

Zoe and I recorded a podcast discussing a recent performance of The Vagina Memoirs on Western’s campus. Among the topics we discuss is the question of to what extent such an event can be considered creative nonfiction.


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Death by Pastry

As a rule, I don’t diet
anymore. I don’t want
to be seen as “one of those girls”
who reads Cosmo mag and starves
herself  thin, stuck on a treadmill
of approval through looks, even
though, somehow, (I don’t know
how it happened) I have a type:
petite, rail thin boys or girls. It always
happens, they’re always the ones
who get my attention. Maybe I’m in
denial about my body politics,
about the politics of body image,
of fat, of thin.


Recently I stumbled onto a Ted Talk that Cameron Russell gave, on body image and the power of the media. It was pointed out to me for its relevance to white privilege which she also discusses, but as one of the world’s top models (which I didn’t realize), she also surprisingly told us the truth, that she is insecure, that all models are insecure. “They have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair, but they are so insecure physically because they have to think about what they look like all day long.” It made me cry.


Last year I wrote a poetry show with six other queer writers in Seattle.  We called ourselves the Muck Collective, writing out the Muck and grit of our lives. It was a beautiful and intense five-month experience culminating in the show we performed last June. Many interesting, beautiful, funny and heartbreaking pieces came out of that time together, one of which was a poem about pastries and my dad. It goes like this:

At the time I wrote Death by Pastry, I thought I was being funny, until I read it aloud to my Muck friends. Cecily and Mykol, both recent graduates from Bastyr school of naturopathy and practicing healers, said to me, That’s brave of you to talk about your issues with food.

Underlining this response was each of their unique and sordid relationships with food. They said it was a radical act to give up things like dairy and gluten for the sake of being well. I was a little taken aback. Yes, this was at least the 40th time I attempted to give up gluten and dairy for health. But this poem was my attempt at being humorous! Ok, I have a tendency to devolve (always) into the dark parts of life, but isn’t that just normal? I was being lighthearted you guys! But I started to realize how this must sound to people.

Health, nutrition, and of course, my weight are topics I think about all the time. But my weight is not something I try to fix regularly. I think about food all day, it’s true (I’ve been told by a close friend and my boyfriend that I might have a (mild?) eating disorder) but I strive to stay active. When I was a kid I used to read my parent’s health and nutrition books like Fit For Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, or more obscure nutritional experts, and I tried to follow their strict proper food combining guidelines. I used to “fast” when I was a kid, just like any “normal” teenage girl in America, sometimes for “cleansing” purpose, sometimes for religious reasons (which could also garner scare quotes), usually for three days or a whole week. I tried the Master Herbal Cleanse on three separate occasions as a young teen, and later in my twenties.  three days (once up to seven), mostly because there just wasn’t enough healthy food around. My parent’s tried to eat healthy, but most of the time we were too poor to afford consistent trips to the grocery store. More often than not, we ended up going to the food bank to supplement any extra cash my mother had from cleaning houses. Otherwise it was boxes of cereal, canned vegetables, and government cheese and peanut butter. Not the luxury food banks of the PNW with generous donations from concerned anarchist gardener citizens (you know who you are).

We would scrounge for change and go to the Party Store on the corner to buy milk even though the entire family is lactose intolerant, and we’d eat almost 3 out of the 4 boxes of cereal by the afternoon, wafting in a smell of rotten eggs from our sour stomachs. My mother would yell at us because it was so much sugar, but then she’d yell to save her some.

We also had a lot of eating contests, who could eat the most pancakes, the most pieces of pizza, the most potatoes, oatmeal, the most anything. It’s ironic to think we had these eating contests when we couldn’t even go to the grocery store all the time. There were times of plenty and times of famine. But this kind of behavior was encouraged. I affiliated myself with my brothers, being just two years older than the first-born son (who in this patriarchal tradition of the Old Testament was the most important child) in a string of three boys. His name was Jotham Othniel. Don’t ask me what it means, I forgot long ago. It probably means chosen by god, because that’s exactly what this kid was to my father, The chosen one.

But that’s another story. Jotham, Jeremiah, Jamin and I and sometimes my older sister Melanie would sit around, gorging ourselves in this fashion, for sport, to feed our competitive natures cultivated by our father. Sometimes he suggested it, Sometimes he joined. It was a matter of survival at moments, if you didn’t reach in immediately for the rare pot roast mom made then you weren’t getting any. At times, my father’s fickle religious or nutritious convictions would flare up in moments like these, and the patriarch would speak as of the mouth of god, proclaiming that his nutritionist friend said that children under 12 should not eat meat. Even though I had been eating meet for 11 years. Suddenly he found it fitting to lay down this decree. I was hurt. Angry. Called out once again for my youth. My mother petitioned the patriarch and eventually I received a morsel of meat, my mouth watering for the braised delicate beef that stuck in my teeth. I knew exactly what I was missing. Now I can only think he was simply preserving the very limited supply from the hungry mouths of his nine children for his own swollen stomach (ok, at the time there may have only been 6 or 7).

I’ve already mentioned his views on pork. And crab, lobster, caviar, squid, catfish, any bottom feeder. I’ve also mentioned in my poem, the cinnamon rolls he gorged on regularly. My father, a walking contradiction, spouting health advice, and killing himself with food. He’s still alive, although he’s almost died at least twice now. Most of his children have stopped crying, stopped holding our breath for when he kicks the can.  Jotham says he’s going to have him cremated. My father has a religious conviction against this, of which Jotham is well aware.


The last time I see my father, over two and a half years ago now, he is sitting outside of the back steps where I grew up, catching some rays, something he never did purposely before. I gather my withering, shaking courage to talk to this man I haven’t seen for another two years previous. He smiles, his cirrhosis skin blending into orange with sun exposure. His hair almost pure white, a shock from the salt and pepper it was.  We talk about my most recent bike trip down the coast, I can tell he’s impressed.

Then I tell him he’s dying. That he’s in denial.

He says something about slippery elm, how it will cure him, his condition, his heart that operates at 15% now, is reversible. I can’t bear to look at his legs, still purple from the edema and gangrene, bandaged almost to the knee. This is what happened to soldiers in WWII, not my father at fifty-seven years old in the 21st century. He refused medication for high blood pressure for years, as zealous as any Christian scientist, until an old friend dragged him against his will to the emergency room to drain the fluid from his lungs, another time to put his herniated stomach back together. This is the third time he’s been rushed to the ER. The debt is astronomical without insurance. It won’t be long now, he’ll be buried with it.


I’ve been going to the gym semi regularly now. Trying to get into a routine. I run on the treadmill for a half hour and do a few reps of sit-ups. I keep track of my food and fitness in Web MD, an online food journal. I weigh myself. I think about food and health and nutrition. I drink lots of water. I try to get enough sleep. Sometimes I think about my father and wonder if he’s dead yet. And when I really give it some thought, I cry and hope he’s not, so I have more time to say something, resolve something, say goodbye. For the first two decades I tried desperately to be like him as he spoke words like “rebellious!” and “disrespectful!” over my life, with moments of glorious, but suffocating, approval. The last decade I’ve tried to purge myself of him, similar to a bulimic, purging all the Christian dogma I could upchuck, and binging on all the lusts of my carnal nature, eventually finding recovery in a balancing act, able to hold beliefs and truths that nourish.

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Giant Steps – John Coltrane

I brought my saxophone when I moved to Bellingham and, after a thirteen-year hiatus, I’ve spent some time playing it this quarter and last. I have also visited a lot of memories of family and friends; many of the memories are tied up with playing music.

While writing about memory this quarter, I have tried to come up with a sufficient explanation for my unwillingness to write about my mom, especially when it seems so easy to write about my dad. I have concluded that I have not written about her because she was fragile in my mind for such a long time. Fragile not in any sexist way, mind you. My mom graduated from college and had a successful career as a phlebotomist while raising five children. She reads more than most people I know. She is an incredible grandmother. She is a marathon runner and, pushing seventy years old, she can still outrun or outhike me any day. She is currently serving her God as a Christian missionary in Nairobi, Kenya.

My mom was fragile in my mind because she has lived so long with the weight of a sister who died young in a car accident, because she has spent countless hours worrying about her alcoholic brother. Fragile because she spent so much of her adult life worrying about her children and how they would turn out. Fragile because her mother passed away in 2009, and her father passed away exactly one year later, and the blow set her off kilter accordingly. Fragile because she periodically boards the slowly accelerating train of depression and can’t get off again until it slows to a jumping-off speed. Fragile from so many years of jumping, tucking, rolling, and getting up once again to walk off the pain.

This post is a roundabout exploration of edited memory and life and sequences of events and music and my mother and the way that mental images replay in my head as I listen to “Giant Steps” or as I pull out my saxophone and slide a reed into my mouth while flipping through sheet music annotated with the scribbly hand of my instructor, Darrell Matthews. To some degree, playing the saxophone is like riding a really expensive, complicated bike: you never forget, at least not the fundamentals.

* * * * *
During the summer between my third and fourth grade school years, my family drove in our big blue van from Ogden, Utah, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to visit my dad’s brother and his family. I came down with the chicken pox the day we left home. When we stopped to view Mount Rushmore, fellow tourists gaped at me like I had the plague. I was uneasy and self-conscious staring up at those dead presidents. When we stopped at Wall Drug, South Dakota (“You’re almost there!” . . . “Four more exits!”), my mom hurried off to find a bottle of calamine lotion to ease my itchy suffering. Turns out “Wall Drug” isn’t just a clever name – there is a drug store hidden in that ostentatious, yet oh-so-charming tourist trap.  

Our visit to Green Bay is represented by a handful of ten-second clips, organized in my mental repository under the following tabs: getting sick from too much Jolly Good Grape Soda; standing on the shore of Lake Michigan while mom wraps me up from behind in the hoodie I refused to wear when we left the van; watching dad and Uncle Bob get hassled by police for buying scalped tickets at a Chicago Cubs game; tagging along with my older siblings and cousins; listening to mind-numbing adult conversation when my siblings and cousins would not have me anymore; watching my cousins Erin and Dan show off their saxophone skills.

When we got back to Ogden, mom asked me if I would like to play the saxophone like Dan and Erin. I said, “sure.” I didn’t anticipate dad coming home one evening with a second-hand Selmer E flat alto saxophone and an explanation that he and mom were in the  arranging after-school lessons at the junior high school.

* * * * *

I began learning saxophone from a man named Darrell Matthews when I entered the fifth grade. He wasn’t faculty at the junior high, but he was friends with the band teacher, Ms. Tams, and he taught there after hours. I took lessons once a week for just over two years. Mr. Matthews and I sat in the empty band room, playing from sheet music set on dinged, leaning music stands with a backdrop of orange-carpeted walls and pictures of the greats: Chopin, Mozart, J.S. Bach, Debussy, and so on.

During the hot, dry Utah summers after fifth and sixth grade, my mom drove me to South Ogden for lessons. After scratching out a cheque and sending me up to the door, my mom would drive around the corner to visit her sister Margie. Mr. Matthew’s and I played jazz in the coolness of his basement, in front of a large screen door that opened up onto his back lawn, sending the staccato sound out into the hot stillness of the neighborhood.

Doo-deee-dah-doo-doo–dah-doot-doot-doot-daaah-these are a few of my favorite things.  

When I left elementary school in the sixth grade, Ms. Tams arranged for me to enter directly into the symphonic band, rather than sitting through a needless year of beginner band. This was a blessing and a curse.   

As a newly-arrived second-chair seventh grader, I had no friends in the symphonic band. All my friends were in beginner band or orchestra. The third chair saxophonist, Matt, didn’t like me because I superseded him without experiencing the rite of passage that was beginner band. The first chair, Kasey, didn’t like me because she didn’t like anybody. A more feminine version of Kenny G, complete with jheri curl, she had a mouth full of braces and a propensity for educating me on the social strata of the band.

“The flutes are a clique. They’re all stuck up. The percussionists are a clique. They’re all in punk bands and think the symphonic is for nerds. The only genuine nerds are the clarinets. The bassoonist doesn’t want to be here. He only plays because his parents make him. The brass are all jackasses, except the french horns. They’re just a different variation of the flutes.”


“Yeah. When we tour the elementaries and go to comp at Utah State, you can stick by me, if you want.”

She was an outcast herself. I wonder where she ended up.   

My first real jr. high girlfriend was a flautist named Tara. With perfect flautist posture, she made eyes at me across a crescent of nascent musicians, across the podium where little Ms. Tams jabbed and slashed her baton through the air. When I glimpsed Tara’s flautist eyes over the top of my stand, I squirmed and fought off the humiliating reed squeak every adolescent saxophone player knows too well. All the while little Ms. Tams kept time and articulated with her puckered, mustachioed mouth.


When half the school trooped down the hill to loiter at Smith’s on an early-out afternoon, Tara and I walked together. Passing the horse corral kitty-corner to the elementary school, several of the boys, including myself, created a human chain by linking hands in front of the electric fence. The outermost two stepped forward, grasping the wire simultaneously with their free hands. The jolt passed through every one of us, a slight Bzzp!! running from palm to shoulder to heart to shoulder to palm and so on. We laughed and laughed, but refused to do it again.

Outside the cemetery, Tara interlaced her slender flautist fingers with my awkward saxophonist fingers, and pressed her body against mine when the sky began to drizzle. When Tara tilted her face upward, hoping for a firsthand inspection of my embouchure, I deflected with a sudden and overzealous interest in my friends’ conversation.

* * * * *

I had a unique bonding experience with my mom that year. After hours of practicing together in our front room, she accompanied me on the piano at the North Ogden Jr. High Christmas Concert. Kemp’s Jig. A horrible song Darrell Matthews convinced me to play.


Though I had kept it a secret at home, it was not hard in the junior high gymnasium for my mom to realize that Tara was my girlfriend, having viewed the way that Tara gravitated toward me and how she sat next to me between our respective numbers at that Christmas concert. My mom’s awareness was a problem only because she had told me over and over again that I was not supposed to have a girlfriend until I was sixteen or older. I ended up pushing away Tara because I could not live with the guilt of disobeying my mom.

* * * * *

Incidentally, this was happening at the same time that I began pushing away the symphonic band and the E flat alto. It happened at the same time that I began pushing away my parents and my siblings. Teenage angst was setting in, naturally, and I replaced my family with friends. I replaced Darrell Matthews with Paul Gibby, a rock ‘n’ roll guitar instructor. I replaced Coltrane with Bad Religion and Social Distortion. Band wasn’t cool or rewarding anymore, and the saxophone found its way to the back of my closet. I played a lot of Contra and Skate or Die on Nintendo and drank a lot of Mountain Dew during that time.

Life goes by so fast / ya only wanna do whatcha think is right / close your eyes and it’s past / the story of your life.

Incidentally, this was happening when I learned from an obituary that Darrell Matthews died. There he was in 2”x1” black-and-white, with his big fob of hair, his smokey-tinted eyeglasses, and his sly saxophonist half smile. Gold chain, polyester shirt.  

When I got to high school, a couple of salient truths came to light. Incidentally, Darrell Matthews died only because he killed himself. Mom learned this through her sister Margie who lived around the block from him.

He was the first person I knew personally who committed suicide.

Incidentally, mom’s sister Dianna did not die in a car accident. Not exactly. She died when she learned that her husband was cheating on her. When he was unapologetic. When she dropped off the kids at school, drove home, closed the garage door, and let the motor run while she asphyxiated on carbon monoxide. That was the “car accident.” When my grandpa–a good ol’ boy from Kentucky–left the house with the intention of murdering Dianna’s cheating husband, grandma, mom, and the sisters had to physically restrain him as he stormed toward his orange-and-white Chevrolet pick-up truck.    

I have spent recent years trying to grow closer to my parents–trying to make up for all the years I spent pushing them away and taking for granted who they are and what they have done for me. I realize now that mom did not tell me the truth about Dianna or Darrell because she was protecting me. She probably did not want me to know that suicide was an option in life. Maybe she thought I was fragile.

I see now that my mom’s fragility is, in reality, not fragility. My mom is a rock, regardless of which truths she chooses to obscure. Perhaps the fact is that I did not write about my mom because I believed subconsciously that obscuring her truths through my own silence would protect her nonexistent fragility in some way. 

-Lee Chancey Olsen



Giant Steps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30FTr6G53VU

My Favorite Things: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0I6xkVRWzCY

Story of My Life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oh8zcbC_Dcw

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The Lions of My Youth

ImageOver the recent holiday weekend, I went back to Connecticut to see my parents. The occasion was to hang out with my dad as he convalesced from knee replacement surgery (and to provide a distraction for my mother, who is not used to nursing duties). But I also hoped to find some things in boxes in the basement: a poem I wrote about my 8th grade science teacher, an interview with a Holocaust survivor. I write about these documents in essays that will most likely be in my thesis, and so I hoped to locate them: you can try to remember your bad poetry, but nothing beats the real thing.

I didn’t find either document, but I did find some other things: my kindergarten report card, a 1995 Year in Cartoons magazine (the Internet changes everything!), and this photo, in a square card, the kind kids get when they have their photo taken with Santa at the mall.

“Is that a lion?!” my mother asked when I showed it to her. (Michelle, Rachel and I conducted some highly scientific research – we typed “baby lions” into Google and compared those images with “baby tigers” – and so I can say yes, yes it is). “Where were you?” she asked.

None of us could figure it out – other than the official-looking paw print, there was no writing on the card or the back of the Polaroid. It looks like someone’s backyard, but fancy zoo-themed birthday parties seem like something my parents would remember. Was the picture even taken in North Dakota (where we were living at the time)? No clue.

So we just laughed, and I packed it into my suitcase to take back to Bellingham. But I haven’t put the questions out of my head. I’ve been thinking about memory, about the stories we construct, and how even when there’s no clear story to tell, that can become a story. I love to think about the possibilities with this photo: that wild cats were unremarkable or I was that unsupervised or my parents assumed they’d remember beyond the need for captions. I could make something up, but I like the honest unknowing better.

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Just a favor…

With AWP next week I need to ask all of you brilliant writers for some help. Please check out the link to our Facebook event page for our panel if you have a chance. I’d love it–if you felt so inclined–for you guys to post some questions you have about Truth (with a capital T of course) in Nonfiction. We’re approaching the panel from multiple perspectives: truth as a reader, a writer, a teacher, and a student. Do any of you feel your idea of Truth to shift when you occupy these different spaces?


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Tranistional Fashion

Note: I’m in the process of working on this piece. It’s very rough and I’m not sure exactly where it’s going. I’d love to hear what others think about what I have so far…

I’ve wanted to do some serious clothes shopping, but I seem to find either time-warp acid rock ’70s anti-establishment styles or granny’s ready for the nursing home outfits. Since I turned fifty-two years young in November last year, I don’t want to wear something I might have paraded around in when I was eighteen. I’m not trying to look like a teenager, but I don’t want to look like I’m ready for the morgue and mummification next week either. Geez!

What happened to classic lines for mature women who are not anorexic? Do we all need to look like we just hit puberty a year ago, with youthful curves and a trainer bra physique? Am I doomed to the more disgusting than vomit motifs of dresses and tunics. I suppose jeans and t-shirts are an acceptable alternative. I do get tired of wearing them over and over again, though. Casual comfort versus professional working woman. If I want to be taken seriously as a professional woman, I need classy styles evocative of Lauren Bacall. The nineteen-forty’s black and white film-noir femme-fatale image or Jennifer Aniston’s perky sultriness wrapped up in red-carpet satin and paparazzi glitter-drop earrings.

What morons design these horribly ugly clothes I see jam-packed on racks in every store? And how many women my age are a size four, or six even? I wonder if the designers wear this crap. Are they all in a glue-sniffing fog, or have they just become lazy and chosen to recycle the fashion trends of the past because that is easier than being truly creative? Just wondering and ranting and tired of not finding anything I want to wear on the racks at the local mall or overpriced trendy strip-mall vendors.

I’d design my own clothing, but alas, my grandmother died before she could teach me how to sew. My aunts died before they could show me how to crochet or knit. I have rough basic skills. I can mend hems, attach buttons, create button-holes. Reality check: I don’t have time to add ‘seamstress’ to my curriculum vitae, let alone time for a clothing project of the magnitude I imagine. I’m overdue for a completely new wardrobe. Overdue for a trip to the salon. I think I might benefit from a make-over. I’m just not quite sure about the kind of overhaul I envision. An overhaul that might allow me to appear less outdated. The fashionistas seem intent on crippling me with a look that reads: nearing expiration date.

I don’t feel my age. When I look in the mirror I see the wrinkles, the gray hair, the whiskers, the beginnings of age spots. All right. I can’t process this visual information. Sometimes I have trouble processing the limits my aging body places on me, too. All right. The inner me is still a young woman. No, I haven’s recently returned from Never-never-land, and Peter Pan does not visit my bedroom to whisk me off to take care of lost boys.

But–even if Peter and the lost boys surrounded me, wouldn’t they appreciate a classic, timeless, effortlessly elegant look?

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Work in Progress

Hello all.  This is a very rough draft of what I would like to become a short narrative hopefully for publication within the next year.  I had the idea this morning and by 4 pm now have the bones of the narrative down.  Any feedback would be greatly appreciated:)  Thanks, Jessica Crockett



The night had been unexpected due to lack of high winds the nightly news predisposed us into gathering bottled water and bulk crackers for.  But the crackers and water would last, it wasn’t about the French cupboard filled with wheat and seeds crackers, their boxes bent and scrunched, it was about the trip to the store to get those damn crackers.  Roman hadn’t finished his homework on account of the pending storm stressing him out and Sabrina just kept on turning the dial to find a station that must not have existed because she kept slowing down through the static parts.  Or perhaps it was so that the static gave her room to scold Roman one more time about his future depending on that online physical education class and that if physical education was too hard, well, she would never be able to see him doing anything in the real world.  And here we were again.  A stoplight so red it seemed to just linger there, holding my siblings and me in what I deemed hellish in the least.   

The stoplight was stationary, no swing.  Not even a light breeze jiggling the wire it pulled to a mini V in the middle, strung up there most likely by the volunteer construction crew of Puyallup because the city was so small that we, the people, called it a town just to keep it small and cross our fingers that it would never be mapped for development.  There was a flock of birds that passed over my dust-finished Jeep, awry in size as they seemed swollen and dipped a little lower than a flock generally would dip at street-light level.  What would cause a small flock of birds to swell up like that?  Did they get into some bushes with bad berries?  Could berries even go bad?  Getting a double-finger poke into the place on my side forearm with the most flesh since I had and still do have as my Oma tells me, “German arms, shutzie,” was not my favorite place but there it was; “What the fuck are you doing, Jessica?  Are you fucking blind?  The light’s green, do you know what green means?”  Sabrina kept jabbing me with this two finger method where she keept them close, like she’d have to fit both into a peanut butter jar to fish out something she’d dropped in there, like maybe one of her rings had slipped off.  I could tell I was going to bruise since I bruise like a peach. 

I thrust my foot against the clutch and waited for the alternator to catch second gear.  The light was almost yellow before we’d gotten through but I just couldn’t shake those berries.  Parking was easy, no people in the lot to zig and zag around and walking into the one of two corner stores was always a b-line movement because there was always someone smoking outside that knew you or would try their very best.  Sabrina was going to wait in the car but Roman sure wasn’t, not with her on her period, he said (and she was, I later checked, as a feminist).  Roman and I grabbed what we needed to feed our small unit for a few days and I asked Clark the clerk about berries.  “Can they rot on the branch?  Have you seen the birds today?  Yes, swollen, I don’t know just swollen.”  Clark gave me a few kind theories on water pollution and to the best of his abilities, pregnancy since Valentine’s Day he could gather had only been a month ago.  I loved Clark once but I didn’t even notice when it faded so I guess it was an odd kind of love that I just assumed would take care of itself. 

Getting back on the road somehow had put Sabrina on edge.  “Your turns are so wide and too fast.  I mean who doesn’t see a green light?”  I knew that she had been angry with me for a while now, but I still wasn’t sure about what.  I still wasn’t sure about why I let her jab me without response but I suppose I somehow thought that I had deserved it.  But what had I done?  And was it at Miss Maggie’s vineyard that the birds could have eaten rotten grapes?” 

Boom.  The Jeep spun for what seemed like six full turns and landed on Roman’s side.  Sabrina and I were suspended, seatbelts tight with our handing gummy necks, she unconscious and me blinking in the glass, slowly, because at least I could blink.  I unhooked myself and tore into Roman’s jacket to unzip his multiple motorcycle jacket zippers because I smelled gas.  I smelled gas and I heard a flock of birds overhead.  It took me six months to remember that the car never blew, but Roman’s body was denser than I’d imagined such a humor-filled teen’s could be.  Wasn’t humor supposed to be light?  If he was in water I’d always assumed he could laugh his way to the surface.  

It was a broad buck, square at the shoulders but weak in one hoof, leaning to his left to brace the impressive weight he carried across that one-way street.  He had hit us in the side but in a way where he lowered his head into the door, aware or a last second decision.  The sheriff—George said that stranger things had happened, but that day on the whole had felt pretty strange.  He’d asked if I’d been drinking and assured me that he had to do so for the paperwork.  This reminded me of the vineyard but I said no because I hadn’t been and I told him about all of the crackers in the car, that he should just go look and see that I was coming from the Jackpot.  He didn’t and I knew George’s daughter who told me that he knew I was on my way home for the storm and that you just can’t trust wildlife. 

Roman was in the hospital for six weeks with “around-the-clock care,” the nurses told me, even though I recall opening his jello more than twice.  I bought Roman a nicer wheelchair because insurance wheelchairs don’t come with handgrips and if he was going to have any fingerprints left, he was going to need a store-bought chair.  Buying that chair took a chunk from my college savings but was the only large gift I was ever able to give Roman after my sister went into a year-long shock-mute and he had the time to finish his physical education online class and then some.  After the wheelchair I never bought a gift again.  I never bought anything outside necessity.  Like a hunter, I gathered only what my unit needed and what I could carry.  And I never forgot those birds either, their swollen underbellies, from the salt I would later find out was being strung up in block licks for the wildlife by the volunteer conservationists.


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How to Mourn like a Real Writer

This piece was inspired by “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth” by Heather Sellers, originally seen in Brevity. This essay caught my eye after reading through Michelle’s journal packet. While Sellers takes a more creative approach to this topic of grief, I thought I would consider it at a bit of a distance. This is what I came up with.

How to Mourn like a Real Writer

1. Rough Draft

You sit down to write and the first word you write is grief.
It’s no good. You start again, try to say something more relevant. You sit down to write and the first thing you say is how hostile a house guest it is. Leaving its dishes all over your dining room table. Interrupting the grading you need to do, the revisions yet to be done. You come home and grief has torn out the seams in your sheets, drawn on the walls. Sullen teenager. It’s rolling its eyes at you, asks, Sure you don’t want a drink, after all?

2. Working Draft

There are certain things that are more appropriate for young women to write about. Sex, for example. Nature, maybe, but not Thoreau’s nature, city as a jungle nature. The loss of innocence, preferably yours. The human tragedy of the grocery store, the way that poverty bites at your heels, reminds you you’re one paycheck away from being with everyone else.

Are you in your early twenties? Try to stick with observations about your presumably small town. Rounding the corner towards thirty? Consider the inherent guilt of your failed romantic expectations. There’s probably a nice gentrification metaphor in there, if you look for it. Better yet, talk about your trauma. They’d like to keep you in one of two camps, sullied or not. What do you know about death?

3. In Workshop

It wouldn’t hurt to buy some more work clothes. You’re always showing up in the same black dress, and your students are beginning to notice. They’re keeping a tally of the days you choose these sensible work boots, shake their heads at the dry erase pen and chipped nail polish on your hands. Between conferences, you lie down in the nursing room in the third floor women’s bathroom, and think about sleep. Get up to wash your face and read the next essay.

In class, your student Sophie, looking at your skirt and blazer, asks if you are mourning. You say no.

*     *     *

This essay is clearly not quite done yet. I’m not sure where to take it. Feedback, as always, is much appreciated. I don’t want it to end up where these sorts of things can end up, I want to avoid all easy sentiment.

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Post-Operative Procedures

Late in the summer, I can no longer stand the pain in my shoulder. I have a history of high tolerance for pain, but this pain tops the charts. I have put off a visit to the doctor; not wanting to curtail glorious weekends spent camping, hiking, swimming at the lake. I want to enjoy the few weeks of bright sunshine and warmth, savor the cloudless, snowless days. I want to honor promises I’ve made to loved ones. I want to delay bad news.

The doctor visit confirms my worst premonitions. I have three tears in my left rotator cuff. The shoulder will require a surgical repair that demands several months of recuperation. Even when I return to work, physical limits will apply. The MRI shows what the X-rays failed to, what the doctor attempts to explain. He goes on in that confident, knowledgeable voice common to surgeons, but I understand the picture better than I do his words.

I am a visual learner. I associate words with images, rather than finite definitions. The doctor recommends physical therapy for several weeks prior to the operation. I stare at the grainy, magnified black and white image of my shoulder, focus on the three cloudy white spots on the tendon. This area shows the location of the tears. In a sea of darkness, the whitecaps here warn of stormy weather, a battle with internal elements my inner rigging isn’t capable of riding out without assistance. The limited range of motion, the lack of strength I exhibit during his series of assessment tests have alerted the doctor to the possibility that healing will take at least twice as long without the prescribed regimen of exercises. He tells me I should have come to see him months ago.

Procrastination is not one of my usual faults, but I’ve had issues with the left side of my body ever since the awful car accident. This shoulder is only one of many residual physical reminders of that wreck. The operation for a detached retina in my left eye came on the heels of the automobile crash. The collision that damn near totaled my life—as well as my car—has come back to haunt me once again.

I don’t notice any injuries right after the accident. Adrenaline pumps though my veins, and I somehow drag myself from my car, stumble to the side of the road. The other driver slumps over the wheel. Other motorists stop; some stay until the highway patrol and ambulance show up. I have no memory of pain at all that night. As the wreckage is cleared, I’m too busy being thankful that no one else was in my car with me, that no other cars were involved. I’m grateful that my insurance will replace my car. And, I’m relieved that the other driver has minor injuries, even though he should have been driving sober.

The pain manifests the next morning. Doctors promise physical therapy will take care of the problem areas on the left side of my body. I learn later these high-impact injuries from automobile collisions cause a wide variety of problems not initially reported or discovered. Immediately after impact, the body is in a state of shock and the brain does not register the injuries.

I leave the doctor’s office angry to the point of tears. I sit behind the wheel of my new vehicle, cursing the irresponsible middle-aged man who chose to drive his Ford LTD while inebriated. I curse myself for not complaining more, louder, longer. For not speaking up sooner, for not taking better care of myself.

I arrive home and fill the bathtub with water as hot as I can stand it, pour in some Epsom salts. I play the Ella Fitzgerald CD and soak away some of the pain, some of the anger, some of the regret.

If I’m honest with myself, the accident is only one factor affecting the shoulder. My job—the work I do—has aggravated the problem. Lifting surgical trays demands physical stamina. The average surgical instrument tray weighs about twenty pounds. The facility I work at does numerous orthopedic operations. Ortho trays weigh between thirty and forty pounds. So, I pretty much do my weight training while I’m on the job. On any given day, I may load fifteen to twenty case carts with trays, tear down carts from cancelled operations, redistribute trays in an emergency scenario, run trays into surgery without a cart, and re-shelf sterilized trays. I don’t sit much. Mostly, I am in high gear from the time I arrive for my shift until I go home for the day. All these repetitive tasks exacerbate underlying physical trauma.

I have surgery scheduled for November, after two months of physical therapy to strengthen my weak muscles. I have four months of physical therapy after the surgery. I’ll lose some income during my months off, and have the added expense of a portion of the medical bills. The good news: the hospital holds my job, as promised.

I return to work, but the atmosphere has changed. My boss is checking off days on the calendar until she can retire with a full pension. She is moody, impatient, sarcastic. I don’t seem to move fast enough for her anymore. Neither do any of the other employees. She doesn’t want to hear about problems, doesn’t want to deal with Materials Management (the department we order all disposable products from). I inherit the responsibility for assuring we don’t run out of any supplies. My boss never mentions the added training she promised when she hired me. Now, I am doing the work of two people. Coworkers come to me with their concerns, instead of my boss. I’m exhausted when I get home at the end of each day.

The department I work in is located in the basement. Off and on, the ceiling leaks. The problem gets worse as the months wear on. One morning I walk into my section to find a two-man maintenance crew attending to a large water leak. They estimate the completion of the work within two days. I work around the draped off area.

Two weeks later, the cascading waterfall of plastic still hangs from the ceiling. When I grip the edge of my desk, the gritty dust that settles on a daily basis on every surface sticks to my fingers. I’m tired of cleaning it up, tired of asking about the repair schedule. I’m tired of feeling sick every day when I leave work. My coworkers complain, but none of them will approach our boss.

Two floors down, working in a basement with no windows, I begin to question my own sense of right and wrong. I’ve promised to adhere to the rules regarding the sterile processing of products and instruments. I’m committed to providing safe health care to all patients. But, I need this job.

Contamination of any kind is unacceptable in a sterile environment. The fiberglass dust is a health safety issue. It does not dissipate in air, does not dissolve in water. It causes skin and eye irritation, and breathing problems. Fiberglass insulation is treated with formaldehyde, and is a probable carcinogen. The ominous residue clings to every surface, and when I change out at the end of my shift, glittering fibrous pieces of deteriorating fiberglass drift through the air. I take my concerns to my boss. She is irritated, and tells me to clean up the mess, to do my job—if I expect to keep it.

Inside I fume. My boss’s attitude is one of willful negligence. People’s lives are in danger. I can’t keep quiet any longer. I need this job, but not badly enough to risk the lives of others. I don’t need this job badly enough to risk my own health, either.

I decide to plan a strategy. To cover my ass. I email a couple of administrators.

At the monthly meeting, I notice the Surgical Director and the Patient Safety Officer in one corner of the room. I wait until my boss asks if there are any questions or comments from the Central Services staff.

I speak up; pass around the information about fiberglass duct liner I gathered on my own time from the internet. Combined with dirt, dust and moisture, fiberglass provides the perfect medium for microbial growth: mold, fungus, Legionella bacteria.

The Surgical Director and the Patient Safety Officer tour the department with me. My boss tags along.

The next morning three maintenance men are finishing the work on the leaking pipe and the crumbling ceiling. I discover my boss has quietly resigned. Continue reading

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