Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina, some of what lingers

Everyone's writing about Katrina on the 10-year anniversary, and something in me wants to stick my head under pillows. The radio stories with the sounds of children crying in the shelters and people running or yelling at reporters for help put me back in the Lake Charles shelter, on the cement floor in the hall where we, in our red vests, were trying to get people's (former) addresses, something to identify them, some way to connect them with the thousands of people unconnected. I was there day 6, and over the last 10 years I've been sorting what I saw and smelled and heard in the space between Katrina and Rita.

It wasn't pretty.

One man pissed into a white bucket instead of walking to the bathroom, the bathrooms that weren't safe even though we, Red Cross volunteers, cleaned them, walked through them, tried to reduce the theft. I emptied his bucket a couple of times. In the women's bathroom at the coliseum where we had 4,000 "clients," women showered in pairs, one woman guarding the other's clothes, towel, and privacy, the other showering. There was no place to do laundry, no place to hang a towel to dry (and the temperature outside was 103 degrees, 90% humidity) so people threw away the towels.

On the first day of dispatch from Houston to Baton Rouge to Lake Charles, four of us volunteers drove together, and became family. We lived in a casino hotel (later destroyed by Rita) and drove together for our 6am to 6pm shift. We signed each other up for special assignments like family processing, which meant hearing the stories and writing them down and getting the paperwork for releasing money, the only money people had access to in a week. That's why 7 police cars with lights flashing greeted us when we arrived at the little Red Cross headquarters, where 700 people lined up outside from 4am, people hungry, thirsty, desperate to fill gas tanks and prescriptions and baby bottles. Some people with guns. We didn't put on our vests until we got in the back door. Then, we sat for 12 hours as people told us what happened. We listened. We wrote. We gave out as much money as we could.
Stephanie and me, 2 of the 4 volunteers who became family in Lake Charles

That process was shut down the next day. We didn't know why.

We were dispatched to the 3 cavernous floors of the coliseum in Lake Charles where families of 12 or more or fewer tried to create privacy, especially for their girl-children, by stacking boxes around the stacked mattresses.  The mattresses were in 3 long rows, longer than the length of football fields. The 4 of us in red vests tried to look out for the most vulnerable: an elderly grandmother caring for a hyperactive toddler, an Italian mother and daughter who were tourists visiting New Orleans, a 10-year-old girl taken in by strangers who came up to me 3 days in a row to ask me to undo her combination lock (left-right-left). I don't know why.

The hardest was a young woman who had just given birth. She had family, brothers and sisters, an aunt. Everyone cooed and praised God for the miracle of her safety, the baby's safe delivery. The next week her drunk uncle killed her entire family in a car wreck a few miles from the shelter, and we tried to wrap her in support, separating her from the cavernous floor, bringing in counselors and social workers, all of us white, all of us with homes we could return to, all of us strangers. She left the room with her baby when we spoke softly the story, the accident, everyone gone. I know why.

On this anniversary, I love seeing the pictures of new "shotgun" houses on FB. What I still can't bear is the destruction inside the people I met. The people who used "baby" to punctuate their sentences, whose gold teeth filled their smiles, who slapped my back in thanks when I found them the morning paper or a cold bottle of water or a fresh towel. One woman called me "Smiley," and wrapped her arms around me whenever she saw me. What of them?

I was a witness, only, an interloper, definitely. I neither experienced the storms, nor the years of upheaval, the promises unkept and broken.

From the people who survived Katrina, I'm still learning.

Friday, March 27, 2015

5 Things I'm Bringing Back from Virginia

1) a renewed reverence for small towns...

"Everyone's safe here," a patron of a pub said, "especially here." Every small town has one haven for the people who count themselves as "other" whether by race, class, sexual orientation, whatever, and in Cape Charles, VA, that pub is the place. In small towns people take care of their own, and their own may be healthy and rich and disabled and poor and blind and drunk. Even transplants from out of town become family through humor or generosity or good deeds.

2) everyone has a story...

On the panel, "The Stories We Were Meant to Tell," at the Virginia Festival of the Book, we had an author writing an 8-part romance series she was self-publishing (at the age of 83, she had completed 4, and she was writing #5), a man writing about fertility from a man's perspective, my novel about bullying and loneliness, and a man writing about humans being a construction of God's consciousness. The room was packed.

3) every story has a reader...

See #2.

4) Virginia is for lovers...

That love is thick. It runs between families and strangers who have grown into family. In Cape Charles, I met a group of people who have become chosen family, and their love is fresh and deep. They have each other's backs. They care for each other in the biggest sense--by bringing groceries or calling the minister or turning type into large print. Whatever it takes.

5) memory is fickle...

One of my sisters and I remember our past in completely different ways. Over the weekend, she and I kept recounting the same event with different endings or beginnings. She remembers our childhood caretaker dying on the operating table, and I remember her dying alone in her apartment. Both are awful, and it's clear that our memories are shaped by our own interference. Our childhood friend and host in Cape Charles told us stories we hadn't heard, that we couldn't remember because we weren't old enough. To have a witness who is willing to help fill in the pieces is to feel the smooth fit of a completed puzzle, the soft, hilly texture, even though the pieces are not pretty. Still, I am so grateful because memory can be a dark glass.

Traveling helps me see the inside from the outside. I'm so grateful that I can travel and meet generous, gentle people. Thanks, Virginia.

Monday, February 23, 2015

poem for a biker on I-84

To the Man Riding a Bike on the Highway at Night


Side-to-side your body rocks, each pedal-stroke
a hyphen faintly red—feather-steps in dark—
I barely see you ride beside the cars.

The only lights—headlights and starlight and
houselights from the Washington side—you shoulder
night on your ride out the Columbia Gorge.

Without bike lights, between each pulse of cars and
semi-trucks and trains, the darkness presses you—
like growing up in towns too dry to grow.


Once a friend at daybreak rode this way. The sky—
a blue lid to cliff and river—she sped toward blue-green
distance, testing the body that tested her from birth.

Her laugh—the size of Beacon Rock—she lived a man most
of her life and a woman at her end. When a pickup struck,
her body turned to sack and bone, from flesh and force.

For her funeral the whole Gorge town turned out, forgave
the brother who tried to beat her into a boy—his apology
too late—and floated flowers down the Columbia.


Rider, what perches in your soul and drives you
into dark, under dark, beside the water-silent dark?
Can my song guide you through the strangest Sea?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dear Stranger: Quandary

Here is a letter that I wrote for the Oregon Humanities "Dear Stranger" effort. I missed the deadline, and I'm glad I did because this letter feels unformed. The theme of the series is "quandary," and the quandary was more than I could handle. Can you help me understand?

                                                                                    January 8, 2015
Dear Stranger, 
In the western sky this morning, the moon hung oblong and papery like an empty bee’s nest. A star, higher and brighter, hung close to the moon, connected in a line that wasn’t there. The moon and star opened the night, the night turning paler as dawn rose on the other side of the horizon. The beauty of that opening spread in me like a swan dive into blue, blue water.

And the evening before yesterday the sunset turned the sky into a pink beach, the tide out, ripples of sand turning pink to purple. The wash of golden light over that beach made the world both fire and water.
I want to know how you bear such beauty?
Between that sunset and this moonset, three young men stormed a Parisian journal, gunned down cartoonists and writers, satirists who pushed readers to pry open the lid of belief and acceptance. A camera caught one of them walking up to a wounded policeman and shooting him point-blank, dead. Twelve people died altogether, and the three men walked away praising God.
I want to know how you bear such brutality?
In a Buddhist sense the sunset fades, the moon sets, and the terrorists are caught or not. Impermanence is the only order. Sometimes I wish I could be Buddhist and detach from hope and fear, but something cellular in me clings to permanence, to the ability to matter longer than a moment.
On a similar note, I can’t quite swallow that just as that moon was setting, the sun was rising, and beauty and brutality are a grand balancing act. A student in a class I was teaching on infectious diseases in Africa once suggested that plagues were a good thing because they helped control populations, and since humans were destroying the earth, plagues helped the earth survive. Conservation of energy or life, it seems to me, is too ruthless and offers little comfort. 

And what of God? I’m not asking God to be only benevolent or bestow justice on one people. I’m not asking God to speak in one language or walk in one body or control humans or act rationally. It is magic, after all, that is so moving, so transcendent and divine, like moonsets.  
What I’m asking is how can a body hold so much? How can one body hold the destruction of beauty, of free thinking as the Parisian terrorists want, the end of creativity, and at the same time, the inspiration of nature, of benevolence, and of kindness? How do you walk this duality? Is the answer always plurality, always paradox? 
What I know is that I love you, Stranger, because you embody beauty and destruction, because you are both perfect and imperfect, which I believe is the essence of what I envision as God. What I cannot love is ruthlessness. I cannot get my arms around that.
With hope and fear,

Sunday, November 9, 2014

National Novel Writing Month

Hi, my name is Kate, and I failed NaNoWriMo. ("Hello, Kate...")  National Novel Writing month and the grassroots movement to inspire people to complete a novel in a month are crazy wonderful for two particular reasons: 1) there's no judgment (The idea is to complete the word count regardless of the words or sentences or plot or anything), and 2) the organization creates an incredibly supportive community. Really, no one fails ( but I still didn’t make the word count…).

During this novel-writing month, some bloggers are tackling questions about the reasons people try to write novels and the reasons people keep writing novels. Bob Clary, from Webucator, asked these questions:
What were your goals when you started writing?

Where I grew up, the things left unsaid were loud in our house. The people who talked were always older than I was, and they ate up all the air. Writing poetry was a quiet way for me to say the unsaid thing, the thing that needed air. I never wanted to write a novel. Other people in my family wrote novels, not me. When I realized I had a bigger story to tell, when the story burst the shell of my poetry, I sought prose, the type of prose that kept its poetic seed. I found Dangerous Writing inspired by Tom Spanbauer.

What are your goals now?

One novel has slipped into the world, Carry the Sky, published by Forest Avenue Press this year, and I'm working on a novel about the 1950s, Sylvia Plath, and McCarthyism, and the novel I started in NaNoWriMo two years ago about an all-girl African safari also in the 1950s.

What pays the bills now?

For twenty-five years I've had the privilege of teaching literature, creative writing, and composition at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. I still do.

Assuming writing doesn't pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

Three things:
1) The stories are burning holes inside me.

2) I'm writing about issues and people and times I don't understand. The questions compel me, gnaw at me, keep me awake at night, and by writing about them, I hope to find other questions that disturb me less.

3) Community. I have two writing groups, one for poetry, and one for fiction, and those people encourage, cajole, berate, and badger while at the same time, adore, encourage, and support in ways I never thought I'd be able to bear.

And optionally, what advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

Find out what ravishes you, what sticks to your bones, what repels you. Start writing there. Write because your life depends on the questions you ask, the ways you make pieces of your life fit together. Get a day job so that you can be strong enough to write what has gone unsaid. As Maya Angelou once said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What Makes the Story Real

Last night Tom Petty’s voice on NPR surprised me. It was more dissonant and more tremulous than I expected from a rockstar releasing another collection after 30 continuous years of crazy popularity. He said things like people being able to recognize one of his songs after hearing just a few opening notes was somewhat terrifying. He said about each concert,
You just want to be as wonderful as everyone thinks you are and you know you're not (Laughing). So, something takes place where you reach down so deep and pulls from so far inside your soul that this music happens and you all reach the place you wanted to reach together - you and the audience. Then getting over that takes all night.
To listen to someone as accomplished who remains as vulnerable helps me feel less alone.
            Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tom Petty. I’m a poet standing at the edge of publishing my first novel. Because the book attempts to speak into the ear of the reader so closely that my lips practically touch, some people are responding very intimately. Some relatives have cried reading the opening pages because they know so much of the story is true (I really did teach and coach crew in a boarding school, and my best friend really did drown that year in a rowing accident), and they can’t stand the pain.
One of my sisters asked if the debilitating grief that the character, Taylor, the teacher and rowing coach, feels when she loses her best friend is true, and I said yes. My sister said softly, “Where was I?” Her tenderness thirty years after the death of my best friend does more than just heal me; it’s like replacing boards infected with dry rot and shoring up my house.
Publishing this novel is very different than publishing poetry. The way I’ve written this novel strips me bare. My poetry is confessional and intimate, but there’s something about storytelling that puts the reader directly into the action, into the ethical and emotional dilemmas that poetry doesn’t, especially since poetry isn’t necessarily narrative. To stand the pain and pleasure of the people reading my story, to stand my nakedness even under the veil of fiction, triggers my strong powers of denial. Some internal mechanism slaps up walls, a ceiling, reinforced floors, and I have a compartment for the pain of the story and my telling of it.
With that mechanism triggered, the story becomes so distant I can remove semicolons or add them, rewrite small sections, examine colors in the covers, leaf through the physical book, and not feel. And I come from a long line of numb-ers.  Eating too much and drinking too much and working too hard are normal. It’s miraculous what survival mechanisms can do for a writer. The irony is that the story is all about feeling, all about the horrible consequences of going numb, and to publish it, I’ve gone numb again, to a degree. To another degree, I'm feeling terror.
            Being present to what is happening in this process of making my story about bullying public, is one of the most difficult exercises in mindfulness I’ve experienced. What makes the publishing process real to me is the cover photo.
            Photos are intractable. To have my photo on the cover of the book has, to me, been the most powerful proof that I wrote these words. The photo, not the familiarity of the words, not my name on the cover, not the labor of it, proves that I wrote it, and no internal mechanism can deny or stuff that fact in a compartment. Long ago to deal with my memories of abuse as a child, I made drawings of the rooms I crawled out of and the closets I hid in, the house that burnt down when I was five; they gave me a type of evidence that even I couldn’t deny. The cover photo in which I am reading from an advanced copy makes the novel real. It is the antidote to denial and distancing.
credit: Jean Rosenbaum
            What an amazing thing it is when readers and writers reach “so far inside your soul that this music happens and you all reach the place you wanted to reach together.” Maybe this is the dream of all artists. Thank God for people like Tom Petty who articulate this beautiful process: we want to connect. In art we reach into each other and sing.
Works Cited
“Tom Petty On Cheap Speakers And George Harrison.” All Things Considered. NPR. 04 Aug 2014. Web. 05 Aug 2014.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Blog Hop, how cool is this?!

M. Allen Cunningham, the instigator of this blog hop, is the brainchild behind Atelier26, a small-press publisher here in Portland, the author of two novels, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which was chosen as a Book Sense pick in 2004, and Lost Son, a creative writing handbook, The Honorable Obscurity Handbook, and a collection of short stories, Date of Disappearance. The books Atelier26 publishes are elegant and daring. An upcoming release is a book of poems, entitled Gravity, from Elizabeth Rosner, whose novel, Speed of Light, showed me that a poet's sound and syntax can create compelling voices in fiction. Her characters tell a story that is heartbreaking, important, and gorgeous. Her book knocked me out, and when I woke up, I was filled with a belief that telling a story in two voices, with a lot of poetry, was possible. Thank you, M. Allen Cunningham, and Elizabeth Rosner.

How this blog hop works is that Mark highlights 3-5 authors, and gives us 7 questions which we are to answer about our novels by a certain deadline. On that day all 3-5 of us post our responses to those 7 questions on our own blogs, and then, we highlight 3-5 more authors, who then have a deadline to respond on their blogs to the same 7 questions. He said it's like a chain letter but much "less irksome."

Here are my responses about my forthcoming novel, Carry the Sky, to his 7 questions:

1. What is your character’s name? Is s/he fictional or a historic person?

The story in my novel is told in two voices, and late in the story, a third joins in. All the voices revolve around a central character, a thirteen-year-old boy, named Kyle, who is brilliant, quirky, and troubled. I did not give him a voice in order to accentuate his innocence and to highlight his impact on the other characters. No, the characters are not historical, and yes, they are based on spare parts of real people I have known and bits and pieces of imagination.

2. What should we know about him/her?

All of the characters are recovering from the loss of loved ones. All of the characters are troubled. Do you know any teenagers that aren’t troubled? Even the teachers, the two main speakers, are very young. Taylor Alta is 23, and Jack Song is 28. Everyone means well, even Carla, the senior, who acts impulsively.

3. When and where is the story set?

Welcome back to 1983. Remember the early 80s? “Oh no, Mr. Bill” and Coneheads and Christopher Cross’s song “Sailing,” and Reagan. The setting is a boarding school in Delaware, a place created by the Du Ponts for farm boys to learn the classics and to row. They actually dug a lake long enough for a rowing course. Remember Dead Poets Society? The film was shot at the same boarding school, but unlike the film version, the school was co-ed. I taught in that school for one year. Most people associate boarding schools with New England, and this setting is different because of the overt racism that gently pervades the mid-Atlantic.

4. What are the characters’ personal goals?

Truth is their personal goals get side-swiped (not that they knew their personal goals to begin with). All the characters carry around so much grief and longing that they can’t really make plans or goals. They want to survive, mostly, but they bumble around, hold on to each other for a moment, then lose both the physical and the emotional presence of others who might save them. Where they end up is finding their values. Jack Song articulates more firmly the responsibility he feels as a teacher, a parent for children entrusted to the school while they board, and Taylor Alta realizes that she has to find an environment in which she can live in balance, one that supports her as a lesbian, athlete, and scholar. The one who remains lost is Carla.

5. What is the main conflict? What messes up the characters’ lives?

The main conflict is power and chance. The three speakers are thrown together in the boarding-school world in which class and rank and heterosexuality rule. Their lives are messed up by violence and loss, and that’s before the school year begins.

6. What is this novel’s title, and can we read more about it?

Carry the Sky. You can read about it HERE. The title comes from images in the book and the sense of responsibility teachers feel.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

Officially it’s due September 1, and I’m honored that Powell’s Books, the mothership of independent bookstores, will host the release party on Friday, Sept. 5th at 7:30pm.

Here are the two writers I get to tag. They will both respond on their blogs to the same 7 questions, by June 28. Presenting the lovely Karen Halvorsen Schreck and Trevor Dodge:

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is a writer who can flex all kinds of muscles. Her latest novel, Sing for Me, is a daring and nuanced look at race, nationality, religion, and art. A young woman who grows up in a prescriptive household dares to follow her passion and sing jazz and ends up saving her family and others. You have to read it. Her previous novel, While He Was Away (2012), is already in its second printing. Her novel Dream Journal  was a 2007 Young Adult BookSense Pick. She's also published an award-winning children’s book, Lucy’s Family Tree.Her  short stories and articles have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize, an Illinois State Arts Council Grant, and in 2008, first prize awards for memoir and devotional magazine writing from the Evangelical Press Association. She lives outside of Chicago with her extraordinary photographer husband and their incredibly talented children.

Trevor Dodge writes all the time, teaches all the time, and creates opportunities for people to tell their stories in whatever medium best serves them. His latest collection, The Laws of Average, was just released. It's a collection of 60 flash fiction pieces. I can't wait to read his responses to the 7 questions. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Hobart, Gobshite Quarterly, Metazen, Western Humanities Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Gargoyle, Notre Dame Review, Natural Bridge and Fiction International. He is the author of another collections of short fiction (Everyone I Know Lives On Roads), a novella (Yellow #10), and is a collaborator (with Lance Olsen) on the writing anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing. And he is an extraordinary friend.