Between Freddie Mercury and Saint Francis: Exquisite Clutter and Learning to Let Go


Not my apartment. Photo from the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London from

I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.                                                                                                       —Freddie Mercury

Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty.                                                                                                                        —Saint Francis of Assisi

Allow me to paint you a picture:

Take a one bedroom apartment—vintage—that is to say, not rehabbed and fancy with a subway tiled bathroom and stainless appliances but cozy and cute with perhaps a little rust on the white, metal kitchen cabinets, some peeling paint on the window sills—let’s just call it patina. Add a mishmash of furniture dragged from alleys or selected at your finer Chicagoland thrift stores and one beautiful couch purchased brand spanking new from a real furniture emporium. Live in aforementioned apartment for eleven years. Enjoy the companionship of several four-legged creatures who make the sorts of messes four legged creatures are wont to do. Buy books until your shelves overflow. Buy holiday dresses, bathing suits and birthday candles. Make a Halloween costume every year; save them all because you might want to be Aphrodite, an owl or a ‘50s diner waitress again. Attend to living your life. Don’t get rid of any of the thrift store jeans you keep buying without trying on that don’t quite fit.

Now, fall in love and ask your girlfriend and her dog to move in with you. Continue reading Between Freddie Mercury and Saint Francis: Exquisite Clutter and Learning to Let Go

Unrecognized Brownie, circa 1978

unrecognized brownieI’m excited to be heading east tomorrow for the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency. But this morning, I’m excited to share an essay I wrote on The Rumpus. It’s about friendship, Facebook, loneliness and nostalgia. Have a look if you’re so inclined.

Happy June!

One Small Drop of Water: Poetry at the Cellular Level

photo from pixabay

“No more pleasant sight has met my eye than this of so many thousand of living creatures in one small drop of water.”
– Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 17th century pioneer in microbiology

Last fall I did a poetry residency with a seventh grade science class. They were studying cellular structure and respiration followed by a unit on genetics and DNA. Their teacher and I discussed ways we could connect poetry and science with the students. We landed on the big idea of close observation, noticing deeply and seeing patterns—essential skills for both poets and scientists. We wanted the students to practice looking closely and describing what they saw in precise detail.

We asked them to consider the question:

What do we learn from looking closely? Continue reading One Small Drop of Water: Poetry at the Cellular Level

Calmly, Joyously, Recklessly

View of Lower Manhattan from Jersey City; photo credit, Wikipedia

We’re moving to New Jersey! Come August, the girlfriend, the dog, the cat and I will be making a home in Jersey City for at least the next two years while I get an MFA in fiction at Rutgers Newark.

I wrote in my personal statement for my application that I was tempted to draft a manifesto—something akin to Kerouac’s “Rules for Spontaneous Prose” or Henry Miller’s “Eleven Commandments.”

I’ve felt at times with some chagrin that I could have used a blueprint for how to live life as a writer. Earning an MFA in fiction, a new genre for me as a writer, feels like the right next step. The throughline in my meandering path has been stories—writing and performing my own, creating space for my students to tell theirs.

I spent my childhood reading voraciously—being fondest of orphan protagonists and hobbits—and banging out poems and plays on my father’s typewriter. Continue reading Calmly, Joyously, Recklessly


sunset cuttyhunk

I’m very fond of islands. I’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket off Cape Cod; Amelia, the southernmost Sea Island off the Florida coast, over which eight different flags have supposedly flown including French, Spanish, British, Mexican, Confederate, and U.S.; Whidbey in the Puget Sound where I ate myself silly on wild blackberries; Madeline, one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior where our host said canoeists sometimes spot black bears out for a swim; and Ireland where I hitchhiked one rainy weekend in college.

I wrote a little about islands last summer when I reviewed my friend Jennifer Tseng’s novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness.

This summer I’ll be adding an entry to my list of islands visited: Cuttyhunk! Continue reading Cuttyhunk!

How to Do What You Love

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.                                                                                                           Henry David Thoreau

In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.

In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love

Freewriting, Honesty and Respect: a chat with blogger/memoirist middleagebutch

pen and notebook
photo by Oliver Hammond on Flickr

Writing can be lonely work. I’ve often wished to be part of an ongoing writers’ community that could offer support, critique, the occasional kick in the pants. I’ve tried a few times to get a group going, but haven’t succeeded in making one stick long term. (Recently, I’ve begun exchanging critique with a new group of writerly women, so that may change.) Rae Theodore is a writer I’ve gotten to know online through her blog, The Flannel Files, on which she discusses butchness, writing, cats, teenagers, spirit animals and more. She’s mentioned her writing group several times as being a major impetus leaving normalbehind her memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, which was published last year by Weasel Press. So I decided to pick her brain a little bit about her writing group and how it’s impacted her work. Continue reading Freewriting, Honesty and Respect: a chat with blogger/memoirist middleagebutch

Strange Paths


Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths

Forgive Me, But Now I Own Your World

photo by Terence Faircloth on flickr
photo by Terence Faircloth on flickr

My manuscript is out to six publishers, and now we wait to see what they have to say. In the meantime, what to post? I’ve started some fall teaching work and will have stories about those residencies down the road, but meanwhile, I’ve been meaning for some time to share a favorite student poem.

It was written in a third grade poetry class. We read William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say:”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I asked students to write a poem, in the style of Williams if they wished, that apologized for something. Most students wrote poems like this one from Justin A: Continue reading Forgive Me, But Now I Own Your World

For I Will Consider My Cat Duncan

Duncan reclining

In late August I said goodbye to a very fine cat. Duncan lived with me for seventeen years, in three different apartments. baby duncanHe enjoyed drinking water from the bathroom sink tap and sitting on the edge of the tub when I was taking a bath. On a handful of occasions he actually jumped in, and, instead of splashing immediately back out, walked high-legged and stiff through water up to his undercarriage, investigating the situation. He formed a grudging bond with my pit bull mix, Levi (RIP) and an even more grudging bond with Mingus, a bedraggled black kitten who joined our household three years ago. MyPictureming and dunc

Duncan was fluffy and sweet, even in his dotage when he purred less often and developed the habit of staring into space and vocalizing loudly. He had a very elegant set of whiskers and a distinguished countenance.

handsome dunc

The poet Mary Oliver is known, among other things, for her beautiful writing on dogs. The poem “Her Grave” is one I often send to friends grieving the loss of a pooch. I thought perhaps she’d have something helpful to say about cats. And I found this: Continue reading For I Will Consider My Cat Duncan