2018 American Fiction Finalist (22)

My short story “Between My Ribs” is a finalist for the 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award from New Rivers Press. The 19 stories selected for their anthology are now with the final judge who will choose the first, second and third place winners in the next few weeks. I’ve been eager to tell you, my readers, wanting to share this sweet news, knowing you’ll feel glad for me and wish me well in this. But I’ve been shy about it, too. As I write, I feel big gratitude and quiet glee. But I’m not sure I can do justice to all the feelings this evokes in me. I feel thrilled and grateful and lucky. Of course. And I’m delighted my first publication will be with this university press who I’ve been so fond of for years now. But I feel afraid and sad and uncomfortable, too, and I can’t really point to why. I know I’ve been grappling with my discomfort over wanting to win. I feel honored to be chosen for the anthology, but I would very much like to win the contest, too. I worry about being greedy, so I wrestle with it. “Of course you want to win,” I say. “That’s only natural.” But it sits awkward in me, this wanting it to be more. But maybe I am only afraid of being disappointed if my story isn’t chosen for first place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

But there is a deep desire in me to win. I want that recognition. I’ve held myself back in so many ways for most of my life, I think. I want to just step forward here. I want to lead this collection. So I’ll ask for your good wishes in this now while the judge is still reading our stories, still weighing his responses to each of them, still sorting through them for himself. I whisper my own prayers into the palms of my cupped hands. I can hear the house finch in the courtyard, and the mountains are clear this morning for the first time in months, keeping vigil with me. I kiss the center of my palms, fold them around each other, bring them to my heart. I sit very still, holding my hope. And then I open my hands, slow movements, the bird released to take to the sky. I grin, lightened, filled with the honor of this gift, at peace in this moment with whatever is meant to unfold next.

And thank you, too, for holding this in your own hearts with me. Just the thought of it makes me want to cry.

[Editor’s note: I don’t know much about Facebook, so this is clunky. But below is both their announcement of the finalists and my own section of that post when you scroll through all the photos. Here I am in my goofy head covering—I got the news when I was staying at the hostel and had to get a photo to them right away, so I took this with my iPad in my favorite chair outside. You can also access the post in their Facebook page here.]

Announcing the finalists for American Fiction 17! We've sent the stories on to our finalist judge (Colin Fleming), and expect to announce the winners within about a month. Stay tuned for the announcement!

Posted by New Rivers Press on Thursday, August 16, 2018

Midsummer Day’s Dream (13)

Every day in June I worry the summer will rush past me. I am afraid I won’t do the writing work I want to do, that I will blink and stand at the end of the summer with nothing to show for it. But today I discover a cucumber in my garden. I pause in the courtyard, the cucumber heavy in my palm, my other hand on the door, one foot on the step, about to abandon the hot outside world for the day. I take in the sprawling cucumber vines, the sturdy volunteer sunflowers, the tamarisk that insists on living in one of my pots. I love every blossom and every leaf in this garden. Every cricket, every lizard, every bird. Inside, I peel my cucumber, eat fat slices with pink salt. I relish every juicy bite. After, I sit on the couch and dissolve all my fears about the summer. Instead, I picture myself writing like mad, immersing myself like never before. I close my eyes and feel the next eight weeks, a long expanse stretched out before me, like summer vacations used to feel on the last day of school. I dream each day stretching, too, the time from morning to summer night endless like when I was a kid, moving from one imaginary world to another, never rushing. I dream the days ahead in flashes. Writing in my notebook in the courtyard in the early morning. Laughing on the phone, napping in the worst heat of the day, dreaming, loving every minute. Typing on the couch in the early evening, laptop on my thighs, delicious sips of cold oatstraw tea, mockingbird song through the open windows late at night. I dream a big pile of work at the end of the 59 days, and me—happy.

If Only You Could Hear My Sparrows Sing (59)

I didn’t know if I was going to manage my 59 posts this year while I am 59. I lost so many large chunks of the year. For long weeks now, I was still hoping to pull it off, but I knew I might get here and find out I’d have to let go of it, have to let myself not meet my goal for the first time in eight years of this. And I know cranking them out doesn’t allow for as many “gems” as might otherwise occur. I even worry that this crazed flurry of posts might be annoying for some folks. But I feel pretty good about getting them done. And if they aren’t what they might have been given more time to grow on their own, they still tell my stories, yes? (Or that’s what I am telling myself.) I hope to return to one post each week while I’m sixty (and two posts for eight weeks in the year). So I won’t inundate you like this again, and I won’t desert you like I did this past year. I can’t promise, but I think I have a good shot at it. Thank you, my dear readers, for hanging in here with me this year. I didn’t expect to fall so crazily behind. But I’m glad I got caught up. I feel tired but satisfied. Now, if only the recordings I’ve been trying to make of my white crowned sparrows had turned out, so I could share that delight with you, too. Then I’d be tired and gleeful. Here’s to another year of blogging. And thank you all again, for coming, for visiting, for reading. It means a lot to me. You matter.

Delight (45)

I am tucked up in the blankets, my three latest “morning” books stacked beside me on the bed. It is new for me to read nonfiction like this and more than one at a time. It takes a kind of effort I don’t want to make when I want to read for pleasure, but now these books have found their way to my mornings, and it feels right. I have three days stretched before me with no out-in-the-world commitments after too hectic weeks. They are busy with work and training but knowing I don’t have to be anywhere is a luxury I revel in. I have bottles of tea wrapped in the corners of my blankets. I pour half a cup, sip it hot, look at the mountains with their tiny bit of new snow. I write this blog post and another. I’m going to work on my manuscript today, too. Grading papers will likely get pushed to later. I drink more tea. I can hear the white crowned sparrows speaking quietly in the bougainvillea through the open door. Sitting practice is next. I pour out another measure of hot tea and grin. I feel like a little kid, delight pushing against my skin.

October Morning (19)

I move the curtain from the open window by the bed just enough to greet Venus in the eastern sky. I’m glad to see her there, glad to catch the scattering of sunrise-colored clouds, but I don’t want to be awake yet. I let the curtain fall and snuggle back beneath the blankets. Blankets, I think. I grin, so pleased it’s autumn now, and I return to blankets. I have a nine a.m. videoconference call this morning. And I want to remember to mention the aloe vera gel to my mom for these last stages of the wound that’s finally healing on her leg. I’m going to focus on building next week’s online classes today. I want to write a blog post, too, I think. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Is this the longest gap in over seven years of my commitment to posting? I must be a zillion weeks behind by now. I don’t even want to know. I can feel the tension mounting in me with each thought. For a little while I even replay all the well-worn reasons I believe I was wronged by someone years ago. I take a deep breath, smoosh the pillow beneath my head, settle down on my left side, close my eyes. I hear bird calls in the distance. I think of my two cats, dead now these two years. I whisper to them, send their spirits love. And then I let myself imagine them going back to sleep with me in this cool early morning air. They used to flank me, Sofia wrapping herself in the curve of my legs and Sable curling up against my belly. I know it’s unlikely I’ll fall asleep again, but I let myself drift, using my imagination now, reaching for memory. I remember waking in the middle of the night, their soft little bodies pressed against me, the comforting weight of them. It always made me feel like the luckiest woman in the world. Drifting, I wonder what that makes me today. But even in that dreamy place shaded by a longing for them, I know the answer. It makes me the luckiest woman in the world because I had that, their dear companionship, night after night for years. And because I get to love them forever.

How the Dead Return to Us (10)

Being a writer can be kind of weird. And writing a blog or a newspaper column can be even weirder. I once had an email exchange with one of my favorite columnists for the L.A. Times who pointed out to me we are dependent on what happens. It sounds crazy obvious now, but I’d never put it together before. There’s always the interior world, too, of course. But when we can “hang” that inner world on a scaffolding of outer events, when there’s enough happening both within and without to make connections between them, the possibilities seem endless. This is my eighth year for writing a blog, and I seem to either have endless “Blog?” markings on the pages of my notebook, or I have a dearth of ideas. It feels like a long time since the floodgates were open. Yesterday, I was so glad to have something happen I could write about. But then the weirdness peeked around the corner. I meant to show my ugly bias arising even in the midst of it all. But a sneaky voice hisses at me after I post. “It sounds like you’re trying to pump yourself up, like you’re trying to make yourself look good.” Does it? Really? I only wanted to tell the story the way it happened, so glad there was a story to tell. Maybe, I think, I should’ve explained more about the connection I was making to the day I found out my father was dead, how this time I got to be the stranger who wanted to help. That day all those years ago I let the policemen inside my father’s apartment and wait outside on the concrete landing. One of the women from the place next door comes out and asks me if there’s anything they can do, anything I need. “Do you have any beer?” I ask. (I remember feeling foolish asking.) I’d already found out he was dead. I’d already asked the policemen if there was any beer in his fridge. (That would remain a lingering regret, that he died without any beer in the fridge, without any cigarettes. What was I thinking?) Instead of bringing me a beer on the porch, the woman brings me inside, sits me at their dining room table, hands me an icy bottle of St. Pauli Girl. She and her two roommates gather round. They tend to me through that long afternoon, the lazy Memorial Day holiday, 1985. And then in the fall of that year I dream about my father. “What are you doing here?” I say. “You’re supposed to be dead.” I remember the shock of that first dream. I must not have learned yet how the dead can return to us, living again and again in our sleeping dreams.

Finding Our Way in the World (50)

(chalk? pastel?) drawing of a heart, red on blue

I’ve been eating meat again. And drinking coffee, too, though not every day. I am more buoyant, more outgoing, with the caffeine. But I don’t think it’s good for my heart, and I don’t know how to “right” myself, how to become thrivingly healthy so I don’t need the difference that boost makes. And I don’t want to be eating animals, or eating dairy from unhappy animals, not just for my pleasure–but I’m not stopping yet. I can’t even really speak to why I’m doing it. Is it a way to recover from disturbance? Or an instinctive try for balancing my body chemistry? This morning I ate breakfast sausage wrapped in squishy Oatnut bread, a flashback from my twenties. Last night I ate Cheetos for the first time in years. This afternoon, I have a small bag of Doritos waiting on the table beside me, but for now I’m sitting on the couch, holding a piece of labradorite in my left hand and gazing at my mountains. Liz, the woman I met on my last Amtrak journey, gave me this stone. She found it and cut it and polished it by hand. I rub my thumb across the polished face of the stone, and I think, oh, I’d really like to write a blog post today. It’s getting close to the end of my blogging year, and I still have two more weeks that need an “extra” post in order to reach 58 posts while I am 58. As soon as I think the thought, the birds scatter in my courtyard. I hear a dove bump against the trailer in the panicked exit, and I cringe. I lean forward, scanning the courtyard through the screen door, looking for the hawk. She’s perched on the wooden fence, but hops down and explores the yard. She’s gorgeous and regal and oh so alert. I never want to see her eating one of “my” birds, but I still always wish her a full belly when I see her. It’s hard to be a wild one in this world.

Because the hawk came when I thought about writing a blog post, I pull my laptop to me when she flies away. But what do I write? Who wants to hear how I am eating animals even though I don’t want to be? I wrote once to one of my favorite columnists, Chris Erskine, at the Los Angeles Times. He pointed out the obvious when I lamented sometimes having trouble coming up with ideas for my blog. “We’re dependent on what happens,” he says. I know sometimes I have tons of blog ideas marked in my notebook, and I have to choose between them. But for a long time now I feel like there’s been a dearth. I reach for anything I can grab. Chris Erskine’s column runs in my favorite part of the paper from the whole week, the “Saturday” section. It hasn’t been there for at least the last two weeks. Today he is back, and he tells us about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. The bottom drops out of me as I read. I’ve pictured him on a family vacation, not at the hospital. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want this to be “what happens,” what emerges in his column. But life turns on a dime. I know that. His wife takes the brunt of some of his humor, enough so that I’ve wondered about their relationship. Today he writes they “are a team again.” I think about their Valentine’s Day, both darkened and brightened by this new life they’re navigating together. I yelled at the phone repairman today. Then I apologized, and he was gracious enough to accept. We ended well. I helped him tape a small piece of aventurine to his bluetooth device for protection. (It gives him headaches.) It wasn’t navigating a cancer diagnosis, not something that changes your bedrock, quakes your world. But we made our way through a rough spot together, two strangers, and we ended up feeling good about each other. It’s something to celebrate, I think, each small victory. I’ll send a card to “my” columnist, too. And I’ll wish for him and his wife Posh to find all those little moments every day to cherish, to draw close in. And for you, too. May we all treasure every little bit of time we can remember to treasure as our year comes round again to the day of love.