Home is the place where, when you have to go there

January 31st, 2011

I have a friend who works in Alexandria, Egypt. She used to live in Switzerland but moved several years ago. She actually left Switzerland when I was pregnant with the Small Boy, so it’s been quite some time. We have seen each other a few times since then, when she has been in Switzerland on a vacation or taking care of some business that she still has here; we email a few times a year but we are both poor correspondents and time and distance have weakened our friendship.

I sent her an email last week, not knowing what if any internet access she might have, simply saying I hope things were calm by her and that she stays safe. I haven’t heard anything back. Her employer maintains a Facebook page, which they updated on January 24th to say that they would be closed the following day. It hasn’t been updated since. I can well imagine that she only had internet access through work in the first place. It would meet her needs – she is a fairly unplugged person – and she moves often enough that I can imagine she wouldn’t bother with the hassle of finding a service provider as long as she knew she could use computers at work on her private time. So if she’s not going in to work, she is probably unplugged. I am not overly concerned about her physical safety, it’s not as if I fear for her actual life, but I am worried about how she is doing and if her neighborhood is calm or not.

I sent out a request for information on Twitter – does anybody have any information about the foreign staff of this employer? Through the miracle of re-tweeting, somebody actually associated with the place, albeit in a loose way, sent me a message that US staff are being sent home. Which brings me after a long introduction to the point: this friend of mine is a US citizen but hasn’t lived in the US for fifteen years. If she shows up at the airport or Embassy wishing to be evacuated, she’s got her passport and they’ll take care of her (and it’s scenarios like this that make R say, “Sometimes a US passport is a handy thing to have”), but where will she go? She lives in Egypt. Prior to that she lived in Asia and South-East Asia, and prior to that she lived in Switzerland. Prior to that, she lived in the Netherlands. To my knowledge, the last time she was in the US was simply to attend a job fair that landed her the Alexandria job.

There are expats like me, who either through marriage or long-term employment form a bond with the new country. If I had to get evacuated from an emergency zone I’d wave my US passport for all it was worth, and then make my way, with the boys, back to Switzerland. We’d try to get passportless R to be allowed to come with, on the basis of being the father of two minor US citizens, but we’ve already agreed that if push comes to shove I’d cut him and his Swiss passport lose to get the boys to safety and he’d follow when he could. (The US is simply better equipped to evacuate its citizens than Switzerland, and even R with all his pride in his Swiss military admits it.) But then there are expats like my friend who move a lot, following jobs or adventure or change or whatever it is that calls a person to move countries every few years. She’s got the passport, and if she wants to leave – which is an open question, actually – she’ll be taken care of, but then what? I sometimes envy her expat adventures and the amazing vacations she has taken all over South-East Asia, the freedom to change jobs and countries when she feels like it, but then what? After all the exploring and the traveling, now, when she might get evacuated – to where? To whom?

How rooted are you? (This might apply especially to my expat readers, but not exclusively). A line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” comes to mind:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.”

I’m wondering what my friend will do, where she will go, who will take her in. And remembering that the ties that sometimes feel like they are holding me back are also the ties that root me, that link me to the world, that give me a safe place from which to venture forth and a port to which I can return.

Reading Wallace

January 29th, 2011

My poetic education has been spotty. As a reader, but above all as an American poet writing as part of a tradition of American poets, I have some appalling gaps. One of the poets of whom I am far too ignorant is Wallace Stevens. I am familiar with his most familiar poems, the ones that might have been anthologized or taught in a survey course, but the vast body of his work is unfamiliar to me. Unforgivable, really, for an American poet, and so my project for this year is to read a Wallace Stevens poem each day. I’m currently making my way through Wallace Stevens Selected Poems – I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t just start with Collected Poems and be done with it, because the selected poems will not get me to the end of the year, other than that I had the Selected Poems on my shelf already and international Amazon orders are reliably slow to arrive.

By reading a poem a day, rather than trying to swallow the book whole, I find I’m able to reflect a little about each poem – I’m even keeping a journal of sorts. I hope this slow emersion in his work will allow me to really get to know it rather than just be able to say I have read it. And I’ve noticed in the past week or so that after finishing my poem for the day I want to read more. One poem is not enough. But rather than jumping ahead, gulping down the poems and perhaps losing this reflective approach to them, I move backwards to re-reading.

Today’s poem, “Farewell to Florida,” was the first taken from Stevens’ second collection, Ideas of Order. This is from my reading notes:

The brief chronology included in Selected Poems notes that from 1925 to 1933 Stevens “virtually stopped writing poetry.” I’m curious if there will be some sort of recognizable shift, a change in his voice and style.

Curious because I am definitely recognizing things now. His cadence. The use of rhyme. Repetition. And the colors. The Harmonium poems, at any rate, are bursting with colors: “rosy chocolate” “gilt umbrellas” “Paradisial green” “swimming green” “brilliant iris” “glistening blue.” And those are all just from section I of “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”

The colors are there in this poem, the first included from Ideas of Order, and the use of rhyme. Clever internal rhyme. And the curling back of repetition, the almost-repetitions, the repetitions-with-a-twist. The assertive I voice in section III – “I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools/Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness/Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms” – feels new. Stevens didn’t avoid the I voice entirely in the Harmonium poems, but it appeared rarely (at least in the ones in Selected Poems). It feels like possibly a new experiment on Stevens’ part. I shall have to read more of the Ideas of Order poems to see if it appears again.

Sometimes I start my day with the poem and sometimes it is the last thing before going to bed, but it’s becoming my practice. Some people meditate, some people jog, I read Wallace Stevens. There are worse habits to have.

Bring on the falafel!

January 26th, 2011

I mentioned in this post how the shopping hours have liberalized oh so slightly since I first moved to Switzerland ten years ago. But where I’ve really seen a change is not on the sign showing the grocery store’s opening hours, but what’s inside on the shelves. Ten years ago, when I came here with a shipping container filled with everything I own including two dozen cookbooks, most of my cookbooks were immediately rendered useless. My cooking isn’t exceptionally out there, but it leans to international vegetarian. Tried and true cookbooks that came across the sea with me include: Martin Yan’s Asia, Martha Stewart’s Healthy Quick Cook, Moosewood, Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites, Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, and A Taste of Heaven and Earth.

Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients called for in these wild and crazy cookbooks. Soba noodles. Japanese eggplants. Bok choy. Monterey Jack cheese. Oyster sauce. Thai basil leaves. Lemongrass. Wonton wrappers. Ten years ago this stuff was impossible to find. Ten years ago, I was hard pressed to find, wait for it, whole black beans. (When I found them, sold by the lovely lady who cooks tacos at the market in Bern twice a week, they were five francs a can. Yes, I still bought them. Together with the newly available and somewhat radical sweet potato, they made a lovely Navajo Stew.) Martin Yan’s Asia moldered on the shelf.

Slowly, a few speciality shops opened up, or I expanded my horizons enough to find them but I think it was the former more than the latter. Maybe a bit of both. The Loeb food shop in Bern has an entire section devoted to Asian food. I can get mung beans and chinese broccoli and two types of tofu and oyster sauce and my god I can even get galangal. Globus foods always carried specialty items, at a steep mark-up – for years they were the only place to get fresh cranberries. (Now that I’m thinking about it, I think for a few years they were my only reliable source of sweet potatoes as well.) Then we found an Indian market where we got cardamon pods and turmeric powder and coriander seeds. About five years ago I might have had to go to three shops to get the ingredients for an Indian curry or Singapore noodles, but I could find what I needed. (Actually, had I thought about it and dug around more, I would have realized that the large population of ethnic Sri Lankans and Thai in Switzerland had to be shopping somewhere and I would have tracked down their secret shops.)

Now, in an ordinary grocery store (okay, it has to be one of the larger stores but still, it’s an ordinary chain grocery store) there is this:

and this

I can get ramen noodles – which Small Boy loves eating Thursday nights after hockey practice – and your standard Old El Paso mexican foods plus the real stuff the lady sells at the market. I’ve seen blue corn chips and humous and falafel mix. Ten years ago I used to screw up my courage to ask the butcher for ground lamb and he’d sort of give me a “that’s a waste of perfectly good lamb, lady” look and now ground lamb is so popular it is pre-packaged at the Coop. Pre-packaged, people. Coop sells a little package of all the fresh spices needed for a basic Thai curry. I cannot tell you how much my culinary life has improved over the past five years in particular and I think it will only get better.

Bring on the falafel!

Nature, red in tooth and claw

January 21st, 2011

Nature put on quite a display for the boys today. In the morning, the Boychen and I went into the woods to feed the mallards. It has turned cold again and the pond is frozen over except for a small patch of open water where a creek empties into the pond; well over a dozen mallards were clustered there. They hung back at our approach, which is unusual for them. They are not shy ducks – many people walk in these woods and many people feed the ducks – and  they know my boys’ voices well; the bolder among them start swimming for shore as soon as they hear the boys calling “Enteli! Enteli! Mir hai Brot!” (“Ducks! Ducks! We have bread!” They always call to the ducks in German because, as Small Boy tells me, being Swiss ducks they do not understand English.) But today they were hanging back and even when we started throwing bread into the water they remained still. Even Boychen noticed and asked me why they weren’t coming.

Then I heard it, a squawking, a yipping, a howling almost like a cat, more squawking. On the other side of the pond I saw three foxes flashing through the underbrush. More squawking. Boychen and I went to investigate but were hampered by the fact that I was pulling him on a pedal tractor, and the pedals were squeaking. We saw one fox again, but never did find the scene of whatever it was that happened. I’m assuming the foxes succeeding in killing a duck.

Then at lunch time I picked the Small Boy up from Kindergarten. The kids were all outside already, bundled up in their winter clothes and heading into the playground with the teaching apprentice who is spending this week in Small Boy’s classroom. They were hanging up a bird house or bird feeder. Suddenly two birds of prey – I think they were red kites but it happened fast and I’m not good at distinguishing between the kites and the buzzards that also live around here – fluttered and swooped and one of them nabbed a bird and flew away. They were about ten feet away from the kids. Small Boy went running after it, yelling “Hey, Vogel, los lo! Los lo!!” (Hey, bird, let it go! Let go!) but predator and prey were gone.

They boys know about nature. They know that animals eat other animals. They know that things die and they know that things get killed. I’m not entirely sure they needed such a close-up display though.

Why I Write (stolen from a better writer than I)

January 20th, 2011

Critical theory is full of discussion of the inadequacies of speech, and it’s true that words are arbitary things, assigned to their objects in slippery ways, and that we cannot rely on words to convey to another person what it is like to be ourselves. ‘What proof do we have,’ writes Craig Morgan Teicher, ‘that/when I say mouse, you do not think/of a stop sign?’

But we have nothing else, and when words are tuned to their highest ability, deployed with the strengths the most accomplished poets bring to bear on the project of saying what’s here before us – well, it is possible to feel, at least for a moment, language clicking into place, into a relation with the world that feels seamless and inevitable. If that is a dream, so be it. At that instant when langague seems to match experience, some rift is healed, some rupture momentarily salved in what Hart Crane called ‘the silken skilled transmemberment of song.’

Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World into Word

Most Improved

January 17th, 2011

I had a moment Thursday night, at hockey practice, when I felt tears coming to my eyes. Right there in the stadium the professional team plays in, with all the parents crowded into the players bench and the little ones on the ice and the sixteen and seventeen year old players running stairs in the empty stadium.

I thought, My father will never see my son play hockey.

My father coached high school hockey, and he expected a lot from those boys. He expected them to show up to practice ready to play. He expected them, high school kids, to wear collared shirts and jackets to the rink on game night. He expected them to play hard and to shake hands at the end of the game. He expected them to take defeat with grace. He expected them to win with modesty. He expected them to be a team, to act like a team, and to win or lose as one. He expected them to respect their coaches, each other, the referees, and the opposing team. The worst penalty a player on my father’s team could get was for unsportsmanlike conduct.

At the end of each year, my father and the other coaches organized an awards dinner for the team. They’d book a room in a restaurant and the players and families would be treated to dinner. My dad would make a speech summarizing the season, and sometimes by the numbers it would have been a really good season and sometimes by the numbers it would have been a less than successful season but either way by the end of that speech those kids probably felt like Stanley Cup champions. He always found something shining about the season. There were plaques and certificates of recognition for the players, and my dad found a way to make sure each boy got something. There was recognition for the Most Valuable Player, Most Goals Scored, Most Assists, Fewest Penalty Minutes, Perfect Attendance at Practice and Games, you name it.

His favorite award to give, though, the one that meant the most to him, was Most Improved Player. This was always a plaque, and it went to the boy who distinguished himself not by points, but by effort. The kid who played every practice like it was a game. Who never stopped the drill until he heard the whistle. Who hustled back to the coach to find out what the next drill was. Who was not, perhaps, naturally talented the way some of the other kids were, but who made up for that with effort. The kid who was a workhorse. By the end of the season the Most Improved Player still might not be one of the best on the team, but he had distinguished himself by never believing that he couldn’t, one day, be one of those top players. My father truly loved those ones, the Rudys of this world.

Small Boy is a Rudy. He is not the best player on the ice. He is not naturally gifted at this awkward sport. He is not the fastest, and he doesn’t make you think: That kid is going places. But Small Boy, even at six, works as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen. He has made so much progress this year and though he is still not one of the best six year olds on the ice he is so much better than he was at the beginning of the year, and he does it by trying. He hurries to get on the ice as soon as they open the doors. He listens to the trainers and he tries to do exactly what they say. He takes the drills so seriously. He never stops halfway through, or cuts corners, or hangs back trying to be last in line so maybe they won’t get to him. If he loses control of the puck halfway through a drill he recovers his puck and picks up in the exact spot on the ice where he lost it. He’s not the best on the ice, but he’s the hardest working. Of that I am sure.

My father would be so proud of his grandson, this workhorse, and on Thursday I started to cry thinking that he will never see him, my Most Improved Player.

It’s not fair.


January 12th, 2011

I try to pop in on a weekly Twitter poetry conversation Poetry Tuesday (or #poettues for you Twitter-ers out there) that’s guided by Robert Lee Brewer. He’ll kick things off with a question or a theme and whoever is around will chime in. Last week’s discussion was about productivity: what do you do to stay productive as a writer?Sage Cohen gave her list of suggestions in this guest post and a lot of people chimed in on Twitter. Deadlines are always a good motivator. Setting goals with numbers attached – fifty poems, twenty submissions, that sort of thing – was popular too. People read poetry for inspiration and listen to music. Me, I like a change of scenery: I think of my most recent 20 poems, 90% of them were written in coffee shops. I know I’m not alone. January O’Neil says she writes at Starbucks (and hey, if it’s good enough for a poet with a published full length collection, it’s good enough for me!) and Marge Piercy has written an entire poem dedicated to coffee.

One thing I do when I feel like I’m hitting a wall or, what’s more likely to happen with, when it seems like I’m writing the same poem again and again with only slightly different words, is to go back through my old notebooks and pull lines and half-baked ideas from their pages. My notebooks are a mish-mash of drafts of poems, notes on readings, daily journal, gripe session. One page will have notes for a poem on it and the next will be three paragraphs of complaining about the Boychen’s complete lack of table manners. I mean complete. hair-pulling. lack. (But I digress.) Because I use one notebook for everything, the whole crazy mess of my life, it can be a bit of a trial to find those lines and half-baked ideas,so whenever I finish a notebook I let it sit for a couple of weeks and then I read it through from start to finish with a hot-pink or lime-green pen and I circle or underline anything interesting. I’ll write little things like “pursue this” or “not a poem, but a blog post?” I try to read it the way a creative writing teacher would read a workbook her student had handed in. But the key is reading back through the whole journal one afternoon and writing the notes and circling the interesting stuff in that vivid fluorescent pen – then when I’m looking for inspiration I don’t have to read through all the bits about table manners and how much it snowed yesterday. I just look for the colors.

Often I will have completely forgotten writing something. Rarely, a really nice workable draft will be in there that I never typed up and got into my “active” system. Sometimes, if I go back to a really old journal, the things that occupied me are so far from what occupies me now that they feel fresh. When I’m in the middle of something I might write a lot, a lot, I might write the same thing over and over but I can’t make sense of it or get enough distance on it to take it out of the realm of therapy and into the realm of craft. But two years later the storm of the event is over but the words are still there in the notebooks and I’ve got the distance to do something with them.

They’re little gold mines, my notebooks. I have to shovel through a lot of dirt, but there’s always a gem in there somewhere.

Even a lone wolf breathes the same air as the rest of us

January 11th, 2011

The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world.

– Wallace Stevens

Even a mentally unstable person is influenced by the culture around him; perhaps especially a mentally unstable person is going to be influenced by the tone of the culture around him. Perhaps he is the canary in the coal mine. Just because a suspect is thought to be mentally unstable does not release people from the responsibility of their own words and actions and the way those words and actions set a tone in the world around us.


January 9th, 2011

Throwing words around as if they do not bear the weight of their meaning is like flicking matches around a dry forest as if they do not bear flames.

Listen to this sentence. Say every precise word: Somebody shot a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives in the head and in the process shot and killed a nine year old girl.

Can we all stop pretending that we have not brutalized public discourse and dehumanized our language beyond all recognition now?

King for a day

January 7th, 2011

Yesterday was Dreikönigstag, or Three Kings’ Day, also known as Epiphany, which celebrates the visitation of the the Magi (the three kings) to the baby Jesus. In Switzerland (and I believe Germany as well, but perhaps a German reader could correct me if I’m wrong) it’s traditional to celebrate the day with a Dreikönigskuchen, a sweet bread wreath topped with almonds.

A tiny plastic king is baked into one of the sections of the wreath.

By tradition, the person who finds the king gets to be “king for a day” and wear the paper crown that is sold together with the bread.

This isn’t just for kids. Plenty of people will bring a Dreikönigskuchen in to work to split among their co-workers. People can be downright insistent that the person who finds the king actually wear the crown all day. Needless to say, kids tend to want want want to find the king and adults tend to try to avoid it if they can.

In theory, if you examine the sections of the bread really carefully you can guess where the king is because that section of the wreath bakes a little differently, but I guess wrong as often as I guess right, so maybe it’s something you need years of practice with.

This year, Boychen found the king and got to wear the crown and be king for a day – which is fitting because he’s turned into a bossy little thing. People talk about the terrible twos but I’ve always found three to be the year of pushing, testing, defying, and general trying of my patience. Good thing he’s got that killer smile, I tell you.