Welcome to Customs… and Bullying, Intimidation, and False Accusation

Some might consider a young woman traveling alone independent and adventurous. Some might consider her bilingualism an asset. Apparently, though, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers consider both of these suspicious. And if the young woman fits the physical profile of a Latina, then that’s a problem, too.

My older daughter has her father’s fair skin. Her dark eyes and dark hair are my Filipino and Mexican contributions. She’s been assumed to be Italian, Russian, Greek, Persian, and Arab. But most often and especially where she lives in Los Angeles, people speak to her in Spanish assuming that it is her native language. It’s a language she’s acquired, having studied it in secondary school and gained fluency in during a college study abroad program in Spain.

When her sister bought her a round-trip plane ticket to Costa Rica as a birthday gift, Natalie decided to devote most of her nine-day vacation to learning how to surf in the small coastal resort town of Jacó. This was a generous gift born of empathy and compassion. Her sister knew how much Natalie needed a break, and Natalie gratefully took the opportunity to strive to embody the word tattooed between her shoulders: Volaré. Despite a trauma she has suffered and obstacles that complicated her recovery, Natalie’s goal is to soar above it, to find release and freedom through actions that affirm her strength. The exhilaration of riding a wave still buoyed her when her plane touched down in Ft. Lauderdale for a layover where she was to meet up with an old friend.

Natalie has crossed borders before. She has visited Spain, England, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Canada and Mexico. There was no reason to believe that returning to the U.S. from Costa Rica wasn’t just another customs check.

To keep our borders secure, we must inspect everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry, says the CBP website. Perfectly reasonable.

Natalie entered the line for Americans in the immigration area. After scanning her passport and getting her picture taken she was directed by an officer to another line. When she asked for clarification, the officer informed her that everyone in that line was there for a reason—a reason he felt it unnecessary to disclose. She noticed that other people, mostly white couples, were being directed to a shorter line where they were being asked few questions and were quickly passed through to baggage claim and customs.

When she arrived at the window, she greeted the officer in English. He greeted her back in Spanish and asked her where she had been traveling. She responded in English. He continued to question her in Spanish. Realizing this was a conversation he was determined to conduct in Spanish, she accommodated his preference.

It was weird because we obviously both spoke English and I had a hard time understanding him at times because he spoke Cuban Spanish, which I’m not used to.Natalie

While travelers at the adjacent windows were being passed through quickly, Natalie was delayed as the officer scrutinized her passport and consulted his computer. Finally, the officer let her go and she proceeded to baggage claim. By that time, the baggage from her flight had been taken off the carousel. After locating her bag, she got in the long line for customs. Natalie did not suspect that the “Welcome to Customs” sign might as well have read “Beware of Bullying and Intimidation.”

As she waited, an officer and drug-sniffing dog walked past her without incident. When she reached the kiosk, she showed her bag of souvenirs—small items such as key chains, earrings, and a small jar of coconut oil skin moisturizer. The officer asked about food and she showed him some granola bars she had. While most people were being passed through to the rest of the airport, she was told to go to line B.

In the room where line B was located, there were about ten people in front of her—one white couple and the rest people of color.

It is illegal for law enforcement officers to perform any stops, searches, detentions or removals based solely on your race, national origin, religion, sex or ethnicity.ACLU

The line was slow because people were being questioned at length. When Natalie’s turn came, she handed the officer her passport and customs form. He asked her if she was traveling alone. She said yes, and he told her to come around to the other side and put all her things on the table. He asked her if she knew why she was there.

“No,” she said.

“You really don’t know.”

“No.”

At this point, the officer’s demeanor changed. He got more aggressive, more authoritative. “This isn’t normal to be here,” he said. “Most passengers don’t end up here.” Her being there was not an accident, he told her.

We do not assume that you have done anything wrong—because very few travelers actually violate the law.CBP

Yet, he wouldn’t tell Natalie why she was there. He alluded to her rights, but warned they would change after a certain point. Something was definitely wrong, Natalie knew. Someone was definitely wrong. The fact that it wasn’t her didn’t curb her unease.

“Why are you nervous if you haven’t done anything wrong?” the officer taunted.

“Because you just said this wasn’t normal—being here,” she told him, trying to control her anxiety about being detained for no apparent reason. “And you won’t tell me why I’m being treated this way.”

He asked her if she had a medical condition. She told him she took Zoloft for anxiety, and he asked to see her meds.

“If it’s Zoloft why does the bottle say Sertaline?”

Natalie explained that Sertaline was the generic name for Zoloft. “It’s written on the label,” she told him.

He told her to go ahead and take her meds right then. She told him she wasn’t supposed to. He took the Zoloft bottle to the computer to look it up. When he returned, he asked her why she was traveling alone, whether she had been alone the entire time, and where she had traveled. When she tried to answer each question, he cut her off and demanded that she let him finish, even though she hadn’t interrupted him.

We pledge to treat you courteously and professionally.CBP

He told her he had been doing this work long enough to know when someone had drugs. If he couldn’t find them in her bag, she would be taken away. They would strip search her and look inside of her.

A strip search at the border is not a routine search and must be supported by “reasonable suspicion,” and must be done in a private area.ACLU

She was terrified now. She told him again she hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t understand why this was happening. He started going through her things and told her that this was the time to come clean about drugs and just say she made a mistake. He said that when people do that they walk out the exit door. He said it happened the day before with a girl coming from Costa Rica.

We do not assume that you have done anything wrong—because very few travelers actually violate the law.CPB

He told her she was being detained and would be there at least a few hours. She told him her friend was waiting for her and she had a flight to catch and a job to return to the next day. Drugs were the issue of concern, he told her, not her friend or her flight.

I told him I don’t do drugs. He said he wasn’t accusing me of doing drugs. That’s different than trafficking drugs, he said.Natalie

He picked up her journal and began reading it. She asked him not to. “You really need to learn your rights,” he told her. He asked if she wrote in her journal daily and what she wrote about. She didn’t answer.

I told him this wasn’t normal what he was doing. “Well, most people don’t traffic drugs,” he responded.Natalie

He told her to put everything back in her backpack. He then opened her suitcase. He asked what her highest level of education was and what she did for a living. When she told him, he wondered why, if she had a university education, she was working as a waitress.

People who had been behind her in line were being passed through quickly while the officer emptied Natalie’s suitcase and unzipped the lining. Then he told her to pack her suitcase and pointed her toward the exit and walked away without saying a word.

Integrity is our cornerstone. We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. Our actions bring honor to ourselves and our agency.CBP

It was only then, feeling totally alone, bullied, and humiliated as she packed up her things, that she allowed herself to cry.

Other passengers and officers just stared as I cried.Natalie

Natalie’s trip to Costa Rica, her first vacation in a long time, was a gift from her sister. It ended with bullying and intimidation, including racial profiling, accusations of drug trafficking, and threats of detention and a body search, when she returned to her own county. Natalie was raped in college so the threat of a body search had terrified her. She’s being treated for PTSD as a result of the assault and is recovering from an eating disorder. This is why she keeps a journal, why she’s not on a career path at the moment, and why she’s on meds for anxiety. It’s why she and others like her are especially vulnerable to harsh and questionable CBP tactics.

How many others have been subjected to a bullying, smug CBP officer who leveled false accusations and tried to induce a false confession? How many of them have been sexual assault victims who are pushed to the brink of reliving their trauma when threatened with a body search? CBP officers play a dangerous game with the health and well-being of innocent travelers.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little accountability within this agency. A complaint filed with the CBP returned a nicely bureaucratic response that it would take action against anyone accused of wrongdoing.

In fact, CBP has a poor record when it comes to responding to complaints of abuse, even those far more egregious, so there’s little expectation that this case will receive the action it is due. Complaints have also been filed for the record with the ALCU SoCal and Miami, and selected lawmakers, including Barbara Boxer of California and Jim McDermott of Washington.

So, safe travels out there. But more importantly, safe passage through Immigration and Customs on your return.

Posted in Events, People

Visit the Real National City, Unfiltered

There’s a new promo video about National City, California, the place where I grew up and about which I wrote an essay titled “Home is Where the Wart Is.” As you might imagine, my essay is at odds with a Visit National City tourism campaign. All soft focus with bouncy music and a honeyed voiceover, the video features presumed locals teeing off at the (nine-hole) golf course, strolling a grassy knoll in a park, and enjoying a romantic afternoon on the bike trail. It ends with an attractive blond couple raising glasses of champagne against the blue bay. Wait, there’s a bay in National City?

Yes, as a matter of fact. But until the marina was constructed in 2006 on the Sweetwater Channel, was there public access to the bay? If there was, I never knew about it while growing up in National City. I always thought you had to go south to Imperial Beach or north to San Diego to find the water.

But back to the promo video. Is National City really a tourist destination? Does the video reflect the real National City? If many of the comments on Facebook are any indication, the answers are no and no.

Let’s start with demographics, which have changed somewhat since my growing-up years in the ‘60s. Today the city is 63 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian, each ten percentage points higher than when I lived there, and it shows.

Now there are names like Rios and Natividad and Sotelo-Solís on the city council. There’s a taquería every few blocks. There’s a carnicería and a panadería in the grocery stores. The workers are bilingual. Mexican radio stations play over the store speakers.

Filipino restaurants and markets with names like Villa Manila, Pinoy Ranch and Tita’s Kitchenette throng the strip malls on both sides of Plaza Boulevard to serve the highest concentration of Filipino-Americans in the San Diego area. Take a tour with this video and sample vicariously lechon, turon, chicken feet, and balut. Really, you need to watch this.

There’s a particular vibe and flavor to the city that isn’t quite captured in the slick Visit National City video. Here’s an opinion from the Facebook page that more directly addresses this bit of marketing:

Lemme put it this way: If I were from another state, wanting to visit the San Diego area for the first time, and chose to stay in a hotel in National City based on this tourism video…I’d be really pissed once I got there.

As I mentioned, the video opens with an attractive Latina mother and her young daughter dressed angelically in white sharing a moment of sun-kissed bliss at Olivewood Garden (which by the way is a wonderful place). Other Latino-looking folks engage in smile-inducing National City activities before the video closes with the sexy blonde couple kissing over the click of their champagne glasses, a sailboat gliding gracefully behind them.

Like in the telenovelas, the Latinos in the video are all light-skinned. What’s wrong with showing the really brown people that you see in the grocery stores, schools, and parks, and just walking down the street? Or would that scare the tourists away? I’m reminded of when I was in high school and the word on the street was that kids from other schools were afraid to come to our field for football games because they were afraid of our Mexicans.

Oh, and given the estimated median income of $37,000 in National City, you wonder who owns those boats in the marina.

So is National City a tourist destination? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth stopping by. Go to Napoleone Pizza House, famous for its pizza but also for employing a young Tom Waits who has been quoted as saying, “I thought high school was a joke, I went to school at Napoleone’s.”

And don’t forget all the Filipino and Mexican comida. If you happen to be in town while I’m visiting, let’s meet for breakfast at Aunt Emma’s for huevos rancheros.

And aside from Tom Waits, here’s another notable from National City. Rosalie “Rosie” Méndez Hamlin and her 1960s group Rosie and the Originals were best known for their single, “Angel Baby.” Have a listen.

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings, Places

Connor—A Dancer

For a couple of hours one warm September afternoon in 2011, I had the sublime pleasure of watching a quartet of lithe and polished dancers perform a bolero, which was expertly captured by a filmmaker to create the book trailer for my novel.

Now three Septembers later, a memorial will take place this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of one of the dancers. Connor Zion was a teenager when I met him that afternoon in the community center space I had rented for the video shoot.

I arrived early but the dancers were already there, looking beautiful the way dancers do, not in a conscious, overt way, but in an easy, effortless knowledge of their physical selves.

Young as he was, Connor was professional in his demeanor and, as I would soon witness, in his performance. He and the other dancers were wholly attuned to direction from the filmmaker, to the mood and pulse of the music, and to each other. It was a charmed afternoon.

At the end of the shoot, I thanked the dancers for their performance and their professionalism. I even thanked them for their beauty. Who can resist youth, beauty, and talent?

I knew I wasn’t likely to see them again. I assumed they would all continue dancing, continue being beautiful, continue making people marvel and chill at their seductive, impassioned moves. Because they enchanted on the dance floor, it was easy to assume they led enchanted lives. But none of us lives in a fairy tale.

What I have learned since receiving news of his death is that, since childhood, Connor suffered from anxiety and later developed epilepsy for which he took medication. For some reason, he went off his medication, which affected his behavior. One day, physically aggressive and clearly not himself, Connor threatened and attacked loved ones, and police were called to contain the situation. An officer emptied his revolver of 18 rounds, hitting Connor multiple times. For good measure, he kicked the downed young man three times in the head. It goes without saying how much is wrong with this picture.

Connor’s lifelong friend Maria told me he left diaries in which he described his desire to help other young people, especially those at risk due to low income, special needs, or other circumstances, to find themselves through dance. Connor’s family and friends have formed the CBZ Foundation to help realize that dream.

If you would like to help fulfill Connor’s dream, you can donate to the foundation. You can also visit the Connor Bishop Zion Memorial page to find out more about Connor and what he accomplished in his too-brief life.

I’ve always loved my book trailer. Even though it was meant as a vehicle to promote my novel, it stands on its own as a piece of artistry, thanks to the filmmakers, but thanks also to the dancers who are its essence.

Watch the video, even if you’ve seen it before. Watch it not as a book promo, but simply as a performance of a beautiful bolero—the dance of love. Lose yourself in its slow, dreamy tempo. Be transfixed by the smooth, liquid grace of the dancers. Watch Connor Zion doing what he loved.

Posted in Events, People

Other Talents

“Why didn’t you tell me… to bring along my harmonica?” the Baroness says to Max when Maria leads the Von Trapp children in song in The Sound of Music.

The Baroness is being sardonic. We know she has no musical talent.

I felt for the Baroness back then when I saw the movie in 1965 when I was in the seventh grade. Each time I’ve seen the movie, I have felt for her. I have no musical talent. I get the Baroness and her sense of being an observer, not quite of the party, left to sit on the couch and tap her foot hoping it coincides with the tempo of the music.

I have long reconciled myself to my non-musicality. There are other things I can do. I can write, I tell myself and hold up my published novel and stories as evidence.

But guess what? There are people out there who can not only write, they can play a musical instrument and sing! There were a number of such people at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference earlier this month. Faculty Sam Ligon, Robert Lopez, and Gary Lilley played their guitars and sang some bluesy rock tunes one evening. Kim Addonizio added her harmonica to a blues poetry performance by her and Gary’s students at the end of the week.

I know other musically talented writers—Jennie Shortridge is lead singer for The Rejections and the Trailing Spouses, which also features Stephanie Kallos and Garth Stein.

The members of my writing group are quite musical, most notably, Alma Garcia, who in addition to being the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Narrative Prize, also until recently played and sang in a rock band.

It makes me wish for a talent.

“You run,” my husband says, a super dad and himself a perennial speedster. Generous man.

Once upon a time I was an above average runner, hitting seven-and-a-half minute miles in easy 5K races. But at sixty-one years old, I’m a plodder now. The speed, such as it was, is history. Anyway, it’s not as if you can entertain someone with your running.

I can’t cook or quilt or build things. I don’t skateboard, ski, or turn cartwheels. I’m a self-conscious dancer with a stunted repertoire. I can do the basic salsa step unpartnered, but if someone tries to lead me in a turn, I stumble out of rhythm.

But there is this thing I can do. It’s not a talent or a skill, but I can claim (a not-quite freakish) flexibility. Not of attitude—that would indeed be a talent.

No, I’m talking limberness of the limbs. You see, at sixty-one, I can still do this:

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings, People

My Writing Process—Blog Tour

I was invited to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by Kelcey Ervin Parker, whose first book For Sale by Owner (Kore Press) won the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Short Fiction. I highly recommend these stories. They’re smart, funny and insightful. Her latest book is the highly praised Liliane’s Balcony (Rose Metal Press), a novella set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Read her post from last week.

Here are my answers to the four blog tour questions.

What are you working on?

I’m completing a draft of a novel called The Education of Angie Rubio. Each of the chapters deals with a lesson or set of lessons about life, race, and identity that Angie learns in and out of school and against the backdrop of the social and political events of the ‘60s and ‘70s. These are lessons of winning and losing, belonging and not belonging, and overcoming the divisions caused by race and gender. These chapters started out as stories, but taken together there seemed to be a natural shape to them, which made me want to see if I could create a compelling arc of character and action.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I suppose Angie Rubio could be considered a coming-of-age novel, which comes in many flavors. Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, Goodbye, Columbus, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—all different. A book that comes to mind when I think of an inspiration for my project is The Diary of Adrian Mole by the late Sue Townsend. It’s a hilarious, sharp, intelligent book, so I have much to strive for. Unlike Townsend’s, my novel is not in diary form and my story is not satirical; my protagonist does not suffer from pretensions, which is where much of the hilarity of the book is rooted. But Townsend’s work is a model for me in the way she so precisely captures not only the adolescent angst of Adrian, but also how that angst plays against the social and political issues of the time—something I’m hoping to achieve with Angie.

My character Angie is earnest, a bit too self-reflective, and anxious to find her place in the world. While Angie doesn’t look like the subject of this painting by Lupita Shahbazi, she does match the mood of the piece in many ways. Lupita Shahbazi is a California artist. We graduated from the same high school in National City, though she was several years behind me and we didn’t know each other back then. I’m a fan of her art. Take a look at Lupita Estudio Azul Solamente. Give her Facebook page a like.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m interested in answering the question, “What would happen if _?” In a given a set of circumstances, what decisions and actions would a person make and what consequences would ensue? In my novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, I was interested in what it was like for someone to leave a country to make a life in a new one. In my as yet unpublished collection of stories, some of which can be found online, I follow three generations of a family as each faces particular barriers and complications in search of a sense of place and belonging. I think this search is reflective of my own experience. Maybe that’s true for all of us.

How does your writing process work?

I think about a character and a situation for a while until I come upon an entry point to the story, a scene that gets me started in the life of this person, which is not necessarily the first scene of the story, but a place to figure out where to go from there in developing the narrative. Sometimes, I’ll just summarize in a short series of statements the trajectory of the character. Sometimes, I’ll just jump in and write scenes that may or may not be sequential. Often, I start with exposition and get carried away with that. I’m the queen of exposition. Thank goodness for my writing group which always reminds me to use scene. So, yeah, the writing group—an important aspect of my process.

Here are the three writers I have tagged for next week. Look for their posts on August 13!

Deborah H. Anderson is a mom, a writer, and a teacher who sings, reads and swims for fun. And she is ordained. She considers herself a social contemplative—a person who has spent a lot of time reflecting on a very busy life with diverse experiences that have yielded a lot of wisdom she wishes to pass on to others. She blogs at Meals and Moments: Real Encouragement in a Virtual World and Under the Rock: Encouraging Faith Based Leadership.

Esther Altshul Helfgott is a nonfiction writer and poet with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. She is the author of Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s (Cave Moon Press, 2014) and Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013; Two Sylvia’s Press, e-book, 2013). Her writing appears in Dementia Arts: Celebrating Creativity in Elder Care by Gary Glazner (Health Professionals Press, 2014) and is forthcoming in Eric Pfeiffer, M.D.’s Mastering Caregiving in Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementias (Yale University Press, 2015). Esther is a longtime literary activist, a 2010 Jack Straw poet, and founder of Seattle’s “It’s About Time Writer’s Reading Series,” now in its 24th year. Her blogs are Witnessing Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s View and Esther’s Writing Works: for Memory, Healing & Art’s Sake.

Tamara Sellman is a published writer who has worn many literary hats in the last 30 years: food blogger, poet, writing coach, developmental editor, magical realist storyteller. She is currently wearing the science writer and essayist hats, depending on her mood and deadlines. Her blog is Rhymes With Camera.

Posted in On Writing, People

Me, Angie Rubio, and Magic in Port Townsend

This summer I’m going to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference—again. I’ve been to others, all wonderful places, each offering its unique atmosphere and particular added attraction—a mountain to hike at Squaw Valley, readings held at wineries at Napa Valley, fierce bonding at VONA, a sense of history and celebrity at Bread Loaf, the D.H. Lawrence ranch near Taos.

But there’s a reason I keep going back to Port Townsend. Really, several reasons.

Port Townsend is practically in my backyard, if my backyard were to stretch from my little house in North Seattle across Puget Sound to the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Getting there is one of the best parts. There’s a ferry ride, a little bit of highway, and then stretches of country road. I always look for The Egg and I Road sign. The road passes the farm site once owned by Betty MacDonald who wrote the 1945 best-selling book The Egg And I about the calamities of running a chicken farm. My sister and I read that book over and over when we were kids, not to mention the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. There’s something almost bewitching about encountering traces of an author whose works delighted you as a child.

The conference is held at Fort Worden atop a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet which is traversed by maritime traffic to and from ports in Seattle and Tacoma. The fort was an active army base from 1902 to 1953; when decommissioned, it housed delinquent juveniles. Now it’s an arts center. The dorm rooms are tiny and monastic. Fitting for an army recruit or a reforming youth. Fitting as well for a writer.

The rooms have a desk and a chair and a little bed. What more does one need to write and sleep? Well, ear plugs. Program director Jordan Hartt advises packing ear plugs as the walls are “thin as masking tape.” Otherwise, the digs really are quite sufficient. And if you’re lucky, you might get a view of the inlet, though a view of the parade grounds and the officers’ quarters isn’t bad. A view of the parking lot may be useful for keeping your eyes and brain focused on your computer screen. When you need to get outside, there are places to run, bike, or hike nearby.

The place is damn picturesque and a bit charmed—maybe even magical.

I first went to the Port Townsend conference in 2003. At the time I was three chapters in to rewriting my first novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, which was eventually published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Bret Lott was my workshop leader. He was kind, funny, and smart. Our workshop group enjoyed him and each other. We were a highly companionable group, and I made some forever friends.

Six years later I was back, this time for a workshop led by the charismatic Chris Abani who generously gave his time and talent to his students. The story I brought to workshop was published soon after in Connecticut Review.

It was hard to stay away and I returned to the conference for three consecutive years. One of those years I took a non-fiction workshop with another brilliant teacher, Paisley Rekdal. The essay I worked on that summer was later published in Kartika Review and then anthologized in New California Writing.

The other two years at the conference I signed up for the residency option, an alternative to enrolling in a morning workshop. As a resident, I was provided with a room in which to write, a meal plan, and access to the faculty craft lectures and readings. Each time, I spent the week working on my second novel The Education of Angie Rubio. After many interruptions and delays over the intervening years, I have a full draft that needs layering and polishing.

This summer it’s me and Angie Rubio getting it done in Port Townsend. And maybe, if the work has absorbed any of the Port Townsend magic, it, too, will be published.

Posted in People, Places

How Katharine Whitcomb’s Sad Poems Lifted Me from the Blues

A few weeks ago I was blue. I can’t say exactly what caused my melancholy as I rode the bus to work that day amid passengers whose ears were occluded with ear buds and whose thumbs busily scrolled the smudged surfaces of their smart phones; or as I sat in my cubicle attending to my projects that promote the conservation of the earth’s resources amid the latest news reports of climate change deniers and coal-train advocates; or at the end of my workday when I made my way in a gray drizzle from my downtown office up to Capitol Hill where I stopped in at the Rancho Bravo taquería. By that time I had blinked back tears several times that day.

After I sat down with my enchiladas, and as I ate (because low spirits have seldom affected my appetite), I thought back to when I was younger, in my late thirties through my late forties, when I experienced these blue days more often and for extended periods of time. Every year when I visited my doctor, she would ask, “How are you doing?” There in the sanitized examining room, my face would crumble and tears would make a slow crawl over its scrunched topography. I knew the cause: not enough hours in the day to deal with job and family, trying to find the ground below my feet as my life both spun in a vortex and sagged to a standstill. And now it seems as if that period has evaporated.

I’m in my sixties now. Most of life is behind me. Maybe this fact is what occasionally pulls me down into the dumps. Or thinking of how quickly my children went from helpless, swaddled infants to grown women finding their way in the world. Or how much time I devote outside of my day job to writing stories that may be read by only a handful of people. But bigger things also weigh me down—the degradation of the planet, the denigration of women and the steady erosion of their reproductive rights, the proliferation of guns in our communities, racial and social inequities, and on and on. Sometimes it all hits you at once.

I was starting to text my husband about the little black hole into which I had sunk, knowing that he would do his best to coach me out of it, when I sensed someone at my shoulder. I turned to find a man whose face was bloated and reddened from addiction. He pointed to my paper plate. “If you don’t plan to eat the rest of that, I can finish it for you.” I looked at the remains of my enchiladas, bits of tortilla and spicy pork strewn with slivers of rice and specks of beans—surely an unappetizing sight to anyone but me who had already forked the best of it into my mouth.

I reached into my backpack for my wallet and fished out some ones, enough to cover a plate of tacos. He became effusive with thanks, but I waved him off rather rudely. “Go,” I said. “Buy some dinner,” I added a little more civilly.

So my sadness increased at the thought of this man and others like him, reduced, for whatever reasons, to asking for the uneaten food on other people’s plates. I took my deflated and depressed self to Hugo House for an evening of poetry readings. All day I had debated whether or not to go, feeling like a good mope at home would have been a more suitable way to spend my time. But the line-up was a stellar one, headlined by Mark Wunderlich and including local poets and University of Washington faculty Andrew Feld and Pimone Triplett, as well as Katharine Whitcomb from over the mountains in Ellensburg where she teaches at Central Washington University.

Triplett read first, followed by Feld, both giving good, strong readings. Mark Wunderlich dazzled. But before him was Katharine. When she took the stage, she warned us that the first few poems she would read were sad poems. I thought, go ahead, make me sadder. I leaned forward, ready for the blow. But I didn’t get sadder.

Katharine did make me catch my breath, particularly with two of her poems—one about a father and daughter in a boat on a lake and a moment of deliberate separation; another about a woman isolated on a retreat, not a visitor in sight, who encounters a dead bird on her porch and is confounded about what to do with this dead companion.

It wasn’t so much the sadness of the poems—reminders of aloneness or loss of connection—that got to me. It was the beauty of Katharine’s expression of that sadness, both the words she wrote and how she physically voiced them with her delivery that was a natural, down-to-earth, truth-telling. Words. Images. Art. They’re what lifted me up and out of the blues.

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings

The Ugly Years

Recently I posted on Facebook several photos of me with others. In each photo, I’m standing with a different set of friends. All the photos were taken on the same day so that I appear in the same clothes in each one. I’m on the right, which is to say, I am actually standing to the left side of my friends and the left side of my face is in three-quarters view toward the camera.

Someone commented that I look exactly the same in each photo. That it was eerie. That I might’ve been photo-shopped into each photo. Same location, same expression. I agreed it was weird. But it was also deliberate. I’ll explain in a bit.

I’ve never been happy with the way I appear in photographs. Who is, you say. Most of us judge ourselves harshly when it comes to the camera. Even my most photogenic friends insist they are not photogenic. But there is “not photogenic” and there is really not photogenic.

In my Camelot years, between the ages of 17 and 30, or maybe they were more accurately my Brigadoon years, fleeting as they were, I was at my least uncomfortable when it came to being caught on camera. There were two reasons: 1. Braces, the blight and misery of my childhood existence, had some years earlier been snapped off with orthodontic wire cutters and 2. I got contact lenses. It was as if reptilian scales had been shed, or a scary mask removed.

Prior to those wonder years were the ugly years. Please don’t protest. You weren’t there. Or maybe you were. Even so, chances are you will remember things differently.

I have big teeth and as a child had an overabundance of them for the size of my jaw. I do have a wide mouth, but the jaw is narrow and couldn’t accommodate the teeth. As I grew, my teeth grew more crooked, my malocclusion more pronounced, my overbite more protrusive.

In the fourth grade, I got braces. About that time I was required to wear glasses all the time. I was skinny with bow legs and pointy elbows. I was not a pretty picture. A classmate pointed out that I had a crooked mouth. And because I have always striven to be agreeable, I agreed. I was, in fact, apologetic.

Always a self-conscious child, I became even more so. Except for school photos, few pictures of me exist of those years. I dreaded picture day at school. Afraid to smile, I ended up just letting my jaw go slack, which pulled my mouth agape. Really, I had little choice since my mouth wouldn’t close over my metal-clad teeth. My sixth-grade picture was one of the worst of that period. It didn’t matter that I had curled my hair to flip up at the ends or that I wore my favorite dress. In truth, my awful sense of fashion only worsened the effect.

Recently my sixth-grade photo surfaced on Facebook as such things will. I tried to laugh it off, but it brought back painful memories of who I’d been then and how I’d been treated. I was an oddity to be abided with squeamish awe. Look, someone could wrap her hand around my skinny upper arm. Look, someone else could wrap her hand around my skinny ankle. Look how my clothes hung like a sack on my bony body. Look at that crooked mouth. Those hideous glasses.

Years later, I notice that my sixth-grade face is at a three-quarter turn to favor my left side, which today is my “good side,” a thing I discovered when a few years ago I hired a professional photographer for an author photo.

As I sorted through the hundreds of proofs, I found only a handful that I liked and nearly all of them featured my left side. I had a good side! The side of me you’ll invariably see in photos, looking eerily the same—as if photo-shopped in.

Back in the sixth grade, I had no good side. Any way you looked at me, you saw braces on protruding teeth and cat-eye glasses over timid eyes.

I’m not going to post the picture here. It’s out there in Facebook world. If you really want to find it, I’m sure you will. Or someone else might post it. There’s nothing I can do about it. When it resurfaces on my screen, I’ll probably look at it for a moment, maybe laugh at the sad horror of it before I wince and turn away as something tiny and dull pings at some hidden place in my heart.

“Writing is the best revenge” says a T-shirt slogan. But it’s not out of revenge that I write. It’s out of compassion. My new novel (in progress) features a character named Angie. I admit she’s my alter ego. She’s gawky and shy and regularly suffers humiliations, taunts, cruel jokes, and severe lack of self-esteem. I’m in revision now and the thought of imbuing her with super powers has crossed my mind. But maybe that’s not necessary, because inside Angie resides the tiny sliver of belief that she matters. That she will survive the ugly years.

Posted in People

Tour the Hourglass Museum and Cloud Pharmacy

As a prose writer with very little experience with poetry, and, therefore, without the vocabulary to properly reflect on it with any degree of sophistication, I offer some unschooled, gut responses to these lovely new collections of poetry by Kelli Russell Agodon and Susan Rich. I also asked them each a question, to which they kindly responded, offering some insight into their process.

Hourglass Museum (White Pine Press) by Kelli Russell Agodon

There’s much to admire about Hourglass Museum, but here’s what I loved most: Kelli Russell Agodon is just charmingly and elegantly clever with words. Hers is not the look-at-me, jokey kind of cleverness, but the kind that emerges seemingly without effort to stun you with its grace and aptness. I read these lines over and over from the poem “Drowning Girl: A Waterlogged Ars Poetica” to savor their sound and substance.

There’s no dessert in the picnic basket/so I swallow time. My mouth full/of hands and numbers. I ask for seconds.

Agodon manages to achieve a playfulness while pulling you under to the poem’s depths. Throughout the book, she mixes melancholy with cheekiness, longing with mock (and, sometimes, real) rebellion.

The book opens with an epigraph by Anais Nin: Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. There are in these poems, many references to escape. There is mention of exits and entrances, doorways and windows and where they might lead: museums, an unlocked cage, a church, or in “Death of a Housewife, Oil on Linen” an entirely new existence: … what she wanted/was to tango with another or a key/to unlock the front door and waltz/herself into another life.

Agodon also considers how our veneration for our heroes can both inspire and shrink us. In “Frida Kahlo Tattoo,” she writes: I wear a temporary tattoo/of Frida Kahlo believing/I can change the world/and if not the world/then a lightbulb, the channel …

Many of the poems are inspired by paintings, and the reader can almost imagine the poems themselves framed and hanging in a museum. The book has four parts, each dealing with an aspect of work in an exhibition, rendering in words the quirky, keen depths of the poet’s vision. In her prologue poem, Agodon invites the reader to … look up and see the madness/organized in the stars.

Here’s the question (or rather, questions) I asked Kelli Russell Agodon: You have a talent for the comic and the absurd, for puns and other word play, which is such a delightful part of your work. How did that develop? When were you aware of that ability? How does it affect your way of seeing the world?

Here’s Kelli’s response:

I have always seen words a little different from others. Part of that is mild dyslexia and part of that is just how I am wired to visually see the world; I have always drawn connections between things and sometimes see patterns in both words and images that others may overlook.

The earliest I remember this happening with words was being a young girl and my mom saying it was okay for me to go to the restroom by myself in an Italian restaurant. I remember turning the corner and seeing a giant sign that read: “LA DIES!” I remember having my heart jump, what does this mean? Has something happened in California? Of course, what the sign said was “LADIES,” but it wasn’t how I read it.

As a kid, I was always drawn to word games including crossword puzzles, word searches, hours of Boggle and Scrabble with my family; it was just an enjoyable way for me to spend the day playing with letters. I tend to group letters together differently than others, someone may see “marathon” and if asked to break it down, may write “mara-thon,” I may look at the word and see “ma-rat-hon.” I have to correct myself every time I go to pronounce “extraordinary,” because I always just want to say, “extra ordinary.” I know the word, but my mind is constantly regrouping things in words, but also in images, patterns, and visually throughout the day.

I am also someone who will sit and just look at something, whether a word or landscape, for a long time allowing my mind to wander. I think my ability to daydream creates even more of this throughout my life. I am a big believer in downtime and to just be in the world and I think this quiet or daydreaming time allows your mind to wander, sort of like a spider’s web, connecting one thread to the other. For me, these connections also happen in words and letters.

Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press) by Susan Rich

… don’t let go, let go.

This last line in “The Tangible, Intangible,” one of Susan Rich’s poems inspired by the nineteenth-century photographer Hannah Maynard, captures for me the essence of Cloud Pharmacy, a collection that is intelligent and observant, and which deftly exposes one’s contradictory passions, needs, and even self-regard. Rich addresses several themes in her new book, one of which is grief.

In a section of the book called Dark Room, Rich reflects on the curious and haunting multiple-exposure self-portraits by Maynard, whose daughter died as a teenager. In Rich’s poems, Maynard is a figure that “stands neither in/nor out of the century but floats.” Or, in yet another multiple-exposure, “Hannahs stand here, sit there, bend over …” In another poem, “she overlaps the images and leaves/no line of separation.”

Even in the other poems, the ones on love and fire, there are these opposing perceptions of what is real and what we want to believe. In “There is No Substance That Does Not Carry One Inside of It,” an encroaching fire moves foreigners to politely request action from their Spanish hotelier, who observes the fire, “the little/ flames clearly flirtatious, clearly beyond belief.” Rich creates a sense of the surreal, which pages later she casts off with a straight-on admonition with a letter to the fire, which includes the anxiety-laden question, “Am I wrong even to write?”

In “Conundrum,” the narrator enumerates the dichotomies presented by coupledom, the choices that are available, and the questions that arise only to conclude the inconclusive—that “We are bound/we are cleaving/we are bi.”

The twining in the book of the themes of love, grief and fire, and, within individual poems, the “don’t let go, let go” contradiction create a richly thought-provoking collection of poems.

Here’s the question I asked Susan Rich: You write about grief and love, two emotions that are quite entwined. And then there is the specter of fire, its power to consume life. In the collection, the three themes play off of each other quite effectively. How readily did these three themes coalesce for you as you put together the collection?

Here’s Susan’s response:

I’m really pleased that you discovered these themes as you read through my collection. As you’ve discerned, I am a faithful fan of the braided structure for a poetry collection; in other words, a book where three themes interweave together and (hopefully) gain emotional power as the collection unfolds. In Cloud Pharmacy, these themes presented early on because they were/are themes prevalent in my life.

When I read at Open Books: A Poem Emporium for the book launch earlier this month, I mentioned being caught in wildfires in Spain the summer I turned 50. I’d been invited to an artist residency, Fundación Valparaíso, and in the third week was evacuated to a nearby town, from which we were evacuated again. So the sense of an encroaching fire is very real to me. At times, the flames were far too close to us. In the chaos, I was separated from the main group of artists and took to the road with friends who happened to be visiting me at the time. After several days in transit, I returned to Seattle but the smell of smoke stuck to my skin and clothes for weeks no matter how frequently I washed.

All of this is just to say that the memory of intense fire stayed with me in a very real sense as I wrote these poems. Another life changing event soon after returning from this trip was falling in love; so love and fire joined hands together quite easily. Finally, the section of the book, “Dark Room” concerns the Victorian photographer, Hannah Maynard, one of British Columbia’s first professional photographers. Maynard was a proto-surrealist (who also attended séances at the Mayor’s home) and in the early 1890’s, after the death of her daughter Lily, she created a set of multiple exposure self-portraits; her grief is palpable in these portraits.

I hope that any reader will feel these interconnections, either consciously or unconsciously.

Posted in On Writing, People

The Endurance of the Raven

This year Raven Chronicles, the literary journal based in Seattle that publishes work reflective of the cultural diversity of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, turns twenty-three. To mark this milestone, there will be a panel at the 2014 AWP Conference February 26-March 1 held this year in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center. The panel will consist of Raven contributors Anna Balint, Matt Briggs, Carletta Carrington Wilson, and me. Kathleen Alcalá, who along with Phoebe Bosché helped found the journal, will moderate. In addition to moderating the panel on Thursday, February 27, Kathleen will be honored that evening by Con Tinta, a Chicano/Latino Writers’ Collective.

Kathleen answered a few questions about the history and mission of Raven Chronicles.

1. What was the inspiration for starting the magazine and how did you go about it?

In 1990 or so, Phoebe Bosché, Phil Red Eagle and I were each asked to guest edit different issues of the Seattle Arts Commission newsletter. I remember that Phil and I collaborated. We said, “Why do multicultural issues of a newsletter have to be something occasional and ‘special’? After all, we are multi-culti all the time. Let’s find a barn and put on a show!” So Phil introduced me to Phoebe, who had worked on Skyviews, a poetry publication.

2. Have there been any major changes in the mission or philosophy of the magazine over the years?

The initial description was “The Raven Chronicles—a magazine of multicultural art, literature, and the spoken word.” At some point, mc was dropped as being too obvious. But it took a long time for us to establish that it was for people to speak from and about their own backgrounds, as opposed to people returning from their visits overseas and writing stories from the POV of other ethnicities and cultures. We sought out people with interesting stories and interviewed them, if we had to, like Vi Hilbert, Alfredo Arreguín, and Isaac Maimon. There are stories all around us, and people just waiting to share them.

But the word “Chronicles” was important, too, as media was just starting to move online, and we thought the shape and format might adapt to that as well. As a result, Raven has had an online presence as well as its print form for many years. The next issue will incorporate sound as part of the chronicle.

3. What have you been most proud of about the magazine?

We have been the first to publish a number of writers who went on to fame and fortune, or at least the publication of full-length books. We also pay a bit, and many contributors write back to say that it is the first time they have been paid for their work. It is important to working class people to be able to show others that writing is real work, and should be compensated. Mostly, I’m proud of the range and quality of the work we have published, and the very accessible format. Many of these voices would never have been heard outside of Raven.

4. Publishing a magazine is hard work. What has kept it and you going for 23 years?

I give 99 percent of the credit to Phoebe, who has been managing editor for many years. Phil left to pursue other projects at least ten years ago. He is now involved in the Canoe Journey, an ongoing reclamation of heritage by NW Native American groups. I consider that a part of the Raven Chronicles, too, in its own way. We have a group of writers who serve as the board, and a higher profile advisory board. In a way, it functions as a collective, but Phoebe writes the grants and is diligent about proofing and copy editing.

We decided early on that we would not continue to publish if the magazine could not be a top-notch endeavor—no cheap paper or shoddy work. We have been fortunate to use art by the best of the best artists in the NW and beyond. The text and art have always been complementary, and Phoebe’s partner, Scott Martin, has contributed much skill over the years as a graphic artist and designer.

5. What changes do you see for the future for Raven Chronicles?

I think Phoebe and Scott are finally getting tired. It is an amazing amount of work. It might be time for Raven to take another form. Maybe a cupcake shop, or an advice column for lonely hearts. Seriously, we hope the next generation is ready to step in and produce the next series of chronicles. It has been a privilege to work with so many writers and artists over the years.

Posted in On Publishing, On Writing, People