14 December 2011

from below

Having had my share of migraines since I was a child, I've had lots of down time over the years, more lately, it seems, for various reasons. Being forced to pause the pace and fury of daily life is jarring, and I find myself anxious in the solitude of healing.

It's cold outside, below freezing, the firs and fenceline frosted white late into mid-morning. From my spot near the fireplace, I watch through the sliding glass door as sparrows and chickadees and the black-hooded juncoes hop and scratch in the seed spread on the porch. Swarms of gray bushtits flow like schools of fish over the suet feeder hung in the eaves. Mourning doves drop from the rooftop, sluggish in the cold. Even the winter sun seems chilled.

There is a slight breeze, a sigh, a breath of air. The fir tree shakes its needles, and the thin sunlight catches the spray of ice crystals. It is Oberon's fairyland. Tír na nÓg. The air fills with glints of color and turning light.

I think it's a trick of my eyes or the pain I harbor. But then a tendril of mist lifts from the wooden fence struck with sun, and another burst sparkles through the yard.

The darkness in me eases, and I am able to sleep for a bit. Outside my window, ice turns in the light and shines a field of stars over the birds.


Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.


THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

25 November 2011


Last homework assignment for the term - check.

Presenting session at Winter Wheat writing conference - check.

Finals - check.

Thanksgiving dinner - check.

Sigh of relief - ongoing.

I love this life. 

~ Sherri

From up here the water is still blue, the grass green
and the wind that buoys me is 12 billion years old.

~ from "Bird's-Eye View," Jim Harrison, Songs of Unreason

22 October 2011

Winter Wheat 2011

The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing

November 17-19
On campus of Bowling Green State University
  • Click to pre-register
  • Click for full session schedule
Join me and some amazing writers and teachers for a celebration of writing. Kick-off Thursday evening with a reading by fiction writer and essayist Kyle Minor. Friday sessions begin at 1pm and 4pm, followed by a 7pm reading by poet Ann Townsend. Saturday sessions begin at 8am, and the conference closes out with a reading at 4pm by author Seth Fried.

My session is scheduled for Friday 2:30 - 3:45pm, and I'm very excited.

Sacred Objects: Detail the Fictional World with Real Stuff. Discover, name, and infuse your writing with objects that deepen character, become metaphor, and carry story.

Bowling Green State University boasts one of the oldest established Creative Writing programs in the country, offering a BFA and MFA degree, and has an outstanding record of graduate success in publication and career preparation.

See you there!

~ Sherri

18 September 2011

what did you read?

Over dinner the other night, my friend Liz was surprised I had not read the same books she had growing up. She also had some thoughtful observations about why she read what she did, something I hadn't considered.

What did I read? And what does that mean?

To be fair, I didn't read much before my family moved back to the states in 1973. Literally. 3rd grade is about the time I figured out, with my persistent grandmother's help, how to read. (Dyslexics Untie!)

So what if I got a late start. Once I got it, I read like one obsessed. Reading was an escape. A window to somewhere else—so many somewhere elses. It touched and comforted me.

I can recall the rough shag under the old baby grand piano in our house at Fairchild AFB where I read with my Snoopy pillow: Walter Farley, Jim Kjelgaard, Marguerite Henry, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When we moved to California the next year, I read in the car through all of Oregon and into the Redwoods. At my Uncle Orson's in Merced, I read through my older cousins' stash of Boys' Life and MAD magazines. The first rental in Bakersfield was furnished with shelves of books: Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters, Louis L'Amour westerns, fairytale collections, and a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In retrospect, it seems I gravitated toward the lost, challenged, rebellious, or broken. Outlaws, outcasts, people marginalized or misjudged by circumstances outside of their control. Triumphs over great odds. Quests toward salvation, escape, or justice.

The summer in Bakersfield I was 10, and I read from my father's personal books—a grueling story about a medical resident (I thought it was entitled "The Resident" but cannot locate it), and the Hiroshima Diary by Dr. Michihiko Hachiya. That book moved me like no other, even as an adult, perhaps more so because of the years spent living in Japan. Combined with James Herriot's veterinarian series, I concluded that humans were generally more kind to animals than to each other, although barely so.

The summer before seventh grade, I was transitioning with pre-teenage angst to Tolkien, Asimov, Anne McCaffrey. And then to the Russian writers, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky. But my childhood foundation was already set.

I still love a good story with animals. Jim Harrison's dog-training heroine in Julip. Edgar Sawtelle's dogs. But it is the human conflict that informs my own writing. To reflect our struggle to connect. Bare our human foibles. Reveal our victories and our failings. 

If we do not look, we cannot change. 


What did you read?

"Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him."
~ Maya Angelou

"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
~ Benjamin Franklin

13 September 2011

letting summer go

The very best summers when I was a kid included banana Creamies on the farm. I did a lot of growing up on my Uncle John's dairy farm in Cache Valley, Utah. It was a good place to be a kid—feeding chickens and calves, cows and dogs, jumping from the haystacks, riding shotgun on the tractor.

Summer nights, the cool crept over the fields from the Bear River, smell of the slough, cut hay and silage. I lived to hang out with my cousins, all older than me, maybe even in high school. They were smart and funny and beautiful, and I wanted to grow up and be just like them. Evenings were never too late—milking chores started earlier than the sun—but farm nights seemed darker than other places, the sky a deep, black bowl with stars.

One time John Terry and Bart had firecrackers. It could have been the 4th of July. The girls pushed each other in the swings or lounged on the grass. Rockets zipped from the milk cans set on the driveway, and when those ran out, the boys filled the cans with Black Cats that rattled our eyeballs and sent the feral kittens streaking from our laps to the barn.

I'd give anything to spend one more morning in my aunt's kitchen helping her make bread. She could turn out half a dozen loaves quick as a stitch. She'd always burn the last loaf for my Uncle John and butter the blackened top just the way he liked it.

The nostalgic inkling to return "home" to the farm has conflicted me since before I had words, and a certain pang of loss accompanies the musing of what could have been a different life lived out there, although I've made enough peace with the past that regret doesn't dig into me these days. Not too much.

I do wish for that morning with my aunt. Her hands over mine, guiding me through the kneading. Press, fold, turn. Press, fold, turn. "Yup. Just like that."

Once more to hear my uncle call out from the tractor, "There's our Sher-bear."

The regret that remains is that I didn't realize sooner how it was all so precious.


"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
~ Yogi Berra

06 September 2011

seasons changing

For the past couple of months, I've been head down in some once-in-a-lifetime events and writing projects at the expense of this blog. It seems a small cost. I am grateful to hear from some of my readers that I have been missed. At the same time, I am grateful to have met some of you in person on my latest and greatest adventures to Utah.

The MFA school term at Pacific University has hit the halfway mark, summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest—the local weathergirl announced a "heat wave" after two days in a row over 90 degrees—and we've all had more fun than humans are allowed during some raucous birthday parties.

Give me a minute to breathe in the sweet smell of vast, unplanned Saturday afternoons, and I promise, the blog is back.

Defy excessive celebration.


29 June 2011

notes from school

Once again, the 10-day residency at Pacific University was amazing. I am filled to overflowing with new insight, awareness, friendships, and poem. Stimulated. Moved. Inspired.

The Wildish boys are alive and well and have quickly become a study of sentence. I think about how Raymond Carver worked so closely with John Gardner, words and sentences. In workshop at the residency, faculty David Long took one of my paragraphs and mapped it out, moved it around, made cuts and tweaks. Like magic.

My turn now.

This is going to be good.


25 May 2011

elowah falls

Take a breath. The sound of traffic falls away somewhere behind us on the trail. That metal train noise is gone. It's just the rush of water now or wind—they are the same.

In the curl of new moss is a pair of Calypso orchids, one in fresh bloom and one fading to brown, its succulent petals deflated and wrinkled on the edges. The Calypso only grows at northern latitudes, undisturbed, concealed on the forest floor. Fairy slipper and Venus's slipper are its other names. Its lolling tongue is covered with purple leopard spots, a scoop into its baleen mouth, halo of pink.

False Solomon's Seal has feather-duster flowers with a rotting sweetness that makes me sneeze at the top of the rise. I hold  my rain jacket and hands up to avoid the brush of shiny poison oak. It's not really oak, he says. It's something related to poison ivy.

A switchback trail takes us into the heart of the narrow canyon. White foam of the creek threads along the bottom, rocks and fallen trees bending the water this way and that. On the other side, clumps of sword ferns splay out from their own bull's-eye center. Moss covers everything—you can never get lost in the PacNW because moss always grows on the outside of the trees.

But it's the water we've come to see: Elowah Falls. From the top edge of the cliff, it lays down a gray mist over the falling water that takes us in, wets us head to foot, releases us into a wash of drops that almost makes a rainbow.

The bridge is slick. So are the logs over the creek, green with fine moss. There's water on my skin and clothes and in my eyes.

Touch the earth. I am a rock in the sun. He hollers to me from where he has climbed down to the streambed, but even his voice is the sound of water.


04 May 2011


Came back to much hoopla on Sunday after being out with the Mazamas at Smith Rock over the weekend. Prefer the rock.

My dad called last night while I was doing homework and watching Oklahoma beat Memphis to tie the series 1-1. Multi-tasking is the story of my life. Admitted to not having enough time to watch the playoffs last week. I told him I even took my homework camping. He just laughed and said there was this crazy guy in his medical school class who took his homework everywhere with him - lunch, work, church, even to football games.

"What happened to him?" I said.

"He graduated top in our class."

Oy. I am just hoping to meet deadline.

As part of my ongoing commitment to stay connected to my writing people in a tangible, face-to-face way, tonight I went to the First Wednesday Readings at the Blackbird Wine and Atomic Cheese Shop (4342 NE Fremont, Portland). Some of my favorite writers were there, some of them even reading.

Bruce Barrow read some flash fiction. Bruce and I worked across the Pinewood Table in workshop for awhile, and I always love his stories. He did not disappoint - loved each one tonight.

Scott Sparling read from his new novel "Wire to Wire" set to be released next month from Tin House. I originally met Scott also through the Pinewood Table, although we never sat in workshop together. I was honored to read with him last year at the Press Club. His new book has received some notable reviews, including one from my other friend, Laura Stanfill. It's such a small world.

Michele Longo Eder read from her memoir, "Salt in our Blood - the Memoir of a Fisherman's Wife." If you know me at all, you know how I love anything about crab fishing, so of course this was wonderful.

Elizabeth Austen read a few poems from her new collection, "Every Dress a Decision" from Blue Begonia Press. Her poems hit on the familiar and intimate in language clear enough to tell a story. Beautiful. I am looking forward to reading her book front-to-back.

Shout out to Steven Allred and Joanna Rose for having guided me at the Pinewood Table and connected me to other writers. It's good to have these friends who are writers - they make a difference in my life.


18 April 2011

sounds a full moon

There was a full moon last night. At the peak of summer, it rises at the head of our street over a stand of tall firs where every year hawks nest. For now, it pushes up behind the neighbors' rooftops before clouds take it.

My youngest child once told me the moon was closer here in the Pacific Northwest than in other parts of the world. That's why it's so big, she said.

Its sound is as beautiful as its size: full moon. Reading poetry this week, and my favorite line is complete with sound:
The moon hung orange as any sun
Just before it faces evening,
Like a flaming breast in the sky
Calling my name, and I walked out

Under it and rubbed the moonlight
All over my face and hands the way
The old folks used to do with sunlight

~ from The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone by A. Van Jordan

Jordan knows how to use the sounds of words, make the mundane beautiful, sensual, forbidden.

Have you ever fallen
Into the vowels on a dark

Woman's lips as she blew
A simple phrase like Good Morning
To a man she's just met?

Nothing, maybe, to the naked ear,
But close your eyes and listen
To the dark sounds rounded

Off in the shadows of her mouth—
There lies the secret to end
All wars.

~ from Morena by A. Van Jordan

Cup your hands and press some moonlight to your face on a night like this. Breathe it in. You can do this here where the moon is so much closer.


04 April 2011

fine balance

The tipping point either way is often something so unexpected that you don't notice until you've passed it. Yellow leaves. A shut door. The fine silk of a tulip.

There is light in the mornings now as I head to the office. Even though the progression is the same, the return of light in spring seems to happen more quickly than the winter spread of dark. Perhaps the sun simply draws our gaze.

But I flew too close once and am lucky to have made it back. If you believe in luck.


20 March 2011

carrying grief on the first day of spring

Spring is a time of emotional extremes from the history of my life, times of immense loss and great change, darkness of depths unimaginable and restorative light. Every subsequent year is different. And the same. It's not that I forget how it is the most difficult time of year for me, it's that every year I think, surely this one will be different. But then the dreams come, vivid as ever, and time removed feels like yesterday.

In times of sadness, I have learned to reach back and call on moments that lifted me before—private moments, sweet joys, prayers. The first time I had opportunity to pray in a sweat lodge, perhaps ten years ago, it was a warrior sweat. On the banks of the Columbia River in sacred space at Celilo, I entered the lodge with trepidation and the heavy weight of unresolved family issues. With nothing to compare it to, I could not gauge the intensity of the conditions; I only knew how it brought me to complete physical breaking.

At the 17th stone, I wept. The woman next to me unexpectedly touched my hand and whispered, "Put your face on the earth, your mother." And so I did, and a peace came to me such as I had never experienced. The pain I carried into the lodge lifted in a way of power and beauty and deep personal awareness I continue to carry.

So with sadness and deep regret, I honor the memories of children lost to me, the deaths of friends and loved ones, and sorrows of irreparable harm. Respect the sorrow; allow it to be what it is. Without a tangible place to direct my grieving, I wonder for the first time if I need to seek one out to allow for something different.

At the same time, with gratitude and an astounded sense of awe I embrace this moment, this year, these feelings, my place in this world. After too many "burning down the house" years, my life was not restored—it was begun anew.

Ah, spring. I seek to find its middle path.


"Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved. But it was not grief that Olanna felt, it was greater than grief. It was stranger than grief. She did not know where her sister was. She did not know."

~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

"The ranks of the stars move in progression, the sun and the moon shine in turn, the four seasons succeed each other in good order, the yin and yang go through their great transformations, and the wind and the rain pass over the whole land. All things obtain what is congenial to them and come to life, receive what is nourishing to them and come to completion. One does not see this process taking place, but sees only the results. Thus it is called godlike. All men understand that the process has reached completion, but none understands the formless forces that bring it about."

~ Xunzi (c. 296 -c. 236 B.C.)

07 March 2011


I feel a little tattered before spring. Not that winter's over, between downpour rain, sleet, corn snow and scattered sunshine (that's a real meteorologist's term here in the PacNW).

Gray is what it is, although that may be what I love most about the northwest skies—the million shades of gray. Add a million shades of green for the trees. Several thousand browns and blacks, and as it warms and spring pushes up through the dirt, all the rest of the Crayola palette for what blooms next: crocus, lupine, beargrass, pea, fringecup, fireweed, goat's beard, phlox, monkeyflower, larkspur, trillium, fern. Their names are music.

Next week the clocks return to regular time that makes the morning dark again for a while longer. The blessed season of introspection is nearly over for another year. It doesn't make me any less reminiscent—only warmer. In theory.

I could use a break about now. Perhaps some tea.


April Rain Song

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

Langston Hughes

13 February 2011

rinse. repeat.

If it isn't already common knowledge, I'm a huge sports nerd. I don't mind admitting to it. What little television I watch generally involves a ball, puck, racetrack, birdie, or even a wicket—although I'm still trying to make heads or tails of that last one. Superbowl, World Series, World Cup, NBA Finals, Olympics, Stanley Cup—I'm watching. It also means I cry in movies of the same.

One of the other consequences is that I cannot answer any trivia questions about the latest reality show or be-the-next-greatest-singer-dancer-weightloser-topmodel-designer-cook-cakedecorator-nanny-housewife-makeover show. Somehow I don't feel like I missed out.

Back in high school after a workout on the track or gym, I would often run the seven miles to my house, the big yellow one out on Jameston Road. In the rhythm of pace, heartbeat, breath, the mind can go anywhere. Even touch nothingness. There's something deeply moving—intellectually, psychologically, even spiritually—about the drive that pushes through physical limits and beyond. Some of the dreams inspired in those moments are the same ones I carry with me now.

I recently heard Rachel Toor read a beautiful piece about her run from rim-to-rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon shortly after the death of her mother. It was a physical challenge above and beyond and then perhaps the way to peace.

It's the aesthetics' pilgrimage, the personal "monomyth"—the hero's journey. It's why many of my heroes are thoughtful athletes.

Now that my knees are shot from years of activity and the shortcomings of my genetics, I access that place in different ways. Sustained practice has led to an awareness that has altered my thinking at a fundamental level. If I seek out these moments, they show themselves, coy as white-tailed deer by the river, beautiful as the mourning doves that come down from the roof like specters on hovering wings.

It's a powerful place, connected awareness, a state of mind that lifts me above my own pathetic preconceptions, fears and human foibles. Greater than us all. Call it god (or God), higher power, enlightenment, nothingness.

Crazy, you say? Touch nirvana with a jog around the block? I say, do whatever works. Figure out what that is, and then do it every day. Repeat. And if it stops working, find something else that does. It's that important.

Along the way, watch a good game of basketball now and then. Or cricket. That's what I would do.


"Beauty is not wasting a day. Beauty is noticing life's little intricacies and taking time out of your busy day to really enjoy those little intricacies. Beauty is being real, being genuine, being pure with no facade—what you see is what you get. Beauty is expanding your mind, always seeking knowledge, not being content, always going after something and challenging yourself."
- Jake Plummer, retired QB of the Denver Broncos, speaking at the funeral of his friend, Pat Tillman. "What Was He Thinking," Sports Illustrated, Feb. 14, 2011.

30 January 2011

more perspective

Exactly 444 years before the day of my birth, Hernando Cortes set fire to the Aztec aviaries of the besieged city of Tenochtitlan. I did the math years ago when I first read "Crossing Open Ground" by Barry Lopez, struck by the horror of the event and by my birth date there on the page. I was instantly connected. Tied at an emotional level to something occurring almost half a century before my first breath.

No other animals seem to connect the dots the way humans do. For good or bad, we seek them out, find the links or make them up. They become the building blocks of our personal history, family stories, myth. Culture. Religion. Tradition. Philosophy. It's what makes us feel like we are a part of something. Gives us meaning, or in some cases, purpose.

How did that happen? What makes us seek validation of our own existence beyond this moment of breath and blood and heartbeat? What are we looking for? Would we even know if we found it?

One of my early college professors told me the wisest man would finish reading every book ever written and, if he learned anything, dismiss them all.

Perspective is a tricky thing. Turning everything up on its head when least expected. Calling into question old assumptions. Opening a surprise feeling from the words of a story.

But isn't that exactly what we're looking for?


"Don't miss the conversation."
 - Pam Houston, given as advice to new MFA students at orientation

22 January 2011

a mark in the snow

In the night, snow fell on the beach. I'd never seen snow on the beach before—the sand covered white, the ocean washing up dark against the edge of it.

A sidewalk stretched in both directions behind a low cement wall. I walked to the gap that opened to the beach and sat down on my feet. The sound of the waves was like the inside of a shell, and a little breeze made my ears burn with cold.

I pressed my hand into the thin layer of snow. The sand underneath was cold as metal. The snow melted and left the print of my hand. At once, I wanted to take it back, fearful for a moment of the way the shape of my hand and outstretched fingers marked the snow that spread all the way to the water, stuck through here and there with yellow grass and rocks perfectly placed it seemed. I hoped no one would walk on it, leave footprints. Except birds. A flock of thin-legged sanderlings ran choreographed at the water's edge, in and out with the curl of sea-foam.

I was halfway through the first residency of my MFA program, and my life would be changed forever because of it. But when is it not? So often it's the smallest moments that touch us, remind us of those dreams we've hoped and longed for, what's important, if only to us, those moments that change our perspective again and again.

Before he died, my friend Craig Shell used to tell me that's all there is—perspective. He used to say that all the time. "One minute, you see one thing. The next minute, it's a whole different story."

A different story. Like snow on the beach.


"The joke of the world is less like a banana peel than a rake, the old rake in the grass, the one you step on, foot to forehead. It all comes together. In a twinkling. You have to admire the gag for its symmetry, accomplishing all with one right angle, the same right angle which accomplishes all philosophy. One step on the rake, and it's mind under matter once again. You wake up with a piece of tree in your head."
Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard