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